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Lake Atitlán with Kids

Updated: Aug 8, 2022

Lake Atitlán (Lago de Atitlán), Guatemala is one of the country’s biggest draws. We spent four days exploring the area with three young children (although it could have and probably should have been a week!). In this blog, we’ll tell you everything you need to know about Lake Atitlán with kids before you visit.


There’s a reason why people go to Lake Atitlán, Guatemala and never come back. Atitlán is the deepest lake in Central America and is consistently renowned as the most beautiful lake in the whole world. The cobalt-blue water fills an enormous caldera of an ancient super volcano, formed by an eruption 84,000 years ago. The 340m deep volcanic lake is now framed by three rainforest covered volcanoes and is the very definition of gorgeous. This sets the backdrop to 13 sleepy towns dotted around the shore, where along every tiny passageway women wear long colourful skirts and cook tortillas over open fires, and the sound of Spanish guitar and mariachi flows from homes and restaurants.



Getting There and Around:


We found Atitlán a bit daunting to reach to be honest, but when you catch that first glimpse of the water as you bump down the mountain in your chicken bus or car, all the motion-sickness from the jostling journey will feel worth it.


Getting to Lake Atitlán is actually very easy from the Guatemala City and Antigua area. The route is very popular, and shuttles can be booked in advance. This specific shuttle runs from Antigua to Lake Atitlán and costs only $60 USD. The journey takes 2.5 hours. From Guatemala City, this shuttle is good value as it can take up to 5 people for $150 USD. You can also take local chicken buses from each location (but I don’t recommend this, Usually I’m all up for local transport, particularly the cost of it, but I have heard too many poor reviews of the safety of late.


We decided to hire a car from Antigua and drive a loop to the lake, returning back to Antigua to drop off the car after 4-5 days. We arrived into Guatemala City and took an Uber to Antigua for just £20 (taxi would have been £45). Ours took just over two hours due to the horrendous traffic. I have heard it’s just luck of the draw and this can take under one hour if you’re lucky. Be warned; the roads leading into Atitlán are bendy as all hell (see photo below!). The journey through, up, over and down the surrounding mountains is not for the faint heart of weak stomach (see below, our entry on a cloudy day), but our kids managed it fine, thanks to some awesome audio books.

There are two ways to get to the far west side of the lake (San Pedro, San Juan and San Marco) – you may travel around the north side of the lake, or the south side. Most would take the northern route, past Panajachel (via the Pan-American Highway). We took the southern route (clockwise) around the bottom of the lake because we came directly from Volcan Pacaya (to read more about this volcano hike, click here!). This route is less travelled and features nothing but mountains. It is worth mentioning that around Santiago Atitlán, about 30 mins from our destination of San Pedro, we were stopped by police. They informed us of “los banditos” and were frantically gesturing that we required protection and escorting through the remaining wilderness. We were expecting to be asked for bribes, but no – they genuinely just escorted us and then let us go – no banditos were encountered ;)


We used our hire car to get out and about for our day trips. Driving was a challenge!! The roads within the towns are so tiny, a weekend market completely blocks half of the town (we stayed in San Pedro) and the dogs, people and tuk tuks casually blocking the road are particularly numerous compared to the relatively easier time we’ve had in a Mexico, Belize and northern Guatemala. We also got stuck behind another funeral procession (same happened in Flores!) which added a painful 40 minutes to a 20-minute drive between villages (RIP!). It was stressful but doable and did save on taxis, tours or tuk tuks. Parking was always very cheap and there are numerous Parqueo areas for this.


For those put off by the difficult roads within towns, getting around can be easier on the water. For that reason, there are water taxis that travel from town to town that both locals and visitors use. These water taxis run regularly and are very cheap.


Things to do:


The intense, turquoise-blue water is dazzling even on a cloudy day, and the lush mountainsides populated with avocado and coffee trees make for a skyline straight out of a dream. You’ll become intoxicated and addicted to the slower pace of life.


