Lake Atitlán: Guatemala’s Crown Jewel

Lake Atitlan, Guatemala is beguiling in its beauty. Ringed by mountains, volcanoes, and twelve towns and villages, Lake Atitlan is best discovered by a small boat.

From artisan weavers to legends of The Little Prince (the author spent time here recovering from injuries sustained in a plane crash) to a Mayan god who drinks and smokes – this Getaway Mavens “Greater Getaway” to Guatemala’s most famous Lake is not only resplendent, it is the source of both mythical and ridiculous folklore as well.

Where Is Lake Atitlan?

Lake Atitlán is located in the highlands of southwestern Guatemala, situated within a volcanic caldera. Surrounded by steep, verdant hills and three striking volcanoes—Atitlán, Tolimán, and San Pedro—the lake is about 50 miles west-northwest of Guatemala City. The body of water has a maximum depth of about 1,120 feet, making it the deepest lake in Central America.

Several Mayan villages and towns, each with its own unique culture and ambiance, are scattered around the lake’s perimeter, accessible by boat or winding roads. Known for its natural beauty and serene atmosphere, Lake Atitlán is a popular destination for both local and international tourists.

Santiago Atitlan Guatemala
View of Lake Atitlan from Santiago dock

Best Things To Do In Lake Atitlan

TOUR: Hire a boat to take you to various villages around Lake Atitlan

The villages of Lake Atitlán, each with its distinct character and atmosphere, are scattered along the lake’s shoreline, primarily accessible by boat. From the bustling markets of Panajachel to the spiritual haven of San Marcos La Laguna, these settlements offer a wide array of experiences. Whether it’s the Mayan culture in Santiago Atitlán, the vibrant nightlife in San Pedro La Laguna, or the tranquil beauty of Santa Cruz La Laguna, each village provides a unique lens through which to experience the natural splendor and diverse culture that Lake Atitlán has to offer.

Santa Cruz La Laguna

Santa Cruz La Laguna is a tranquil lakeside village on Lake Atitlán in Guatemala, accessible mainly by boat. Characterized by its quiet ambiance and striking views of surrounding volcanoes, the village serves as a hub for eco-tourism and outdoor activities like kayaking, hiking, and diving. It’s also home to a mix of locals and expatriates, which creates a unique, welcoming atmosphere.

Q’omaneel Collective, San Juan on Lake Atitlan
Learn about medicinal plants and herbs at Q’omaneel Collective, San Juan on Lake Atitlan

San Juan La Laguna

San Juan La Laguna is one of the quieter, less-commercialized villages on Lake Atitlán in Guatemala. Located next to the bustling San Pedro La Laguna, this village is noted for its commitment to community-based tourism and authentic cultural experiences. It’s a haven for textile enthusiasts, as it is home to various cooperatives where local women produce beautiful hand-woven fabrics using organic dyes.

Bone Healer Mural San Juan Atitlan Guatemala
Bone Healer Mural San Juan Atitlan Guatemala

The murals adorning the buildings offer glimpses into the area’s rich Mayan heritage and folklore. With a backdrop of mountains and coffee farms, San Juan La Laguna provides a peaceful setting for those looking to dive deeper into the indigenous culture of the region.

 San Juan La Laguna on Lake Atitlan Guatemala
San Juan La Laguna on Lake Atitlan Guatemala

DO: Help make tortillas the way it’s always been done

That is, with dried corn kernels soaked in limestone, ground to paste, patted flat, and roasted.

Womens Weaving Collective San Juan Atitlan Guatemala
Womens Weaving Collective San Juan Atitlan Guatemala

VISIT: A weaving collective – Casa Flor Ixcaco – in San Juan La Laguna

Witness all the handiwork that goes into spinning and dying organic cotton with natural dyes. And then creating works of wearable art on back-strap looms. Most amazing – scarves and throws in a rainbow of colors, some which take weeks to make, start at only $40 each.

Mayan god, Masheemon, smoking, Santiago Atitlan Guatemala
Mayan god, Masheemon, smoking, Santiago Atitlan Guatemala

FIND: the Mayan god, Masimon, in Santiago

In Santiago, ask a Tuk-Tuk driver (or your guide) to find the Mayan god, Masimon (pronounced “mo-she-mon”). On May 1st every year, this deity, cloaked in men’s ties, is moved to a different private residence. Concealed from the Catholic Church in apartments accessed by back alleys, Maximon drinks and smokes thanks to his Shaman handlers. These fellows keep the irreverent, legless, wooden god, pretty plastered. Want a picture? It will cost you ten Q’s (about $1.30).

Guatemalan taxi Santa Catarina Palopo
Guatemalan “taxi.”

EXPERIENCE: A “Guatemalan Taxi”

Tuk-tuks are fine, but for a real thrill take a “Guatemalan taxi.” It’s basically an open flatbed truck. Though some have benches, most people stand up.

Catholic Church in Santiago, Guatemala
Catholic Church in Santiago, Guatemala where you’ll see the co-mingling of Mayan and Catholic iconography.

