Just a 10-minute tuk-tuk ride from bustling, touristy San Pedro, San Juan couldn’t be more different. With only a few eateries here, the best food is from the local comedors on the streets, and the local, sustainable approach to tourism is a breath of fresh air. Known mostly for its textiles and art, at San Juan, you can enjoy a traditional Maya experience as you learn backstrap weaving. A course with Asociación Lema takes two hours and costs around Q115 ($15), and afterwards, you can browse the embroidery co-ops along the street.
If you’ve ever wanted to try paragliding, Lake Atitlan is the best place to do it; zooming over the deep blue lake and circling the towering volcanoes is something you’ll never forget. Most paragliding courses start from Panajachel, where you’re taken to a launch site by the town of Santa Catarina. When the wind conditions are perfect, you’ll take off with your instructor and enjoy an adrenaline-pumping 40-minute experience before landing in the Panajachel River flatbed. There are several companies you can paraglide with, but Real World Paragliding is regarded as the best.
If soaring through the sky is a bit too much for you, why not take a kayak out? San Pedro is the best town on the lake to paddle around, and you can navigate through a floating forest and partially submerged buildings. You can rent a kayak for about Q15 ($2.00) an hour from the Santigo dock. The lake can get a little choppy later in the day, so go in the morning if possible.
If you’re all about catching magnificent views, hiking Indian’s Nose should be on your Lake Atitlan must-do list. This volcano is shaped like a man’s face, and the summit (the ‘nose’) was thought to be sacred by the Mayans. The hike begins early (around 3:45 am), but the brutal start will be totally worth it when you reach the top and see the sun peaking over the misty lake. Make sure you bring a camera!
Thanks to the extremely intelligible accent, Guatemala is the best place in Central America to learn Spanish. If you’re hoping to improve your Spanish while you’re here, take a few classes in San Pedro, where there are several outstanding language schools. San Pedro Spanish School is the biggest and most well-known, but Cooperativa Spanish School and Orbita Spanish School are also good.
Lake Atitlan is known for its spectacular sunsets, and the Panajachel cruise is the best way to see it. Every weekend evening the boat leaves from the western dock, and at only Q10, it’s an absolute bargain. 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 could be a better way to kick off the night?
With three dramatic volcanoes circling the lake, hiking up at least one of them is on most people’s Atitlan bucket list. You can climb 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. Set off early, as the visibility becomes poor after around 11 am.
The area around Lake Atitlan has some of the best roads in the world for motorcycling. They’re well maintained, winding and smooth and are a joy to whizz along. If you have motorbike experience, you can hire a bike and spend the day riding past the different Mayan villages, marvelling at the views from the 2,000-foot (609-meter) ridges and taking photos of the lake from these unique vantage points.
There are many places to practice yoga around Lake Atitlan, but San Marcos is the best place to do the downward dog. Full of hippies and expats, this peaceful town has dozens of yoga and meditation classes, but one is especially unique. If you want to do yoga right over the lake, head to the yoga deck at Hostal Del Lago, where you can join the morning yoga classes for just Q40. If you’re looking to reconnect with nature and yourself, it’s hard to imagine a more powerful setting.
The walk from Santa Cruz to Jaibalito is easily one of the best short hikes around Atitlan. You’ll stroll up the side of a mountain, all along a winding cliff path and down some well-worn ancient steps before arriving in Jaibalito where you can treat yourself to a beer and a hot tub soak at Club Ven Aca. While not a particularly strenuous hike, the uninhibited views over the lake are magnificent.