LAKE ATITLAN – THE PEARL OF GUATEMALA?
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LEGENDS AND FACTS
Lake Atitlan – the pearl of Guatemala. This is how it is advertised in all the travel guides. It’s supposed to be one of the most beautiful lakes in the world, which has inspired many writers in the past. It is said that the lake was inspiration even to the one and only Mr. Saint – Exupery, who wrote The Little Prince.
Why? Because at the lake there is a hill called Cerro de Oro, which is supposed to resemble the all known picture in the book. You know, the one for which adults say they see a hat and the children see an elephant being eaten by boa constrictor. There even may be some truth in that assumption, since writer really stayed by the Lake Atitlan for recovery after having been involved in an airplane crash near the Guatemala City. A coincidence or truth? I’ll let you decide for yourself. 😉
IS LAKE REALLY THE PEARL OF GUATEMALA?
But, is Lake Atitlan truly the most beautiful lake in the world? In my humble opinion…it is not. Perhaps I was even more fascinated by the Titicaca Lake in South America, or the lakes I saw (until now) only on friends’ photos – those in Canada and the Dolomites (Italy). But that does not mean that the lake is not beautiful. In fact, it is extremely beautiful and already the view from our apartment was fantastic. And when you are driving along the curvy roads (from the villages above) to the lake, the views are literally jaw-dropping (I’m talking “Johny Bravo from Cartoon Network jaw-dropping” here 🙂 ).
The lake is said to have magical properties as well. Thus, in one of the villages that are scattered around the lake (San Marcos La Laguna), gringos from around the world are gathering to attend various spiritual rituals and discussing lucid dreams (i.e. dreams in which you realize that you dream and lead the course of events). There are also some yoga resorts, where you can go on a short (and pretty expensive) retreat and disconnect from the crazy world, or you tuck yourself in for months and become a yoga instructor. The latter was quite appealing to me, but I have no idea what Bojan would do in a “hippie-plant-based community” for so long. 😛
Anyhow, maybe it really is something in this deep water, since I dreamed all week at Atitlan so much that I woke up quite exhausted every morning. 😀 But even if the lake does not have supernatural properties, view at the sunrise, when the mists roll over the water, is quite magical itself.
If you add to this view the peace that is only disturbed now and then by the motor boats that rush between the villages, the sounds of tuk-tuks and by the occasional party, the lake is indeed a place worth visiting. 🙂
WHAT TO DO AT LAKE ATITLAN
ENJOY THE MOMENT (aka DO ABSOLUTELY NOTHING)
Before coming to lake Atitlan, we’ve been already more than 2 months into our yearlong honeymoon, so our goal was only one – to slow down a bit and rest for a while.
I knooow, it sounds kinda weird that you have to take a break from traveling. But believe it or not, when you move to a new place every couple of days, spend (what it seems like) endless hours on buses and visit countless attractions, you eventually arrive at the point when you need … to press a pause button. Anyone who traveled for a longer period of time will be able to tell you that there are moments when you couldn’t care less whether you will ever visit those famous ruins or see yet another coffee plantation (and I love coffee, btw). Cos let’s be honest here folks, coffee looks exactly the same either in Cuba, Guatemala or in Bali (but, if we are talking about the taste, this is COMPLETELY other thing and I will never, I repeat – NEVER – say no to another cuppa).
Ok, back to lake Atitlan (Somehow I always get carried away by coffee…)
We booked an apartment in San Pedro la Laguna on AirBnB and it was the best decision ever. Especially when we realized it came with a rooftop terrace (with a 360° view!), a washing machine (omg, a backpacker’s luxury!), a coffee mill and two cute dogs (from the owner, but we like to pretend they were there for us). Every time when we went from or arrived at the house, we were obliged to “pay a tax” in the form of cuddles. 😀 Needless to say, we enjoyed paying such taxes very much (unlike those when crossing borders – you can read more about that one here).
See what’s happening here? Got carried away again.
Bottom line, Atitlan lake is the best place for relaxation in Guatemala, so don’t feel guilty if you end up spending your days on a terrace with a Kindle in your hand. Totally legit.
RENT A KAYAK OR SUP
From chillout to workout! San Pedro is the best place to rent a kayak or a SUP and hit the waves (oh yes, waves – don’t be deceived by smooth-looking surface).
Won’t lie here, we aren’t THE biggest fans of SUP since we find it kinda, er – boring. Nevertheless, I’m pretty sure that finding balance on those waves is still kinda challenging, so if you fancy trying it out, you should totally give it a go.
We rented a kayak instead and had a lot of fun!
You can rent a kayak from various agencies in the village of San Pedro La Laguna at a fixed price of 15Q/person/hour (less than $2), regardless of how long do you plan to stay on the lake. However, if you’ll go to the coast and approach owners directly, you’ll be able to get a discount.
