I had already visited Antigua on my first trip to Guatemala, back in 2009, and fallen in love with it. I vowed to one day live there.
On that first trip, I also visited one of the crown jewels in Guatemala, Lake Atitlan. It’s been described as the most beautiful lake in the world, and it doesn’t disappoint.
Driving Directions to Lake Atitlan
There are a few main roads that lead in/out of Antigua. The one most tourists are familiar with is the winding road coming down from San Lucas (RN-10), as you make your way from Guatemala City. This roads connects with CA-1, which goes East/West, from Mexico to El Salvador.
Another popular road is RN-14, which goes past the eastern side of Antigua in a North/South direction. Head South via RN-14, towards Ciudad Vieja, and you’ll reach Escuintla and the roads that lead to the Pacific Coast beaches. Head North, towards Jocotenango, and you’ll eventually reach CA-1, close to Chimaltenango.
Take this route and you’ll save a significant amount of time, if heading to Panajachel, Quetzaltenango (Xela), and the Eastern side of Guatemala by not having to go all the way to San Lucas to catch CA-1.
I love this stretch of road as it’s nicely paved, free of chicken buses, and not nearly the brake-buster that the much higher-grade road to San Lucas. And the scenery is hard to beat.
My Sworn Enemies: Chicken Buses
Driving bliss ended once I hit CA-1, a highly congested two-lane highway, replete with trucks and chicken buses from hell.
Let me tell you a bit about chicken buses. Most of the population uses these colorful, cheap, formerly-a-school-bus cast-offs from the US as the main mode of transportation. They get the name “chicken bus” due to the fact that you’ll find all kinds of cargo being bandied about them by passengers. Including… ** drum-roll please**…. chickens.
If you’re a backpacker, they are a Godsend. For a fare of anywhere between 1Q [worldcurrency curr=”GTQ” value=”1″] to 10Q [worldcurrency curr=”GTQ” value=”10″] (usually), you can get around almost anywhere in Guatemala. Chicken bus trips to Lake Atitlan are lengthy because of all the stops in between destinations.
Unfortunately, bus drivers are often shot at by extortionist demanding their “protection fee” from bus’ owners. Or a pack of robbers will board the bus and demand everyone give up their valuables. Rare, but it happens.
For the most part, they’re safe, though cramped and crowded.
But woe if you have your own vehicle. Chicken bus drivers are on par with the most reckless drivers you’ll find anywhere.
They will pass other vehicles around blind corners, compete and race each other on narrow streets to catch the next fare first, go through residential streets if detours are too long to their liking, ignore stop signs and traffic lights as well. They are a menace to other drivers.
It’s a wonder they’re not involved in more accidents. That is, if the driver doesn’t commit a hit-and-run and gets away as fast as possible from the scene.
While they make for pretty pictures, I’ve lost all romantic notions about them.
Now that I’ve got that off my chest, let’s move on.
At the Chimaltenango overpass, stay left and follow directions to Quetzaltenango (Xela), which is on CA-1 and past the entrance to Lake Atitlan. If in doubt, always follow signs for Quetzaltenango.
Last time I was in Guatemala, CA-1 highway was undergoing a huge rebuilding effort. I’m glad that it seems like it’s all finished now and only a couple of sections of the road are being worked on.
Another problem with roads here are mudslides, which happen often, and sometimes block roads for hours. The government is building retaining walls along many sections of the road, but it’s still an ongoing project.
Caught a lovely glimpse of Volcan Agua, Volcan Acatenango and Volcan Fuego (the smoking one on the right). Volcan Fuego is prone to small eruptions from time to time. In fact, it’s smoking all the time it seems. Amazing to watch lava flowing when it happens at night.
Roadside stands are common along the highway.
After about 2 hours, around Kilometer 130, you’ll see signs for Los Encuentros, a popular bus stop. Drive a few kilometers (less than 10) past Los Encuentros and you’ll come across the turnoff point for Solola, Panajachel and Lake Atitlan (RN-1).
Passing Through Solola
As you make your way down RN-1 towards Panajachel, you’ll encounter the town of Solola at about the halfway point. The town’s main attraction is its food & handicrafts’ market, which many people prefer to the famous Chichicastenango market.
Solola’s market is open Tuesdays, Fridays and Sundays, though Friday is the day with the most vendors, followed by Sunday.
