Lago de Atitlan is one of my favorite places I have ever been. The natural beauty of the lake, surrounded by volcanoes and endless lush green hills never get old. I could have stayed there for months, and even considered extending my Central America trip just to go back there another time.
So when you go to stay at Lake Atitlan, you don’t actually stay in the lake. There’s several towns by the lake that you can hole up in for a few days or weeks, and each one has a little personality of their own.
For example, San Marcos is smelly stoner yoga hippie-ville. It’s basically Portland if it was in Guatemala. San Pedro is a more toned down version of San Marcos, but still pretty hippie. Panajachel is where most non-backpackers stay, and I even saw that it was named by some travel magazine as a top destination for honeymooners. Panajachel is definitely the closest to actual civilization that you’ll have around the lake, so I guess that makes sense.
Santa Cruz is very small, and not typically somewhere that backpackers or travelers go to. There are a couple of hostels, including Free Cerveza which was actually one of my favorite hostels that I stayed at in Central America. It sounds kind of dumb because of the name, but as the name suggests, you get a free beer for staying there. Santa Cruz isn’t the place to go if you like exploring, but we did go on a neat little hike to some underwhelming waterfalls while we were there. It’s the journey, not the destination, right?
Well anyway, Free Cerveza is a good place to stay at to make friends since you are probably going to end up sharing a tent with a few people. Come dinnertime, everyone sits powwow style around the tables and gets as much beer as they can down in an hour.
Around the island, there are several volcanos that you can hike. One of the most popular hikes in the area is Nariz del Indio at sunrise, but you are going to have to wake up pretty early. It is a short hike, but the journey to get there from San Pedro is a bit more daunting. You’ll likely be in the back of a truck driven by someone who doesn’t care whether or not you’re still in the back of the truck by the time you get to the starting point of the hike. You’re waking up at 3 AM, but trust me, you won’t be able to sleep a wink on the way there or the way back.
The hike is entirely uphill and in the dark, so bring a flashlight or be prepared to trip over rocks or the stray dog that is guaranteed to follow you. In our case, we had this mean-looking boxer that ended up cornering our entire group on the second story of the shelter at the top because it wouldn’t stop biting our feet.
The view is incredible, and I only wish we could have stayed longer and also not had a dog attacking us the entire time. Nariz del Indio is definitely one of the more popular hikes for a reason, and if you get good weather, you are able to see the sun rise up over the volcanoes and get a breathtaking view of the lake. I didn’t realize how big Atitlan was until I got up there. The way back down via truck was also stunning in the daylight. It felt like we were on a jeep headed towards Jurassic Park or something.
San Pedro is where I stayed for the majority of my time in Lake Atitlan, and it is probably where you should stay too. San Marcos only had one hostel and it also wasn’t exactly as poppin’ as San Pedro. San Pedro had a surprising amount of quirky little stores, restaurants, and hostels, but like not enough to make it seem overwhelmed by tourists.
I’d compare it a little bit to San Juan del Sur in Nicaragua, but ten times more difficult to navigate. Even the tuk-tuk drivers couldn’t find my hostel, Casa Felipe. Great spot to chill, in comparison to the more party-oriented hostels all over San Pedro. you’ll know which ones I’m talking about once you get there. Hostel Fe and Mr. Mullets are the ones I can remember. I walked by Hostel Fe and saw drunk people doing backflips into the lake, if that gives you an idea of what you’re in for.
There’s a few bars in San Pedro, but despite the party-town reputation that preceded it, San Pedro was pretty quiet. The bars all closed around midnight or 1AM which sucked. The worst part was that everything else in San Pedro closed before then. Hungry for a late night snack? Too bad.
Despite this, San Pedro was such a great place to hang out during the day. You could chill by the lake, kayak all over the place, go swimming, and eat at a bunch of great, cheap restaurants with stunning views. You could even get a tattoo if you get bored enough, and I almost did. San Pedro is definitely the place to be around Lake Atitlan.
The other real alternative is Panajachel which bears more semblance to actual civilization. Whereas San Pedro seemed rickety and dilapidated as a whole, Panajachel seemed more put together. San Pedro was all over the place, with hills and narrow alleyways making it relatively difficult to navigate. Panajachel had actual roads, normal buildings, and is more tourist-friendly. I didn’t spend much time there, but I could already feel the vibe that older tourists were the typical crowd there. Panajachel’s streets were lined with souvenir stalls, whereas the only ones I really remember in San Pedro were a few people selling jewelry and a sweet old lady selling banana bread. That banana bread was fire, by the way.
I have a problem with ranting and going off on tangents, so I’ll just try to sum up everything I said real quick. If you’re a backpacker, stay in San Pedro. If you want more civilization, go to Panajachel. You don’t have to stay at every town you go to because boats are quick and often between each town. You could probably do every town in a day if you really wanted to, but Lake Atitlan is definitely a place to kick back, chill, and pretend to be a hippie for a few days. Go kayaking, go hiking, and eat really cheap tacos. Make some friends, throw back some cervezas, and party all night (until like midnight). That’s about it.