How to Get from San Cristobal to Lake Atitlan

Mark Stewart Destinations 4 Comments

It’s been many years since we’ve done any real travel; meaning spending an extended period of time in developing countries, where schedules and timelines only exist on paper. While this definitely isn’t something new to us, the journey from San Cristobal to San Pedro was slightly less than smooth.

Most hostels and tour agencies in San Cristobal will be able to sell you a ticket straight through to several locations within Guatemala. The majority of travellers are headed for Antigua, but other popular destinations along the way include Quezaltenango for it’s trekking; and Lake Atitlan – our destination.

Everything on the Mexico side went smooth and happened as expected, including the unfortunate “departure” tax placed on tourists staying longer than one week in the country. The 500 peso (roughly $33) fee is unavoidable, and must be paid prior to receiving an exit stamp. However, if you fly into the country, most airlines include this in the purchase price, so be sure to keep a paper copy of your flight receipt in order avoid paying the fee twice. Unfortunately for us, we hadn’t known about said fee until it was too late, so we were forced to pay a second time.

Entering Guatemala we encountered our first minor hiccup, but nothing serious. The customs agent told us to pay him 25 pesos after stamping our passports; this was clearly a scam and we simply told him no. Shrugging his shoulders, he simply returned our passports and we were on our way.

Here is when the confusion began. There were around twelve in our group from San Cristobal, all heading to different locations within Guatemala. One van came and took about half, leaving the rest of us to wait for another ride. After a second van eventually arrived, we were all on our way; although both vehicles contained people going to several different destinations. Over the following seven hours, the vans made several stops to meet up with other drivers and splitting up the loads. Once our van was down to only a few people who were headed for Antigua – aside from Kylee and I – we confirmed once more that we were headed for San Pedro, on the Lake.

The driver suddenly seemed flustered and confused. Confirmation had taken place several times throughout the afternoon and each time he acknowledged that he was in fact going to the Lake, and that Panajachel – the main port city of the Lake – was on the way. Thankfully, there was a Guatemalan-American on our bus who could translate for us. The driver had essentially been ignoring us when we told him San Pedro, and he was only going to take us to Pana; upon him realizing that we had paid the full price to San Pedro, he panicked as there was no way we’d make it in time for the final ferry.

This Sign is Not Sideways

Driving wildly now at speeds upwards of 140km/h on windy mountain roads, passing trucks and busses around sharp corners. Even the locals seemed concerned, which is saying something in Guatemala. At one point, in a last-minute effort to get us in time for the boat, he dropped off the Antigua-bound passengers on the side of the dark highway, telling them another van was on the way. They were having none of this, the locals knew the area well, and it was a very dangerous spot to be after dark. Realizing his mistake, the driver brought everyone back on board and continued towards the lake. Shortly thereafter we pulled into a service station to connect with another van for the Antigua passengers, and one final word of caution from the Guatemalan-American was that under no circumstances should we go with anyone alone or let the driver take us on the back roads to San Pedro, as these roads are notoriously dangerous and swarming with bandits.

Don’t Follow Strangers into the Dark We’re Told…

Another twenty minutes pass before we finally arrive at the now deserted ferry docks of Panajachel. Our bags are unloaded and two teenagers come up from the shore. The driver hands them some money and tells us they will take us across the lake. We’re unsure of what we should do at this point, it seems to counter the previous warning, however we’ve got little choice at the moment. Following the two teens down an alley to a set of stairs to the water, we catch a glimpse of the small boat and to our relief, we recognize the faces of our fellow San Cristobal travellers whom we’d become separated at the border.

They’d been waiting an hour already on the small boat, arguing about payments. As it turns out, Kylee and I were actually lucky in the sense that our van driver paid the two boys, as this was part of what we had paid for back in San Cristobal. The other van pocketed the money, leaving the other travellers to pay twice. Thankfully for everyone, upon this realization, some phone calls were made and the van driver was contacted and ordered back to the docks to pay for the rest of the group. The owner of the boat explained that this happens often, and that the boat wasn’t leaving until someone paid him.

Finally, nearly sixteen hours later, double the time we were told the journey would take, we arrived on the shores of San Pedro la Laguna. Although our hostel is maybe only a twenty minute walk across town, we opt for a tuk-tuk to bring us the remaining distance. After dropping our bags on the bed and eating the small plate of grilled chicken and beans we picked up en route, we settled in for a long, deep sleep.

Thankfully, waking up to this in the morning suddenly made the whole journey worthwhile.

Sunrise over Lake Atitlan

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Comments 4

  1. Fortunately I didn’t have these problems. I entered by sailboat at Livingston and the captain took care of customs while the other lady travelling with us and I explored the town. We then continued down the river to Rio Dulce. After staying there for several days I continued on my own to Antiqua and then Pana. The biggest problem I had was when I left and that was entirely the fault of my Canadian Bank, TD Canada Trust. On my last day in Guatemala I was finishing up some shopping before heading by van from Pana to Guatemala City to take an early morning flight. I went to the ATM for more money and couldn’t get any. I tried several machines with no luck. My hotel and bus were paid for on my credit card as well as my flight home which I had just booked earlier that day. There was still money on the card as well as plenty in the bank. I was not over my daily limit. Neither card worked. I arrived at the inexpensive hotel that evening with no Q, about $2 American and $40 Canadian which they didn’t want. Fortunately I was able to get hold of my bank and get the block on my card removed. To this day I still don’t know what the problem was. I had informed the bank before I left that I would be travelling in Central America for at least two months. I had no problem accessing my money until this last day. It was extremely annoying but at least not as scary as the year before when it happened and I had no idea at first what to do. I do know that I was on the phone with the bank for quite some time with someone with very accented English and whatever she did my accounts were never the same. I am no longer with that bank.

    1. Post

      Wow, that banking situation is a scary feeling, especially in a remote place like that!

      I’m curious though, was it that the ATM was possibly out of money? I know this is not entirely uncommon around Lake Atitlan. Either way, glad to hear you were able to get it all sorted out!

  2. Hey, I’m going to try this out in a month – San Cristobal to San Pedro. I haven’t narrowed down a place to stay and I will probably want to take Spanish classes while I’m there. Did you like that side of the lake? Was it economical? Easy to get around? Any extra info would be nice. Favorite place to eat or get a cheap beer?

    1. Post

      Hey! That sounds fantastic, it’s a wonderful place! I don’t have a lot of suggestions for San Cristobal, aside from a really great place called Taco Del Sur – some of the best tacos I’ve ever tried!

      As for San Pedro, here’s a post on what to do in San Pedro. It’s one of our favourite places in Guatemala. Cheap, laid back, comfortable vibe. I think it’s in the article, but if not, the cheapest beer we found was at a shop called Andy’s, at the top of the town! Enjoy your visit, and let us know how it goes!

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