5 Reasons to Visit Lake Atitlán in Guatemala
There are few places left in the world today that will envelop you in as much splendor and natural beauty – without crowds and tour buses – as Lake Atitlán in Guatemala. Below are five reasons why you should make every effort to see this stunning region for yourself while it still maintains it’s natural charm.
1.Still Under the Radar
While many of the world’s most enchanting natural wonders are being inundated with tour buses, Lake Atitlán remains under the radar. There are a number of factors. First and foremost, there is a common perception that Guatemala is dangerous and google searches will stoke this fear – however despite being a very poor country, we didn’t meet anyone in our month in Guatemala who had heard of so much as a pick pocketing. A little research will show that most of the scary stories are things of the past, and we felt safe and secure our entire time. Another factor limiting travel to Atitlán are the terrible roads, but they are improving every year and as they do the tour buses will start to make their way. Get there while you can still have this amazing natural treasure largely to yourself.
Imagine an enormous and mysterious lake, one of the deepest in the world, fed by an unknown source from deep underground. The lake is surrounded by massive volcanoes behind which the golden sun rises in the early mornings. Between the volcanoes are beautiful mountain ranges with shear limestone cliffs, covered by jungle and colorful wildflowers. Along the roads, many of them yet to be paved, locals in traditional dress go about living as they have for centuries – giving you a friendly wave as you walk by. These words do not do the natural landscapes of Atitlán a bit of justice. Go and have your breath taken away for yourself!
While there are many day trips available from Lake Atitlan, including volcano climbing – you don’t have to pay anything at all to enjoy one of the most beautiful hikes of your life. We took the two hour hike from San Marcos to Jaibolito with some friends we had met at our hostel. The hike took us along a dirt road next to massive cliffs covered in green and wildflowers, through tiny villages, deep into cool forest paths and then up along small footpaths that hugged the mountain and offered sweeping views of the lake. Along the way, we passed by local women dressed in their traditional village colors, carrying firewood on their back to be sold at market – many of them in flip-flops or even bare feet. Not only was the hike some of the best scenery we have witnessed, but you can be transported back to a much simpler time and way of life. At the end of our journey, we ate at a fantastic little German / local food restaurant located in a garden and sipped locally made kombucha for about $5 per person. Not a bad little day trip!
4.Revitalize in San Marcos la Laguna
While San Marcos is a tiny little town without too much to see or do, it attracts people the world over who want to offer and participate in a variety of wellness activities. From yoga, meditation and massage to various forms of energy healing, Tai chi and workshops on ‘writing from the heart’ to past life regression and traditional drumming lessons, there seems to be something for everyone who wants to take some time to focus on their physical, mental or spiritual health. In addition, there are many delicious local restaurants offering fantastic health foods with many vegetarian and vegan options to choose from. If you are feeling bloated from too much rice and beans, you can definitely revitalize yourself in San Marcos – and on a budget as well! Before you leave, you can sample some of the cacao tea, or even participate in a traditional cacao ceremony. The incredibly strong brew (richer than espresso) is served with local honey, chili pepper and volcanic salt – and many claim it to be an important tool for helping to ‘open your heart.’ If none of this is for you, no problem – a 15 minute taxi boat will take you to San Pedro a much more lively town which seems to be equal parts hippy and party backpackers – plenty of places to relax and enjoy a few cold ones and a great bar-hopping scene as well.
5.Traditional Art and Textiles in San Juan la Laguna
In our travels we were fortunate enough to meet up with Eric Toupin, a former resident of Guatemala who wrote an authoritative travel blog on the country, spoke fluent Spanish, and is involved with several non-profits in Guatemala. When the girls decided they wanted to shop for textiles, he took us to San Juan, the epicenter of traditional textiles where many of the cooperatives have women working the looms right in front of the shop. A tip from a local woman on the boat ride informed us that the farther from the docks you go, the lower the prices become. Not only are the local textiles amazing, but many of them are completely organic right down to the dyes which are made from local plants. In addition to the incredible textiles, San Juan is the home to the uniquely Guatemalan art style of the ‘birds eye view’ which shows scenes from traditional Guatemalan life in extremely vibrant colors, with the subjects looking upwards toward the viewer. This style originated in the town of San Juan and there are several shops where you can buy hand painted murals (with ridiculously rich textures) for a very small price. Apparently the textures allow the paintings to change color and appearance depending on the location of the light source – very cool. Unfortunately no photographs are allowed, but there are some examples painted on the sides of buildings.
We hope this article has inspired you to visit the magical lake Atitlán in Guatemala. If you do go, please travel responsibly and work to ensure that this enchanting place retains its charm for many years to come!
If touring and hiking through the jungles to see Mayan ruins are your thing, don’t go without first reading our guide to the ‘Mayan Ruins of the Yucatan‘.