17 unique things to do in Lake Atitlan
There are lots of things to do in Lake Atitlan, and it’s the perfect place to just unwind and relax. Find out which town you should stay in, what there is to do, and how many days you should spend here.
Lake Atitlan is pure heaven. I don’t know if it’s the sky-capped mountains, the morning mist floating on the water, the three volcanos looming over the lake or the traditional Mayan women washing clothes along the shoreline, but this place is magical!
We spent a week in Lake Atitlan, experiencing the best of the lake life.
In this post, I’ll share the most essential tips and information to help you plan your visit to Guatemala. You’ll find the best things to do in Lake Atitlan, safety tips, and more.
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Things to do in Lake Atitlan
Lake Atitlán is one of the most beautiful lakes in the world and it’s Guatemala’s most important tourist attraction. Atitlán is a Nahuatl word and translates to “the place where the rainbow gets its colours.” Once you’re here, looking over the lake, you’ll see why it got that name.
What makes Lake Atitlan unique, aside from the beauty, is that it’s a volcanic lake. It was formed by an eruption several thousand years ago and is surrounded by three dormant volcanos.
You can hike each of these volcanos. And that’s just one of the many things to do in Lake Atitlan. You can also spend your time kayaking, volunteering, learning Spanish, taking a Mayan cooking class, hanging out by the lake, doing yoga or all of the above. It’s the perfect place to just get away from it all and enjoy nature.
Adventure activities in Lake Atitlán
1. Hike to Indian Nose (La Nariz)
One of the memorable things to do in Lake Atitlan is hiking to Indian Nose. It’s called “Indian’s Nose”, because the mountain looks like a sleeping Indian with the viewpoint as its nose. A bit like Trolltunga in Norway.
The Indian Nose viewpoint sits at 2,863 meters looking over the villages of San Pedro, Santa Clara and San Marcos. The hike takes 1.5-2 hours and is quite steep. For a full experience, hike there at sunrise, and remember to dress in layers. It’ll be chilly in the morning.
- There are reports of robberies on this trail, so I wouldn’t recommend going here alone. My advice is to hire a guide or an organised tour (it’s quite cheap).
- This is a sacred place for the Mayans, who still perform ceremonies here. So please be respectful.
2. SUP or kayak on Lake Atitlan
Another way to get active and enjoy the spectacular views of the lake is to go stand-up paddle boarding or kayaking. You can rent paddle boards or a kayak from lots of different towns for either a couple of hours or a day. Some hotels also lets you rent or borrow them for free.
3. Climb a volcano
Entrance fee: 100 Q
If you’re fit and adventurous, then climbing a volcano might just be for you. You’ll find lots of volcanos around Central America, and some are easier to access than others. Volcano San Pedro is the easiest of the three in Lake Atitlan, whereas the other two are very difficult (even in good shape).
- Volcan San Pedro (3,020 meters – 3 hour hike to summit)
- Volcan Atitlan (3,535 meters – difficult hike, get a guide – 5-6 hours to summit)
- Volcan Toliman (3158 meters – difficult hike, get a guide – 12 hours to summit)
If you do either of these hikes, make sure you bring an experienced guide who knows the area and will be prepared to act accordingly in case of injury. Thieves, animals, weather or a simple misstep can quickly lead to serious injury, and it’s important to have a person with you who knows the terrain and what to do.
Also, you should be aware of altitude sickness. If you’ve never been in high altitude, you may not know of the difficulty breathing, the nausea and the elevated heart rate it can bring. Altitude sickness can be a serious issue and affects everyone differently, regardless of how fit or unfit you are.
Read next: 10 easy ways to treat Altitude Sickness (AMS)
4. Go cliff jumping
Lake Atitlan is surrounded by rocks and cliffs, perfect for cliff jumping.
The two best spots for this are the rocks next to San Antonio (both small and large rocks) and Cerro Tzankujil Nature Reserve in San Marcos (try the “trampoline”, which is a 12m high wooden platform).
5. Go paragliding over Lake Atitlán
About $80 per person
You can admire Lake Atitlan from below, atop a volcano, a mountain. So, why not from the air, too?
Now, I didn’t try this myself, but from what I hear, paragliding over Lake Atitlan is so much fun. Basically you’re strapped to a parachute as the wind whisks you through the air over the lake. Once you’re up, flying around is quite peaceful and not too fast.
Relaxing activities in Lake Atitlán
6. Take a yoga class
Yoga is one of the most popular things to do in Lake Atitlan. Whether you’re staying for a while and want to do a yoga retreat, or simply want to try yoga for a day, there are lots of opportunities, particularly in San Marcos.