The average trip to Lake Atitlán seems to be three days. I was initially a bit confused whether I should spend more time in Atitlán or Flores, but it quickly became clear that while Flores was worthwhile, Atitlán certainly has more to do. Our stay was just four nights, three complete days as two half days either side. Our itinerary can be found here. What you do is likely to be determined at least in part by where you stay, or vice versa! Therefore I have arranged this section into East side and West side activities. You can of course boat or drive about, you are not limited, but this might help you to arrange an itinerary should you decide to stay a few days on each side of the lake (recommended!).


West Side: San Pedro, San Juan, San Marco etc.


Sunrise hike up La Indio Nariz (Indian’s Nose)


Hike up La Indio Nariz and spend a morning watching the sunrise over the volcanic mountains to celebrate the start of another day in one of the most beautiful places on earth! The Indian nose hike is one of the main checklist items for many. For stunning views (some say the best view) of the lake and volcanoes vista, you can take a short hike (30-40 minutes) or a long hike (2.5-3 hours, for which you will pay a $10 park entrance fee) up the face of the Indian, who appears to be lying peacefully under the forest mountain (if you are looking at him with his chin on the right of course!). You are advised to get a guide to avoid misunderstandings over payment of land fees with locals. While the views certainly do look stunning, we actually decided against it because we stopped at so many incredible (and free!) miradors (look out points) around the mountains during all our drives in and out during the week. Plus our legs and arses hurt from the volcano hike…!



Have a Coffee!


For coffee lovers this area hits the spot. From the trees themselves growing up the mountains and volcanoes and casually in gardens and spaces between buildings, to the hundreds of cafes dotted around every village, coffee is everywhere in Lake Atitlán. We have it on good authority that Café Las Cristalinas in San Pedro brews arguably the best coffee and espresso on Lago de Atitlán, and they even provide tours of their toasting process.


Chocolate making at Liccor Marron Chocolate


We didn’t partake in any chocolate related activities as we already felt we got maximum education and enjoyment out of it in Belize and more to come in Honduras. But we heard that at Liccor Marron you can browse an unimaginable variety of chocolate treats mixed with all sorts of flavourings! While you’re there, you can watch a skilled chocolate artisan demonstrate how the chocolate is made from locally-grown cacao beans. They also offer hands-on chocolate workshops and tours for a truly interesting experience in Lake Atitlán.


Take a Weaving Class


A number of womens weaving cooperatives sprang up around the Atitlán area during the 1980s when war took the men from the area.


We visited La Cooperative, Atitlán Women Weavers weaving coop, part of Antia's Mayan Cooking School (which sadly we didn’t have time for due to being booked up during the time we stayed!). We loved Antia's story so decided to come to her place to check out the weaving.


The gorgeous little workshop was surrounded by cotton trees and covered in beautiful, colourful, intricately-designed pieces ranging from headbands to cosmetic pouches to shawls and blankets, all made from scratch by the women of San Pedro. For Q200 (£20 at July 2022/the time of writing) we were able to book a teacher for 2-3 hours. In this time it isn’t feasible to do much more than a small coin purse, especially if you have a 3 and 7 year old who insist on giving it a whirl! The kids picked our colours and we each took turns spinning the cotton for the initial weave. Then Andrew was shown how to attach our piece at one end to a weaving belt which he wore around his middle, and the other to the building itself! This part was MUCH more complicated and involved several shuttles being woven between all the threads and the belt. This was where the magic happened and it finally took shape. For the final stage, it was folded in half and a zip sewn on. It really gave us all a good appreciation for the effort and skill involved in producing these fine clothes and handicrafts! The kids learned a practical skill and all about the textiles used for weaving and how locals use natural dyes.