It goes like this: 1 hour … 15Q (per person), 2h … 25Q, 3h..30
We hired a kayak for two hours, and it turned out that it was more than enough. Um, it was almost too much since the current is remarkably strong in the afternoon so we were paddling AF to be able to return to the shore. Well, at least Bojan was. 😉
ACTIVITY FOR THE “BRAVE ONES” – GO SWIMMING
If you wonder whether you can swim in lake Atitlan, the answer is yes – at least there aren’t any rules against it. But whether if you’ll want to, that’s another question.
Here’s the thing – the water in lake Atitlan is known to be polluted and there’s a lot of algae in the surface, at least around villages. Wastewater is still going to the lake and with it many toxins, locals are washing clothes in it and solid litter is dumped on its shores. We surely weren’t convinced to go for a swim. 🙂
However, across the lake from San Pedro, there is a lovely sandy beach and we saw a few travelers swimming – at this part of the lake water also looked cleaner, so perhaps if it would be really hot, we’d even consider jumping in it.
Oh, feeling extremely brave?
Then you should try scuba diving! Yeah, don’t expect to see THAT many
sealife lakelife? and all that, but lake Atitlan is a great place to experience diving at high altitude (or even get PADI Altitude Specialty) and there are buildings under the surface because the lake level is still rising.
Since we’ve barely got our PADI certificate at Cozumel a few weeks before, we didn’t feel confident enough to try murky waters of lake Atitlan, but its surely something that we’d try now if going back again!
You’ll find a PADI dive center ATI Divers in Santa Cruz village.
Ok, now back to the shores.
BUY GROCERIES AT LOCAL MARKET
Going to the shopping center on Saturday morning or even to the local farmer’s market (with usually pretty steep prices) is not the same as visiting local markets in foreign countries. If this country is somewhere where the fruit is so juicy it makes you wanna cry with happiness, that’s even better.
One of our favorite things to do in lake Atitlan? Waking up early (+ obligatory terrace coffee), grabbing a market basket and going shopping for breakfast.
And the best thing about it is that nobody will try to scam you – you’ll get that watermelon for the same price as the little granny in a colored dress standing beside you.
Talking about prices? 🙂
1 avocado…1-2 Q ; 1 watermelon…10 Q
(1Q = 0,13 $)
Yeah baby, one super yummy smoothie on the way!
GO WINDOW SHOPPING IN SAN PEDRO
San Pedro is flooded with expats – probably the ones who came here on purpose and the ones who came and somehow couldn’t leave 😉 Result? Shops and stands with all kinds of clothes and crafts along the streets – charm bracelets, rings, paintings, dreamcatchers, rugs,… just wandering around will keep you busy for an hour or two at least.
LEARN THE LANGUAGE!
Would like to learn some Spanish? Lake Atitlan is probably one of the best places in Latin America for this. The classes are affordable, they speak very clearly and slowly (especially in comparison to Chile or Argentina ) and you’ll learn from native speakers who usually don’t speak much English so you’ll be properly “thrown into the water” and thus learn to swim – er, talk – quickly.
Besides, have I mentioned the lake and its surrounding are stunning?
CATCH A SUNRISE AT INDIAN NOSE
Indian nose is a hill that has the shape of – yep, you guessed it – a nose from an Indian. This is a sacred place for the locals and from the summit there is a beautiful view over the lake and surroudning volcanoes.
Now, during the day you can visit it by yourself, but if you’d want to admire the views at sunrise, we recommend you to take a tour due to safety reasons. At 4 am in the morning, they pick you up with a van and take you to the neighbouring village (about 30min), where the ascent begins. The latter lasts from 30 min to an hour (depending on your pace) and you get to the top just before the sunrise.
Price: with the tour around 100Q, if you go by yourself 50Q (it’s private land and you pay the “entrance fee” to the owner)
HIKE SAN PEDRO VOLCANO
Now, that’s a bit more demanding one (huh, and I was all about chill out and stuff).
The inactive volcano San Pedro rises above the village of San Pedro La Laguna and at a first glance, it doesn’t look high at all. However, may not the looks deceive you, as in reality, the ascent is almost 1500m (5000 feet) and the hike takes around 6 hours (including an hour of rest at the top) in total.
It’s best to go on a hike early in the morning, as clouds accumulate around the peak in the afternoon (cute from the bottom, not so fun if you’re IN the clouds).
How to go there?
You can climb the volcano by yourself. With tuk-tuk (for 5Q/person) go to the starting point of the ascent (they will know where to take you), and you’ll pay 100Q/ person for entrance free. By paying the entrance fee, you’ll get a local guide to accompany you as well (or they can only show you the way if you prefer to go by yourself).
I do not know about you, but Bojan gets super cranky every time he learns he has to pay and entrance fee “to climb the hill” (something unheard of in our part of Europe 🙂 ). But hey, at least you can hike this volcano by yourself and not in a group!
What to take with you?
Water and food (remember, 6 hours!), hiking shoes, sunscreen, a fleece/sweater and a wind jacket.
TREAT YOURSELF WITH A DELICIOUS ICE CREAM!
Well, after all that climbing you deserve one (or three), right?
