Hidden Guide to 30 Best Things To Do in Lake Atitlan

Lake Atitlan is among the most unique places for travelers to visit in Guatemala. It’s slowly becoming popular for backpackers because of the relaxed and slow paced tranquility that is hard to find in many tourist destinations.

After visiting so many countries, it’s still in my top 3 best destinations to visit list.

With three volcanoes surrounding the lake and nine communities to explore, there is something for every type of traveler in this hidden gem and this guide will tell you the best things to do in Lake Atitlan.

Towns in Lake Atitlan

There are nine towns around Lake Atitlan that visitors can check out by boarding “lanchas” at each town’s dock. Each town has its own unique character, which we’ll describe in the next sections: Santiago, San Antonio Palopo, San Juan, San Marcos, Panajachel, Santa Cruz, Jaibalito, San Pedro, Santa Catarina, San Lucas Tolisman, San Pablo, Santa Clara.

San Pedro La laguna

This town is a backpacker’s paradise.

Hidden Guide to 30 Best Things To Do in Lake Atitlan -

It is a charming town with a relaxed and bohemian vibe, attracting artists, musicians, and yogis from around the world. This laid-back town is known for its stunning views, organic cafes, and alternative culture, making it the perfect spot to unwind and soak up the lake’s natural beauty.

Enjoy the town’s scenic views and sunsets, visit the San Pedro Market for local handicrafts and natural products, and take a yoga class or join a drum circle to get in touch with your creative side.

Panajachel

You’ll hear locals say “Pana” and with that, they mean Panajachel—the premiere shopping destination for both tourists and locals alike.

Panajachel is the hub of Lake Atitlán, with a lively and eclectic vibe that’s equal parts Mayanculture, hippie charm, and tourist amenities. This bustling town offers a wide range ofrestaurants, shops, and hotels, making it the perfect base for exploring the lake and its surroundings.

Hidden Guide to 30 Best Things To Do in Lake Atitlan -
Source: Daniel Mennerich

Calle Santander, the main shopping street, is a must-visit for its colorful handicrafts, textiles, and souvenirs, while the town’s central park, Parque de la Iglesia, is avibrant spot for people-watching and street performers. Whether you’re looking for adventure, culture, or relaxation, Pana has something for everyone.

Santa Cruz

Best known for its very steep hill right off the dock, Santa Cruz has a small tourist footprint that can mostly be found at the hostel La Iguana Perdida. Among the gems in this town is Cafe Sabor Cruceno, where I tasted what Guatemalan food is supposed to be—flavourful enough to not be too overwhelming and with mild chilis.

San Marcos

Yogis and hippies run this town, and I mean it. The town is filled with spiritual-type or zen classes or experiences from meditation to cacao ceremonies.

Despite its small size, it attracts visitors from around the world who seek a deeper connection with nature and themselves. This serene town is known for its yoga and meditation retreats, natural hot springs, and stunning views, making it the perfect spot to rejuvenate and refresh.

Hidden Guide to 30 Best Things To Do in Lake Atitlan -

Visit the San Marcos Holistic Center or Kawoq Forest for yoga, meditation, and natural therapies, soak in the natural hot springs at the Kawilal Hot Springs, and enjoy the town’s peaceful atmosphere and scenic views.

Santiago

The largest town in Lake Atitlan is where the famous local saint Maximon is found. Locals believe that he grants wishes in exchange of liquor and cigars. Aside from this local patron saint, this bustling town is known for its colorful markets, historic church, and traditional clothing, making it a must-visit for anyone interested in Mayan culture. Visit the Iglesia Parroquial de Santiago Apóstol, a beautiful colonial church, and explore the vibrant market, where you can find traditional handicrafts and try local food. Take a tour to learn about the town’s history, culture, and spiritual practices, and immerse yourself in the local way of life.

When we were talking to locals, they alluded that bandits typically come from Santiago but I think this is also due to the town being the largest as well. The larger the population, the higher the crime rate.

San Juan

Of all the towns, San Juan was memorable for being very clean and full of art. The town puts a lot of pride on their handiwork, and you’ll see the Main Street sprawling with weavers selling their textiles. Going further into the town will take you to chocolate producers such as Licor Marion.

things to do in Lake Atitlán - San Juan Lake Atitlán

Aside from the street art and the famous crafts locals produce, there’s also various viewpoints from the town such as the Kaqasiiwaan viewpoint and the Mayan Face you see when you do the Indian Nose Hike,

Santa Catarina Palopo

It’s a small town with vibrantly coloured buildings and houses, some of which even have intricate patterns you see on the local Mayan textiles. Visit the town’s central park, Parque de Santa Catarina, to admire the beautiful church and vibrant market, where you can find traditional handicrafts and try local cuisine such as Pulique, which is a local stew with meat and vegetables.

One interesting thing I learned while reading up about this town is its connection with  Antoine de Saint-Exupéry’s The Little Prince. It’s been said that he was inspired to write the famous book after noticing the silhouette of Toliman Volcano’s Cerro de Oro. Since its publishing, it went on to inspire multiple books and movies.

San Antonio Palopó

This colourful town’s mostly inhabited by locals because of its remoteness. This makes it a good destination for those who want to get away from the parties happening in more popular communities like San Pedro or Panajachel.

Hidden Guide to 30 Best Things To Do in Lake Atitlan -

San Antonio Palopó is a small and traditional town with a scenic and off-the-beaten-path atmosphere, surrounded by stunning natural beauty and rich in Mayan heritage. This charming town is known for its beautiful colonial church, Iglesia de San Antonio, and its scenic trails, which offer breathtaking views of the lake and surrounding mountains.