It is not necessary to go through Solola to get to Panajachel. You can follow the signs and make a left right before you enter the main strip that leads to Solola and bypass it all together.
Attractions To See Before Arriving to Panajachel
As you continue making your way down, you’ll see a couple of road attractions.
On the way down, to your left, you’ll see San Jorge Waterfalls. People routinely stop to take a closer look, but beware that there isn’t much extra room for vehicles to park.
Also, be mindful of speeding buses. The strong smell of brake dust should serve as warning to stay out of their way.
The showstopper, however, is the lookout point as you drive past the falls.
El Mirador is situated on another dodgy bend on the road, but unlike the falls, there is a little more room to park and maneuver and even a couple gazebos to sit and contemplate the view.
When we pulled over, enterprising kids swarmed the vehicle and placed rocks underneath the tires to prevent the car from accidentally rolling and falling into the lake. My parking brake was more than enough, thank you, but I appreciated the gesture, for which I would no doubt thank them later with a few quetzales, before I left.
They also sold the ever-popular hand-made bracelets, which a bought a few of to help them out, if anything.
The view of the lake and Panajachel was spectacular from here.
It is worth noting here that Lake Atitlan is a caldera that was created when a super-volcano exploded thousands of years ago. So huge was this explosion, that volcanic ashes were found from Florida to Ecuador.
And that’s as close as I felt comfortable parking the car for the famed “road-trip” shot. Besides, I had “protective rocks” under my vehicle’s tires as insurance anyway.
Arriving in Panajachel
Since we arrived kind of late in the afternoon, we immediately looked for a place to park the car and find a place to eat. Parking near the docks is inexpensive, at 35Q [worldcurrency curr=”GTQ” value=”35″] for 24 hours.
We found a great place to eat at Calle Santander, Panajachel’s main business road, where most restaurants, hotels, and shops are located.
Since I’m getting tired of writing out Panajachel’s full name, I’ll tell you here that everyone else here and in Guatemala calls it “Pana“. Which is how I’ll refer to it from this point forward.
Once we finished eating in Pana, it was time to head to the hotel we were staying the night at.
Which meant getting on a launch or “lancha“.
As a side-note, one of the most striking, and out-of-place structures, you’ll see when you reach the lake at ground level are the three, huge, garish-green towers rising from the shores. Those building are what is known as hotel La Riviera de Atitlan, by most accounts a nice resort.
I believe their green color was an attempt to blend the buildings with the surrounding environment. I’ll let you decide how that worked out.
Lake Atitlan Lanchas
Villages of different sizes surround Lake Atitlan, each with distinct attractions and activities. Some are only reachable by launch.
Since Pana is the easiest town to reach by vehicle, most people use it as a jumping-off point to sleep and stay and go on day-trips to villages around the lake.
The fares for lanchas are posted at Pana’s two docks and depend on what village you’ll be heading to.
As soon as you near the dock, runners for lancha owners will come up to you trying to sell you on the idea of hiring them for a private trip, for about $30 [worldcurrency curr=”USD” value=”30″]. Completely and wholly unnecessary, as the public lancha will make stops along all possible destinations around the lake.
Do pay attention to posted prices, as they’re prone to overcharging tourists. Look for the posted prices and negotiate if you don’t see them.
For our trip to Jaibalito, the fare was 15Q [worldcurrency curr=”GTQ” value=”20″] per person. The most expensive fare is 25Q [worldcurrency curr=”GTQ” value=”25″], to Santiago Atitlan, the town furthest from Pana. When returning to Pana, or if traveling to any other towns, make sure you negotiate, before getting on the boat, what the per-person fare will be.
The lancha ride is usually enjoyable if it occurs in the early morning hours.
It is a tooth-feeling, jarring, kidney-crushing ride in the afternoon, when the wind, which has its own name (Xocomil), picks up and the waters get mighty choppy.
The lake itself is fairly clean, for the most part, but currents tend to carry debris to the middle of the lake. Lancha operators usually have to slow down through the debris field to avoid clogging up their motors with junk.
Other than an outbreak of foul-smelling bacteria in 2009, the water was tested and found not to pose a health risk.
If you’re going counter-clockwise around the lake, your first stop will be Santa Cruz La Laguna, a sleepy village compared to the other ones around the lake.