Self Care


San Marcos is best-known by tourists as a hippy-home. Walking around the streets is a pleasure in itself. You can attend classes and events from a smorgasbord of practices including yoga, meditation, Reiki, massage, crystal therapy, breathing therapy, permaculture, ecstatic dance, tantra, cacao ceremonies, and more. Take a look at the many flyers plastered on boards upon entering the towns, ask around, or even just meander through and see what opportunities you find. There’s something for everyone, and even if you're still not sold, I'm sure your spirits will be lifted by just being out in nature. We saw so many hummingbirds and weird insects casually all the time!

Though it’s easy to pop in for a class or two, many plan an extended stay for tuning into and improving themselves: centers such Piramides del Ka offer weeks-long yoga and meditation programs according to the cycles of the sun and moon, starting at $800 USD for a month-long course. Yoga Forest is another well-spoken of yoga and retreat center. You can even ask around for Keith, the supposed “wizard” of San Marcos who will invite you to his renowned group Cacao Ceremonies held daily in his home.


Cerro Tzankujil Nature Reserve


Often described as “heaven on earth” or “paradise,” this nature reserve provides all the views and warm-water swimming one could hope for. It’s open 8 am to 5 pm every day of the week, and costs just Q15 to enter.


Cerro Tzankujil Nature Reserve features two miradors (photos from them below!), or lookout points, that offer incredible, uninterrupted views across the beauty of the volcanic lake and its surrounding mountains and volcanoes. Once you’ve had your fill of the view, you can head down to the shore to spend a few quiet, leisurely hours swimming in the pristine waters, which are surprisingly warm! Its actually the first (of what I hope will be many) black volcanic sand beaches I have had the pleasure to dip my toes in, this kids found it facinating. For the brave traveler, the reserve also offers an 8m high platform from which visitors can jump into the waters!


Cerro Tzankujil boasts 5-star reviews from travelers looking to spend a day relaxing in the natural environment – and is easily one of the best things to do in Lake Atitlán! If you find yourself needing a break from the villages, this is a great spot to laze the day away.

East Side: Panajachel, Santa Cataina Palopo, San Antonio Palopo etc.


Support the local community at Cafe Sabor Cruceno


In the village of Santa Cruz, you’ll find one of the most unique cafes in all of Lake Atitlán. Cafe Sabor Cruceno is located up on the hills in the large yellow building called “CECAP” (believe me, you can’t miss it!) It looks more like a school rather than a cafe – and that’s because it is!


Cafe Sabor Cruceno is just one part of an educational non-profit run by Amigos de Santa Cruz. This program aims to educate and provide equal opportunities to the kids of the village and indigenous people. Here, kids are taught important marketable skills such as weaving and sewing, cooking, and other life essentials.


When you visit Cafe Sabor Cruceno you are supporting this cause and also eating food prepared by the students. You can also tour the building and learn about the efforts of this project and watch some of the students at work. Some of their handicrafts are also for sale in a small shop.


The cafe also offers some of the best views in all of Lake Atitlán! That’s right – food, a beautiful view, and supporting a good cause all in one place – definitely one of those must-do activities in Lake Atitlán if you ask me! You can learn more about the project and the efforts of Amigos de Santa Cruz on their website.


Shopping

Of course you can shop the normal souvenirs in any town on the lake but Panajachel is also famously THE market town of Lago de Atitlán. This is definitely the place to visit if you want to grab a few nice bits/gifts for friends and family back home. You can find lots of different things made from textiles, or other random souvenirs too!


Ruins of Iximché


Iximché was declared as the first capital of the Kingdom of Guatemala when the Spanish arrived and conquered in the 1500s. These charming ruins are a day trip from Panajachel.


You can enter the historical site for just 50Q ($6.50 USD), during its 8 am to 4 pm opening hours. While tour guides are not officially provided, often there are locals posted up outside the front entrance, offering their own tours.


While Iximché is just 11 miles from Panajachel, the mountainous geography makes the road distance 41 miles. You can hire a taxi from Pana, which will cost between $45-60 USD, or choose to book this tour of the site, which will transport you to and from the site, as well as provide a tour inside the grounds. These run for about $75 USD and typically last about 6 hours.


