Travel

This Gorgeous Lake in Guatemala Is Like a Cooler, Cheaper Version of Lake Como

Lake Atitlan
A ban on single-use plastics has restored Lake Atitlan to its former glory. | Pixelchrome Inc/DigitalVision/Getty
A ban on single-use plastics has restored Lake Atitlan to its former glory. | Pixelchrome Inc/DigitalVision/Getty

Writer and philosopher Aldous Huxley wrote in his 1934 travel book Beyond the Mexique Bay: “Lake Como, it seems to me, touches on the limit of permissibly picturesque, but Atitlán is Como with additional embellishments of several immense volcanoes. It really is too much of a good thing.” 

It’s true that this crater lake could easily be mistaken for one of northern Italy’s postcard-famous jewels. With a few key differences -- there’s no George Clooney, it’s significantly more affordable to visit, and it’s surrounded by three majestic volcanoes. Lake Atitlán is dotted with Mayan artisan towns, made vibrant by friendly locals and the bright colors of their traditional, hand-woven clothing.

The lake hasn’t always looked this beautiful. In four short years, Atitlán has bounced back from the brink of ecological disaster thanks to a ban on single-use plastics in 2016 and a massive cleanup on the part of local fishermen and volunteers. Today, Lake Atitlán’s beauty and tourism have rebounded, and a new precedent has been set: Guatemala will phase out single-use plastics in the next two years. It’s an initiative worth celebrating, which is why we’re featuring Lake Atitlán as one of the 20 Best Places for a Big Trip in 2020.

This is the perfect side-trip after visiting the nearby city of Antigua -- but it’ll take more than a day to explore this immense lake and its charming, distinctive towns. Here’s how to plan it right.

When to visit Guatemala in 2020

Guatemala is known as the “Land of Eternal Spring” because temperatures are mild year-round. (Think highs in the 70s and lows in the 50s.) The best time to visit is during the dry season from November to April. 

Know before you go

In practice, the plastics ban in Atitlán means you must plan ahead. Since you can't drink the tap water, fill your reusable bottles before setting out for the day. Many hotels provide unlimited filtered water for guests in glass carafes. The plastics ban is enforced in most restaurants and hotels, though you may still see water bottles sold at corner stores in many Indigenous villages.

Santo Spirito
In Antigua, grab dinner at hyper-local, all-organic Santo Spirito | Mister Menu

Days 1-2: Start your trip in Antigua 

Kick things off in the colonial city of Antigua, the former capital and perfect jumping-off point to explore Lake Atitlán. In the shadow of three volcanoes shrouded in mist and clouds, Antigua’s cobblestone streets are lined with bright technicolor buildings, cheap hostels, and rowdy bars catering to the backpacking crowd. Start with lunch in Guatemala’s first-ever food hall, La Esquina, where you’ll take your pick of stands slinging crispy tortillas, pizza, juices, and enormous novelty donuts. Try traditional Guatemalan specialties such as Kak-ik, a traditional turkey leg soup in a sweet & sour broth.

Visit the town's most photographed sites, like the mustard-yellow El Arco de Santa Catalina (Santa Catalina Arch), the last remnants of a 17th century nunnery. A minute away is the Iglesia de La Merced, a baroque yellow church built in 1548. After a sunset stroll around the main square, have dinner in the courtyard of Santo Spirito, an organic restaurant with hyper-local iterations of Italian standbys. For a nightcap, check out the famed hole-in-the-wall bar Café No Sé for live music and a taste of Ilegal, an in-house mezcal.

On day two, get a bird's-eye view of Antigua by walking up to the park that overlooks the city: Cerro de la Cruz. Then, explore a sculpture park inside Santo Domingo del Cerro that’s dedicated to the work of Efraín Recinos, dubbed the “Guatemalan Picasso.”

Dance the night away at Las Vibras de la Casbah, where touring DJs come through, and most cocktails are under $5.

Jenna’s River Bed & Breakfast Hotel
Glamp it up in a yurt at Jenna’s River Bed & Breakfast Hotel | Jennifer Bigman

Day 3: Arriving and shopping at Panajachel

Cue the motion-sickness pills: It’s a three-hour winding route from Antigua to Lake Atitlán, so pop one well before you set off. Shuttle buses from Antigua to the town of Panajachel leave several times a day. (Book through your hotel or a travel agency.) 

