There is so much to do in Guatemala but visiting the local villages is one of the most memorable experiences. I am going to share 3 villages to visit on Lake Atitlan, Guatemala.
The first time I did a sunrise hike up to one of the tall peaks surrounding the lake. We arrived at the top just as the sun started peeking through the volcanoes and reflecting off the shimmering surface of the lake. It was one of a handful of special moments while traveling when I’ve been completely awestruck. It was so special that I did it again the next time I visited, a couple years later!
Guatemala is a very traditional country, with Mayan people making up over half the population. The towns around Lake Atitlan, a huge crater lake surrounded by mountains and volcanoes, are dominated by traditional Mayan families. Once you make the 4-5 hour bumpy mountain drive from Antigua, you feel like you are in another world.
There are 11 small villages around the lake, each with their own distinct personalities. The mountain roads are difficult to drive, so most transportation is done by boat across the lake. Some towns aren’t even connected to the outside world by roads. This keeps the culture and the beautiful nature protected.
On my two trips to Lake Atitlan, I’ve visited many of its villages. I highly suggest you visit as many as you can while there, but if you’re limited on time there are three that are especially magical.
Read on to learn about the 3 best villages to visit on Lake Atitlan, Guatemala – including where to stay, where to eat, and what to do while you’re there!
3 Magical Villages to Visit on Lake Atitlan, Guatemala
1. San Marcos
San Marcos La Laguna is a modern hippie’s heaven. While the small town is filled with Mayan locals, it’s also seen an influx of expats and travelers interested in yoga, meditation, and natural living. You can’t walk far before finding yoga studios, advertisements for reiki healing sessions, or organic cafes.
You also have access from San Marcos to the beautiful sunrise hike at Indian’s Nose Mountain I mentioned earlier.
I’ve spent a week and a half in this charming town and could have easily stayed longer!
Where to Stay in San Marcos
I highly recommend the aptly named – Lush Hotel. The grounds are just that, incredibly lush and green, jam packed full of tropical foliage, trees, and flowers. They have rooms for almost any budget – from small economic rooms, to spacious apartments with incredible views of the volcanoes and lake. All rooms are decorated artistically with pretty tile, colorful walls, lovely textiles, and local artisan goods.
- Budget Options
If you prefer to stay in a hostel or are on a small budget, has nice basic rooms in a central location. Or has a pretty location right on the lake at the edge of town.
Where to Eat in San Marcos
This was my favorite restaurant in San Marcos. It’s a romantic little cafe serving delicious Italian food. The service, the garden ambiance, and the food is all excellent! It’s about halfway down the main footpath to the dock.
This is one of the more popular restaurants in San Marcos, right on the main footpath. The ambiance is nice – a big open room with low lighting. The pizzas were my favorite thing to eat here.
This restaurant on the main driving road through town is super vegetarian friendly. You can find everything from burritos, to falafel, to salads here. The ambiance is a pretty, open garden – and prices are very reasonable.
Circles has great fresh coffee, as well as organic salads, sandwiches, and breakfasts. Their garden in back is a pretty and comfortable place to hang out for awhile.
- Gypsy’s Juice Bar
This tiny juice stand makes excellent fresh juices and smoothies. I happened to be sick with a cold for a few days when I arrived in San Marcos. I drank their intense ginger shots every day and felt better in no time! They also serve a little bit of food like bagels, sandwiches, and chili.
What to Do in San Marcos
Sunrise Hike to Indian’s Nose Mountain
This is absolutely a must do as far as I’m concerned. It’s still one of my favorite travel experiences to date.
There are 3 or 4 travel agencies in town, and all can arrange trips up the mountain. There are a couple of options – one where you take local transportation up to the hike starting point. This may include (all while it’s still dark outside). I did this and loved it, but it’s definitely a bit adventurous. A second option is to take a private car to the hike starting point, which is a little bit more expensive but time effective and comfortable.
Once you get to the town of Santa Clara, you follow your guide up a steep winding path up the mountain. If the timing works out, you arrive at the apex just before the sun hits the horizon. Then you can watch the sky and lake turn shades of blue, purple, yellow and orange as the towns below start to wake up. It’s definitely a magical sight!
