The big question. What to see on Lake Atitlan, Guatemala? Hit Panajachal’s market? Visit Sonolas vibrant Mayan community, or peace out in San Marcos?
Lake Atitlan was the first place I ever visited in Guatemala and I’m not going to lie I was totally surprised. Despite having read a lot about the country, its city’s and Mayan culture and especially the “tourist robbed in Guatemala” stories I really felt like no one had really ever just focused on its breathtaking natural beauty. I’m a total beach bunny and “travel” 90% of the time means island hopping, hammock swimming and cocktail sipping. What I didn’t realize was that you can also do this on a lake and with Oscar of course 🙂 Atitlan is stunning and make sure you take your time to absorb its very special energy a mixture of warm and fascinating Mayans and 1000m above sea level volcanic beauty.
Atitlan’s shores are scattered with picturesque villages clinging or even floating on its steep and craggy shores. There is something for everyone here from the bustling and perhaps the most tourist centric Pana town (Panajachal) to the totally sedate and unspoilt Santa Catarina. We spent two weeks in the area and I really felt like I hadn’t even touched the sides ( I know a terrible pun on lakeshore travel). These are some of the things we loved the most in no particular order.
EATING AND SHOPPING IN PANAJACHAL aka Pana
We visited Pana a few times during our stay as it’s really the main hub of the lakeshore. A lot of the boats commonly know as Lanchas leave from here and it has a number of ATM machines. A lot of villages don’t have any at all so make sure you have enough cash.
The shopping here is really fantastic. There is a mix of the usual tourist pendant, rainbow embroidered market finds to my most favorite Thirteen Threads (a non-profit indigenous women’s education organization) hidden in a side street (Plaza Hotel Real Santander) where I found hand beaded yamacas. YES! I didn’t photograph these as I just didn’t think it was fair to think anyone, ever, might actually copy them. Trust me when I say if I was jewish and a man this is where I would be getting my bad ass yamacas from. There are lots of beautiful soft furnishings and embroidered fabrics to be found in Pana too. We bought a selection of thick weave cotton cushion covers in rich navy’s and mustards. Th traditional Mayan wool throws in pale grey and cremes were so tempting but just too big for our luggage. There are plenty of shippers in Pana so if you do over indulge you can always get a package sent home. Most of the stalls and vendors are situated on the Avenida Santander and the night market is probably the most fun and coolest (temperatures soar during the day) time to visit. If you take the Calle Santa Catarina Pollopo you will also come across some great second-hand / vintage stores. Oscar scored big here and if you’re traveling with kids and need a cheap refreshment wardrobe this is great place to go.
The street food vendors of Pana are equally as varied and colorful. My favorite was this hand-operated shave ice vendor. Oscar was a huge fan of course. Others worth checking out are the barbecue stand about 3/4 of the way up away from the lake on the right with tables on a side street. The ribs were mouth-watering. If you’re a coffee lover then of course Guatemala will be heaven for your and I highly recommend the very popular Cafe Loco. Two interesting facts about Cafe Loco A. Its owned by some very friendly Koreans. B. It has no wifi precisely so that people chat and meet other people. Truly a travelers heaven. Again no pictures I was enjoying this place way too much!
Another spot we visited more than once was Llama del Fuego. I know its sounds boring but the chicken soup is exceptional and stuffed to the brim with fresh vegetables and flavors. A great vitamin boost if your travels have taken a slightly taco, pizza turn. Note they have two locations in town and the one closest to the lake has a charming garden.
THE PEACEFUL IDYL OF SANTA CATARINA
I almost didn’t want to write about this place but then I realized if you stumbled across this site you’re obviously fabulous and deserve to be let into this amazing secret destination. I highly suggest at least staying one night here to really understand the peace, quiet and spirit of this place. Waking up in the morning with views of Atitlans many surrounding volcanoes is priceless. There are only really 4 streets here and all lead to the central square and church. You can get here on a pick up from Pana for about 70c or a Tuk Tuk for about 3$. We used both options often and its about a 15 minute hill-top drive. The village has a few small tiendas or shops, a small and very reasonable lake side restaurant, hot springs and a daily craft market. The market mainly caters to the “day trippers” who hop on and off the lanchas (boats) touring the lake but is still charming and the vendors are all Mayans from local villages. They can be really good fun to talk too and Oscar made a lot of friends here 🙂 The hot springs are located to the right of the main dock and are tiny. If you time it right though in the early morning or sundown you will be the only person there which is pretty cool.
There are two accommodation options here. We stayed at Orion Garden Cabins. This was the highlight of my entire Atitlan journey. Meeting Ares and his family was a game changer. He taught me so much about the local community and way of life. He is local to the area and has been taking tours to the Mayan communities and local beauty spots for a number of years. Oscar and his daughter had some super fun playdates and Bentura who maintains his property was an inspiration to my son who can never look at a ladder the same way again (thanks Bentura for making him even more adventurous lol) The second option Villa Santa Catarina which has a gorgeous pool, great breakfast and the only village wifi is also worth a splurge. We didn’t overnight here but were frequent visitors.
HIPPY OUT IN SAN MARCOS
Ok I’m going to be honest, I wasn’t 100% into the granola, hippy vibe here but I can totally get how this would be an ideal place to do a yoga retreat and cleanse. This tiny village has an abundance of massage parlors, juice bars, vegan food and of course Yoga spots. The dock area also has a very charming sunset retox spots pictured below. The daily market of fresh fruit and vegetables was great too.
THE MOST AUTHENTIC MARKET IN SAN ANTONIO
As we were staying in the neighboring village of Santa Catarina we took a pick up bus to the village of San Antonio to stock up on fruit and veg. This was one of the least touristy villages I had visited in a while. The locals looked at me with great interest and even a little resentment. I realized why when I hit their fresh daily market. This is where the foodies need to come! I wasn’t actually sure what 50% of the stuff was. Meat, poultry, broths, pastes and piles of herbs. The eggs were practically still warm they were so fresh. Giant vats of a fermented corn soup were being decanted to various customers containers all around me. It was fascinating and although small very very interesting. I also saw my first albino Mayan. I would however not recommend taking photos here. The Mayans are not willing models and it is seen as very intrusive. The church in the village is picture perfect and whitewashed to perfection I’m pretty sure it doesn’t mind being photographed at all.
SOLOLA MAYAN COWBOY CENTRAL
This is not a pretty town but the gritty, bustling atmosphere is well worth the visit. The main square is a busy local bus station of sorts and watching all the customized road warriors congregate here was a point of great fascination for Oscar. Walking around the narrow streets gives you a glimpse of local life with several shops specializing in the local mens outfit choice. The embroidered, checkered, cowboy style shirt. The assortment was astounding. Hand embroidered eagles, trucks, horses all appliquéd on contrasting wild checked wide lapeled shirts. If you’re looking for a truly original “man gift” this has to be IT. Solola also has a particularly bright and colorful cemetery perched precariously on a hill looking over the tranquil lake. After riding a few of those customized local buses it was good to know that a cemetery I wouldn’t mind being buried in was in the area.
Swimming in the thermal springs in Santa Catarina
Riding in a Tuk Tuk again
Eating shave ice
Meeting Soly and Bentura