Visit: A Catholic Church in Santiago, where you’ll see the co-mingling of Mayan and Catholic iconography

Find saints and Jesus dressed in scarves and ties –the attire of Mayan god, Maximon. Locals state that when the Spanish came to Guatemala in the 1500s, attempting to convert the indigenous population to Catholicism, they failed miserably. Instead, this – and Mayan alters in other churches – represent the compromise between the two religions.

Santa Catarina Palopo
Colorfully painted town of Santa Catarina Palopo

MEANDER: in the tiny, colorfully painted town of Santa Catarina Palopo

Women on front porches hand weave intricate cloth in vivid colors. You can buy their handiwork, straight from the weaver. And rest assured that you are contributing to her household.

Weaver Santa Catarina Palopo
Weaver on the front porch of Santa Catarina Palopo home, Lake Atitlan Guatemala.

SHOP: Santa Catarina Palopo

Discover inexpensive one-of-a-kind table runners, placemats, and embroidered local blouses at small family-run shops in Santa Catarina Palopo.

School craft collective, Santa Catarina Palopo Lake Atitlan Guatemala
School craft collective, Santa Catarina Palopo Lake Atitlan Guatemala

BUY GIFTS: On your way to the dock in Santa Catarina Palopo

Stock up on gifts at the High School Craft Collective, which helps fund the local schools.

Ceramic-Makers San Antonio Palopo Lake Atitlan Guatemala
Ceramic-Makers San Antonio Palopo Lake Atitlan Guatemala

CHECK OUT: Famous Guatemalan Ceramics

Purchase signature ceramics right from the source in San Antonio Palopo – a town known for its ceramic-ware emblazoned with timeless designs.

Yarn Shop Chichicastenango Guatemala
Yarn Shop Chichicastenango Guatemala

DRIVE: to the market town of Chichicastenango

It’s about an hour from Locals buying produce and ritual objects for church visits (candles, incense, rum). Tourists, on the other hand, are overstimulated with shop after shop of crafts in kaleidoscopic colors. You might discover sophisticated gems among the schlocky establishments, but it requires patience and a keen eye.

Lake Atitlan and volcanoes from Hotel Casa Palopo
Lake Atitlan and volcanoes from Hotel Casa Palopo

DO: Climb a volcano 

Lake Atitlan guide, Domingo Solis, insists, “I don’t carry my clients.” This is another way of saying that you better be in tip-top shape to scale the hills of Lake Atitlan. The dormant volcano, San Pedro, is the most challenging here. Plan to hike five miles straight up – a climb of 4,000 ft. to a nearly 10,000 ft. elevation. From base to summit and back takes the better part of seven hours.

Alternatively, you can choose to climb the “steep but short” Cerro de Oro – “Hill of Gold.” Or try the “Sleeping Elephant.” It’s rumored that this hill was the inspiration for a classic illustration (elephant swallowed by a snake) in The Little Prince. Author Antoine de Saint-Exupéry stayed in Guatemala after a plane crash here. So that theory is plausible.

VISIT: Cerro Tzankujil Nature Reserve

Cerro Tzankujil Nature Reserve is a protected area near the town of San Marcos La Laguna on Lake Atitlán, Guatemala. The reserve is famed for its hiking trails, panoramic lake views, and a cliff-jumping spot known as “La Trampolina.” This natural sanctuary offers visitors a chance to immerse themselves in local flora and fauna while enjoying outdoor activities in a stunning setting.

Chichicastenango, Guatemala
Church in the market town of Chichicastenango, Guatemala

Visit: The church in the center of the Chichi market for the best example of the co-mingling of Mayan-Catholic cultures

The 18 steps leading up to the front door are all that is left of the Mayan Temple, destroyed by Spaniards in order to build the church in the 1500s.  Inside, slightly raised stone Mayan altars line the center aisle of the church, leading up to the gilded Catholic altar at the front.

Stay long enough and you’ll witness locals lighting candles and pouring rum on flower petals on each square altar. Quite the departure from our own rituals. It is not uncommon to see devout worshippers on their knees moving from the back of the church to the front, praying and sobbing.

Casa Palopo Hotel, Lake Atitlan, Guatemala
Casa Palopo Hotel, Lake Atitlan, Guatemala

Lake Atitlan Hotels

STAY: Posh at what is arguably the best hotel in all of Guatemala: Casa Palopo. a Relais and Chateaux hotel

And for the best of the best, ask for one of three rooms in the Villa, which has its own kitchen, living room, and infinity pool and hot tub. There is nothing more transcendent than watching the sunset over Lake Atitlan and its volcanoes from your private outdoor pool.

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  • Malerie Yolen-Cohen

    Malerie Yolen-Cohen is the Author of the cross-country travel guide, Stay On Route 6; Your Guide to All 3562 Miles of Transcontinental Route 6. She contributes frequently to Newsday, with credits in National Geographic Traveler, Ladies Home Journal, Yankee Magazine,, Sierra Magazine, Porthole, Paddler, New England Boating, Huffington Post, and dozens of other publications. Malerie’s focus and specialty is Northeastern US, and she is constantly amazed by the caliber of restaurants and lodging in the unlikeliest places.

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