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No trip to Guatemala is complete without a visit to Lake Atitlan, described by Lonely Planet as “the closest thing to Eden on Earth”. Situated in the Sierra Madre mountains, the lake is big (130 square km), deep (an unnerving 340 metres), and surrounded by fern-covered valleys and towering volcanoes. With seven Mayan towns around the lake and countless things to do, you could spend weeks here without wanting to leave. Here are just 10 reasons why you should visit Lake Atitlan.
With three dramatic volcanoes circling the lake, hiking up at least one of them is on most people’s Atitlan bucket list. Depending on your fitness level you can scale the San Pedro volcano in between 2.5 and 5 hours, and unlike other volcano treks, you can do this one on your own. The path is well-kept, but make sure you bring warm clothes as it gets chilly near the top. Leave as early as you can, as clouds pass over the volcano around 11am and the visibility becomes poor.
If you managed to scale the volcano, you’ve probably earned a treat – and what better way to soothe aching muscles than with a thermal soak? San Pedro has several options for a long hot soak, but Los Termales, behind Buddha bar, is one of the best. For about 40Q ($5.00) you can treat your tired legs – and best of all, it’s bring your own booze, too.
For something a bit more chilled than a volcano hike, why not go kayaking on the lake? You can rent a kayak from one of the companies on the harbour for about 15Q ($2.00), and depending on how far you want to go, can paddle over to a neighbouring village or beach. The lake can get a little choppy later in the day, so go in the morning if you can.
Jaibalito isn’t really a secret, but it is the town few people seem to know about, and is only accessible by water or hiking. This is a sleepy town where there’s not much to do, but that’s part of the charm. Offering gorgeous, unspoilt views out onto the lake and with friendly, welcoming locals, it’s one of the most authentic towns here. Club Ven Aca, with its hot tub and infinity pool overlooking the lake, is well worth a visit.
If you’re a fan of sunrises, hiking Indian’s Nose is a must. The name Indian’s Nose is because the profile of the mountain looks like a man’s face, and the peak (the ‘nose’) was considered sacred by the Mayans. You’ll start early (around 3:45am) but the trek is totally worth it. After a short bus ride to Santa Clara, you’ll walk up the mountain and be rewarded with achingly beautiful views of the sun rising over the misty lake.
Thanks to the clear accent, Guatemala is the best place in Latin America to learn Spanish. If you’re hoping to brush up on your language skills while you’re here, why not study in San Pedro, where there are several excellent language schools? Because Spanish is the second language of the locals (the population of Lake Atitlan is mainly Mayan), you’ll find that speech is slower here, so it’s even easier than Antigua to pick up a new language.
Panajachel is one of the most built-up places on the lake and can often be rather rowdy, but it’s still definitely worth a visit. It has the best sunsets, the best nightlife and easily the best market, so if you’re looking to stock up on beautiful Mayan clothes and textiles, this place is a must.
If climbing a volcano just isn’t strenuous enough for you, why not attempt a three-day hike through the stunning Guatemalan highlands? You’ll be at high altitude, so you need a good level of fitness for this trek, but if you’re up for the challenge it’s an unforgettable way to spend a few days. You’ll be hiking through the Mayan highlands by the lake to the pretty hot spring of Xela – the perfect end to a sometimes painful hike!
San Juan is just a five minute drive from busy San Pedro, but this colourful town has hardly any tourists. Known especially for its art, it’s a great place to pick up some canvases to take home. If you fancy it, you can try your hand at traditional weaving at Lema – but if not, you can purchase some gorgeous woven Mayan textiles from here, too.
If you don’t fancy the party atmosphere of San Pedro or Panajachel, San Marcos is the perfect place to come. Full of hippies and expats, this tranquil town has more yoga and meditation classes than you can shake a stick at – or for something more original (or New Age-y), there are cacao ceremonies that will certainly leave an impression. Whatever you do here, it’s the place to go to reconnect with yourself and nature.
Lake Atitlan is famous for its magnificent sunsets, and the Panajachel cruise is the best way to see it. Every weekend evening the boat leaves from the western dock, opposite the Hotel Playa Linda, and at only 10Q it’s an absolute steal. You’re only cruising for 20 minutes, but you’ll get to enjoy unrivalled views as the sun sinks below the volcanoes and the lake lights up. It’s BYOB too, so what better way to kick off your evening?