Are you planning a trip to Guatemala? If so, read on to learn why a visit to Lake Atitlan should be on your itinerary!
A three hour shuttle ride west of Antigua and Guatemala City will take you to the remote region of Lake Atitlan.
Most visitors will use the town of Panajachel as their hub which is the largest city on the lake.
But once you start doing your research on this region you'll learn that the lake is dotted with incredible hotels (like Casa Del Mundo!) and smaller Mayan villages all in need of exploration from savvy travelers like you!
In this post we'll highlight some of the most popular activities to do in this area as well as important things to know before visiting, such as the water taxi system works.
Looking for a specific activity or tip? Use the table of contents below to skip ahead:
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The best way to reach Lake Atitlan
Most travelers looking to visit Lake Atitlan will be traveling from either Antigua or Guatemala City. Guatemala City is also home to the largest nearby international airport.
Shuttles from either city are the best way to reach Lake Atitlan and can be easily found online by searching for tour companies.
Regardless of where your ultimate destination is at on the lake, chances are you will first want to head to Panajachel.
The fastest way to reach other towns along the lake is by taking a water taxi from Panajachel. Driving in a shuttle around the exterior of the lake will take much longer than a boat that can cut directly across the water.
If you are staying in San Pedro or one of the other towns you can take a public water taxi from the docks at Panajachel.
In general the locals here will help point you to the right boat depending on where you're trying to go, but as a heads up some will try getting you to book more expensive private boats.
The water taxis generally only run between sunrise and sunset so if you're arriving or departing early or late in the day a private boat might be your only option!
Popular activities to do around Lake Atitlan
Now that we've gone over how to reach Lake Atitlan, let's go over some of the top activities to do here.
Even if you're planning to stay elsewhere on the lake, Panajachel is widely considered to be the hub of this area and it's well worth exploring.
Additionally most travelers entering this region will first arrive at Panajachel before traveling on to other towns by boat.
Here you’ll find an ample variety of restaurants and markets to explore especially along Panajachel’s main road.
Since the town is located along Lake Atitlans eastern coast it also makes for one of the best places in all of Lake Atitlan for watching sunsets. The sunsets here are spectacular given the lake, volcanoes and frequency of afternoon thunderstorms over parts of the lake.
Ride in a Tuk Tuk
A fun, cheap and authentic way to get around Panajachel or elsewhere in Lake Atitlan is to ride in a Tuk Tuk!
These small motorized vehicles can be found all over the lake and no visit to Guatemala is complete until you’ve ridden in one.
Just make sure you have some quetzals handy. While credit cards are generally accepted in Antigua, cash is king around Lake Atitlan.
Try the Indian Nose hike
If you want to catch the best sunrise in the entire region you'll definitely want to attempt the Indian Nose hike.
As a heads up you'll to need to start very very early in the morning.
Your start time will depend on time of year, so be sure to check when the sunrise is occurring based on your stay. But chances are you'll need to reach the peak at 6am or earlier.
From Panajachel we drove nearly 90 minutes to the starting point of this hike. The trailhead was very poorly marked and I'm not sure how solo travelers would find it on their own.
To make it by sunrise, driving from Panajachel is likely your only option as the water taxis won't be operating this early.
Once you’ve reached the starting point I would conservatively budget another hour to reach the peak.
If you’re planning to attempt Indian Nose or interested in learning more about this hike I’d recommend reading my full post on this activity which also includes recommendations on which guide service to use.
Explore Lake Atitlan by boat
Whether you use the local water taxi system or book private tours, Lake Atitlan is meant to be enjoyed by boat.
The most important thing to remember is that the water taxis generally only operate between sunrise and sunset. If you need transportation outside of this window you’ll need to arrange a private boat.
You’ll have an easy time hiring a private boat from Panajachel. On a related note, be mindful that when trying to find the public water taxis (which are very cheap) some locals will try tricking you into hiring a private boat instead.
Be sure to ask about price and destination before boarding any boats. Water taxis generally come and go every 30 minutes.
Hire a local guide
Not only can hiring a guide make the specific activity you're attempting go off without a hitch, but they can also be a great resource to ask for other activity ideas in the area.
During this trip we utilized the services of Tours Atitlan on multiple occasions so I can highly recommend them.