Some of the best places to take a yoga class are:
- Eagle’s Nest Retreat Center – a yoga center with retreats, classes, events and an amazing view. For beginners and advanced yogis.
- Yoga Forest – a yoga retreat center with retreats, wellness and classes surrounded by ancient Mayan altars, natural springs and breathtaking views. For beginners and advanced yogis.
7. Participate in a Temazcal ceremony
San Marcos is packed with yoga & meditation classes and other spiritual practices such as Reiki healings, drum circles, Shamanic readings, lucid dreaming exercises, and ecstatic dancing.
San Marcos is also the place to join a Temazcal ceremony, which is a shamanic Mayan cleansing ritual. It’s like a native Indian sweat lodge, where rocks are heated up and placed into the centre of the lodge. Basically, it’s a purifying ritual that uses intense heat to stimulate vision and insight.
Read next: 17 spiritual destinations and how to visit them
8. Join a cacao ceremony
Another less intense spiritual practice is a cacao ceremony.
Well, it’s a traditional Mayan and Aztec ritual used for spiritual inner awakening. Cacao is believed to have magical powers in its rawest form, so during the ceremony, you drink chocolate and dance or you can do a more focused ceremony which is more of a meditation. Still with chocolate, of course.
Read next: 50 quotes filled with life-changing lessons
9. Catch the sunrise & sunset
This is one of the best free things to do in Lake Atitlán!
I woke up early every morning to watch the sunrise – from our bed. That’s the thing about Lake Atitlan; every town sits right by the lake, so you have front row seats to the most epic sunsets or sunrises from every single town.
- Best for sunrise: San Marcos and San Pedro
- Best for sunset: Panajachel and Santa Catarina
Experience local culture in Lake Atitlán
10. Watch local life at the market
One of the things I love about traveling is getting to know the culture. And the best place to do just that is at a market.
There are small markets in most of the larger villages around the lake. They’re local markets, so you won’t find that many souvenirs here, but instead you’ll see where the locals come to buy fruits and fresh fish from the lake in their traditional clothing.
Read next: How to plan an easy day trip to Santiago Atitlán
11. Chichi – the biggest market in Central America
Each Thursday and Sunday
The largest native market in Central America is Chichicastenango (Chichi), and it’s a must if you’re interested in culture and handicrafts. Mayan vendors from around Guatemala walk up to hundreds of kilometres to the highland town of Chichicastenango to set up stalls with textiles, handicrafts, wood carvings, pottery and jewellery in the streets around the main square.
Read next: How to visit Chichicastenango Market
12. Visit the cemetery
Another way to get a feel of Guatemala is visiting a cemetery. They’re quite unique.
Many of the cemeteries here are painted in bright, vibrant colours and decorated with unique sculptures, statues and portraits to lost loved ones. The cemetery in San Pedro la Laguna is particularly beautiful. There’s also one in Panajachel.
Just remember to be respectful and quiet, it’s still a sacred place.
Read next: Exploring a colourful cemetery in Guatemala
13. Learn Spanish
Guatemala is known as the best place in all of Latin America to learn Spanish. If you travel through the different countries, you’ll hear why that is – Guatemalans naturally speak slowly and don’t use much slang, which makes it much easier to understand and learn.
You can learn Spanish in most of the villages, and every school will offer basic 1 on 1 classes. I recommend finding a Spanish school in San Pedro La Laguna. Either take a 4-week course (about $200 per week), which also includes a homestay and 3 meals a day, or do a week course.
14. Taste Guatemalan coffee and chocolate
If you like organically grown coffee and chocolate, one of the best things to do in Lake Atitlan is to visit a local coffee shop. Sometimes, you can find coffee and chocolate shops in the same building or you can taste coffee-infused chocolate bars or other delicious mixtures.
Try Cafe Xocomil in San Juan or one of the other local shops in the other villages.
15. Learn traditional Mayan weaving
A huge part of Mayan culture is weaving.
Traditionally, Mayan women grow their own organic cotton and dye the thread with natural colours from cactus, beetroot, avocado, guava, carrots, insects, basil and cinnamon.
San Juan la Laguna is one of the few villages left in Guatemala that dyes its yarn naturally. Here, you can visit the weaving cooperative, Casa Flor Ixcaco, that offers workshops and demonstrations for tourists. It’s run entirely by local women.
16. Take a Mayan cooking class
A great way to get in touch with local culture in Lake Atitlán is through a cooking class. Here, you’ll learn how to cook local classics like tortillas, tamales, pepian (stew) and veggies. The cook will take you to the market first to buy fresh vegetables and meat.
