When visiting Guatemala, Lake Atitlan is a place that absolutely must be on your list! It’s nothing short of spectacular. It’s so spectacular that it was in the running to be among the 7 wonders of the world! So yeah, you cannot travel to Guatemala without visiting Lake Atitlan. So how do you get there? What are the things to do in Lake Atitlan? How many days do you need? We’ll get to all that just below.
But first, before we dive into activities in Lake Atitlan, let’s set the stage, shall we?! Lake Atitlan is a massive volcanic crater that formed 84,000 years ago as a result of a volcanic eruption. It sits at 5,125 ft. in elevation with three impressive volcanoes (Atitlan, Toliman, and San Pedro aka The Three Giants), sitting on its lake shores.
The scale of the lake and its scenic beauty are hard to put into words. At 12 miles in length, 6 miles wide, and at its deepest, 1,049 ft., the best way to explore the lake is by boat.
The impressive rolling hills and volcano backdrops that surround the blue water of Lake Atitlan are nothing short of fascinating and even more breathtaking than pictures can do justice. It’s easy to see why people fall in love with this place. Once Lake Atitlan draws you in, it will be hard to leave.
Check out our 7-day, 10-day, and 2-week Guatemala Itinerary to help plan your trip!
Known for its 12 Mayan towns that sit on its lakeshores, you can easily spend weeks taking in Lake Atitlan’s sights, hikes, lounging in hammocks, and partaking in water activities, all while learning a thing or two from the Maya Kaqchikel and Tzʼutujil groups that have called this place home for centuries.
So without further ado, let’s get to some of the best things to do in Lake Atitlan!
Planning Tips For Visiting Lake Atitlan
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Best Time To Visit Lake Atitlan
Like the rest of Guatemala, Lake Atitlan experiences two seasons – wet and dry. The best time to visit Lake Atitlan is from November to May when the dry season is in full swing. The sun will be shining and rain will be nearly non-existent. Of the dry months, April is among the hottest.
The not-so-ideal time to visit Lake Atitlan is from June to October when the rainy season is in full effect.
TIP: We visited Lake Atitlan in January and it was wonderful! The days were warm and the nights were cool where a jacket or sweater was needed. Make sure you check the temps and pack accordingly!
How To Get To Lake Atitlan
Unfortunately, there is no airport within any of the towns of Lake Atitlan. The closest airport to Lake Atitlan is Guatemala City, some 3.5 – 4.5 hours away. Also, there are no passenger trains in all of Guatemala, so traveling by train is out of the question. The only way to get to Lake Atitlan is by tourist shuttle, private car/taxi, or renting a car.
To get to Lake Atitlan, your points of arrival by road are either Panajachel (Pana), San Pedro, or San Marcos. If you are staying in another town that cannot be accessed by road, you’ll need to catch a lancha at the main dock upon your arrival to Pana, San Pedro, or San Marcos to get to your final destination.
Depending on where you are coming from in Guatemala, there may be only one transport per day or multiple per day going to Lake Atitlan. It’s best to make transportation reservations ahead of time just to ensure you depart and arrive at Lake Atitlan the day you want to.
- Antigua to Lake Atitlan: 53 miles | 3+ hours
- Guatemala City to Lake Atitlan: 77 miles | 4 + hours
- Semuc Champey To Lake Atitlan: 185 miles | 10+ hours
- Flores to Lake Atitlan: 373 miles | 12+ hours (ALT: you can also fly to Guatemala City from Flores and catch a shuttle from there)
Tip: The ride to Lake Atitlan can be a little nausea-inducing. Mountain roads and a lot of curves. If you are prone to motion sickness, do your best to sit as close to the front of your transport as possible, and ideally by a window where you can get fresh air if needed.
How To Get Around Lake Atitlan
Although there are some roads around Lake Atitlan, you can only get to a few towns by road. From Panajachel, you can get to Santa Catarina Palopó and San Antonio Palopó via tuk-tuk, and while in San Pedro, you can get to San Juan by tuk-tuk.
