No trip to Guatemala is complete without at least a few days of chilling in a hammock and drinking mojitos at Lake Atitlan. Up in the highlands of the Sierra Madre mountain surrounded by volcanoes, Lake Atitlan is one of the most beautiful places I have been fortunate enough to visit, and here are some of the best things to do in Lake Atitlan, Guatemala.
Watch the Sunrise from Indian’s Nose
This is one hike you don’t want to miss, as it tops the list of best things to do in Lake Atitlan. It’s an early start, around 3:45-4:15 am depending on who you go with. After a bus ride to Santa Clara, you have a short and steep uphill hike that will take you around 45 minutes. The first part is steps, which will take you half of the way up. Once you have done that part you are halfway there, and the most difficult part is over.
I wouldn’t recommend doing this without a guide due to the early start and issues over land ownership and payment. If you go with a guide they will take care of all of that for you. Most tour companies in town offer this for 100Q.
Take Spanish Classes in San Pedro
The great thing about taking Spanish classes around the lake, especially if you take them in San Pedro, is that you will most likely not find many people to speak English with there, so long as you stay out of the tourist traps on the main ‘Gringo’ road. Spanish is, for most around the lake, their second language (the population around the lake is predominantly Mayan). Therefore they speak much slower than in places like Antigua. It’s also a lot cheaper to take classes in San Pedro compared to Antigua. From what I have heard from many people, you are likely to have a much better (and more interesting) experience living with a Mayan family in San Pedro than you are staying in a hostel in Antigua!
Go to Keith’s Cacao Ceremony in San Marcos
Ok, so this one isn’t for everyone. But, if you want the full “San Marcos” experience, then this is a must. You can’t book online, and you will probably struggle to find out much about this on the internet. I was actually looking at a notice board on my way back to the dock when the owner told me if I wanted to experience something ‘unique’ to San Marcos, I needed to go to Keith’s house for the twice weekly Cacao Ceremony. It starts at 12:30 pm and goes on until around 6:30 pm. If that’s a bit too new age for you, then take a few yoga classes up at the Yoga Forest.
Do a Three-Day Hike Through the Mayan Highlands
Like Keith’s house, this isn’t for everyone. To attempt this you are going to need a pretty good level of fitness, as it’s a tough three-day hike through the Mayan Highlands, from the lake to the hot springs of Xela. If you are looking for an interesting and authentic cultural experience that’s going to push you physically, this is the tour for you! You will be trekking through the Mayan Highlands, so be warned there won’t be many Spanish speakers, let alone English speakers. If you can learn a few words in K’iche, it will go down well with the locals you will be staying with during the 2 nights.
Drink a Coffee with Mike at the Crossroads Cafe in Panajachel
If you have looked through Lonely Planet or TripAdvisor, you have seen Cross Roads Coffee Shop as a top attraction. There is a very good reason this place is one of the best things to do in Lake Atitlan, and his name is Mike! I sat in there for a few hours just talking to him about life and drinking (incredible) coffee. Not sure what to do in Pana? Mike is your guy. He will happily answer any questions you might have about things to do and offer you sound advice. If you are in Panajachel, go, pull up a stool, drink some really good coffee, and if you have room in your backpack, buy some to take home with you.
Hike San Pedro Volcano
Ok confession, I didn’t do this one. I researched it quite a lot and talked to lots of people who did it, but I decided to go kayaking instead! Mostly because the altitude was getting to me, and also I felt quite conflicted about wanting to do it or not. It’s a hard 2.5-5 hour uphill hike. The time really depends on your level of fitness and how many breaks you take. You need to get up there early in the morning, as by 11 am the clouds have passed over and the visibility is bad.
You will need to get a tuk-tuk from San Pedro to the entrance at around 6 am. When you pay your 100Q entrance fee the guy will show you to the base of the trail. After that, you’re on your own! The trail is well-maintained and you really don’t need to take a guide with you. Make sure you are wearing proper hiking boots or sneakers, take plenty of water and snacks, and wear warm clothes (hat, scarf, gloves and a warm coat), as it gets really cold up there.
Eat Cheese and Drink Wine in San Juan
My biggest regret was not finding out about this place until the last day! Having spoken to many people who did go to El Artesano Wine and Cheese Restaurant, although it put a little dent in their budgets, it was worth every penny. Be warned. You MUST book in advance, you cannot just turn up.
San Juan is home to many Mayan women’s weaving collectives, so I would advise anyone travelling there to make a day of it and spend a few hours learning about weaving too.
Go Shopping at the Market in Panajachel
Panajachel is one of the most built-up and touristic places on the lake, but it’s also got the best market, arguably the best sunset and it’s a town you will probably need to pass through on your way to and from the lake. I would recommend staying there at least one night. Go to the market on the main road and once you are done shopping, watch the sunset from the Sunset Cafe Bar with some nachos and a beer.
Insider Tip: You can get the chicken bus (well, three chicken busses) to Chichicastenango market on a Thursday or a Sunday from Panajachel. It’s incredible to see the market, but I didn’t buy anything, as I preferred the items (and the prices) in Panajachel.
Kayaking on the Lake
I saved one of the best, and most relaxing, things to do in Lake Atitlan until last. There is no better way to explore Lake Atitlan than by kayak. Most companies will rent you a kayak cheaply, and you won’t need a guide. Make sure you go early, as the lake can get pretty choppy when the afternoon winds come in! Also, make sure you wear plenty of sunscreen and take water, snacks and your camera.