By: Katja & Victoria
Lago de Atitlán
- 1 Lago de Atitlán
- 2 The Villages
- 3 The Three Village Tour
- 4 Private vs Public Boat vs Tour
- 5 San Juan La Laguna
- 6 San Pedro La Laguna
- 7 Santiago Atitlán
- 8 Panajachel
- 9 Lake Atitlan: Where to Stay
- 10 Pin for Later
Aldous Huxley once claimed that Lake Atitlán was “the most beautiful lake in the world”, and we definitely agree. Formed some 85,000 years ago after a colossal volcanic explosion, Lake Atitlán is simply breathtaking. Surrounded by steep, fertile hills, dramatic cone-topped volcanoes and colourful Mayan villages, it has wowed visitors for years.
El Lago de Atitlán (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. Daily, a steady stream of lanchas and wooden fishing boats criss-cross the cobalt blue waters of the lake between the dozens of villages that line its shores. Here’s our guide to exploring Lake Atitlán with kids.
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 easiest to reach by road. If arriving from Antigua or Chichicastenango, you’ll land in Panajachel. This wasn’t our favourite town – it’s very touristy – but it’s lively and fun to wander around and there are some good restaurants.
San Pedro La Laguna: San Pedro might be popular with backpackers and long-term travellers but it retains a very Mayan feel – we even did a cooking class here! (More on that later).
Santa Cruz: Most of Lake Atitlán’s villages are built so that they climb up the hills and Santa Cruz is the steepest.
San Marcos La Laguna: Thought to possess spiritual energy, San Marcos is a haven of meditation and massage studios, holistic therapies and other new age activities.
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.
The Three Village Tour
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! Victoria and her family found 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 and Alex.
San Juan La Laguna
As you arrive into San Juan La Laguna, look out for the Indian’s Head. We missed this but Victoria’s guide pointed it out and had even photoshopped the image of the Indian’s head on his phone to help her see it!
The Weaving Cooperative
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. San Juan La Laguna is a charming little town famous 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 from 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 (no surprise there!), 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.
The Chocolate Factory
Chocolate has a rich history in Guatemala; the Mayans worshipped the cacao tree and called chocolate the “food of the gods” (something which I wholeheartedly agree with!).
My kids previous enjoyed a chocolate-making workshop in Antigua and Victoria’s children enjoyed a demonstration at the local Chocolate Factory in San Juan before purchasing some to take home with them.
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. They are wonderfully colourful and a great souvenir!
San Pedro La Laguna
San Pedro La Laguna is a much busier town 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 neither of us attempted this with young kids. You’ll need a guide and the hike to the top takes around three hours.
We enjoyed an excellent cooking class here in San Pedro, 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.
If you’re looking for somewhere to eat in San Pedro then the Blue Parrott is a good bet.
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.
My eldest two headed off with my husband to fly through the air and they had a brilliant time on the zip line courses. There are two courses offered, both of which are suitable for kids, and children can choose whether they want to fly solo or with a guide. The zip lines allowed them to whoosh over canyons and waterfalls and afforded amazing views of the glassy lake waters.
My youngest was too little to fly through the air and so we contented ourselves with a visit to the Butterfly Geodome where hundreds of Technicolor butterflies fluttered around.
The reserve is also home to three walking trails that pass over hanging bridges, through coffee groves and into the realm of monkeys – another hit with my toddler! If you’re lucky, you may even spot a coati, a South American mammal closely related to the racoon family.
Lake Atitlan: Where to Stay
Both Victoria and I stayed at Hotel Atitlan with our families 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 lake views, 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. Although I’ve not been there, it looks amazing!
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