Make the town of Panajachel (called “Pana” by locals and expats) your home base. This is the busiest and most well-traveled of the lakeside towns, making it the perfect launching point for exploring the area. To hop from town to town, take a boat from Pana’s main dock. Boats run like a bus system in either direction from Panajachel. There are also express boats or the option to rent a private boat for the day.  

Book a yurt with a view of the lake at the secluded Jenna’s River Bed & Breakfast Hotel (starting at $75 per night). This tranquil retreat is just a five-minute tuk-tuk ride into bustling Pana. For something a little closer in town, try Blue Mayan Hotel (starting at $82 per night). It’s located on a quiet street off the main drag of Calle Santander, so you can easily walk to town or to the main dock.  

After you’ve dropped off your stuff, shop for handicrafts along Calle Santander. (Bargaining is expected.) Or you can go to fair trade cooperative Thirteen Threads, which stocks textiles, rugs, handbags, chocolate, and jewelry. 

For dinner, walk past the swinging doors to Circus Bar for dinner and live music. The Italian restaurant was opened by former circus performers, and it has a boisterous, cabaret atmosphere. Across the street, stop for a nightcap at sister bar Chapiteau Panajachel for molecular cocktails and a trapeze act.

Volcano San Pedro
Hike the San Pedro volcano if you're feeling adventurous | S3studio/Contributor/Getty Images News

Day 4: Exploring San Pedro with a sunrise volcano hike

The next morning, book an early morning (I mean very early) guided hike to the top of Indian Nose in San Pedro La Laguna, considered sacred ground for the Mayans. The easy trek only takes about a half-hour and begins in the starlight. You’ll hike past forests, coffee trees, and cornfields en route. At the viewing point, sip coffee and wait for the sun to rise. You may even see Volcán de Fuego spitting lava. 

Ask your guide to drop you back off in San Pedro, a backpacker haven with a hard-partying reputation. But first, culture: Get a crash course in the history of the native Tz'utujil people at Museo Tz'unun 'Ya. You’ll learn how the lake was formed, and staff members will identify your nahual (spirit animal), based on your birth date and the Mayan calendar.

Refuel with a speciality burger and fries at Hamburg. If you're there on a Sunday, head to Smokin’ Joes' BBQ for live tunes, piña coladas, and an all-you-can-eat barbecue buffet, located by the pool at Cafe Chuasinayi. Then, head to the lakeside terraces at Bar Sublime for a cheap happy hour. It gets crowded -- and loud -- once the sun goes down.

Have dinner portside at Chiles Latina Restaurant. On Tuesday and Friday nights, everyone jumps on the dance floor for free salsa lessons.

Day 5: A day trip to Santa Catarina Palopó

The tranquil, less-touristy village of Santa Catarina Palopó has a hot spring within the lake that locals love. Because Lake Atitlán gets choppy in the afternoon, plan for a morning dip. 

To get to the hot springs, either take a tuk-tuk to the center of town and walk to the lakeshore, or hire a private boat to take you directly to the dock nearest to the springs. After a short walk along the water, you’ll see bathers huddled around six or so areas where warm water flows into the icy lake. 

For lunch, take a short tuk-tuk ride to 6.8 Palopó, located at the swanky hotel, Casa Palopó. The outdoor terrace has unobstructed, panoramic views of the lake. Order the Guatemalan ceviche and a watermelon salad. If you can splurge, book a room for the night (starting at $232). The hotel feels like staying at your artsy rich aunt's house.

After lunch, head to the offices of the Pintando Project, a charity initiative that aims to paint all 960 buildings in the city in the same vibrant hues and symbols of the traditional hand-woven huipil blouses. Staff will take you on a tour of the completed homes and answer questions. 

During the tour, stop by Centro Cultural Santa Catarina Palopó to see weaving and cooking demonstrations and buy crafts, coffee, and chocolate in the attached café. You can also browse the Pintando Project’s gift shop for locally produced candles, stationery, and textiles, and maybe give a donation. 

Day 6: Explore more lakeside towns by boat

The best way to see Guatemala’s jaw-dropping lake is to get on it. Take a boat to one of the other artisan villages dotting the lake to get a visceral sense of scale. Some options:

San Juan La Laguna: At this mellow, friendly village, have lunch at El Artesano, specializing in local cheese, house-cured meats, and artisanal bread. (Be sure to make a reservation.) Then head to Ixoq Ajkeen, a woman’s weaving co-op where you can witness the painstaking process of spinning textiles by hand using plant-based dyeing techniques. On your walk back to the boat dock, pop into artists’ galleries and the Licor Marrón chocolate shop.