I know some people like to go out exploring on their own (I do too!) but guides are also locals who can offer a unique perspective on what you're seeing. They're also a great way to learn about the sights of Lake Atitlan instead of, well.. just seeing them!
This is also a great way to support the local economy you're visiting.
Another great resource for finding adventures around Lake Atitlan is GetYourGuide. Their tour offerings are constantly changing so be sure to take a look if you haven't already.
Learn about coffee up close
Guatemala is world renown for the quality of its coffee beans.
During our visit we booked a cultural tour with Tours Atitlan to San Juan La Laguna.
Here our guide showed us around town and we had the opportunity to explore several local art galleries, learn how coffee is made at a coffee farm and visit a weaving collective.
Spending a morning to take the time experiencing some local culture is a must on any visit to Lake Atitlan.
Learn all about weaving with the women at Casa Flor Ixcaco
One of the stops on the aforementioned Tours Atitlan experience was at a weaving collective during our visit to San Juan La Laguna.
The women of Casa Flor Ixcaco will teach you all about the artisan waist loom process they use to create handmade woven products.
After showing our group how the weaving was done we were even allowed to try it ourselves! It was a fun experience but ultimately I don't think I have any natural talent for weaving.
Once you're done with the presentation you'll have an opportunity to browse their products and purchase a souvenir where you know the proceeds are supporting a great cause.
If you want to check them out in more detail here's a link to their website.
Check out the Local Art Scene
Lake Atitlan has a great reputation when it comes to fine art. As you explore the towns dotting the perimeter of the lake you're sure to notice a large number of art studios.
On our adventures with Tours Atitlan we had the opportunity to walk through many local art galleries in San Juan La Laguna.
If you aren't in the market to use a guide, this activity is very easily done without one. Walking up the main road of San Juan La Laguna you'll stumble across several studios that welcome walk ins.
Stay at Casa del Mundo
The appropriately named 'House of the World' lives up to its name. This place is absolutely stunning. The lake views from this cliffside hotel are difficult to beat.
Located along Lake Atitlan's northern coast Casa Del Mundo is only accessible by boat.
Don't let the logistical challenge of reaching Casa Del Mundo deter you, because guests who accept the challenge of getting here will be well rewarded!
I've put together a full post on everything you'll want to know before visiting Casa Del Mundo in the Lake Atitlan region of Guatemala that you can look through here.
Swim in Lake Atitlan
Generally speaking you can swim in Lake Atitlan. Although I've read it's not advised to do so around some of the larger towns since the water isn't as clean in those areas.
While it's warmer in the afternoon, the water is typically much choppier late in the day. For the best swimming conditions consider going for a morning dip.
If you're spending any time at Casa Del Mundo (which you definitely should) the hotel offers great swimming access to the lake.
Spiritual Guide experiences
Looking to experience a Mayan ceremony? Lake Atitlan is a great place to get in touch with your spiritual side.
During our visit we found a spiritual guide (he preferred not to be a called a shaman, which many tour companies will market) who led us through an authentic Mayan ceremony.
From this experience you’ll learn about Mayan culture and religious beliefs.
If you’re looking to arrange a ceremony Tours Atitlan is a reputable place to start your search.
Visit different view points around the lake
You will never get tired of the views around Lake Atitlan, and as a photographer I loved that we were constantly encountering areas that offered a new perspective of the lake.
I'll never forget our shuttle ride into Panajachel from Antigua. We pulled off at an area that had local vendors and one of the most impressive views of the lake that we'd see during our stay.
As you explore the different towns that border Lake Atitlan you'll constantly be offered a new perspective of the mammoth volcanos and towering cliff sides.
Never leave your camera back at the hotel!
Learn Spanish from a local
Lake Atitlan has a reputation for being an affordable and immersive area to learn Spanish.
If you're staying in the area for an extended period of time this is a unique way to immerse yourself in the local culture.
Here's a link to a Lake Atitlan based Spanish school if you're looking for a place to start your search.
Take a yoga class
Given the spiritual draw this region has on people it's no surprise that there's an active community of yoga practitioners here as well.
Visitors looking to nail down a yoga class or experience should start their search in the town of San Marcos La Laguna which is located along the lakes northern shore.
The water taxi frequents this town - just be sure if you schedule anything early in the morning that it will jive with the water taxi hours of operation!