Traditional Pottery Making in San Antonio Palopo

Another great town to visit is San Antonio Palopó, known for its beautiful and unique pottery. You can take a free tour of the pottery where you will learn about the traditional pottery-making process and the unique local clay used to make these pieces. Once it is over, locals expect you to buy something to help maintain the place. The pottery is gorgeous and affordable, so this is a win-win situation.


Visit Santa Catarina Palopó, The Most Colorful Town In Lake Atitlán


This small and colorful town is only a few minutes from Panajachel, and you can arrive there by land or boat. If you want to get there by land, you can take a TukTuk. It is a fun way to move around Lake Atitlán with the kids.


Santa Catarina Palopó used to be a fishing village. Unfortunately, fishing is no longer sustainable due to overpopulation and the area’s development. To attract opportunities and tourism, the project Pintando Santa Catarina is in the process of painting houses and street walls with designs based on the traditional textiles of the Mayan people who inhabit the town. It’s an excellent place for taking photos and browsing through art galleries. You can also visit the small town square with its quaint little colonial church.


Reserva Natural De Atitlán


Hanging bridges, zip lines, hiking trails, geo-dome butterfly gardens, feeding coatimundis and monkeys – kids would love this one! We sadly had to miss this one out as tabled for our final excursion on the drive back from San Pedro to Antigua to return our car and move on to Honduras, following the northern route. However, our weaving project took us so long we had to return in the morning of our last day to finish the job, missing out the fun!!


Around the Lake/Various


Local Markets and Chichicastenango


Your experience of Guatemalan life is not complete without shopping at the local open-air market. Locals come here almost daily to buy fresh produce and seafood, as well as bulk grains and other raw ingredients. You might be overwhelmed with the variety of fruits and shrimp and the number of people streaming here and there, but it’s a great place to get used to the hustle and bustle!

Haggling is common practice at markets in Guatemala. Feel free to haggle, but be sure not to make an offer so low it’s insulting. Fresh produce is fairly cheap for travellers who normally use the Canadian or US dollar, euro, pound, or similarly-valued currency: a single avocado runs at 1Q, about 13 US cents – and those babies are fresh-picked from the mountains surrounding you! Often, we would stop by the market in the morning to grab a banana and a snack, getting breakfast on the go for less than $1 USD. Once we saw a genuine mariachi band serenading us from a crowded undercover part of the market – Quinn loved it (and they loved her moves!).


Most hostels or other accommodations will have some type of communal kitchen for its guests to use. So make a list- or buy ingredients on a whim- and spend an entertaining evening cooking your version of a Guatemalan meal. One of my favourite parts of staying in our flat was cooking up a storm overlooking the gorgeous lake through the window.


Chichicastenango is the largest market on the sub-continent. It runs on Thursdays and Sundays and is such a big deal locals may even sleep on the streets there to get the best spot early enough to set out all their wears before it opens around 10ish. It’s an hours drive from Panajachel or two from San Pedro. We drove in our hire car and found it easy and cheap to park. We aimlessly wandered the tiny, crowded walkways for an hour, then more purposefully visited the two churches on either side of the market (Santo Tomas Church and El Calvario Chapel). Be sure to check out the graveyard visible from one end of the market - we were drawn in by the bright colours and found it a nice peaceful viewpoint from the top of the hill. We ate at one of the commodores in the centre of the market and found that many of the locals just wanted to hold and squidge Willow - which was great - it left us hands free and able to eat in peace! They only served one thing; a massive plate of chicken, chips, rice, coleslaw and gravy and it was utterly amazing and SO CHEAP. The was our cheapest meal of Guatemala and cost us £8 for three plates and two drinks. Everyone left very full and happy!

