Updated: November 2019!
Many who visit Guatemala are pressed for time and often struggle with deciding where to visit and for how long. This is especially true when planning a visit to the magical Lake Atitlan. With so many wonderful villages to choose from, deciding on which one(s) fit your style can get overwhelming. So before you make your final decision, read through the guide we put together to help you choose the right place to stay at Lake Atitlan!
Keep in mind, all of the villages are easily accessible by boat and/or tuk-tuk. So if you’re short on time, we recommend choosing one as your base and making day-trips to explore the others.
The Villages of Lake Atitlan
Pana, as most people call it, is the main transport hub and central town of Lake Atitlan and the jumping off point for the rest of the villages. While visiting, you’ll certainly pass through. It’s the largest of all the towns and where the majority of tourists and expats make their base.
Along the main strip of Calle Santander, you’ll find a lot of western-style restaurants as well as a happening nightlife scene. Beginning late in the afternoon, street food carts make their appearance; offering a wider range of food options away from the burgers and pasta.
It’s also home to the largest supermarket on the lake, Dispensa Familiar, which is a large chain found throughout Guatemala. It’s a great overall one-stop-shop, but we prefer to shop as often as we can at smaller shops and local markets. One such market is located daily near the bus stops near the main church. Two other great options for groceries are Sandy’s and Chalos, both offering plenty of imported food as well as local provisions.
Why Stay in Panajachel?
Pana is the place to stay if you’re short on time, looking to meet up with other travellers, or make day trips to the villages. It also has the most shopping options; many stalls selling an assortment of local handicrafts.
Accommodation options run the whole spectrum, from high-end resorts to backpacker hovels.
Unique Experience in Panajachel:Visit the cemetery on the southeast end of town. Unlike most cemeteries in the western world, this one is bright and colourful, with unique sculptures, statues and shrines to lost loved ones. Just remember to be respectful, it is still a sacred place.
San Pedro la Laguna
The second most popular village in Lake Atitlan, although much more laid back – it’s where the majority of budget backpackers come. There are plenty of great restaurants with a wide variety of food options, amazing accommodation choices and some of the cheapest Spanish language schools in the country.
For longer-term visitors, self-catering options are fantastic! In the upper end of town, you’ll find the main local market, offering fresh produce and meat for very decent prices. Just passed the market is a small grocery store called Andy’s, which has a decent selection for great prices – including the cheapest beer in town. Another option, near the main dock and general tourist area, is Salud Para Vida. It’s a nice little organic shop that sells everything from gluten-free flours to meat alternatives and imported goods.
Some street food comes out at night, up near the market and Andy’s. It’s the cheapest food you will find in San Pedro and typically consists of grilled meats, with some potatoes and beans. Simple, but delicious.
Why Stay in San Pedro?
San Pedro la Laguna is the perfect backpacker town. It’s got cheap accommodation, a chilled-out vibe, tons of great restaurants, nightlife, and a youthful vibrance. There are a few higher-end hotels here, but most of the accommodation are hostels.
This laid-back town is also home to plenty of activities to keep you entertained. It’s definitely our favourite village on Lake Atitlan.
Unique experience in San Pedro: This is the place to be for Spanish lessons at Lake Atitlan. Pay some of the lowest prices in Guatemala while studying a new language in pristine surroundings!
San Juan la Laguna
Just two kilometres up the road from San Pedro, the vibe in San Juan la Laguna is similar but much quieter. It’s also the best place on Lake Atitlan to buy locally-made cloth and handicrafts. Local women here weave some of the finest quality textiles in the country. All the proceeds go directly back not only into the community but directly to the individual who crafted the item.
It’s only a short tuk-tuk ride to San Pedro if you need to shop for anything over and above what’s in the market. There is plenty to do if you are interested in handicrafts, learn how to spin yarn out of cotton and dye it naturally. You can even tour a local organic coffee plantation and visit an artisanal chocolate factory.
It’s definitely worth checking this place out if you get the chance.