Get a tattoo
Looking to memorialize your pilgrimage to Lake Atitlan? There's no better way than to get a tattoo!
But finding someone you like is no easy task.
One effective way to scout tattoo artist talent currently in Lake Atitlan is by utilizing social media.
If you aren't savvy in that method - just ask!
Locals are generally happy to share their recommendations with you.
Particular people to ask for advice include tour guides, bar tenders, hostel or hotel staff and other travelers you encounter.
Take a day trip to Chichicastenango Market
While we didn’t have time to visit Chichicastenango Market on our trip to Lake Atitlan I wanted to call it out in this guide since it's a popular stop for many visitors.
The large open air market and town are well regarded for their preservation of Mayan culture.
The roundtrip journey to Chichicastenango from Panajachel is about 3 hours by shuttle. This means you'll need to commit at least half a day to this experience.
From what I've read the best time to visit is on official market days which are Thursdays and Sundays.
Here's a helpful guide from another blogger to help you make an informed decision on whether or not this is something to hit during your visit.
Other things to know about Lake Atitlan
Hopefully the above list of activities proves useful to you in planning a trip to Lake Atitlan.
Below I call out some other important information travelers should keep in mind before visiting this part of Guatemala.
Is there cell phone service around Lake Atitlan?
We generally did okay in terms of call, text and GPS with our phones around Lake Atitlan. Data, not so much.
And when it comes to wi-fi don't expect the high speed variety!
How long should I visit Lake Atitlan for?
No less than three days and you can easily spend four or five days in the area without running out of new activities to try. That should be your starting point for planning a trip.
The activities I've outlined here should fill out a three to four day itinerary quite well.
I could have easily spent a week at Casa Del Mundo just relaxing and taking in the beautiful lake views!
Can I pay with credit card around Lake Atitlan?
You will encounter some businesses that accept credit card, but you should go into any situation expecting to pay cash.
If you plan to purchase any art while you're out here you'll be happy to hear that some of these studios accept credit card.
This is nice because these will typically be higher dollar value purchases and it may be undesirable to carry around that much cash with you.
If you need to convert USD to Quetzals (the Guatemalan currency) at a bank be sure to have your passport handy as it's required for these conversions.
Is the water safe to drink around Lake Atitlan?
The tap water in Guatemala is generally not drinkable for tourists. However, we never had issues finding bottled or otherwise drinkable water during our time around Lake Atitlan.
What is the best time of year to visit Lake Atitlan?
I would recommend visiting Guatemala from November to April to avoid the rainy season which runs from May to October.
With that said, the climate here is tropical given its proximity to the equator. Temperatures will be comfortable year round and this tip is more about maximizing your chances at dry sunny days to explore!
What language do they speak around Lake Atitlan?
The official language of Guatemala is Spanish. There are also 22 Mayan languages spoken throughout the country and you are likely to encounter some Mayan speakers in this region.
Unless you hire a guide, English isn't consistently spoken around Lake Atitlan.
What is the nearest airport to Lake Atitlan?
The nearest airport to Lake Atitlan is the one located in Guatemala City. Without traffic the drive will take about 2 hours and 30 minutes.
However, this route is notorious for delays so if you need to make a departing flight I'd budget in an extra hour for traffic!
Is Lake Atitlan safe?
Yes! The towns surrounding Lake Atitlan are very safe. We did not have a negative experience at any point during our stay.
Be sure to read our guide on reducing airfare costs
One of those most unavoidable and dreaded travel costs is airfare.
Even if you budget carefully for food, accommodations and find budget friendly activities the cost of airfare can make many destinations prohibitively expensive.
But if you're a savvy traveler like me then you know there are ways to beat the airlines! I have a full post dedicated to all of the tips and tricks I use to pay the absolute minimum for airfare when I travel.
Looking for quick advice on how to book your next trip?
It's easy to forget how much time, effort and planning can go into putting together a vacation.
Booking flights, shuttles, rental cars, hotels, activities and making sure you've packed everything you'll need for where you're going is no small task!
Not to mention all of these things tend to add up in cost very quickly. With so many things that can go wrong what's a savvy traveler to do? Read my post on travel planning hacks that's what!
In that guide I will highlight all of the strategies I use to streamline the trip planning process while making sure I cover all of the tricks I use to save money along the way.