Lago de Atitlán is one of the “must dos” for travelers in Guatemala. This super deep, volcano-ringed lake (itself a flooded volcanic crater) is the deepest lake in Central America (max depth is more than 1,000′). The surrounding area has been called the Switzerland of Guatemala and author Adlous Huxley called the lake “too much of a good thing.” While we wouldn’t go that far, Lake Atitlán is a lovely place and it’s easy to get into the laid back lake life.
Though many towns and villages dot the shore of the lake, we headed for Panajachel which is the biggest and most visited. While Pana is not perfect (too many “craft” stores and tour companies offering the exact same trips) it does make a good budget traveler base. The hawkers and hippies reminded us a bit of the Thamel traveler ghetto in Kathmandu, only with volcanoes in the background instead of Himalayan peaks.
After scoping out a number of hotels (there are dozens in Pana) we checked into Hotel Contemporeneo down by the lake where, for 120Q (about US$15). We got a clean, quiet room with a bathroom, a TV, secure parking for the truck and a good WiFi signal. We even scored a lake view (ask for room 4 or 5). We honestly can’t figure out why most of the budget travelers who visit Pana seem to stay in town, a five minute walk away on bustling Santander Street, when the real bargains are out by the lake where it’s more pleasant anyway…
One thing Santander Street does have is Guajimbo’s. It’s not the cheapest restaurant in town by a long shot, but for 72Q (about US$9) the tender, juicy expertly grilled beef with chimichuri, vegetables and awesome garlic bread is so worth it. We still dream about the stuff. It’s big enough to share if you’re not starving.
Also on Santander is a small clothing store called Gypsy. I call it a “boutique paca” because the owners have taken a different approach to the paca stores you see all over Guatemala. Instead of just cramming racks with every piece of clothing in the packet (or paca) of clothes (mostly from the US) that they’ve purchased to re-sell, someone at Gypsy sorts through many packets and then carefully displays the hand-picked cream of the crop.
Prices at Gypsy are slightly higher than at a normal paca, but their stock is in better condition and its much more stylish. Prices are still a bargain (Karen picked up some pants) and the shopping experience is much more pleasant.
In recent years a number of high-end hotels have also opened up in secluded corners around Lake Atitlán and we spent a few bucolic days at one of them. Created by the owners of the incredible Meson Panza Verde boutique hotel in Antigua, Villas B´alam Ya is a collection of four high-design stand alone cottages and villas that feel like vacation homes. For more read our full review of Villas B´alam Ya for iTraveliShop.
Read more about travel in Guatemala