Many guidebooks push Lake Atitlan, Guatemala as one single destination. But in reality, the Atitlan area is many communities clustered around a beautiful lake. It needs a bit of time to figure out where your favorite place will be, but that’s half the fun!
Lake Atitlan, Guatemala is popular with Guatemalans, tourists, and expats alike for a very simple reason. It’s stunningly beautiful. Pick up any guide book or go onto Lonely Planet or wherever travelers go nowadays, and you’ll see every cliche in the book written about Atitlan. Which is fine, it deserves them. It’s just one of those places like the Taj Mahal or Yosemite or Lake Como, Italy.
In fact, Aldous Huxley compared Lake Atitlan to Lake Como, but went one slightly better, calling it the most beautiful lake in the world when he passed by in 1933. And I can’t think of any lake more beautiful.
Outside of the sheer physical beauty of Lake Atitlan, there’s something more to this place. There are the various communities you’ll find all around the lake. Many picturesque towns surround Lake Atitlan, each one with its own unique personality, and finding out which town you like best is part of the fun.
It’s also part of the fun getting to some of these towns. Some are only accessible by boat, and no visit to Atitlan is complete without a boat tour.
So let’s get started on a tour of Lake Atitlan, Guatemala to figure out which town might be best for you.
San Lucas Toliman
San Lucas Toliman is right on the shores of Lake Atitlan. This town, one of the biggest on the lake, has a little of everything.
The highlights include nature reserves and hotels right on the shore. It is a great place to take cool photos. Besides the friendly people, the quiet atmosphere makes it a great place to take a break and unwind.
Recommended: Charming hotels on the beachfront featuring local cuisine.
Stay at: Hotel Toliman.
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San Pablo La Laguna
San Pablo La Laguna is a place to walk along the beach enjoying the clear water. Las Cristalinas is the go-to spot for beach lovers.
The town itself is beautiful with the highlight of its main square being the white church. It’s the most recognizable church of all the towns around the lake.
Recommended: Las Cristalinas beach and its shoreline restaurants.
Stay at: Finca Bosque.
A major Mayan cultural center, Santiago Atitlan is famous for its exquisite handicrafts. On the pier street, there are plenty of local artisans offering impressive paintings. The handicraft market is a great stop for souvenirs shopping. Besides the handicrafts, a stop at the Mystical Yoga Farm is a must for meditation and yoga on the shores of the lake.
Recommended: Its variety of handicrafts makes it the best stop for souvenirs, and don’t forget to visit Maximon.
Stay at: The Mystical Yoga Farm.
Santa Catarina Palopo
Santa Catarina has breathtaking views and boasts some of Atitlan’s best hotels. The thermal waters and hot springs close to the lake here attract visitors from all over the world.
Recommended: Check out the blue blouses worn by local women, and the colors of the buildings in town that match them.
Stay at: Tzampoc Resort.
San Antonio Palopo
Another quaint and colorful town, San Antonio has a little of everything. The church in the main square is the centerpiece of San Antonio. The view from atop the hills, or from any of its restaurants, makes for a pleasant experience.
Recommended: The colonial church in the main square is priceless.
Stay at: Hotel Terrazas del Lago.
Santa Cruz La Laguna
Santa Cruz is only reachable by boat. It boasts beautiful nature reserves, comfy hotels, and restaurants specializing in local cuisine. It’s also a center for local artisans. This is a must-see for adventure seekers and nature enthusiasts. Bird watchers would enjoy this spot.
Recommended: Hiking in the nature reserves is a must for adventure seekers.
Stay at: Isla Verde.
San Marcos La Laguna
San Marcos is ideal for those seeking peace and tranquility and it’s well-known by yoga and meditation enthusiasts. For a more exciting feel, there are several observation points atop the hills featuring amazing sights. Also, the Cerro Tzankujil is a great place from which to dive straight into the lake and go for a swim.
Recommended: For peace and tranquility, it is ideal for meditation and yoga. For something more exciting, jumping off Cerro Tzankujil into the lake is a one-of-a-kind experience.
Stay at: Lush.
San Juan La Laguna
One of the best-known towns around the lake, San Juan offers charming handicrafts featuring rich textiles. The local tour guides know all the right places around town like the Rostro Maya lookout point. Check out the murals all over town decorated in an array of colors and patterns.
Recommended: Taking photographs of the murals around the town and shopping for Maya stuff.
Stay at: Hotel MayAchik.
San Pedro La Laguna
A staple on the gringo backpacker trail, San Pedro is the most visited town on Lake Atitlan with a bohemian vibe that attracts travelers from everywhere. The cafes, bars, restaurants, and hostels all make it easy to meet people and make friends. A walk around San Pedro will reveal shops, murals and old colonial architecture.
Recommended: This is the place for nightlife. A great spot for a night out on the town.
Stay at: There are tons of places here, it’s backpacker central. But we like Wachalal Lodge.
The biggest and best-known town on Lake Atitlan, Panajachel offers everything a visitor could want, from enchanting handicrafts to bars, restaurants, and nightlife. It’s also the place for getting business done around the lake. There are also hiking trails, eco-parks, and museums. This is the starting point for any visitor looking to explore Lake Atitlan.
Santa Clara La Laguna
Up the mountain from San Pablo, this is the place for adventure seekers. A zip-line ride over the lake at Chuiraxamoló Eco-Park is a thrill not soon forgotten. It’s also a great spot for hiking with the Rostro Maya lookout point a local highlight.
Recommended: The Chuiraxamoló eco-park is the place for daring souls looking for a once-in-a-lifetime experience. The hike up to the Rostro Maya lookout point is a must.
Stay at: Not much in Santa Clara itself. Most people stay down on the lake and come up here for a day trip.
Each of these communities around Lake Atitlan has its own individual vibe. It’s down to you to decide which of those vibes gels best with you.
Nestor Quixtan is a Canadian/Guatemalan economist, linguist, and writer. He lives in Guatemala City.