Updated December, 2019!
Lake Atitlan is one of the most popular destinations in all of Guatemala, for good reason. Between the seemingly endless activities and laid-back vibes, visitors usually end up staying much longer than planned! To help you make the most of your time, we’ve put together a list of some of the best things to do in Lake Atitlan and around! Although you’ll likely stumble upon many more on your visit, these are a few that you shouldn’t miss!
What to Do at Lake Atitlan
Trek to Lake Atitlan from Xela
Hit up Quetzaltrekkers for their three-day hike from Xela (Quetzaltenango) to Lake Atitlan. Rather than taking the bus/boat option into San Pedro, you hike through small villages over dense mountain jungles. Although we didn’t get around to this one ourselves, we’ve been told by many visitors that it’s an incredible hike! Great to do if you are coming from Mexico! Q750 at the time of writing.
Buy Traditional Mayan Textiles
While you’ll have no problem finding plenty of typical Guatemalan souvenirs around the lake, clothing and textiles are the local specialty. Each of the villages have their own unique style and pattern to their weaving passed down from generations. It’s very interesting to see how these ancient Mayan groups have kept their individual culture over the years. We believe the best-made products come from San Juan la Laguna, their weaving is outstanding and the shoes are supposedly very long-lasting.
There is also the Handicrafts Market in Chichicastenango, or “Chichi Market” on Thursdays and Sundays. Locals from villages all around the region converge and sell everything from food and livestock, to traditional handicrafts. This is about a two to two and a half hour drive and is easily visited with a tour like this one!
Learn Spanish for Cheap
Guatemala is the best country in Central America to study Spanish. Guatemalans tend to speak slower than other countries in the region, making it much easier to pick up. Not only that, but it’s also incredibly affordable! There are many options around the lake where for language study, from family stays to schools to private lessons. San Pedro is one of the most popular destinations for lessons but you’ll find them all around the lake.
Learn Traditional Chocolate Making
Head to San Juan la Laguna and check out Licor Marron for their free chocolate making demonstration.
It’s a brief but in-depth lesson of the entire process, from cacao pod to finished product. Following the demonstration, treat yourself to some of the many traditionally made chocolates in the attached shop. The orange chocolate and the cardamom hot chocolate are our recommendations.
Aside from the fantastic chocolates, the shop also sells organic honey, cocao husk tea and flavoured liquors.
They also have other courses such as chocolate making which is a half day, as well as Cacao Ceremony where you talk to the cacao Gods. See more in our guide on San Juan la Laguna.
Align your Chakras
With its serene views and relaxed energy, it’s no surprise that Lake Atitlan is a great spot for all things spiritual.
With the majority of the activity centred around San Marcos, you can sign up for all types of retreats to suit your holistic desires. From yoga and meditation to traditional healing methods and even lucid dream studies.
As well as having some amazing vegetarian and vegan restaurants, San Marcos is also one of the best towns in the lake for cliff jumping and swimming!
Soak up the Fascinating Mayan Culture
A whopping 40% of the Guatemalan population is Maya, and the villages surrounding Lake Atitlan are the perfect place to learn about their culture. Every village, though within walking distance of each other, has its own unique dialect and clothing design. Some people have lived well into their 20’s without ever visiting a neighbouring town!
Tour the different villages and speak with locals, stop into museums like the Tz’unun Ya’ in San Pedro. Learn as much as you can about this fascinating people and how they’re fighting to keep their traditions alive in the modern world.
Hiking at Lake Atitlan
There are many different hikes to do around the lake if this is your thing you will be in hikers paradise. The most popular hike for visitors is Indian Nose, also known as Mayan Face, primarily for the epic sunrise views.
Another beautiful hike with views of the entire lake is Volcán San Pedro. While considerably longer, it’s not overly difficult, and most hikers should be able to handle it without issue.
Both hikes are accessible from San Pedro. It’s worth noting that hiring a guide is always recommended.
As of summer, 2019, hiking to the summit of San Pedro Volcano is not recommended. Robberies have become quite frequent near the top, often violent. Even guides have been beaten, and as a result, most guides will refuse to take you the full way.
As of our latest visit, it is still safe to hike to the mirador, half way up, but even then it’s best to use a guide.
Always ask around regarding the current situation before venturing out. And even when things seem safe, situations can change quickly, so never travel without insurance!
Go Scuba Diving in Lake Atitlan
Whether you’re an experienced diver or just starting out, Lake Atitlan is a great spot for diving. Head over to ATI Divers in Santa Cruz, the only dive shop on the lake, and explore the unique world beneath the surface.
Not only is the underwater landscape fascinating on it’s own, but there are several spots where you can explore some building ruins from a time when the lake was much shallower.
Tour a Coffee Plantation
Take a coffee plantation tour around La Voz Coffee Cooperative in San Juan la Laguna. You’ll be walked through their organic coffee plantation and shown the entire process from plant to bean to cup. Be sure to sample the fine product at the end of the tour!
Watch the Sunset
Sunsets over the lake are absolutely stunning. Santa Cruz offers some of the best views of all, but seeing as you’ll probably be passing through Panajachel at some point, it’s a prime location. Grab a cold beer and head down to the lakeside and watch the sky catch fire around the volcanos. It’s one of those simple pleasures that can’t be missed.
Take a Boat Tour
If you don’t have much time to visit all of the villages, take a boat tour of the lake from Panajachel. They leave early in the morning and stop at several towns around. It is a great way to get a taste of just how different each town really is.
The pre-planned tours are a little pricey but can easily be done on your own. Simply pick which towns you’d like to visit and take the ferries between them yourself.
Get Your Feast On!
Every Sunday from noon to 4 pm, there is a proper Southern-style BBQ held at Smokin’ Joes. This was one of the highlights of our stay in San Pedro la Laguna. It is not necessarily a budget option but is definitely worth the cost. The meals range from 50Q to 120Q and include all-you-can-eat sides. Anything leftover from the side dish buffet is given to the local Mayan community and churches to help families and people in need.
There is also a smaller version in Panajachel at La Palapa Bar on Saturdays, also 12 – 4. Get there early, as some of the meat options will sell out!
Relax at one of the Lakefront Bars
Grab a locally made coffee, beer or smoothie and watch the locals as their easy-going way of life slowly moves around you. It’s a perfect way to slow down and be in the moment or relax your legs after a day of hiking.
Things to Know Before Visiting Lake Atitlan
- Don’t walk between villages, even ones that seem close together like San Pedro and San Juan. Muggings happen more than they should, avoid the risk altogether. Take a boat or tuk-tuk instead. Depending on distance, boats will be 10Q – 30Q per person, while tuk-tuks are around 5Q.
- An important note regarding the boats: go earlier in the day if possible. The choppy water later in the day can make for a rather uncomfortable ride. Also, don’t sit in the front, unless you don’t mind walking away with a bruised ass.
- If staying outside of Panajachel, bring cash with you. While we were able to take money out in San Pedro, occasionally the ATM’s will run out of cash – especially on weekends. The problem seems to have gotten better since our first visit, but it’s still a safe bet to bring cash ahead of time.