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San Juan la Laguna. Of all the Maya villages surrounding the brilliant Lake Atitlan, it’s here that tradition reigns supreme. From ancient Mayan rituals and indigenous cultivation, to colourful artwork and a plethora of high-quality hand-woven fabrics; here are some of the most incredible experiences in San Juan, Lake Atitlan.
Unique Activities and Things to Do in San Juan la Laguna
Take in the Views from the Kiaq’Aiswaan Observation Deck
Climb the mini-mountain to the observation deck to take in a spectacular view of Lake Atitlan and its villages. Perched right in front and below the Mayan Face (also called Indian Nose), this observation deck takes only about 10 minutes to climb and costs Q10 to get onto the path. If you don’t want to do the hike up the Mayan Face at 4 am this s a great (and far easier) alternative.
It is guarded by the tourist police so is safe to climb with your camera. There is a shaded part on the deck as well, for all of you pale bodies like us, you can stay up there longer.
- Getting Here: After you do a coffee tour at La Voz, go back to the main road and turn left. Follow this for a couple of minutes to the end until it splits. Take the branch up and to the left. Behind the building and there will be a ticket booth just before the main path begins.
See the Stingless Mayan Bees
Learn everything you can about the stingless Mayan bees. From the differences between Apismelifira, Meliponas and Mayan bees to why Mayan bees are so important to the Mayan culture. Witness the honey-making process, complete with demonstrations, and what type of medicinal and non-medicinal products they make out of the Mayan Bee honey. And sadly, you’ll learn why they are going extinct due to the invasion of other foreign species of bees.
It’s quite an interesting tour to take, and fairly new to San Juan. You can just show up at the shop to have the tour.
If you have a large group it is best to call ahead: (502) 5554-1918 or visit their Facebook Page.
How to get here: head into town away from the water from the church about 3 blocks, and it is on the left before the dirt road. There are yellow and green signs with arrows bringing you to their shop as well.
- Hours: Monday – Sunday, 8am – 5pm
- Cost: Q25 per person
Herbal Medicine Workshop
Natural, plant-based healing and herbal medicines are deeply engrained in Mayan culture. From simple soaps to soothing teas and remedies for all kinds of ailments, the Maya were masters of this ancient art centuries before it became “cool.”
Stop in for a crash-course lesson in the use of special herbs, and learn about Mayan culture at this small, family-owned business. And while you’re here, check out some of the traditional weaving she does herself!
- Hours: Monday – Saturday, 9:30am – 5pm; Sunday 9:30am – 1:30pm
Organic Coffee Tour at La Voz
Want to see where your cup of coffee comes from and how much work actually goes into it to get to you? It is outstanding!
From the little coffee plant seedlings to picking the berries off the tree, all the way to drying and roasting the coffee beans, you will experience it all.
A great time of year to go is during the harvest season so you can actually see it happen first hand. Coffee harvest usually runs from December to April, and if you come around this time you will be able to taste the actual coffee berry — a flavour so sweet and delicious it blew our minds!
Even if you’re not a coffee drinker, this is a fantastic tour.
- Hours: Monday – Friday, 9am – 5pm
- Cost: Q100 per person
Mayan Painting Class
Maya artwork is some of the most vibrant I’ve seen. The bright, vivid use of colours make even the most mundane subject explode from the canvas.
In San Juan la Laguna, you can take part in a full-day painting class and learn indigenous techniques taught by local artists. All painting supplies are provided, and you get to keep your creation at the end of the day.
Whether you’re an experienced painter or a novice who just likes to doodle, this is a fantastic way to let your creativity flow.
All things Chocolate at Licor Marron
You can do one you can do them all, but do the latter because they all are quite interesting! To get here start at the church and walk east down the road, it is the brightly coloured building on your left. For the activities that you will need to book ahead, here is their contact information:
- Whatsapp: (502) 4176 7698
A brief explanation of where cacao comes from, how it is extracted and how it is turned into chocolate as we know it. You can just show up at the shop and they will do the tour for you since it is so short.
This tour is done in their little shop in San Juan, and after you are educated in chocolate, they let you loose in their chocolate shop. Selling chocolate in all forms: flavoured hot chocolate, chocolate teas, chocolate liquor, nibs, lotions and so much more.
- Cost: Free
Ever wanted to learn how to make chocolate? At this workshop, they show you the step by step process of how they made chocolate back in the Mayan times, and what chocolate meant to them. It was a very important part of their culture — and still is.
All procedures are done by hand from the crushing of the cacao beans to mixing in the flavours or medicinal ingredients. Also, the bonus is you get to take home what you make. Contact Licor Marron at least a day before you head over for this workshop, so they can have everything ready for your arrival.
- Cost: Q150 per person
Sacred Cacao Ceremony
What cacao meant to the Mayans and what it still means now is a large part of their culture and an amazing experience to have in San Juan La Laguna. This ceremony is held in a house a little ways from the chocolate shop. They mix the chocolate with certain ingredients and you drink as they pray to the cacao Gods.
They say you go into a trance and talk to the Cacao Gods in this ceremony. It can take from 2 hours up to 6 hours, depending on how long the Gods want to talk to you. An experience like no other. If interested, you will need to contact Licor Marron at least a day or 2 prior to your arrival to book the Cacao Ceremony.
- Cost: Q150 per person
Shop for Traditional Mayan Textiles
Textiles are a huge deal in San Juan, more than any other village around the lake. Shops selling hand-woven clothing, bags, scarves, and many other items are found throughout town.
The intricate patterns and beautiful use of colour make nearly every item unique. Speaking of colours, most of the dyes used in these products are also made in-shop. These clever women make the natural dyes using local plants such as beetroot for red, annato seed for orange, bark for pink, and indigo for… indigo!
There are many local weaving cooperatives run by very talented local women. Take a course and learn about the dying and weaving process, or simply buy some of their fantastic products. Either way, money goes directly into the hands of the women who do the work, and back into the community.
Eat Lunch with Purpose at Cafe Alma de Colores
All products made here are made by people with disabilities. This is an inclusion workshop to teach their members how to make jewellery and textiles. Also, everything made here is done through recycled materials, and fabrics as well as regional textiles. But the real reason we come here is not to shop, but to eat in their delicious vegetarian restaurant.
The proceeds go to the disabled community and have the members working in the cafe. Cafe Alma de Colores serves up 3 simple dishes per day, usually containing a salad, a sandwich and a main dish all about 35Q each. The coffee served is local and delicious, you can also order tea, and juice all for 10Q each.
The food is simple and amazing, and is a definite stop when you come to San Juan la Laguna.
- Hours: Monday – Friday, 8:30am – 5pm
San Juan is not the prettiest village on the lake; although without question, it’s the one most seeped in tradition. If you’re looking to dive into Mayan culture and history, I can’t think of another town in the entire region with more hands-on traditional experiences.