Aldous Huxley said of Lago Atitlán: "Lake Como, it seems to me, touches on the limit of permissibly picturesque, but Atitlán is Como with additional embellishments of several immense volcanoes. It really is too much of a good thing."
He wasn't wrong. From the bus ride down the hairpin-laden highway, you and every other first time visitor will crane your neck through gaps in the trees to catch a glimpse of the incredible vista. As the bus continues to roll down at high speed, it will suddenly open up to a perfectly blue lake studded with volcanoes.
Welcome to Lake Atitlán, where you can check out anytime, but will probably never want to leave.
The birth of this natural beauty began 85,000 years ago when a large volcanic eruption caused a large area of land to implode, leaving a crater that eventually filled with water. Around the circumference of Atitlán are several townships, each offering something different to every visitor.
Known locally as 'Pana' or 'Gringotenango', this is likely to be your entry-point to the Lake. Unfortunately, what was once a pretty lake-side village has become the largest and most 'tour-group' focussed of Atitlán's towns. Whilst it can provide some much needed backpacker essentials, if you are hoping to enjoy the beauty of the lake away from touts and the maddening crowd, we would recommend jumping on a boat and heading across the water.
Home to an ever-increasing array of excellent language schools, cheap hotels and decent bars, San Pedro is often a backpacker's first and favourite town to visit. Whether it's kayaking, horse-riding, drinking or relaxing, it is easy to stay entertained. However, despite the strong backpacker presence on the lakefront and the myriad of international bars and hang-outs, you need only wander ten minutes up the hill to enjoy a few hours with the locals and get lost in the small winding streets.
We spent seven days in San Pedro, and found it difficult to leave. You need only talk to a few of the many ex-pats here to understand why so many felt the same way.
Where to eat and drink: Sublime (excellent burgers, great music and a perfect hang-out if the rain sets in), Deep Blue (the best fish&chips this side of the Atlantic), Hummus Ya (get the falafel), Fe (healthy servings of free tequila and the sort of curry you'd expect from an owner who hails from Northern England), Buddha Bar (huge portions and the one of the best Pad Thais we've ever tasted) and D'Noz (exquisitely presented and delicious international cuisine at a great price).
You need only step off the boat on arriving in San Marcos to discover you're not in Kansas anymore. Invaded by the hippies in the 1970's, this is the place to spend a few days getting your aura cleansed, perfecting your downward dog and sampling gluten/lactose/meat/additive free food. Although the new-age vibe may not be everybody's cup of peppermint tea, San Marcos is possibly one of the prettiest lake towns and for those who have indulged in a few too many tequila shots and lots of late-nights, it provides a welcome break from the traditional backpacker lifestyle.
Places to eat: Comedor Susy (only three things on the menu, but large portions of cheap, simple food), Fe (sister-restaurant to the original in San Pedro, same excellent meals at reasonable prices), Shambhala (open-air vegan cafe with wholesome sandwiches and more types of tea than China).
A 10-minute tuk-tuk ride from San Pedro, San Juan's more sustainable approach to tourism provides an instantly different vibe. Here you will find women's embroidery co-ops tucked around corners and streets lined with independent shops selling locally made clothing, bags, blankets and art.
You will not find an abundance of tourist-friendly eateries here, but then, that is part of it's charm! As with most small towns in Guatemala, local comedors are on most streets and usually serve good, inexpensive food.
The largest town around the lake, San Antonio is home to Maximon, a venerated Guatemalan folk saint and trip to his house (he moves every year in Holy Week), is the main reason for many visiting tourists. Be sure to bring a donation with you, the most popular seem to be cigars/cigarettes, alcohol or a little money - a favour to Maximon is even said to help a rocky marriage!
and don't forget...
The safety concerns regarding travel by road between villages is genuine and advice should be heeded, especially on the road between San Marcos and Santiago. Unless part of an organised tour, it is much wiser to travel by boat. For more information, see this helpful article.
Also, the only ATMs are in San Pedro and Panajachel.