I loved Antigua, but some of my favorite days in Guatemala were those spent on Lake Atitlan. It is one of those places where it would be ever so easy to throw the calendar away and get lost for a very long time. There’s a certain mystique to the lake and the villages lining its volcano-ringed coast, as anyone who has spent time there will tell you.

The lake is quite large, and composed of multiple destinations rather than a single one. When I first arrived in Panajachel and stood on the lake’s shore, I never wanted to leave. I scrapped my plans to visit Chichi (Chichicastenango) and Xela (Quetzaltenango,) deciding to save them for another trip and spend the week town-hopping around Lake Atitlan instead.

I’ll do in-depth explorations of each town that I visited in separate posts, but this one will provide you with a brief overview of each of the towns to give you a general feel of their flavor and “vibe” and assist you as you plan your own trip to Lago Atitlan. (And trust me, if it’s not booked yet, you’ll be itching to book it by the time you reach the end!)

1. Panajachel (most commonly just called Pana)

Panajachel is the best spot on Lake Atitlan to view sunset (…if it’s a clear evening, at least!)

If you’re headed to the lake, Pana is the town that your bus will deposit you into. I’d heard that it was simply the doorway to Lake Atitlan and a mess of chaos that was best skipped over to head straight to another town, but I absolutely loved the bustling little town and ended up spending two nights there, enamored with the colors, activity, and chaos. Pana is full of tourists from around the world and colorful expats, but behind the main strip is a busy Mayan town that is fun to explore.

Where to stay: I stayed at the Grand Hotel, because I got a private room for 60% off on Expedia. Pana’s Grand Hotel is located at one end of the town’s main street, and is set back from the road (and the noise) with a beautiful property featuring lush gardens, fountains, and a pool.

What to do: Shop the market that lines Calle Santander, Pana’s main street. The day after arriving in Pana, I’d planned to take a bus to Chichicastenago to attend the bi-weekly market that is, apparently, the largest in Central America, but after seeing Pana (and experiencing the magical tug of the Lago) I decided to just stay in Pana instead. Mayan artisans come from all around the lake to sell their wares, and the Pana market offers the same types of goods for sale as you’ll find in Chichi, but at the best prices in the country. So if you plan to do any shopping while you’re in Guatemala, do it in Pana.

Santa Cruz, Lake Atitlan’s vertical town

2. Santa Cruz

Santa Cruz is a tiny, picturesque, steep, vertically-built village that is the first boat stop after Pana. I’d heard it was done best as a day trip rather than an overnight, due to its size, but I spent a night there and it wasn’t near enough.

Where to Stay: La Iguana Perdida. The people are great, as are the family dinners and the tree-top bungalows.

What to Do: Kayak, eat a meal at CECAP (a culinary art school for the local Mayan community,) practice yoga overlooking the lake at La Iguana Perdida, attend a family dinner (also at La Iguana Perdida,) try the stuffed avocados at Isla Verde, take a nap on a dock, and climb to the tippity top of the vertical town.

  1. Jaibalito

Jaibalito is even tinier than Santa Cruz, but equally charming and whimsical. It is located just a short distance from Santa Cruz. I kayaked there, but you can also follow the walking path that runs between Santa Cruz and Jaibalito or take a lancha. A few hours here is probably enough… or maybe you’ll fall in love with it like I did with Santa Cruz and decide to stay a couple days!

What to Do: I was hoping to go to Ven Aca, but they were closed the day I was there.

San Marcos La Laguna is a maze of colorful, winding streets

4. San Marcos
Wondering where all the hippies went after the 70s? San Marcos. This little Lake Atitlan town features a maze of colorful winding pathways and an abundance of opportunities to get your chakras aligned, connect with your inner masculine/feminine self, deepen your yoga practice, etc. San Marcos La Laguna is the Lake’s hippie town, and if you’re into that sort of thing, there’s always lots of interesting things to do and see. (There’s lots of interesting things to see even if you’re not into that sort of thing!) Like every other town on Lake Atitlan, the food in San Marcos is amazing and even if you’re not a hippie, it’s worth spending a day there just to sample the food scene

Where to stay: Hostel San Marcos, Hostal Del Lago, Paco Real

What to Do: Let your inner hippie out. Eat at Restaurant Fe. Spend a lazy hour or two at Café Shambhala. Jump off the cliff at the Reserva Natural del Cerro Tzankujil (even if you don’t jump, at least make a trip here to enjoy one of the most beautiful spots on the lake!)

  1. San Pedro

Golden hour in San Pedro La Laguna

San Pedro La Laguna was my final stop on the lake, and I loved the bustle, noise, and chaos of its streets just as I did in Pana. San Pedro has a plethora of cheap accommodation and the most nightlife of any town on the Lake, so it is popular with the backpacking crowd.

Laundry day on Lake Atitlan

Where to stay: Mikaso Hotel (a beautiful hotel with a restaurant and rooftop terrace with hot tubs), or Hotel Pinocchio (I moved over to the Pinocchio after a night at the Mikaso, and it has a variety of room styles at low prices, an awesome restaurant, and a wonderful staff)
What to do:
Hike the Volcan San Pedro. (The first photograph on this post is from my sunrise hike up San Pedro. It’s an early start time, but definitely do the sunrise hike!) Experience a night out at Bar Sublime. Take a cooking class across the street from Hotel Pinocchio. Swim or kayak in the Lago. Eat at Restaurant Idea Connection, The Fifth Dimension, Chile’s…and visit the lake-front coffee shop that has swings for seats! (Yes, I’m blanking on the name. But it’s just a bit down from Bar Sublime.)

Lake Atitlan is one of the magical destinations I have ever explored and I can’t wait to go back!