Aldous Huxley once claimed that Lake Atitlán was “the most beautiful lake in the world”, and it’s hard not to agree. Formed some 85,000 years ago after a colossal volcanic explosion, el Lago de Atitlan is simply breathtaking.
Surrounded by steep, fertile hills, dramatic cone-topped volcanoes and colourful Mayan villages, the deepest lake in Central America has wowed visitors for years and is a highlight on any Guatemala itinerary.
This incredible lake is more than just a beautiful destination, however, there are lots of things to do in Lake Atitlan too. From weaving cooperatives and cooking lessons to yoga classes, Spanish schools, hiking trails and much more. You could easily spend weeks here soaking up the laid-back lake lifestyle.
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Lake Atitlan (Atitlán means “at the water” in Nahuatl) measures 8km across north to south and 18km from east to west. It’s also the deepest lake in Central America reaching depths of 340m.
A steady stream of lanchas and wooden fishing boats criss-cross the cobalt blue waters of the lake daily, linking the dozens of villages that line its shores. Here’s our Lake Atitlan travel guide.
Table of Contents
Things to do in Lake Atitlan
Explore the villages of Lake Atitlan
The lake shores are dotted with dozens of villages of varying sizes and with distinct personalities. Some of the most popular with visitors include:
Panajachel: This is the main lakeside town and the one that is easiest to reach by road. If arriving from Antigua or Chichicastenango, you’ll land in Panajachel Guatemala. This wasn’t our favourite town but it’s lively and fun to wander around and there are some good restaurants and coffee shops.
San Pedro La Laguna: San Pedro might be popular with backpackers and long-term travellers but it retains a very Mayan feel. We did a cooking class here.
Santa Cruz: Most of Lake Atitlán’s villages are built so that they climb up the hills and Santa Cruz is the steepest. Tuk tuks run up and down the narrow roads, if you don’t want to walk.
San Marcos La Laguna: Thought to possess spiritual energy, San Marcos is a haven of meditation and massage studios, retreat centres, holistic therapies and other new age activities. These include cacao ceremonies, to help alleviate stress.
Santiago: This is the biggest town on the lake with a population of some 60,000 people. It’s known for its woodcarving (this is where you should come to pick up your canoe!) and its church.
San Juan la Laguna: This is a really pretty little town that is famous for its weaving cooperatives.
Explore Lake Atitlan by boat
Boat is the only way to explore the lake and see some of its villages and it’s a lovely way to travel. Depending on how long you have in Lake Atitlán you may be able to visit a number of villages over a number of days. If, however, like us your time is limited then a day-long boat tour of three villages is your best bet.
You can discuss with your boat driver which towns you would like to visit but often these trips include a combination of San Juan La Laguna, San Marcos La Laguna, San Pedro La Laguna and Santiago.
Private vs Public Boat vs Tour
There are various options for boat travel. Your first choice is to just use the regular boat “taxis” that travel across the lake. This is definitely a money-saving option but you don’t have the freedom to come and go as you choose. As far as we could tell, there is no formal timetable, rather boat drivers wait until their boats fill up with passengers before setting off.
Your second option is to hire a boat to yourself for the day. This gives you the freedom and flexibility and space! You can usually find a friendly boat driver at the docks in Panajachel and spend the day cruising from village to village.
A third option is to hire a boat and guide through a local company. I had been recommended Kayak Guatemala by some friends and so we booked a three-village tour of the lake with them and their wonderful guide, Alex.
We had an amazing day on the lake and this was largely down to Alex. He was absolutely brilliant with my kids and regaled them with stories of life on the lake, made them laugh and even gave my youngest a ride on his shoulders. If you are visiting Lake Atitlan with kids, I would highly recommend booking a tour with Kayak Guatemala.
Things to do in San Juan La Laguna
Guatemala is world-famous for its incredible weaving from the long hand-woven skirts worn by the Mayan women to the huipiles (tunics) intricately embroidered in a rainbow of colours.
Visit a Weaving Cooperative
San Juan La Laguna is a charming little town well known for its weaving. The village is home to some 35 weaving cooperatives consisting of anywhere from three to 75 women each. Most of them belong to the Mayan Tz’utujil people and were established to help preserve this art as well as provide a sustainable income. Girls learn to weave with their mothers from the age of eight-years-old, something which my children found hard to imagine!
