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The Magic of Lake Atitlan, Guatemala

The sun is rising and, from our accommodation on the waterfront at San Marcos on Lake Atitlan, I’m captivated by the sight of three majestic volcanoes, standing proudly with the early morning cloud swirling around them. It’s one of the most beautiful and mesmerising views I’ve ever seen.

Volcan Toliman, Volcan Atitlan and Volcan San Pedro

Volcan Toliman, Volcan Atitlan and Volcan San Pedro


As the day begins, Volcán San Pedro, Volcán Tolimán and the still-active Volcán Atitlán take a backseat as Lake Atitlan wakes up. I sit on the terrace, sipping my coffee, and watch taxi boats speed past, serving the many villages around the lake. Men fish from their dugout canoes, an occasional paddle-boarder or swimmer adds to ever-changing scene. It’s enthralling; I could easily stay here all day with this amazing view, but there’s so much to be discovered around the lake so, reluctantly, I pull myself away.

Lake Atitlan is in Guatemala’s southwestern highlands.  Covering 50 sq. miles, it’s the deepest lake in Central America, with an average depth of 220 metres, but as much as 340 metres in parts.

San Marcos, Lake Atitlan

San Marcos, Lake Atitlan


Most people arrive in Lake Atitlan at Panajachel. It’s the main gateway; a tourist hub loudly governed by buses, boats and cars. Busy and noisy, it’s best to pass quickly through this town and across to one of the many villages scattered around the lake.

Taking a taxi boat across Lake Atitlan

Taking a taxi boat from Panajachel across Lake Atitlan to San Marcos


As we explored a few of the villages, we soon discovered that each has its own personality and vibe and picking the right place to stay is totally down to personal preference.

Chilling Out In San Marcos

We chose San Marcos as our base as it has a reputation for being beautiful, peaceful and mystic; so it’s no wonder that this is where all the best yoga retreats in Guatemala are based.

We enjoyed the tranquillity of an early morning yoga session at Hostel del Lago.  Whether it was the breathtakingly-beautiful vista view of Volcán San Pedro, the fresh mountain air or that for once my mind wasn’t distracted, but the yoga left me feeling surprisingly relaxed.

In addition to a good selection of restaurants, bars and supermarkets, San Marcos also has a nature reserve. Here, the water is clean and clear and it’s one of the best places on Lake Atitlan for swimming. Skipper didn’t bat an eyelid when he was challenged to jump off the 12-metre viewing platform into the Lake! The water was refreshing, but not remotely chilly.

Exploring Lake Atitlan

Exploring towns and Mayan villages around the Lake can be done via bus, boat taxi or tuk-tuk, but for us it had to be by tuk-tuk, which is my new favourite mode of transport!  We mixed with the locals at San Pablo as we sat at a café, enjoying a Guatemalan coffee and watching the world go by. Later we tried some tasty street food.

Tuk Tuking across to San Juan La Laguna, we had lunch reservations at Café El Artesano (www.cafeelartesano.com), an old-fashioned Italian restaurant known for its sharing platters.

Between four of us, we started with a mouth-watering ham and walnut pâté, followed by the mixed cured meat platter and a tasty selection of 26 Guatemalan cheeses. Washed down with appropriate fizz, white and red wine; it did not disappoint.  Reservations need to be made a day in advance and they are only open Monday to Friday for lunch, so a trip to this lip-smacking establishment needs to be planned ahead.

Cured ham and walnut pate

Cured ham and walnut pate


Assorted Cheeses and cured meats

Assorted Cheeses and cured meats


We made one major mistake with our visit to Lake Atitlan; a three-night stay was simply not long enough. With more time, we would have got immersed in cooking classes, Spanish lessons, kayaking, hiking up one of the many mountains, massages and more yoga classes.  Still, it’s there on our wish list as a place to return to one of these days.

Inspiring volcanic views

Inspiring volcanic views


Where We Stayed

We booked via www.airbnb.com; a simple search for waterfront or lakeside at San Marcos, will bring up a host of properties to suit all budgets. Our ‘serene lakefront’ property was charming; perfectly situated with direct access to Lake Atitlan, stunning volcano views and we couldn’t have been happier.

Our lakefront accommodation in San Marcos

Our lakefront accommodation in San Marcos


Transfers to and from Lake Atitlan

Lake Atitlan is easily reached by bus from Guatemala City or Antigua. But if you can tie in a visit to Chichicastenango Market en route, then it’s highly recommended.

Chichicastenango Market

The crowds of vendors, visitors and locals who flock to ‘Chichi’ on a Thursday and Sunday make it one of the busiest markets in Central America.

We chose to visit on our way to Lake Atitlan so, armed with all our luggage, we took an early minibus transfer from Antigua at 0700 and arrived at the market at 0930. Our minibus was one of many that parked in a private garage and we were assured our bags would be safe, as long as we returned by 1400 for the onward transfer to Panajachel.

Stepping onto the street to be confronted by the vibrant colours, sounds and smells of the market was an assault to the senses. I had read a few negative reviews that tourists were targeted by the locals so was slightly wary. However, this vibrant, chaotic market was a delight to walk around and was packed with colourful Mayan handicrafts and textiles from bags, blankets and bread baskets to table runners and toys.

We only had one encounter with a very persistent Mayan lady, who took a shine to Skipper and was convinced he wanted to buy one of her tablecloths.  It became a game when he thought he’d shaken her off, only to find her re-appear a few stalls later with a new batch of embroideries to tempt him with!

As we were going in to a self-catering accommodation, we bartered for our goods, buying fruit, vegetables and meat, which was later turned into the most delicious roast meal.

We loved the colourful huipils – stylish traditional garments – worn by indigenous women and girls. Colourfully decorated with intricate designs, the huipils can take months to make. They differ around the country in patterns and colours, but the most popular ones are those sold at Chichi market.

For a local market experience in Guatemala, it doesn’t get much more authentic than this.

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© Two Drifters Travel

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