17. Do a homestay with a local Guatemalan family
Staying with a local family in Lake Atitlan can be an eye-opening experience. It’s a memorable way to experience local life as you’ll be part of your host family and partake in their daily routines. Your family might invite to church, teach you how to sew or ask you to help with cooking to really get a sense of traditional Mayan customs.
Lake Atitlan villages
Lake Atitlan is dotted with no less than 11 villages, each with its own vibe.
Certain villages, like Panajachel or San Pedro, have been influenced by tourism, with cute cafes, hip bars, and vegan restaurants. Other areas are still quite remote with few tourists, maintaining their uniquely Guatemalan beauty and charm.
These are some of the most popular Lake Atitlan villages:
- Panajachel: The largest and most developed village
- San Marcos: The spiritual mecca
- Santiago: Great for souvenir shopping
- San Pedro: The backpacker’s hangout, great for partying
- Santa Cruz: Secluded, charming town located atop a very steep hill
- San Juan: An artistic town, great for weaving demonstrations and souvenirs
- Santa Catarina: Lots of local artwork
- San Antonio & San Jorge: Few tourists, great for practicing Spanish
Which village to stay in
Which village is best for you totally depends on what you’re here for. Do you want peace and quiet? A laid-back hippie vibe? Or do you prefer a wide variety of restaurants and hotels?
We stayed in San Pedro la Laguna and visited some of the other villages. San Pedro was perfect for us. It’s a small backpacker village with a laid-back feel and relaxed atmosphere. It reminded me of Pai and Haad Rin in Thailand.
We stayed at Hotel Sak’cari and paid $54 per night. Even though San Pedro is a pretty small town with only 10 minutes from north to south, Sak’cari was close to the centre, Internet cafés and several great restaurants. Plus, it’s right next to a volcano!
Read next: The ultimate guide to San Pedro la Laguna
How long to spend at Lake Atitlan
I recommend spending at least 3-4 days and ideally a week.
This will give you enough time to visit several of the villages, try all the things to do in Lake Atitlan, and relax.
Is Lake Atitlan safe?
Generally, Lake Atitlan is safe. We never experienced anything while we were there, but there are reports of robberies on the hiking trails and on the road between the villages. Chicken busses are also less safe and they’re involved in more accidents than the (more regulated) collectivos.
Don’t let this scare you away from visiting Lake Atitlan, though. Most visitors never experience anything bad, and there are some simple ways to stay safe:
- Read my general travel safety tips, because many of them will apply here as well
- Avoid walking after dark (this is a general safety tip that applies to all of Latin America)
- Avoid walking alone in secluded places if possible
- Hire an experienced guide or tour if you want to do a hike
- Take shuttle busses/collectivos or boats if you’re not comfortable with chicken busses
We did all of the above and had a wonderful trip with no safety issues whatsoever.
Have you visited Lake Atitlan? Would you?
More posts from Guatemala you might like
- A quick Guatemala travel guide
- 15 magical things to do in Antigua Guatemala
- Exploring a colorful Guatemala cemetery (San Pedro la Laguna)
- The ultimate guide to San Pedro la Laguna Guatemala
- How to visit Chichicastenango Market – all you need to know
- How to visit Santiago Atitlán and Maximón (the chain-smoking saint)
Glad to read you loved Lake Atitlan. We’re finishing off 2015 by spending 5 weeks there. Your photos have me excited!
How exciting, Alana! I could have spent months at Lake Atitlan; it was so magical and tranquil. Have a great trip!
We lived in Antigua, Guatemala for about half a year and made a couple trips to Lake Atitlan. We loved it! You are right, it is magical and “hippie central.” Everyone was so nice and laid back. The maze of shore side boardwalks was also really fun to go for walks on. We often talk about going back, in fact yesterday we talked about going to work in the only dive shop there. I am so glad you loved it.
What a lovely place to have lived! We’ve talked about going back and live there for a while to learn Spanish. The lake is so serene, especially in the mornings, and I would love to wake up there every day.
Wow! Your photos are AMAZING! We’re heading there next month (bringing my family!) and cannot wait to explore the lake. We have a week based in Santa Catarina Palopo so it’ll be a fun adventure! Thanks for sharing!
Thanks, Shannon! That’s so exciting! If you have the time, go to Chichi market – it’s a traditional Mayan market with lots of locals.
San Pedro looks like such a lovely and charming little town! I love your photos – especially the one where the cobblestone treed path is lined with shops. I am really looking forward to exploring this town on my upcoming travels!
Thank you 🙂 I absolutely loved San Pedro. The Lake Atitlan was my favorite stop in Guatemala – you have something to look forward to!