The best way (and let’s be honest, the most fun way) to get around Lake Atitlan is by a lancha. Lanchas are essentially water taxis that shuttle tourists and locals to all 12 towns on the lake. You can opt to book a private ride (around 150Q to 300Q total) or opt for the public lancha costing around 25Q per person.
The layout and comfort of both a private lancha and a public lancha are the EXACT same – literally, they are the same boats. Their only differences are around when you leave and how long it takes you to arrive.
A private lancha takes you and your group directly to the town you wish to go to, whereas, in a public lancha, the driver leaves when the boat is full and stops at various towns and villages along the way. So your departure and arrival time can be a little unpredictable when going the public lancha route.
NOTE: Once in the towns, walking will be your main way to get around. If there are areas you wish to explore that are a little further than you want to walk, no worries. You can flag down and can hire a local tuk-tuk to get around.
How Many Days Do You Need in Lake Atitlan?
While you can absolutely spend one day in Lake Atitlan, however, it would be a crime to not spend more than one day here! At a minimum, you should plan to spend at least 2-3 full days here before moving on to your next location in Guatemala. An ideal amount of time would be 4-5 days if you are wanting to explore all 12 towns along the lake as well as get some outdoor activities in.
We spent 9 days in Lake Atitlan and while we spent some of those days working, even with 9 days, there were still things we didn’t get a chance to do in Lake Atitlan!
NOTE: If you are short on time, and are staying in Antigua, there are day trip options to Lake Atitlan from Antigua. Lake Atitlan is truly a place you should make every effort to see. And if you’re looking to visit Antigua, get our take on the best things there are to do in Antigua!
Can You Swim in Lake Atitlan?
The short answer is yes. Yes, you can swim in Lake Atitlan but we advise you to only swim in certain areas. Lake Atitlan, while BEAUTIFUL, isn’t known for having the cleanest water. For sanitary and safety reasons, areas around boat docks should be avoided. Swimming in Cerro Tzankujil Nature Reserve is a safe bet as the water is a little more protected being in the nature reserve.
It should go without saying but as always, use caution when swimming. In the afternoons, the weather gets windy making the lake very choppy. Oh, and don’t drink the lake water 🙂 Just don’t. Do your best to keep your mouth closed when jumping into and swimming in Lake Atitlan or you may end up with a gurgling tummy.
There are 12 towns scattered along the shores of Lake Atitlan. Of these 12 towns, Panajachel (Pana), San Pedro, San Juan, Santiago, and San Marco, tend to be among the most popular on the lake. When looking for where you want to Stay in Lake Atitlan, try narrowing it down by what vibe you are looking for.
Check out the 8 Lake Atitlan towns you cannot miss right here!
If you are looking for a very low-key location, consider Santa Cruz. Looking for something more lively? San Pedro or Panajachel is for you. If you want to practice yoga and chill, stay in San Marcos. If you are looking for a little more of a local feel, San Juan. Regardless of where you stay, you can EASILY get to any other town on the lake, so don’t stress!
- San Pedro: Sababa Resort | Mandala’s Hostal | Mikaso Hotel | Mr. Mullets Hostel
- San Marcos: Lush Atitlan | Eagle’s Nest Atitlan | Baraka Atitlan | Hotel Berena
- Panajachel: Selina | Posada don Miquel | Dreamboat Hostel | Hotel Atitlan
- Santa Cruz: Treehouse Retreat | Arca de Noé | Lake Front Retreat | Atitlan Sunset Lodge
- San Juan: Chirris Hostel | Eco Hotel Uxlabil Atitlan | El Cuarto Juez | Eco-Hotel Mayachik
For more places to stay on Lake Atitlan, you can check out the latest places and prices here.
The Best Things To Do In Lake Atitlan
1. Catch a Lake Atitlan Sunrise and Sunset
Without a doubt, THE thing you absolutely have to do is witness a Lake Atitlan sunrise from its docks and a Lake Atitlan sunset from a café (that has a good happy hour special :)).