Jaibalito: From Pana, it’s about a 25-minute boat ride to this relatively isolated village. Pack your bathing suit, have lunch, and hang out in the infinity pool at Club Ven Aca. (This may be the most “pinch me this sure feels like Lake Como” moment you’ll experience.) It’s located right off the dock, and pool access is complimentary with the purchase of food or drinks.  

From there, you can take a 2.5-mile hike on a ridgeline trail to Santa Cruz La Laguna, a cool little Mayan town situated on a ridiculously steep hill, or take the 3.7-mile trail to San Marcos, another tiny outpost with beautiful scenery and a hippie-dippie vibe. Catch a yoga or meditation class at Las Pirámides.

Day 7: Choose your own epic adventure

On your last day in Atitlán, choose your own outdoor adventure: If you want to tackle another volcano, set out for the San Pedro volcano early in the morning. (It takes between 2.5 and 3 hours round-trip, and visibility gets worse after 11am.) Bring layers; it’s chilly at the top. 

For a different perspective, soar over the lake by booking a tandem paragliding flight with Real World Paragliding. When the wind conditions are right, your pilot handles everything from takeoff to landing. All you have to do is not freak out and enjoy the sensation of silently zooming through the air. 

If you’d rather be on the lake, take a kayak tour, or rent your own in San Pedro for about $2 from the Santiago dock. Paddle through a floating forest and partially submerged buildings. The lake gets choppier in the afternoon, so set out in the morning.

MEET THE WRITER

Maridel Reyes has been reporting on the best things in life -- travel, food, and wellness -- for 15 years. During journalism school at Northwestern University, she investigated miscarriages of justice for the Medill Innocence Project and learned how to defend herself with a ballpoint pen. Maridel’s work has appeared in Conde Nast Traveler, Bloomberg Businessweek, New York Magazine, Architectural Digest, Forbes, BBC Travel, USA Today, The Boston Globe, and The New York Post. In her spare time, she creates pottery for her line White Street Ceramics.  
 
When was the last time you were in Guatemala? What drew you there? 
I traveled to Guatemala for the first time in November, after being curious about the country for years. I heard incredible things about Lake Atitlán’s stunning scenery, the vibrant architecture of Antigua, and the kindness of the people there.
 
What was the most impressive thing about Lake Atitlán you didn't expect? 
I’ve been to Lake Como and knew of the comparison between the two, but I wasn't expecting the scale of Lake Atitlán. We flew in via helicopter, and I was surprised at how lush the highlands are around Atitlán -- incredibly green, misty, and moody. And unlike Como, there are towering volcanoes that ring the lake, which makes it feel even more epic and out-of-time. 
 
What's one memory from your trip that sticks out in your mind?  
While we were exploring the village of San Juan La Laguna, we found out that a hiking trail called Cerro Kiaq’Aiswaan had recently opened. None of us were dressed appropriately for the muddy trek: One friend was wearing flimsy sandals, I was in an enormous sundress, and someone else was in a heavy sweater. But we decided to go for it at high noon. A half-hour later, drenched in sweat, we reached the top. The only other people there were a family and their dog. It was so peaceful. The only sound you could hear was the wind blowing, and we took in the view of the town, the lake, and Volcán de Agua rising up in the distance.  
 
Number one can't-miss recommendation for a visitor?
Take a boat to visit the villages. It's much faster than taking the winding, bumpy roads, and it gives you a more visceral sense of the enormity of the lake and the height of the volcanoes surrounding you. And if you can, make a reservation for a meal at 6.8 Palopo in the hotel Casa Palopo -- it serves updated Guatemalan food from the country's most famous chef. The panoramic view from the outdoor terrace is worth a million Instagrams. 
 
Next big trip you have planned in 2020? 
My mom is celebrating a milestone birthday this year, and I am planning a family trip to Greece. Her dream is to watch the sunset in Olia in Santorini on her big day. And whatever mama wants, she gets!
 
What's your ultimate bucket list destination you've always wanted to visit? 
I have been fascinated with archeology since I was a kid. The first place I ever fantasized about visiting was Egypt to see the tombs, temples, and cruise the Nile. I hope to make it there soon.

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