When you’re there, be sure to eat at Alma de Colores for great food (including homemade bread), wonderful atmosphere and a chance to give back to the community. The restaurant and centre is staffed by locals with disabilities, so you’ll not only have a delicious meal, but you’ll be helping provide jobs for those who have few other options.
Why Stay in San Juan?
San Juan is a bit more of a sleepier town, regarding activities and nightlife, when compared to its neighbour. This results in prices being a little cheaper overall, but the number of bars and restaurants is significantly lower. If you’re looking for the convenience of San Pedro with more of a local vibe, this is definitely the choice for you.
Unique Experience in San Juan: Take part in a sacred Mayan cacao ceremony through the Licor Marron chocolate factory.
Prepare to have your chakras aligned; the new-age hippy vibe runs deep through this village.
It certainly doesn’t offer the same style of activities as some of the larger towns on the Lake, but if meditation and yoga is your thing, San Marcos is the place to be. Be sure to look into the courses and retreats happening here before arriving, as some retreats require pre-registration.
Aside from meditation and yoga, there are plenty of other smaller courses you can partake in. Everything from astrology and dream interpretation, to crystal healing and reiki. For those of the spiritual mind, San Marcos is definitely a place to expand yourself.
If the above-mentioned activities aren’t quite your thing, don’t let that steer you away. San Marcos is said to be the prettiest village on the lake and one of the only spots recommended for swimming (and cliff jumping!).
Why Stay in San Marcos?
If you’re one for healthy, clean living; yoga and meditation and a solid selection of vegetarian and vegan restaurants, San Marcos is for you. Even if you aren’t planning to stay for long, it’s worth a visit to take in the atmosphere of San Marcos.
Unique Experience in San Marcos: Sticking with the common theme, come here for spirituality. Take part in a ceremony or healing retreat and reconnect with yourself.
The least developed of the main villages, Santa Cruz is a traditional Mayan town built on a steep hill. It’s location and layout make it the best spot around the lake for taking those iconic sunset photos.
While physically the closest town to Panajachel, it’s one of the most isolated due to its boat-only access. Although that is, of course, part of the charm. People tend to either visit this village for a short day trip or stay for several weeks at a time. One thing to note is that there is little to no shopping here. and no ATM’s; but seeing as Pana is only a ten-minute boat ride, you’ll have no issue.
Why Stay in Santa Cruz?
Santa Cruz is for those looking for calm and quiet. It’s ferry-only access keeps it from getting too busy or congested. If you’re looking to settle in for a few weeks and get away from it all, head to Santa Cruz.
Unique Experience in Santa Cruz: It’s home to the only dive shop on Lake Atitlan, so if Scuba is your thing, definitely check it out!
Getting There and Away
As mentioned above, the main kick-off point to the rest of the lake is Panajachel. The ferries to all of the main villages leave from the docks here and range from Q10 to Q30, depending on distance. The boats follow no strict schedule and simply leave when full; however they do stop running after 7 pm.
Lake Atitlan From San Cristobal, Mexico:
There are many shuttle companies that run between San Cristobal and Lake Atitlan; you can even book one all the way to San Pedro. Prices vary, but we paid 400 pesos. You’ll be driven to the Mexico border where you cross on foot and catch another shuttle which will take you through to Panajachel.
First, the trip can take much longer than expected and often arrive in Panajachel after the ferries stop running. It may be best to book your first night there to avoid issues.
Also, the price to San Pedro includes the ferry fee. Occasionally, shuttle drivers will pocket this fee and leave you at the docks, where you’ll have to pay the fee again. Be sure the driver pays the ferry driver before driving away.
Read our post about our journey from San Cristobal to Lake Atitlan
For this most recent update, we’ve put together an entire post detailing the methods of getting from Antigua to Lake Atitlan!
Shuttles are always the easiest and quickest route, but chicken busses are always an option. Again, there are several ways to go that involve transfers but there is also a daily direct bus that leaves at 10:45 am. Pick it up on Calle Principal by Hotel Primavera, it will be around 35Q.
Pick One, Pick All
With so much variety, it’s easy to see why Lake Atitlán is a favourite destination for travellers of Guatemala. It’s also no surprise that many people show up and end up never wanting to leave.