The way the purple, pinks, and orange colors fill the sky will make you say, SHEESH! Oh, and the way the light cascades down the surrounding volcanos before it lights up the lake is one of the best gift mother nature can give you. Consider watching the sunrise or sunset the first thing to do in Lake Atitlan.
We stayed in Panajachel and quickly, Azul Rosa became a favorite sunset happy hour spot for us!
2. Tackle a Lake Atitlan Hike or Two
If you are an avid hiker or just looking to see Lake Atitlan from above, there are a handful of amazing hikes that surround the lake. The majority of the hikes depart from either San Pedro or Santiago.
If you’re not staying in either of these towns, no worries. You can coordinate your pick-up and drop-off with the tour company you are hiking with. They’ll give you all the details about what time you have to leave, how to get there, and where to meet.
From epic volcano hikes to seeing the sunrise over Lake Atitlan and walking its lakeshores, there are a handful of amazing hikes you should for sure check off your things to do in Lake Atitlan list!
Be sure to read all about the hikes you can do around Lake Atitlan right here!
3. Go Paragliding Over Lake Atitlan
While we did not partake in paragliding over Lake Atitlan (we did this in Colombia a few months prior!), we wanted to include this activity in the list of things to do in Lake Atitlan simply because what an amazing way to see the lake!
If you have not paraglided before, Realworld Paragliding is a top-rated company that offers paragliding tours in the skies over Lake Atitlan.
4. Listen to Live Music at Jose Pingüinos in Panajachel
Ok, if you are staying in Panajachel and staying over a weekend, you HAVE to pay a visit to José Pingüinos for a night of Galo drinking (Guatemala’s National Beer) and live music listening. We visited this place twice and had such a fun time each night dancing the night away with other fellow travelers.
Jose Pingüinos is an open-air restaurant that has a full 8-10 person Guatemalan band that plays on Friday and Saturday nights. You’ll find people of all ages dancing in-between tables and tipping the band to play their favorite song. It’s good fun and if you’re looking for nightlife in Panajachel, Jose Pinguinos is for you!
5. Go Paddleboarding or Kayaking on Lake Atitlan
While visiting Lake Atitlan, you need to make a point to get out on the water. What better way to do so than renting a stand-up paddleboard (SUPs) or kayak?! A popular place to kayak on Lake Atitlan is following the shoreline from Santa Cruz to San Marcos. From Santa Cruz, you’ll have great views of the volcanoes along the lake!
- Santa Cruz | You can rent from Kayak Guatemala Los Elementos or book their kayaking and hiking tour!
- San Pedro | You can rent from Kayaks Hito
- Panajachel: You can rent from guateSUP Atitlan
- San Marcos | You can rent kayaks at the entrance of Cerro Tzankujil Nature Reserve
6. Take a Cooking Class at Café Sabor Cruceno in Santa Cruz
One of our absolute favorite things to do while traveling is to take a cooking class! For us, we feel it’s one of the best ways to learn about the local cuisine and flavor profiles of the places you are visiting. While in Lake Atitlan, we took a cooking class with Café Sabor Cruceno, a local restaurant and cooking school whose proceeds go directly to the Santa Cruz community, where the restaurant and school are located.
You’ll spend 2.5 hours learning how to create three traditional dishes and let us tell you, they are scrumptious! Tamalitos for your appetizer, Pepian or Pulique for your entrée, and finally Rellenitos for dessert. Not to mention freshly made corn tortillas to accompany it all!
7. Shop For Handmade Pottery in San Antonio Palopó
San Antonio Palopó is THE town on the lake to go to for handmade pottery. Ceramica Palopo Multicolor creates handmade pottery made by the Cakchiquel Maya. From plates and cups to serving dishes and vases, they offer a store full of beautifully handmade, decorated pieces.
