Lake Atitlán, Guatemala (ah-teet-lahn) sits in a volcanic caldera known to have been created 1.8 million years ago. The lake is the deepest in Central America at over 1,100 feet at its deepest point. All this stuff didn't really draw us to the lake however. What did was all the stories from other travelers that told us how magnificent it is. When we left our German friend Ollie in 2011, he was on his way here and us on our way to Semuc Champey, we skipped out on Lake Atitlán on that trip, and this time we were sure not to miss it.
We headed from Antigua to the lake, which took about 3 hours. We decided on Panajachel which is one of the many towns that scatter the lake, all with their own character and unique vibe. Once arriving to the Paradise Hotel on Calle del Rio we could see why Atitlán is called one of the most beautiful lakes in the world. In 1934, Aldous Huxley wrote in Beyond the Mexique Bay: "Lake Como, it seems to me, touches on the limit of permissibly picturesque, but Atitlán is Como with additional embellishments of several immense volcanoes. It really is too much of a good thing." We were beginning to understand what old Aldous was talking about.
Panajachel, Lake Atitlan, Guatemala
The drive to Lake Atitlan was amazing. We opted for CA-1 to Panajachel and arrived in the mid afternoon. We booked Hotel Paradise Inn near the main river valley emptying into Lake Atitlan, Guatemala. Making our way down to the lake was surreal beautiful. Volcanoes in the distance and green foliage made the drop into Panajachel from mountains above simply special.
The Hotel Paradise Inn was the perfect place for our needs including complex parking, close to the main boardwalk and downtown was a short tuk-tuk or medium walk away. The owner was an interesting woman who was extremely nice. We spent two nights in Panajachel and did some exploring of the cobblestone streets of the town. Looked in some shops and ate some great tacos. There was a huge parking lot for buses out front of the hotel where we met a couple from Argentina who were driving their VW Van (Kombi in spanish) to Alaska.
Joel Lichtenstein and Magalí Maffrand left Cordoba, Argentina and made their way up South America selling their homemade postcards, knitting clothing and other artisanal things and Joel was a professional piano player who also did a gig here and there. Vivir Amerikombiando is the name of their expedition and it was great speaking to them and drinking some yerba mate. We let them shower in our hotel room because they live in the small van and have to rely on people like us to shower and help them out along the way.
Trip Around Lake Atitlan
We spent two days there before deciding to head over to the other side of the lake to San Pedro. Albeit nice Panajachel, it was a little too touristy for our liking. We wanted to take the lake road around to San Pedro. We were told not to do it because it's dangerous and people get robbed. The road itself is partially paved, but mostly dirt and requires a 4x4. Even though the Jeep didn't have reverse still, we weren't daunted and chose to take the long way around instead of heading back into the hills and what looked like a longer trek. We are glad we took the route we did, however it had rained recently and some of the road was really a test for the Jeep which performed beautifully. 4 hours later we made it to the village of San Pedro.
San Pedro, Lake Atitlan, Guatemala
We made it to San Pedro la Laguna on the northwest side of the lake unscathed. Our first impression of San Pedro was how narrow the roads were. The village is perched on San Pedro Volcano's slope and making our way down to the main pier, appeared to be a never-ending steep hill. Once we got to the bottom we saw a hotel called Mansion del Lago which had a parking lot. We pulled in and negotiated a price and were in awe of the views from the hotel. They gave us a room on the top floor overlooking the lake which was incredible. The room itself was simple with no frills. No T.V., no furniture (other than a bed) yet there was a balcony area with two chairs and a table which was perfect for gazing out over the lake and the "Nose of the Indian" (Nariz del Indio)
If you look at the pictures above you will see a mountain which looks like a person laying down face up. It's also called the Mayan Face. We heard the hike to watch the sunrise over the lake is supposed to be beautiful, however we were in complete relaxation mode and didn't make the hike. Although San Pedro is mostly known as a backpacker party town, we had our fill in Nicaragua at the Naked Tiger, and our day was mostly spent visiting our favorite coffee shop below our hotel, sitting on our balcony and finding a new place to eat every night. It was peaceful and every day we would look at each other and say "should we leave today?" the answer was no for 8 days. We found San Pedro to be the perfect mix of relaxation, people watching, food, and beauty. The people in San Pedro are 90 percent of Mayan ancestry and are kind and welcoming.
We did however decide to take a boat ride over the lake to San Marcos to check that out for a day.
San Marcos, Lake Atitlan
San Marcos La Laguna is known for its hippy vibe with meditation, yoga, and massage centers and all things spiritual. The town is small and quiet and the roads are not much more than narrow passageways in a maze like configuration. It is amazing we found our way around and had to ask directions a few times. There are vegan cafes, a few hostels, and just outside of town a few yoga retreat resorts. Other than this, not much going on there and not our style village.... it was just too quiet.
The village was pretty however, the walkways around town with honeysuckle and other vine family plants create a canopy over many of the "roads" and the people were nice. There was also a lot of color in the buildings and for this reason the day wasn't a total loss. We stopped off an ate for a while and headed back to San Pedro to continue our relaxation quest.
Change In Perspective
Lake Atitlan, Guatemala was a pleasant surprise. One of those places that are unexpectedly perfect. We could have spent weeks there doing nothing yet, realized at one point we needed to head to Mexico to get the Jeep fixed and make it home. We were supposed to be camping and we were spending more money than we wanted to on daily coffees, eating out, and our hotel. Although it was really cheap to live on Lake Atitlan, we had to leave.
We realized something important. Not to limit ourselves with our own preconceived notions. We really didn't think that Lake Atitlan was going to be our cup of tea, and in some places it wasn't. We only wanted to spend a few days, say yep saw it... and move on. At times our own notions of what a place will be like are skewed by stories of other people and past experiences. Sometimes it's best to go with the flow and not form opinions on a place until you actually visit. Lake Atitlan, Guatemala ended up being on of our favorite places in the world, it sucked us in and kept us there. What a change of perspective for us!