Spanish School


There are tonnes of Spanish schools in many of the towns. It is a real shame that we didn’t have time for this during our stay as it’s the highlight of many backpackers trips to the region. A typical program will have you taking one-on-one lessons with a personal language teacher for 4 hours in the morning. The one-on-one tutoring means you’ll learn a lot of Spanish, really quickly! You are then left with the rest of the day to yourself, however a lot of school include local tours as part of their fun for free or on the cheap. A lot of these also offer homestay accommodation, adding to the opportunity to practice your Spanish.


Water Sports


If you have older children then there are numerous water based activities such as banana boating, paddle boarding, an inflatable course and paragliding over the lake. Some say it’s the cheapest paragliding over mountains in the world!


Cooking Classes


You can rock up to any travel agent and tour group and organise a cooking class, however we found two that we were very interested in. I'd advise you try and book with Anita's Mayan Kitchen Cooking School (mentioned above as she also set up the weaving cooperative we took a class with), and at the non-profit run by Amigos de Santa Cruz (also mentioned above). Both of these should be booked as far in advance as you can as they do fill up fast!


Where to Stay and Eat:


Eating in Lake Atitlán was possibly the most fun and easy of our entire Central American trip. There are so many options I can't possibly name everything we did. I will however recommend the Commadores - anywhere that is open fronted, plastic tables and chairs, full of locals are where I ate the most authentic Mayan food outside of homestays. These usually consisted of freshly-made tortillas and beans and rice, avocado, a plain salad, and fruit, or occasionally a type of chicken stew poured over rice. You never know what you’re going to get until you’ve asked the chef – that’s part of the fun!

The most difficult choice you’ll face is which village to stay in, and this really depends on what you select from the list of things to do above. The lake is comprised of 13 towns, each with their own character. We found this website quite helpful in understanding the vibes for each, but I have summarised the main draws below.


San Pedro (West):

San Pedro is the more popular tourist hub on the west side of Lake Atitlán, directly opposite the city of Panajachel. It is easily accessed by both road and boat and offers a ton of exciting and interesting things to do and see. There is a large backpacker population here and as such, lots of trendy cafes, vibrant bars and international restaurants. We stayed in air bnb which was great and we decided to base ourselves here for the entire time because it seemed a lot cheaper than the East side of the lake. In addition to the local market (busy on weekends) we wandered around the Main Square and the Church of St Peter. This large church is nice on its own but it also happens to have the pleasant, peaceful Parque Puerta Hermosa just out front. There are some nice statues and a bit of green space to enjoy and when we were there we were lucky enough to see a few trampolines set up - great impromptu fun for the little ones!


San Juan (West): Less touristy and more locally owned than its neighbouring San Pedro, this village is known as an artsy, hippie town. We loved strolling around the umbrella street and visiting the honey farm, which was beautiful. The kids sat in the shade and watched the bees for a good while!

San Marcos (West): Known as a spiritual village, this is where you will go for your reiki, meditation, readings, ceremonies, massage, fire and drum circles and yoga retreats among other self-care pursuits.


Santa Cruz (North): Santa Cruz is directly north and neither really East nor West - it might just have the best views you’ll find anywhere on the lake (which is definitely saying something). It is also the only place you can go scuba diving.


Panajachel (East): Panajachel, or “Pana” as it is normally known, is many people’s first stop on Lake Atitlan before they head out to the other towns and villages. It has been hosting tourists longer than any other village on the lake, has a long shopping street, a pretty lakeshore and even some adrenaline options like ziplines and paragliding. Its arguably where most people end up staying as it is that bit closer to Antigua/Guatemala City.


Santa Catarina Palopo: Santa Catarina is possibly the most beautiful village on Lake Atitlan. It is a great place to wander among the hundreds of brightly painted buildings featuring traditional patterns and symbols.


In Summary


Wow - there is a lot to do and a lot to consider regarding a trip to Lake Atitlán! I found it really difficult to plan this one but hopefully this will help you to make easier decisions. Whatever you get up to I am sure you'll have a wonderfully authentic, enjoyable and relaxing time at the beautiful Lake Atitlán.

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