San Antonio Palopó is definitely a town well worth the visit if you are looking to buy some beautiful and unique souvenirs to take home! Ceramica Palopo Multicolor also offers classes for those looking to learn more about how to hand-make pottery.
8. Visit A Women’s Textile Co-Op In The Colorful Town of San Juan
San Juan is not the only town on Lake Atitlan where you’ll find textile shops or places for you to buy locally-made woven goods. They are all over Lake Atitlan, however, San Juan is home to women’s co-ops specializing in naturally dyed textiles and not to mention, just a wonderful town to explore! In fact, San Juan is our favorite town on the lake. So textile interest or not, San Juan should not be missed!
Ok, back to textiles. Places like Casa Flor Ixcaco, KEMO, Lema’ Association, and Women’s Weaving Cooperative Artesanía Maya are wonderful places to peruse the craft of loom weaving. Using natural dyes, Tz’utujil Mayan women weave fabrics together using a traditional loom to create anything from table clothes, dresses, shirts, placemats, and much more!
After you’ve had your fill of textile shopping, just wander the colorful streets of San Juan. Walk down the hanging umbrella street as you look at all the artwork scattered about building walls. Grab a coffee at Café Las Maria and just enjoy the town.
9. Wander Down Calle Santander In Panajachel
Calle Santander is the main street for Panajachel. Filled with shops, restaurants, and street vendors, if you are looking for any souvenirs from Guatemala, you’ll find them on Calle Santander!
You can spend your time perusing the shops on this lively street until eventually, you’ll reach the shores of Lake Atitlan. You can opt to head into Café Sunset for amazing views of the lake or continue following Calle Santander as it curves following the lake shore. You’ll find plenty of vendors selling local crafts and food along the way!
10. Experience A Traditional Mayan Cacao Ceremony
Before even entertaining a Cacao Ceremony, first and foremost, please ensure you are going with a Mayan Shaman. With the rise of tourism, a lot of people come to Lake Atitlan claiming to be spiritual advisories and culturally appropriate to these sacred ceremonies.
These ceremonies have been practiced and handed down through Mayan cultures for centuries. So please be respectful of their cultural practices and use a Mayan company (not a western shop or person).
For Cacao Ceremonies, Licor Marron in San Juan is a great organization to look into.
11. Practice Yoga At Eagles Nest in San Marco’s
Look, yoga lover or not, booking a yoga class (or another spiritual class) at Eagle’s Nest is something special. You’ll practice yoga on an open-aired wooden platform that towers over Lake Atitlan. As you chaturanga into downward dog, you’ll have clear views of the lake and its towering volcanos.
After class, you can head to their onsite café for a bite to eat and enjoy the cool breeze and lake views. Eagle’s Nest also offers retreat and onsite lodging for those looking to extend their stay beyond a class or two.
12. Book A City Tour And Explore Santiago
Santiago is the largest city on the lake with over 70,000 inhabitants, the majority being the Tzʼutujil Maya, calling this place home. Nestled between Volcan San Pedro and Volcan Toliman, Santiago is known the be the most traditional town on the lake, with the majority of the Tzʼutujil Maya women wearing traditional colorful and intricate clothing (trajes) like huipil’s (blouse).
Unlike the other towns where walking is a suitable form of transportation to get around, that is not the case for Santiago. Due to its size, and the location of certain sites, you’ll need to look at booking a truck or tuk-tuk tour if you truly want to really see Santiago.
After you exit your lancha and are on Santiago’s boat docks, you’ll be offered tours by local guides looking to take you around Santiago for 2 hours. Our host we were staying with highly recommended we take a tour, so we followed her suggestion, and we are so glad we did!
We were taken outside of town to a Mirador, visited their sacred deity, explored a historically significant church, learned about the traditions of the local Maya, and visited a local weaving or art shop. The private tour cost us around 100Q (per person) to be taken in a truck around Santiago to 5 sites.
13. Book A Scuba Diving Trip
Attention divers! You can scuba dive in Lake Atitlan! Crazy, right? ATi Divers, located in Santa Cruz, offers one-tank and two-tank dives to those looking to explore the depths of Lake Atitlan.
