Lago de Atitlán is one of the “must dos” for travelers in Guatemala. This volcano-ringed lake (itself a flooded volcanic crater) is the deepest lake in Central America with a max depth is more than 1,000 feet (300 meters). 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 quite that far, Lake Atitlán is a lovely place and it’s easy to get into the laid back lake life of its main town, Panajachel.

volcanoes Atitlán, Tolimán and San Pedro

Sunset from the hills above Lake Atitlán with (from left to right) Atitlán Volcano, Tolimán Volcano, and San Pedro Volcano.


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.

Lake Atitlan

Lanchas for hire on volcano-ringed Lake Atitlán in Guatemala.

San Pedro Volcano

San Pedro Volcano on Lake Atitlán in Guatemala.

Lake Atitlan kayak

Karen kayaking on Lake Atitlán in Guatemala.

After scoping out a number of hotels (there are dozens in Pana) we checked into Hospedaje Contemporaneo 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 Wi-Fi 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.

Volcán de Fuego

Volcán de Fuego is located miles away near Antigua but when it lets off steam you can see it clearly from Lake Atitlán.

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.

San Pedro Volcano

Classic Lake Atitlán: calm water, a lazy lancha and a hulking volcano.

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.

Volcano Atitlán, Tolimán and San Pedro

The volcanoes that ring Lake Atitlán (left to right) Atitlán, Tolimán, and San Pedro as seen from a porch at Villas B´alam Ya.

Here’s more about travel in Guatemala


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