Demonstrations are held regularly at the cooperatives (whenever visitors turn up, really) and take you through the process from preparing and spinning the cotton to the dying process and weaving using a traditional back strap loom.
All the dyes used are entirely natural and it was this part of the demonstration that I found most fascinating. We were told how different fruits, vegetables, herbs and plants, as well as a variety of seeds and roots, are used to create different colours. Carrot, for example, makes orange, indigo comes the sacatinta plant and yellow from chipilín leaves.
What was most interesting, however, is that the colours achieved can depend on what time of day the herb or vegetable was picked. If you pick the leaves of the Logwood tree at full moon it will result in a deep, rich purple. If they are harvested when it is not a full moon the end colour is a light purple.
There are shops on site and all profits are injected back into the community.
Visit the Chocolate Factory
Chocolate has a rich history in Guatemala; the Mayans worshipped the cacao tree and called chocolate the “food of the gods”. You can visit the local Chocolate Factory in San Juan. If you’re also going to Antigua, make sure you try this chocolate-making workshop.
Explore the local art galleries
San Juan La Laguna is also famous for its paintings and there are a number of studios where you can see artists at work and buy a colourful piece to take home with you.
Unique to Guatemalan art are the vista de parejo (birds-eye view) paintings depicting images and scenes that are an integral part of village life. Some of the most popular themes include harvesting corn and coffee and festivals or market scenes.
San Pedro La Laguna
San Pedro La Laguna is much busier than San Juan. Home to some 15,000 people, it sits at the base of the volcano of the same name – which is fortunately not active. It’s a lively town and popular with foreigners who come here to learn Spanish or just soak up the Lake Atitlan vibe.
It’s possible to hike the San Pedro Volcano but we didn’t attempt this with young kids. It’s a popular hike to watch the sunrise; make sure you hire a guide and take warm clothing.
We enjoyed an excellent cooking class here, which was truly one of our trip highlights. Part of the class involved a trip to the local market to buy ingredients, which was a wonderful insight into local life.
Even if you don’t book a cooking class, it’s worth taking a wander around the vibrant mercado anyway where stalls selling meat, fish, fresh produce and more vie for your attention.
Santiago Atitlán is the biggest village on the lake, home to some 60,000 people. It’s positioned at the base of Vulcan Santiago, which is also the largest volcano on the lake. It’s a busy town with a strong indigenous identity; the women wear colourful huipiles with elaborate bird designs and incredible hats. If you look at the 25 Quetzal coin, you’ll see a woman in a headdress native to Santiago.
Santiago is famous for its bead work and its wood carving – this is the place to come for a cayuco (dugout canoe)! It’s fun to wander around and there are plenty of arts and crafts vendors lining the path from the docks into the centre of town.
At the heart of town stands the whitewashed Catholic church, Iglesia Parroquial Santiago Apóstol. Inside, wooden statutes of saints line the walls and every year local women make a new set of clothes for each one.
If you stay in Panajachel, or even you don’t, it’s well worth visiting the Reserva Natural Atitlán (the Atitlan Nature Reserve) that is home to walking trails, a butterfly sanctuary and zip lining. There are two zip line courses that soar over canyons and waterfalls and offer amazing views of the glassy lake waters.
The reserve is home to three walking trails that pass over hanging bridges, through coffee groves and into the realm of monkeys. If you’re lucky, you may even spot a coati, a South American mammal closely related to the racoon family. There is also a Butterfly Geodome
Where to stay in Lake Atitlan
We stayed at Hotel Atitlan and it worked out well; it’s easy to access, it has comfortable rooms and it’s positioned right on the lake. All rooms come with views of the lake, and a balcony or terrace from which to enjoy them. The hotel also boasts beautifully manicured gardens and dozens of colourful birds.
If I’m honest, the hotel is probably a little overpriced (especially the restaurant) but it’s your easiest option if travelling with children, particularly little ones.
I’ve recently read about Casa Palopo, a beautiful boutique hotel with just 10 rooms that sits on the hills surrounding the village of Santa Catarina Palopo village.