In San Pedro, you’ll find quite a few ice cream shops with broad selection of regular and vegan ice creams. They explain to you how many scoops and flavors you can get for a certain amount of money, and you can also taste as many flavors as you want before choosing your own.
It’s a touristy thing to do, for sure, and therefore a bit pricey (you know, compared to a bag of avocados). For example, the middle cup (with two flavors) costs 20Q and the large cornet 25Q (both in the picture).
But damn, it was sooo delicious it was totally worth the splurge. 🙂
GET WARM IN HOT TUBS
After hiking the volcano, the idea of the hot tubs is pretty appealing. In San Pedro La Laguna, you can find two such “spas” next to each other.
Los Thermales have – er, let’s say rustic hot tubs (round concrete pools), but they have a nice view over the lake. A bit more modern is their neighbour (Solar Pools), where unfortunately there is no view over the lake but you can get a massage or beer as well. Guess which one we went for? 😛
You have to make a reservation at least an hour in advance cos they need to heat the water which will be then poured into the pool. Then you can soak in your hot tub as long as water doesn’t cool down (as it is heated only once). But when I say hot, I mean hot!
For the first time in my life, I needed a few minutes to get in at all and then I needed a break every 10 min, because it was so hot. Water has around (or slightly over?) 40° and it cools down quite slowly. Bojan was making a fool of me … that is until he tried to go in.
Price: 50Q/ person (if you want to have eucalyptus leaves in your pool – 40Q more) + 30Q for two Coronas 🙂
TAKE A WEAVING CLASS
No, I’m not kidding. In the village of San Juan, you’ll find an association of women weavers. You can join and take a class – this just might be a great opportunity to be a part of the community. 😊
Price: from $20 up
Duration: 2 – 5 hours
TRY GUATEMALAN COFFEE
See, we’re back at coffee! I know I keep talking about it, but let me emphasize it one more time – Guatemala has some of the best coffee in the world. It would be a sin not to try some! You have two options – either get your cup at one of the hipster-looking cafes in San Pedro or make yourself one! You can buy coffee beans in any coffee shop and if your accommodation has a coffee grinder (don’t be shy, ask around), you can get your freshly ground coffee first thing in the morning. Heaven, I know!
From lake Atitlan you can take a day trip to the town of Chichicastenango, where the biggest market in Central America is held twice per week.
Don’t get lost among all stalls and, er – don’t get carried away and buy all the souvenirs you see, otherwise you might need an extra backpack or five.
SOME USEFUL INFORMATION:
HOW TO GET TO LAKE ATITLAN?
The easiest way to get to the lake is from the capital (Guatemala City) or from Antigua. Many agencies offer a shuttle (old rusty van) which costs about 10 €/person. However, if you are more adventurous, you can take a “chicken bus” (local buses – old american school buses) instead – they cost only a few euros.
GOING AROUND LAKE ATITLAN
To more around the village and between the nearby villages, you can take a tuk-tuk. This should not exceed price 5Q/person. However, the best mode of transport between the villages is a boat, that cost somewhere from 10-25Q/person in one direction (depending on how far away you go).
WHERE TO STAY IN LAKE ATITLAN?
Around the lake there are a number of villages, but tourists usually choose one of the following:
Panajachel – the largest place with the most tourist infrastructure and a larger market. Here you usually end up when you come from Guatemala City or Antigua and then you take a boat to other villages (in San Juan and San Pedro, you can also come directly).
Our hint for cheap accommodation: PanaHouse
Most backpackers choose to stay in San Pedro La Laguna. Many also comment that it is too touristic, but we did not have this feeling – this is because our apartment was 10-15 min away from the downtown (gringo area) so we were among the locals (and it was quiet there as well). San Pedro is also a starting point for renting kayaks and climbing to the San Pedro volcano or Indian nose.
Our hint for cheap accommodation: Mikaso Hotel y Restaurante
Our accomodation: Mynor’s Apartment
San Marcos la Laguna – if your main goal is relaxation, yoga or meditation, this will be the place for you. 😊
Our hint for cheap accommodation: Casa Madera Atitlan
San Juan La Laguna ali Santa Cruz La Laguna – two of the smaller, more peaceful villages, where there is also less infrastructure. In Santa Cruz there is also a diving center – it is possible to dive in the lake (but how much do you see due to the sludge, is another story 😊)
Our hint for cheap accommodation: (Santa Cruz): Casa Kaktus
Our hint for cheap accommodation: (San Juan): Eco-Hotel Mayachik
THE PEARL OF GUATEMALA ? THE PEARL OF GUATEMALA! 😊
Sunrises and sunsets, fresh Guatemalan coffee, yoga and meditation, hot springs, weaving and hiking – it’s perhaps not surprising that this place is visited by so many travelers from “developed countries (and many stay far longer than they originally planned). Lake Atitlan is definitely a must-stop if you ever visit Guatemala. 😊 We enjoyed our stay there immensely and are definitely planning to return again. 🙂