Get a Massage
There are many massage therapists in town. Ask around at your hotel/hostel, or keep your eyes out for the many signs along the streets.
Take a Yoga or Meditation Class
There are usually several yoga classes in town each day. We tried the classes at La Paz and Hostal del Lago. Both were great, but I highly recommend the class at Hostal del Lago. It’s on a deck at the lake’s edge, so you can do your practice while gazing at a gorgeous view.
2. San Juan
San Juan is a lovely little village that is much less touristy than some of the tourist hotspots like Panajachel and San Pedro. The main attractions here are the many women’s coops that make and sell beautiful and authentic Mayan textiles. This is a great place to do your shopping because the coops make sure that the women are compensated fairly for their amazing work.
Where to Stay in San Juan
I haven’t stayed in San Juan but have heard great things about – a basic but clean and friendly hotel with a nice view of the lake, and the rustic up on the hill.
Where to Eat in San Juan
This cute but modest cafe has great food. The original owners were Italian, and the cafe still serves European/Mediterranean food like quiches, salads, and falafel. The ambiance is simple but attractive, and the service is great.
You must make reservations a couple weeks in advance for this lovely little wine and cheese bar, but it’s worth it! They serve large varieties of gourmet cheese, nuts, figs, and cured meats.
What to Do in San Juan
This is the best pasttime in San Juan. There are a large number of women’s coops, all creating beautiful, well-made goods. Take a day to explore each one. Many of the coops also do weaving and natural dye demonstrations. The weaving is done by traditional backstrap loom, and the demonstrations are really interesting and informative!
3. Santa Cruz
Santa Cruz la Laguna is even less touristed than San Juan. There is a little mini village at the lake’s edge where most of the hotels are. And then you can take a very steep walk or a tuk-tuk ride up to the town that lies 325 feet straight up the mountain. The town is very traditional and local, and is nice for a short exploration.
The main reason to come to Santa Cruz is to enjoy the peaceful setting at the lake’s edge at one of the lovely hotels. This is a very relaxing and beautiful place.
Where to Stay in Santa Cruz
There are two amazing options in Santa Cruz depending on your budget:
This is one of the cutest hotels I’ve seen in awhile. Their design was on point – everything felt thought out and beautiful. There are lots of cozy common areas to hang out, drink a beer, or do yoga.
They have a nice deck right on the water to enjoy some food or a cocktail. Then they have a huge deck on the upper level dripping with plants and lots of comfy seating options. They also often have yoga classes, and a beautiful building to practice in.
This is a great option if you’re on a smaller budget. There are a variety of rooms, and comfortable common areas. The hostel is right on the water, with a great big deck to enjoy a meal or a drink. They also have yoga classes here.
The best thing about La Iguana is their family style dinners. You sign up earlier in the day and are treated to a huge and delicious meal all together with the guests in the evening. There is usually a salad, a main course, and a dessert. We loved meeting other travelers while we enjoyed our dinner each night.
Where to Eat in Santa Cruz
Both hotels mentioned above have great food, and are also great for a happy hour cocktail with a view.
Another option is to head up into town and stop at one of the local restaurants there.
This little cafe has good food, and also a fantastic view of the lake. It sits right on the edge of the mountain overlooking the water. The cafe is associated with the nonprofit CECAP that provides education to local children in need.
What to Do in Santa Cruz
This is the best thing to do in this quiet little village. Enjoy the scenery, sway in a hammock, and swim in the lake.
Take a Walk to Jaibalito
There is a very rustic wooden bridge/footpath that hugs the edge of the lake and takes you all the way to the even smaller village of Jaibalito. We didn’t make it all the way there because it was late in the afternoon, but we made it as far as Isla Verde and enjoyed a happy hour drink at the hotel before returning.
You can rent kayaks from almost any hotel. Lake Atitlan is the perfect setting to paddle out and enjoy the view of the mountains and villages from out in the water.
Many of the hotels have yoga classes. Ask around and join in! You’ll be in the perfect setting for it.
Lake Atitlan is the perfect place to observe traditional Mayan culture, decompress from the fast-paced world, and enjoy gorgeous nature. I definitely recommend visiting the three magical and distinct villages of San Marcos, San Juan and Santa Cruz if you visit the area!
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