Lake Atitlán, Guatemala

It took me four different and smaller kinds of transportation to get to Lago de Atitlán, a huge beautiful volcano lake in the highlands of Guatemala.

The first were two chicken buses:

I was coming from Chichicastenango. I changed in the crossroads of Los Encuentros, and the next bus started back towards Xela on the highway. The money-taking guy told me to get off about a half hour later. Next I took a small passenger bus. It was comfortable with few people on it. They really pack them in sometimes.

Then the back of a pickup truck and a tuk-tuk. I don’t remember what they called them. Did they call them tuk-tuks too, like in SE Asia?

All in all the trip cost me about 50 Quetzales. Many people take tourist shuttles through Guatemala, and while they are obviously more expensive and much less interesting than doing it yourself on chicken buses, for getting to Atitlán it’s not such a bad choice. Rip-offs abound in Lake Atitlán, mostly on the boats (tourists get charged a higher rate than the locals) or the hiking trails, which have “fees” charged by kids or very unofficial-looking dudes. Get angry all you want – can you blame them?

I got the first hotel I saw right on the corner by the dock with a big porch for cheap as hell. I then went to a breakfast spot and ran into good people I’d met in Xela. We sat on a dock, drank beers, and told stories. All four of them were traveling around the world: a British couple, a Kiwi, and one dude from I can’t remember where. My two-month trip seemed quite modest in comparison. However, nothing against the good people I meet, but for me two or three months of traveling is plenty. I prefer to spend a long time in one place, rather than rushing though an amazing place like Guatemala for only a few days, trying to squeeze in all the highlights of the world. Well, I’m just glad I was there when they passed though.

San Pedro la Laguna

San Pedro is one of ten+ towns and villages around the lake. Each town has its own atmosphere, customs, and even language, though most people speak Spanish too. San Pedro has something of a reputation as a hippy traveler’s party spot. While that was certainly true -there is a strip of hotels, restaurants, and bars along the water, downhill from the town itself – San Pedro has much more to offer than that.

I was in San Pedro (the town) during San Pedro (the saint)’s birthday so the town was having their yearly bash. Every Latin American town has a patron saint, and that saint’s birthday is the biggest party of the year with live music, food stands everywhere, and games like foos-ball, called futbolito.

San Pedro sits on the water right before the slopes of the long-extinct San Pedro volcano.

San Pedro Volcano

I climbed to the top but had no views due to rain. Beautiful semi-tropical forest covers the extinct volcano. Coffee trees are planted on sides of the trails.

I walked from the door of my hotel all the way to the peak. First I wandered through the streets and alleys of San Pedro, frequently asking directions, and then up the highway to the park where I was charged the 100 Quetzal entrance fee. Now, most people take guided tours, which I usually avoid like the plague, but in this case it doesn’t really matter because guided tours are the same price.

Whatever you do, go early before the clouds roll in. Apparently you can see the Pacific coast, the chain of volcanoes that cross the whole of Guatemala, and all the lake, of course.

Indian’s Nose

You can see the profile of the face in the mountain in the background

This is the mountain opposite the water from San Pedro. Same story as the volcano – pay for a tour, wake up early, blah blah blah. I got some good advice to take the chicken bus to Santa Clara, the town behind the mountain, and climb it from there. I was almost to the top when I ran into some kids who asked for the fee to summit the “nose.” From where I was I had good views, so I declined the fee, ate my lunch, and then hiked straight down and all the way back to San Pedro.

La Finca

A little beach called La Finca is under the volcano on the way to Santiago Atitlán. The boat stopped for me on the way there. It was a great swimming spot and a nice walk back to San Pedro on the trail.

Sorry, no pictures of La Finca. Guidebooks and other travelers repeat warnings of danger on the lake walks. I heard about this place from a local in the bar and then confirmed it with other, less daring local folks and they all said it was safe. Still, I didn’t feel like having the camera, especially because I was in the water a lot. I brought the guitar though. It’s cheap.

If you want to hike around, then ask around.


I went over to Panajachel for the weekend. It’s the largest settlement on the lake with the best transportation connections. It’s not very nice at first sight but had some good points. You could swim right at the water’s edge, which wasn’t possible in San Pedro. I could walk there in 2 minutes from my hotel.

There were cheap seafood restaurants down past the “beach” – what they call the park where you can swim. Walk to the beach and take a left.

And there were bars and nightclubs on the main road that ran through town and away from the lake. So, if you just want to swim, eat shrimp cocktail, and party, go there.

Santiago Atitlán

This is one of the a larger villages, not ugly-touristy like Panajachel – more similar to San Pedro but lacking the tourist strip of hotels and restaurants. It’s famous for the San Simon shrine, one of the three most important in Guatemala.

I took a boat ride to Santiago Atitlán (passing La Finca) and wandered around until the massive rain started. From the picture above you can see how high the lake has flooded this year. I met a bartender who lost his own bar to the floods and had to work in his friend’s bar. More about him and other crazy folks I met in my next blog.

I spent over week at the lake, left for Antigua, and then came right back for another week. Maybe you can guess how great this place is because I would forgo adventures in Tikal or the coast to spend my last week in Guatemala in a place where I’d already been. Yes, it’s awesome.


About Ted Campbell

U.S.-Canadian writer, translator and university teacher in Mexico. Travel stories and practical tips on my blog No Hay Bronca: Twitter: @NoHayBroncaBlog // Contact: nohaybroncablog (at)

Posted on October 11, 2011, in Guatemala, Travel and tagged , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 5 Comments.

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