From wall dives to cooking an egg over volcanic hot vents and viewing volcanic formations underwater, if you are looking to explore as much of Lake Atitlan as you can, consider booking a dive!
14. Cliff Jump From “The Trampoline” in Cerro Tzankujil Nature Reserve
Looking to swim in Lake Atitlan? Well, here is your chance! Cerro Tzankujil Nature Reserve, located in San Marcos, offers a 40 ft. (12 meters) jump into Lake Atitlan, known as the trampoline. Having completely no relation to an actual trampoline, visitors come to the wooden platform elevated some 40 ft. above Lake Atitlan. Take a running jump and leap off the wooden platform into the waters of Lake Atitlan below.
Now, if 40 ft. sounds a little too high, there is a smaller jump nearby that you can try! Or, simply just enjoy the Nature Reserves’ overlooks and views.
Note: There is a 20Q fee to enter the Nature Reserve. You can also rent kayaks at the nature reserve entrance!
15. Soak In Lake Atitlan Hot Springs in Santa Catarina or in Los Thermales In San Pedro
Looking for a way to relax and enjoy your day? How does a hot spring and pool sound?
Located in Santa Catarina Palopo, Aguas Termales Natural is located a short walk from the docks. Follow the trail to the right and you’ll find the spot where hot water comes straight from the ground. Enjoy a soak before or after exploring the painted-house town of Santa Catarina Palopo.
If you are staying in San Pedro, Los Thermales are personal jacuzzies that can be reserved an hour to 30 minutes ahead of your arrival. Costing 25Q, you can soak in these outdoor pools while having a few drinks with friends as you take in the views from the lake. There are only 5 pools in total so make your reservations ahead of time as things can fill up quickly!
16. Wander The Local Sunday Markets
If you happen to be in Lake Atitlan on a Sunday, definitely plan to visit a Sunday Market. In Santiago and Panajachel, you’ll find bustling markets where locals sell local produce, fresh flowers, and the latest catch of the day. Wander the makeshift isles, buy fresh fruit, and be a part of a local Sunday tradition!
17. Take A Day Trip to Iximché or Chichicastenango
If you are looking to explore areas outside of Lake Atitlan, Iximche and Chichicastenango are two options for you to consider. From 1470 to 1524, Iximche was the capital of the Kaqchikel Maya kingdom. Today, you can tour the archeological site of Iximche to explore its temples and palaces.
Located some 2.5 hours away from Lake Atitlan, you’ll find the town of Chichicastenango. Chichicastenango (Chi Chi) is known for having the largest and most vibrant craft market in all of Central America! Starting at around 8 AM on Thursdays and Sundays, you’ll find streets exploding with locals selling traditional goods and foods. From Panajachel, you can book a tour or take a chicken bus (local transport) to get to Chi Chi!
Helpful Tips For Visiting Lake Atitlan
- Don’t Take Pictures Without Permission: If you want to take photos of the local Maya, ask them to take their picture first.
- Afternoons Are Windy: The winds pick up in the afternoon making the water very choppy
- Lancha’s Only Run During Certain Times: Public lancha’s start at around 6:30 AM and are done for the day at 6:30 PM. If you need any transport outside of this time, you’ll need to arrange for a private lancha with a local boat driver (FYI make sure you have WhatsApp downloaded)
- Sunscreen: Use it! You’ll be at high elevations and around water so protect that skin of yours.
- ATMs: Mastercards don’t really work here, so to avoid having ATM issues use a Visa instead.
- Cash Rules All: While credit and debit cards are taken, cash is king. Make sure you have some on you at all times as cards are never a guarantee.
- Brush up on your Spanish: If you don’t speak Spanish, have Google Translate handy.
- Be Patient: Especially when taking public lancha’s. What you think will be a quick ride can take over well over an hour.
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– Lauren & Jesse Stuart (The Stüs)