Lake Atitlan in Guatemala has been high on my list of places to visit for a while now. I think, especially, because I’ve spent so much time on Ometepe Island in Nicaragua that it felt like an obvious assumption I would love Lake Atitlan as well.
Lake Atitlan is beautiful, and I did enjoy it. For those of us that may or may not believe it, both Ometepe Island in Lake Nicaragua and Lake Atitlan offer a similar, spiritual and healing energy found in specific places around the world. They call it an “energy vortex, ” and Lake Atitlan has been seen as a sacred place by the Mayan culture for thousands of years.
Ometepe is a volcanic island surrounded by a lake; Lake Atitlan is a lake surrounded by volcanoes. The energy is magnetic, so they say, and both lakes are powerful, sacred places for creating and manifesting. So they say…
All the New Age stuff aside, Lake Atitlan is beautiful, and a nice change of pace from Antigua and Guatemala City.
I’m all about it. Sign me up. I wanted to be there.
A Week of Exploring Towns
While I was super excited to go to Lake Atitlan, I also tried to keep my expectations low. These days, I just never know what to expect anymore and rather than being heartbroken, I figured it’d be better to be pleasantly surprised.
After a three and half hour journey from Antigua, I arrived in the late afternoon to Panajachel – one of the biggest towns on the lake.
I planned to spend my time cruising around to the different towns and seeing which I liked. I had a general idea, based on recommendations, of which ones I wanted to check out, but other than that it would be a matter of seeing what resonated with me most.
Santa Cruz is the first town I arrived in, and I spent one night at the very popular hostel, Free Cerveza. Many, many people I talked to loved this place.
The town of Santa Cruz is small, cute, and beautiful. An hour or two of walking through its streets was all I needed until I felt ready to move on and see more. If you decide not to stay in Santa Cruz but want to check it out, there’s a beautiful hike you can do from Santa Cruz to San Marcos (or vice-versa) with great views. Be sure to leave your valuables behind because robberies have been known to happen.
San Marcos La Laguna
San Marcos was on the top of my list of towns to visit at Lake Atitlan. Various people had told me to stay there and that it was the place for me. When I arrived, I instantly felt at home. Anyone that’s heard or read anything about San Marcos knows that this is the hippie mecca of Lake Atitlan.
Without even getting off the boat, I knew it was where I wanted to be.
The small Mayan town is buzzing with self-growth and self-healing courses and workshops, all at a hefty price for a backpacker’s budget. Yoga classes are offered daily, and health food stores with locally-made chocolate dot the town. There’s even a renown hippie man named Merlin, who looks like the real deal, that lets wandering foreigners and backpackers stay on his hill with him and this 11 cats. One of my friends asked me when I arrived in San Marcos, “Are you staying at Merlin’s?”. “No,” I answered. “What’s Merlin’s?”. Later, I found out.
This is San Marcos, and I loved it.
Not only that, I ran into not one but three friends from Ometepe. Of course, right?
I stayed for three nights, and it was exactly what I needed. I started my day with early morning yoga and continued by basking in the sun on the dock outside of my hostel, taking in the natural beauty and serene quiet that surrounded me. It was very different from what I’d been living during the past two weeks. It was what I craved, and I felt rejuvenated.
San Pedro La Laguna
I loved San Marcos but I wanted to see more around Lake Atitlan, so I followed my two travel companions, an Italian guy, and a Spanish-English guy, to San Pedro to see the lake’s most “touristic” town.
Although they’re just a five-minute boat ride from each other, San Pedro had an entirely different feel than San Marcos, partially because it’s significantly bigger. It’s noisy, crowded, and known as the Lake’s “party” town.
It, too, offers everything under the sun for restoring the body and healing the mind: massage, reiki, yoga, tarot readings, you name it, it’s there but on a slightly more commercial scale than in San Marcos.
Two of my three days in San Pedro were spent wandering through the town’s alleys. One day was spent sick in bed… (don’t drink the water!).
The Reconnection I Craved
Lake Atitlan proved to be exactly what I craved. It’s a beautiful place with something for every person visiting. It gave me a chance to take a minute, breathe, and think about my next moves.
Lately, I’ve felt that I’ve moving from place to place, space to space, without actually thinking about what I want or what I need. I’d been running around and doing things based on what other people tell me to do and what I think I should do. I’d become slightly disconnected with myself as I’ve been on the move.
Sometimes we get so caught up in what the other backpackers and travelers are doing and telling us to do that we stop thinking about what we want and need. Lake Atitlan helped me hit the reset button, which is necessary during our travels.
I feel refreshed, revived, and ready for what’s next.
Thank you, Lake Atitlan.
