Surrounded by deeply-ridged mountains, the rich blue expanse of Lake Atitlan, Guatemala deserves its reputation as the most beautiful lake in the world.
Known as the most famous lake in Guatemala, Lake Atitlán was formed from a series of volcanic eruptions over 11 million years. The eruptions left a lake filled with water and edged by three active Lake Atitlan volcanoes—Volcán Atitlán, Tolimán, and San Pedro.
Lake Atitlan altitude is an astounding 1,562 meters (or 5,124 feet). This is the deepest of all Guatemala lakes and is the deepest lake in Central America. Small speed boats, called lanchas, carry visitors and locals over the sunlit waters of the lake, crossing through wind and waves from one colorful village to the next.
The lake is primarily home to two Mayan communities, Tz’utujil and Kaqchikel, and each town has a unique history, culture, and language. The cultures and histories of Lake Atitlan are vibrant and challenging.
The Guatemalan civil war wreaked havoc on many towns around the lake, and industrialism introduced pollution in the lake that local fishermen are still fighting to stop. Since the 1960s, the booming tourism industry has created struggles between foreigner and indigenous interests.
As a tourist to Atitlan Lake, it is essential to respect the indigenous communities and traditions of the Lake Atitlan villages. Support locally-owned and women-owned businesses engage in eco-friendly buying practices and activities. Furthermore, educate yourself on the impacts of colonialism and tourism on the area.
There is a growing movement to protect the resources of the lake and preserve Mayan agricultural and cultural practices. Also, support for education and offer opportunities to connect with traditions that honour the natural world.
How to Get to Lake Atitlan
The journey to Lake Atitlan is relatively straightforward: if arriving at the Guatemala City airport, you can take a private shuttle, private taxi, or camioneta (public bus, sometimes referred to as a “chicken bus” by tourists) from Guatemala City to Lake Atitlan in 3 to 5 hours
From Antigua to Lake Atitlan, the journey is a little shorter, around 2.5 hours via shuttle, and 3 to 4 hours via camioneta. There are many Lake Atitlan day tours from Antigua. But, I recommend spending more than a day to take in all the sights that the lake has to offer.
Transport Guatemala is a reliable shuttle company that offers private taxis and camioneta bus information can be easily obtained at any hotel, hostel, or tourist agency.
Short on time?
Consider this Full Day Lake Atitlan tour from Antigua that takes you on a day trip to Lake Atitlan from Antigua. You’ll travel by boat to the town of Santiago Atitlán, the most ancient cultural village, visit the lake, and enjoy the magnificent view of the volcanoes.
Where to Stay: Lake Atitlan Hotels
Stay at an Eco-Hostel
If you’re an eco-conscious traveller coming to Lake Atitlan, you’ll find a number of eco-stays in the area.
Mayachik Eco-Hostel, San Juan, Lake Atitlan
Mayachik Eco-Hostel is a perfect place to stay. The hostel contains a vegetarian restaurant, yoga area, shared kitchen and herb garden. Also, it provides a sustainable alternative to the average hostel, Airbnb or hotel.
The entire hostel is constructed of natural local materials including “adobe, stone, wood, and palm leaves,” and uses solar panels and composting toilets. They also have a temazcal, a traditional Mayan sauna open to both hostel visitors and residents of San Juan.
Casa Felipe, San Pedro, Lake Atitlan
Casa Felipe was one of the first tourist hotels and restaurants in Lake Atitlan, and has recently reopened as an eco-friendly hotel committed to sustainability and green cleaning practices.
The buildings, made from adobe and bamboo, can hold up to 35 guests. Also, the hotel features a biodigester to clean sewer water, a biofilter for drinking water, and organic, phosphorus-free cleaning products. Casa Felipe offers a book exchange, games, a pool table, a tropical garden, and a spectacular view of Lake Atitlan.
Other Notable Hotels, Lake Atitlan, Guatemala
There is a wide array of Lake Atitlan, Guatemala hotels, backpacker hostels and lodges. There are also Airbnbs in every town in Lake Atitlan, for travellers on any type of budget.
La Iguana Perdida, Santa Cruz, Lake Atitlan
If looking for affordable accommodation, La Iguana Perdida in Santa Cruz offers a friendly, cozy vibe (plus scuba certification if you’re interested).
Cristalina’s Cafe Hotel, San Pedro, Atitlan
Locally-owned Cristalina’s Cafe, Hotel and Restaurant provides great coffee and a view in San Pedro.
Circles Cafe and Hostel, San Marcos, Atitlan
Circles Cafe and Hostel is a laid-back place to stay with a beautiful garden in San Marcos.
If you are looking for a more luxurious stay, La Casa del Mundo, accessible only by boat in Jaibalito, and Posada de Santiago, a gorgeously-decorated hotel and restaurant in Santiago, are both recommended by visitors to Lake Atitlan.
Where to Eat in Lake Atitlan
Although San Marcos is famous for its reputation as a yoga haven, it also features many vegan and vegetarian eateries. Going plant-based is one of the best ways to make a positive impact on the environment. And, in San Marcos, it’s not hard to find tasty plant-based food.
