It has been proclaimed that Lake Atitlan, surrounded by three volcanoes with a fourth active volcano in the distance, is of the most beautiful lakes in the world. With crooked wooden stilt docks, lush green jungle, high volcanoes, and a never ending supply of surreal lake mist, Lake Atitlan is not only a photographers dream, but a site to be remembered and valued for years to come.  I knew that a visit to Lake Atitlan had to be part of my Guatemalan adventure, I mean it is one of the 6 cities you should visit in Guatemala. It is very popular both in the media and via word of mouth in the travelsphere, so obviously I had to go there.

Walking down the crooked docks of lake atitlan

The question posed when planning a trip to Lake Atitlan is, where do you even stay? There does not seem to be a ‘typical travelers spot’ where everyone goes, but instead a variety of Mayan towns, 11 to be exact, so how do you pick the right one? Where does everyone go? What is the purpose for the trip? What do you even do here? Already, just thinking about mysterious Lake Atitlan I find myself in a minor existential crisis. Who am I anyways? Nah just kidding, lets brief.

Panajachel -The shuttle bus drop off, the biggest town on the lake with the most hotels and the most people, A great place to find all the tour companies you could want, lots of people selling knick-knacks, the fastest way in and out of the lake, no boats necessary, great night life, best sunset, regular city living on the lake, expat central, loud, polluted, less backpackers

Stay here at the Hotel Rancho Grande Inn, Panajachel

San Pedro – Party central, a lot of nightlife, 45 minute boat ride in and out, road access, a few great hotels and hostels for partying, lake front restaurants, an ATM, lots of people, busy, bustling, heaps of backpackers, western food, loud, not too much culture, drugs.

Stay here at the Hotel Y Restaurant Mikaso in San Pedro la Laguna

Santa Cruz – Medium sized town, tons of expats, a few hotels and hostels, quiet lifestyle, less touristy swimming areas, Mayan town, great views of the volcanoes, lots of jungle paths and hikes, the place to dive from, boat access only, no ATM’s, not many restaurants, no nightlife.

Stay here at the Hotel & Restaurant Arca de Noé

Jaibalito – Very small village if not the smallest, mostly Mayan people living there, only two hotels and one hostel, an amazing lakeside club with hot tub and pool, very quiet village, full of stray dogs, good volcano viewing, cheap food, laid back vibe, boat access only, no ATM’s.

Stay here at Casa y Café del Mundo in Jaibalito

San Marcos la Laguna – Full of new age hippies, yoga, psychedelics, reiki, massages, spa’s, everything hippie, great restaurants, wonderful café’s and tea shops, Lake Atitlan’s 8 meter high cliff jump, quiet, amazing volcano views, foot paths not cars, health oriented, boat access only, one ATM that’s too sketchy to use, drugs, laid back lifestyle.

Stay here at Lush Atitlan in San Marcos la Laguna

a typical dock at lake atitlan

My Experience

Having the choice of all of these different towns, I decided to go with San Marco’s la Laguna,  partially because of this stunning hotel, Lush, and partially because I love a laid-back lifestyle. Let me share my personal experience with you.

It took about 40 minutes to reach San Marcos la Laguna from the ferry docks at Panajachel and cost 25 GTQ. When we arrived at the docks in San Marcos I was met with immediate confusion as there did not seem to be an easily identifiable ‘go-to place’ for gringos. Just a dirt path and some walled in buildings.
dirty paths on san marcos la laguna lake atitlan

Eventually I saw a sign which read ‘Lush’, the hotel I was staying at, pointing down a vegetation covered dirt path. I followed the pathway with a waist high stone wall on one side and thick bush on the other until I found the entrance to my hotel.

Upon checking into one of the most instagrammable hotels I have ever seen, it was explained to me that here in San Marcos, the way to move between locations was via footpaths rather than motor operable roads. Cool. Great. I can get down with that, no cars no problem. I headed towards the main street in town following the make shift street signs on the footpaths until I found a slightly wider cobblestoned path. This must be it.