Some Other Things You Might Like to Know
Money Goes Quickly
Really, though. I was bit offended by the end of my week by how much everything costs in Lake Atitlan. Yes, I understand that I’m a tourist and a gringa. I recognize that, but I’m also not made of money.
Be aware; it’s not as cheap as everyone claims it to be.
Do a Day Trip to the Chichi or Pana Market
I missed the day trip to the Chichi market (Chichicastenango) but it’s apparently one of the largest in Guatemala, and I think Central America… If you have the time on a Thursday or Sunday, check it out.
If you can’t make it to the Chichi Market, Pana (Panajachel) also offers a great market on Tuesdays and Thursdays. It’s not as big, but it’s also not as much as a commitment, and I’ve heard it’s easier to bargain with the vendors, and they offer the same goods.
I did some damage, but I love a good market.
Don’t Drink the Water!!
Seriously!! DO NOT DRINK THE WATER. Don’t even brush your teeth or wash your veggies with it. I did brush my teeth with it, and I also went swimming in Lake Atitlan every day.
One day, when the water was a bit choppier, I jumped in and got a little bit of water in my mouth. I spit it out and thought it I’d be okay but that night and the entire next day I was so sick. If you stay at the lake long enough, you start to build up immunity to the bacteria as the local Mayans have, but if you’re not there long enough don’t put yourself through the hell.
Trust me; it’s torture.
Be Cautious – But Don’t be Scared
I won’t go into the stories I’ve heard or the personal experience I had while traveling in Guatemala. It does nothing but scares people.
That said, don’t be dumb. Lock your valuables up. Don’t take all of your money out with you. If you bring your phone or expensive camera on a hike, yes, there’s a chance you might get robbed.
You’re in Central America, but stuff like this can happen anywhere in the world. Be cautious with your things, but don’t be scared to go out and experience where you are. Just be smart!
A Couple of Ideas on Where to Stay & Go Out
Free Cerveza Hostel – Santa Cruz
If you’re into glamping, you’ll love it here. I liked the idea of this place, but the whole thing felt forced to me. It’s right on the lake, and the property is beautiful. It has a family-style dinner with all you can drink beer every night, which is awesome. The brownies are amazing, too. They also turn the wifi off at 7 PM to make you social, which I like the idea of in theory but what if I need to do something? There’s also an age limit; you can only stay there if you’re between the ages of 18-40, which is weird to me.
Most people love it here, though.
Hospedaje del Lago – San Marcos
I stayed here for three nights, and I think it’s the best, cheapest hostel option that I’d heard of (please correct me if I’m wrong!). It’s right on the water, has a restaurant, a kitchen, and includes one of the best breakfasts I’ve ever had from a hostel. There’s also a sauna free for guests, a yoga deck, and daily yoga classes. Keep in mind that there’s no hot water.
The Yoga Forest – San Marcos
Significantly pricier but beautiful, The Yoga Forest is up in the mountains of San Marcos. It’s possible to volunteer there, and they ask for a three-month commitment and offer all kinds of workshops and trainings. I looked at this place for my yoga teacher training and would love to host a yoga retreat here some day.
Fungi Academy – San Marcos
Significantly cheaper and just as beautiful, the Fungi Academy is also up in the mountains and is a community-learning center based around discovering the important properties of mushrooms and how they can change the world (no, not the magic kind). I think one guy said it was 30Q/day (so, less than $5) and they ask for a one or two-week commitment. You usually have to walk up and see if they have space if you’re interested in working with them.
Japanese Restaurant – San Marcos
There’s a killer Japanese restaurant down a random alley in a whole in the wall cement building that was some of the best Asian food I’ve had in Central America. Ask the locals how to get there. I never got the name, but it’s near the football field…
Mr. Mullet’s – San Pedro
Right in the center of town, this place is one of the quieter party hostels in San Pedro, apparently. I hear it has good people and they offer a delicious breakfast. I never stayed, I just went in, but people I met who did stay, loved it. There’s also a two-night minimum on the weekends.
Mikaso Hostel & Hotel – San Pedro
I love this place. It’s a bit further out of town, and it’s perfect. Quiet, clean, relatively cheap with a kitchen, restaurant, hot tub, and a rooftop terrace with beautiful views. Hot water, too! I stayed here for three nights in a private room with my travel companions. The place helped nurse me back to health when I was dying a slow and painful death from water poisoning. The restaurant is good, too.
Sublime – San Pedro
If you want to party, you’ll end up here. Drinks are cheap(ish), music is ok, the place is cool, but the music stops at 11 PM, and everything shuts down at 1 AM. Welcome to Guatemala!