The main attractions here are a couple of interesting hotels (Isla Verde Atitlan and Arca de Noe) and Hotel & Restaurant La Iguana Perdida, which hosts a well-known, buffet-style barbecue dinner on Saturdays.
La Iguana Perdida is also home to ATI Divers, who offer PADI open-water diving certification courses.
The Most Charming Hotel in Guatemala
While I’d like to visit Santa Cruz one day, this trip was all about revisiting the most impressive hotel (in terms of setting and vistas) I’ve ever been to in Guatemala: Hotel Casa del Mundo.
High on a cliff, it offers great views of the lake.
The hotel has its own dock, next door to Jaibalito village, which can be accessed by climbing paths that lead to a hill above the hotel.
I visited Casa del Mundo a couple of years ago and I liked it so much I came back for one more night.
While there are other hotels with great vistas of the lake, it is worth it to visit Casa del Mundo at least for a couple of nights.
The hotel has a number of terraces, balconies, and secluded garden spots, which give you all the privacy you could ever want , even when it is fully booked.
The main dining room and reception are mid-climb to the hotels’ highest point. Most rooms are higher up, affording better views still.
The dining room area offers great views of the lake, specially those next to windows. Menu is a-la-carte, except for dinner, which is served to all guest at the same time. You can ask for vegetarian options if you’d like, and they will accommodate you.
I’m not a fan of communal-style dinners, though I may need to readjust my opinion since both times I was here, I thoroughly enjoyed conversing with other travelers seated next to me.
These type dinners may be a solution to the curse of hotel Wi-Fi.
There are plenty of great spots for picture-taking. The balcony of our room was such one place.
A million-dollar view, for less than $80 [worldcurrency curr=”USD” value=”80″] a night.
This balcony is my favorite of all.
The rooms are clean and decorated with locally handcrafted items.
Last time I was here, I stayed in room #13 (the best room in the hotel, in my opinion). This time I chose a cheaper room because it had two beds.
Meh, who am I kidding? The hammock in the balcony is what sold me.
After a nice dinner, we settled in and drank hot tea on the balcony, watching glimmering lights of villages across the lake.
Occasionally, we’d see the faint light of a lancha skipping across the lake. Probably a privately owned one at that, since public lanchas stop making trips roughly after 7 pm.
Back to Pana
We woke up after a good night’s sleep and headed to Pana for breakfast. The plan was to check out the main strip before heading off to Santiago Atitlan to explore and take pictures.
We didn’t have to wait long at the dock for a lancha, as one arrived less than 10 minutes since we first arrived.
Rainy season is from May through October and views of the volcanoes are not always optimal. This is as good as it was going to get that day and we were fortunate the temperature was great and the sun was out, even if a little cloudy.
We arrived to Pana’s dock 15 minutes later, starving.
Thought the “Forbidden to kill and throw rocks at ducks” sign was amusing. I think the ducks learned their lesson and stayed away, since I don’t recall seeing one the entire time I was there.
Calle Santander, Pana’s main strip, was still half-asleep, though most restaurants were open for breakfast already.
Had a nice, cheap breakfast and some good coffee. The cute little containers milk was served in were amusing.
There were colorful, embroidered throws for sale, though I’ve heard you can get better deals at Solola’s market.
Pana has two docks. The dock closest to the road to Solola has lanchas which take you counterclockwise to the smaller villages around the lake.
The dock at the end of Calle Santander is where you take the lanchas to Santiago Atitlan. Occasionally, lanchas will leave this dock and head out to the smaller villages, although they have a more irregular schedule than the ones at the other dock.
There’s a public beach between the two docks and a lifeguard on duty. This area was built not too long ago, since it wasn’t here on my first trip, nearly two years ago.
When boarding a boat, be mindful of how many people they try to fit in. Normal carrying capacity is 14 passengers.
A boat like the one below is great, because it restricts the number of passenger the operators can fit inside. Older boats, with benches for seats, can accommodate more people, which operators take full advantage of.
Something to think about if waters are rough.
Change of Plans
As we were approaching the dock to head to Santiago Atitlan, we heard a rumor that a local festival was going on. Not wanting to pass up the opportunity, we changed plans and headed to a different village.
To find out more about where we went, check back next week, where I’ll continue the next part of the trip. I promise you there are great pictures coming up.
Also, check out my Pinterest page about Antigua Guatemala, one of the prettiest colonial cities in the world and latest digital nomad destination I’m trying out.