Eat with a Mission
There are several restaurants and community-owned businesses around Lake Atitlan which support accessibility and education.
In San Marcos, Konojel features adapted cuisine from different regions in Guatemala, and supports several food accessibility programs in San Marcos. The restaurant gives a percentage of its profits to Konojel Community Center, which supports nutritional education and access to clean drinking water.
In Santa Cruz, a meal at Cafe Sabor Cruceno is without a doubt one of the best meals you will have around Lake Atitlan. This restaurant, operated by the local NGO Amigos de Santa Cruz, provides educational programs for the Santa Cruz communities in culinary arts, sexual health, trade skills and leadership development. Sabor Cafe Cruceno includes not only an excellent meal, but an incredible vista. From their balcony, you have an incredible view of the surrounding cliffs, dotted with tiny houses. Also, you can watch the sunset fade behind a nearby volcano.
Support Women-Owned Businesses
Accessible only by boat or footpath, the village of Jaibalito, Guatemala is home to a hidden restaurant called Cafe Escondido. It’s a women-owned and operated business supported by Amigos Women’s Empowerment Program. This family-run business offers vegetarian-friendly dishes. Also, as an array of drinks, fish and meat specials, smoothies, coffee, and more.
What to Learn in Lake Atitlan
Natural Dye and Weaving Workshops
There are several weaving schools in San Juan, including Tinte Maya and Atitlan Women Weavers. These cooperatives are run by women from San Juan. They have a clear mission to create sustainable economic opportunities for women.
There are a variety of options for learning to weave, from one-day day tours to weeklong intensives. TinteMaya holds natural dye workshops, where visitors can dye cotton thread with hibiscus, tree bark, fruits and local herbs. You can try Lake Atitlan tours about weaving and dyeing in San Juan that gives insight into the complex art of textile work.
Learn About Permaculture
At the MesoAmerican Permaculture Institute (IMAP) outside of Santiago La Laguna, visitors have the opportunity to learn about modern and traditional Mayan agricultural technology.
This NGO is focused on education about native seed heritage and permaculture design and impact. Also, it offers insight into how preserving traditional agricultural techniques can positively impact indigenous communities.
IMAP is a little tricky to reach—it can only be accessed from a boat from Panajachel to Santiago, then via renting a pick-up truck. But using directions from the website, visitors can access community volunteer opportunities, permaculture design training, and more. Visiting IMAP is one of the most unique things to do in Lake Atitlan, Guatemala.
Things to Do in Lake Atitlan
You can rent a kayak from any town around Lake Atitlan. Paddle out into the western edge of the lake but keep an eye out for the lanchas. The winds are smooth and easy in the morning, with small jagged waves forming mid-afternoon.
Many operators also offer guided tours around Lake Atitlan. Sunrise or sunset Lake Atitlan tour by kayak, providing a colorful view of the rugged mountains, birds flocking overhead, and bass flitting beneath the water are particularly popular.
If kayaking is not your thing, several towns offer a Lake Atitlan boat tour via private speedboat for a more in-depth look at the flora, fauna, and mountains around the lake.
Visit a Nature Preserve
Upon entering the humid, colorful butterfly dome at Panajachel Nature Reserve, you’ll find yourself in a lesser-known and tranquil escape from the crowded main road and busy Panajachel tours. Beyond the butterfly garden, the nature preserve includes a small private beach, communities of spider monkeys and coatis. Additionally, well-marked walking trails, a waterfall, and a small cafe.
You can walk across hanging bridges, through a blooming coffee grove, and—if you’re feeling adventurous—visit the famous Lake Atitlan zipline across the preserve. It’s a great place for contemplation and observation outside the ordinary tourist trail in Panajachel, Lake Atitlan.
Hike Up a Mountain
The most popular Lake Atitlan volcano hike is not up a volcano at all—but don’t let that deter you! The sunrise hike up Rostro Maya is a chance to witness an incredible sunrise over a wide landscape of the volcanoes surrounding Lake Atitlan.
You can book an early morning sunrise tour from nearly every village around the lake. However, it’s easier from San Pedro and San Marcos. While waking up at 4:00 am might not be at the top of your list, the short, brisk hike is worth it. After arriving at the top, most tour groups provide the sleepy hikers coffee or tea, and a breathtaking view of several volcanoes: San Pedro, Tolimán, Atitlán, Fuego, and Acatenango.
A visit to Lake Atitlan, Guatemala is a worthy trip. Whether you only have a day or two to explore this region, or are lucky enough to be able to stay for a week or longer, it’s an area full of eco-friendly activities, conscious restaurants and accommodation options.
Have you ever been to Lake Atitlan? What were some of your favourite eco-friendly activities in this region?
About the Author: Shoshana Lovett-Graff is a writer from New Haven, Connecticut. Her writing can be found in Passion Passport, HeyAlma, and Lilith Magazine. When not traveling, she spends time writing poetry, cooking big meals, and planning her next trip with out-of-date guidebooks and detailed Excel spreadsheets. You can follow her on Twitter at @shoshush20 or visit her website