Guatemala was never really on my list of “must see” destinations. But generally when a friend asks me to spontaneously take a cheap trip with them, I can’t say no. Guatemala was a lovely surprise.
(At least, for most of it.)
My group and me spent most of our time exploring the numerous communities around Lake Atitlan. It’s basically a gigantic volcano crater filled with water. A volcanic lake is bound to have some interesting/spiritual qualities to it, like bubbling Mayan hot springs and hippie meditation gardens. And as we came to learn, each town has its own personality suited to different…personalities. Right? Yes.
And it’s big. You can’t really circumnavigate the lake in a day.
If you’re headed to Guatemala and don’t know what towns to visit on Lake Atitlan, here’s a start.
Panajachel for the wanderer who needs a little excitement
Panajachel (Pana) is pretty much the main hub around the lake. It’s chaotic and it’s often crowded, and there’s a pretty large expat community hanging around in bars smoking pot and hitting on other expats. Gringos Locos is a fun spot.
It wasn’t my favourite of the destinations, but I did have a good time there. There’s an extensive market on Calle Santander selling everything from colourful textiles to vulgar t-shirts.
And since there’s a large expat community, the food has more variety. We ate at a sushi restaurant, named Restaurant Hana. It was actually really good.
But my favourite spot was an incredible little coffee shop named Crossroads Coffee, run by the happiest man I’ve ever met. He’s an American with crazy stories of walking across Africa after recovering from paralysis, and he will keep you spellbound with his tales for hours. We went back again and again to visit him. Sometimes he gave us free coffee, or a local would walk in selling chocolate and he’d buy them and distribute them among his patrons.
That spoke volumes to me. As an outsider in Guatemala, people approach you nonstop trying to sell you things. After awhile it gets exhausting and you end up snapping or ignoring them, treating them little better than dogs. (I look back now on this with shame, but jesus, it’s tiring.) This guy, however, casually bought some chocolate like it was nothing.
Finally, get to know the locals and expats living there. Leif, my guide, knew some friends who took us on a motorcycle trip to some top secret Mayan hot springs.
You can also simply head down to the waterfront with some pals and negotiate a sunset cruise with one of the boat owners there. (See feature photo.)
Jaibalito for those who need a retreat
Jaibalito was perhaps my favourite part of the lake. We rented an entire apartment at the Vulcano Lodge and hung out in the jungle, spending late nights on the front balcony swigging beers and playing Heads Up.
This town is incredibly quiet. Other than the one rickshaw, everything is pedestrian only. It’s quiet as heck, but that’s what I really loved about it.
We spent a lot of time hanging out at Club Ven Aca, in their hot tub and infinity pool by the water. One night we had a pool party. Another time, a bunch of rich plastic kids from Guatemala City showed up and danced on the table and it felt like something bizarre out of Jersey Shore. But that was the most madness we saw.
There’s one corner store, run by a family. Buying beer from a five year old is as weird as it sounds.
There’s also a hostel run by a German, known as Han’s Place. They serve all kinds of German goods like sauerkraut and schnitzel.
Santa Cruz for those looking for a traditional town
I didn’t get to check out this one, but my friends walked over to Santa Cruz from Jaibalito one day and then raved about it forever. Kate wrote a blog post with more info.
It’s a small but traditional Mayan town, with very few expats. Most travellers come here to do a little bit of diving with ATI Divers, so if that’s your thing, check it out.
San Marcos for the hippies who need to meditate
A lot of people sung the praises of San Marcos, but it’s bit of an odd spot. You’ll walk through narrow alleyways and pass meditation gardens, and you’ll feel bit like you’re in another planet. We saw more dreadlocked people than Guatemalans.
Except for when we stumbled upon a mid-afternoon dance session, and a really drunk little old lady pulled one of our friends into the crowd.
Never mind the piles of garbage in the middle of the street.
There’s a really nice trail area at the other end of town, known as the Reserva Natural del Cerro Tzankujil. It has a balcony you can jump off into the water below.
There are also a lot of really nice shops selling handicraft and organic goods along the main drag. And despite my apparent dislike of dreadlocks and meditation, you’ll actually meet some really interesting characters here.
If you don’t sign up for one of the yoga retreats, at least stay for some Indian food at Fe.
San Pedro for the partiers and Spanish learners
I enjoyed San Pedro a good deal. It was just a really, really weird place. (And really, really cheap.)
One night we went to a trivia at a pub next to our hotel, El Barrio. Erisa and I sat in with a random British guy, and tied the game. The elderly man at the bar poured me the strongest rum and cokes I’ve ever had. Then an insane lightning storm broke out, torrents of water flooded the street, and some friends and me rescued a man passed out drunk, facedown, in the gutter. (We weren’t celebrated for rescuing the town drunk.)
Another day we went kayaking to the bars along the waterfront. The water levels in the lake have risen so high over the years that many of the buildings have already been flooded and ruined. There’s something eerie about paddling through the remains of abandoned buildings.
Another evening we went to a black light party at Sublime, where people covered our faces in neon paint. Then we met a man who never wore shoes even though the streets are littered with broken glass and dog shit.
What did we do that was cultural? Well, we sat around at the Blue Parrot cafe where the rambunctious American waiter served us tequila at noon and I nearly adopted their 15-year-old cat. So, nothing.
I did, however, meet two girls who were doing a homestay with a local family and learning Spanish at the same time, for mega cheap. So there’s that. And if you leave the main backpacker area along the waterfront and climb upwards, you’ll find yourself in the thick of Mayan life.
You can also hire a guide to take you up San Pedro Volcano on foot. It ain’t an easy hike though.
There are, of course, towns I didn’t get a chance to visit. Because I didn’t want to spend my whole life on Lake Atitlan. In San Juan, for example, you can participate in a traditional weaving class. Kate has other recommendations as well, so check them out!