The cobblestone paths of san marcos lake atitlan

I turned down the wider cobblestone street and was met with a pleasant surprise! Lots of people, some expats, some travelers, and some Guatemalan’s and Mayan’s. There were stores, craft stalls, restaurants, cafe’s, fruit stands, and everything you could ever really need. What a pleasant way to live, I thought as I strolled through the streets shopping, checking out where I would get dinner, and doing some grocery shopping in the mini markets so that I could cook future meals in my hotel room’s full kitchen!

I finally decided on a curry restaurant which had a big fireplace to be enjoyed in the crisp air that was provided by Lake Atitlan.  An open sky restaurant that reminded me very much of the dining styles of San Pedro de Atacama in the Chilean desert.  After a lovely warm curry dinner, I made my way back to Lush via flash light.

foot paths in san marcos lake atitlan

This is key. Take a flash light with you because there are no street lights on the dirt footpaths and it can get pretty dark and muddy. You will want to know where you are going.

Important point! Bring a flashlight and not a cell phone. This is a very small Mayan community, and the people have much less means in comparison to many travelers and so petty crime may be considered a bit of a problem. There are very few people. It is very quiet, and you are on a dark dirt path. Using your cell phone as a flashlight might call a little extra attention to you. It is not that this happens often, but I urge you to use your head and be as safe and uncompromised as possible. For more on safety traveling through Guatemala read here.

lake atitlan from san marcos dock
There are a variety of restaurants on the waterfront of San Marcos la Laguna, each having its own little dock. I enjoyed going on daily morning walks along the beaches and various docks on the shores of San Marcos. In the morning the weather is the most clear. The water is calm, and the view is peacefully perfect. This was the best beach walking time for me.

There are also a few above average hostels and bars in San Marcos. The town goes on much further than I ever expected as the main street was just the start. Following signs and footpaths, past a basketball court and soccer field, I found a variety of other unique locations to eat, drink, and meet people.

the view from lush atitlan hotel

San Marcos is also a hippie haven. As I walked through the small dirt streets I saw many people with brightly coloured hippie pants, dreadlocks with the smell of marijuana looming in the background. There was a yoga studio at every corner. A place for meditation, a location for massage, reiki, and my favourite….a garden for laughter yoga. I am in, how hilarious. My university roommate’s father actually swore by laughter yoga…so just in case you didn’t know…it’s a thing.

There was also a location to try a shaman ceremony where cacao (chocolate) is used as the vehicle for hallucination. I am not sure if I believe it, but it sounds both delicious and fun.

looking out on beautiful lake atitlan from san marcos la laguna

Near to San Marcos la Laguna there is a small nature conservatory to be explored, and a swimming area boasting a famous 8 meter high cliff jumping platform. I mean, when on a lake, you might as well go swimming!

There is a road in the centre of the town where cars can get in and out to transport people to the airport in Guatemala City or Antigua, and to the popular giant super Sunday and Thursday market of Chichicastenango. There are also a variety of tour companies in San Marcos la Laguna which run trips to hot springs, hikes up the volcanoes, kayak rentals and tours and a variety of other fun tourist activities.

waiting for the boats at san marcos la laguna on lake atitlan guatemala

I loved San Marcos la Laguna. I never felt like I was going to run out of things to do. I love yoga, food, and a relaxed vibe. I did not mind the lack of cars instead I found walking everywhere peaceful, and beautiful as the footpaths are commonly covered with vegetation. It was different than the concrete and wires I had gotten used to seeing in other Guatemalan cities. San Marcos was close to Jaibalito, Santa Cruz and San Pedro by boat so if I was interested in exploring a bigger city, or beautiful boardwalk, it was easy to do. Boat taxis frequent the docks so getting around is pretty simple.

Would I stay in San Marco’s la Laguna again? Absolutely, in fact I might. It seems to be my perfect place to enjoy a week or two at Spanish school. Plus…did I mention I love yoga, quiet places, good coffee, and hammocking.

living on lake atitlan