It’s almost inevitable that at some point in your travels you’ll end up at Lake Atitlan. Ernest Hemingway declared it the most beautiful lake in the world and on a clear day, with the deep blue water shimmering between a ring of mountains and volcanoes, you can see why. Almost anything you’re looking for in Guatemala you’re likely to find somewhere in this circle, as every village on its shores has its own distinct flavour.
Panajachel is the entry point for buses from the rest of the country. It’s Atitlan’s biggest town and an alright place to spend a couple of days, but most people move on fairly quickly to one of the smaller villages. Chicken buses run to most of them, but for a few extra quetzales you can get a lancha across the lake, which makes for a much nicer journey.
San Pedro is the most popular traveller destination, and the main street along the lake is crammed with bars, restaurants, gift shops and guest houses. If you’re looking for drugs and parties, this is the place to come. It used to be a safe haven for all kinds of debauchery, but the police presence has been stepped up recently due to the drug scene and a few instances of violence against tourists.
The 1am curfew on amplified music and alcohol sales is now (fairly) strictly enforced, but a knock on the right door can usually procure you a bottle of rum after that, as long as you’re discreet about it. It’s a popular place to take Spanish classes, though many students find themselves too hungover to learn very much. San Pedro also has its authentic side. Just walk 5 minutes up the hill and you lose the tourists and find yourself in a colourful, pleasant Mayan village.
Many travellers seeking respite and detox from the madness of San Pedro head across the lake to San Marcos. This is the “spiritual” village, with places offering classes in meditation, yoga and reikki. It’s also one of the most beautiful parts of the lake. (Although you won’t find many Guatemalans by the lake-side – they’ve all been priced out of the market by Westerners running reiki courses.) On the downside it’s more expensive than San Pedro, and the holier-than-thou attitude of some of the hippies quickly gets irritating. It’s the sort of place that gives you an overwhelming urge to down a 12-pack of beer, eat a Big Mac and sing abusive football chants, just to pop the bubble of smug self-righteousness that engulfs it. Although that’s probably because you have a tarnished aura and three chakras closed, you slave of Babylon.
San Juan is just down the road from San Pedro, but a complete change of pace. It makes for a much more “authentic” Guatemalan experience, in that there you might actually hang out with someone from Guatemala. It’s calm, friendly, and the base for many of Atitlan’s volunteer projects. There are opportunities to work with orphans, or go with the Mayan women to learn about the area’s medicinal plants.
Santiago is Atitlan’s biggest town after Panajachel, and definitely a ‘real’ town as opposed to a tourist trap. It’s not as picturesque as the villages but is a good place to experience a more modern take on Mayan culture, such as in the festival of Maximon during Semana Santa.
There are several other less well-known villages around the lake, and beautiful places to walk and swim. There really is something special about Atitlan; something that even the huge amounts of tourism it receives hasn’t been able to kill. Proof of that, if it were needed, is the number of people you meet who came for a week or two and are still there five years later.