Visit the town’s market to learn about traditional Mayan culture and customs, and immerse yourself in the local way of life. With its serene atmosphere and natural beauty, San Antonio is the perfect spot to relax and unwind.

San Lucas Toliman

It may be the least known of all the towns since we did not hear one traveler that mentioned it, but San Lucas has one of Lake Atitlan’s nature reserves, Terrales Natural Reserve and home to the cloudy humid forest of Cerro Iquitiw.

San Pablo

Similar to San Lucas, the town keeps a low profile and barely receives any visitors. There’s also not much accommodations for tourists in the town itself, so locals mostly inhabit the area.

Santa Clara

Most of the reasons to visit Santa Clara are for outdoor or adventurous activities. The Chuiraxamoló Eco-Park is one of the places in Lake Atitlan that offers zip lining where thrill seekers can glide between two mountains with a full view of the lake. On hazy day, zipping above the lake will feel like flying through the clouds.

Jaibalito

The quaint little town sits besides Santa Cruz, so you’ll often see some tourists staying in Santa Cruz in Jaibalito. It’s a very serene place where you can watch the sunset or have a swim in one of the cleanest waters in the lake.

Tzununa

This upcoming town has expats overflowing from San Marcos, so you can expect the vibe to be similar. There’s yoga classes, massage services, and permaculture tours available.

Hidden Guide to 30 Best Things To Do in Lake Atitlan -
Source: Kirk K

If you’re interested to learn more about the Lake Atitlan’s history, they even have Tzu’nun Ya Museum which is surprising for a town this small.

Best Things to do in Lake Atitlan

There’s plenty of things to do in Lake Atitlan, and most visitors only get to do a handful of them. On this list, I’ve also added things you can do that most visitors have not even heard about. Granted, I haven’t done them all but Lake Atitlan is on my list of places to revisit after doing more research on this destination.

Sunrise hike up La Indio Nariz

The hike is aptly named because of the outline of the mountain where hikers will be heading. Most tours start at 4am in the morning to catch the sunrise. The trailhead is in San Juan, where hikers are expected to climb up steep stairs. The adrenaline rush at such early time of the day is well worth it because of the spectacular views of the lake and the surrounding volcanoes. You’re lucky if you also have a tour guide who’s also a fantastic story teller.

Hidden Guide to 30 Best Things To Do in Lake Atitlan -
Riley and i getting our photo taken at sunrise in lake atitlán

Ours was Henry of Guatemala sur Mesure, and he combined storytelling and humour to the average sunrise tour that most agencies offer. You’ll definitely enjoy learning not only about the place itself but also the Mayan people who reside about the lake.

However, if you would rather do the hike yourself, you can do that too from the same trailhead as the tour groups or take a tuk tuk from Santa Clara.

More information on Sur Mesure Tours here.

Zipline

Almost each town has its own zipline operator so you can be sure that there should be one nearby when you decide to take the plunge and try zip lining. Santa Cruz has Los Elementos that offers zip lining among many other outdoor activities.

Hidden Guide to 30 Best Things To Do in Lake Atitlan -

Panajachel has the longest line at 2822 feet long in Reserve Natural, while Santa Clara has the tallest zipline at 656 feet above the ground with a relatively long line at 1,312 in Chuiraxamoló Eco-Park.

In San Pedro, Canopy San Pedro gives you the same fantastic view of the lake as you glide along valleys and see the volcanoes from a higher altitude.

Try Guatemalan Food

Hands down the best traditional Guatemalan food I’ve had during my visit in Guatemala is at The House Of The Traveler Restaurant & Mayan Flavors. It came in highly recommended by a local so thought we’d give it a try. We stopped by past their typical hours but the owner welcomed us and offered to cook for us. If you’re looking for food like how Guatemalans like their home cooked meals, then this is the place to go.

Hidden Guide to 30 Best Things To Do in Lake Atitlan -

Another one I’d recommend is Cafe Sabor Cruceno. Service is impeccable and the food is just amazing. The cafe is ran by CECAP, a training center for those who wants to practice trades, so you know that your lunch money goes a long way in supporting locals’ livelihoods.

Learn Freediving at Lake Atitlan

Experts agree that freediving is among of the most mentally challenging extreme sports out there. Freediving fans tout the mental health benefits that come with it, so I know I just had to try it.

things to do in Lake Atitlán - free diving

From my experience, I can tell you that it’s the first time that I’ve been so mentally and emotionally exhausted. You have to use muscles and body parts that you never notice exist, like your tongue. While these all sound intense, don’t worry, you don’t need to commit to full course, you can simply sign up for a trial run. Once you’re ready, maybe you can even get yourself to be fully certified at Freedive Atitlan!

Hike Volcan San Pedro

If you’re looking for a challenging hike, try hiking Volcan San Pedro. Volcanoes are ridiculously steeper compared to mountains, making it feel like a climb on your gym’s Jacob’s Ladder. Finishing this hike will give a sense of accomplishment and you may also be rewarded with avocados that may be falling from the trees lining up the trails.

Hidden Guide to 30 Best Things To Do in Lake Atitlan -

Be warned though that there are reports of bandits on the trails. If you can go early enough, you may be able to get a guide to hike with you to the top.

Take a jump at Cerro Tzankujil Nature Reserve

If you’re wanting to take a break from the scene at San Marcos, the nature reserve within town is a good getaway where you can go on a hike and take a plunge on the cool waters of Lake Atitlan. There’s a designated platform to cliff jump from into the water.

Hidden Guide to 30 Best Things To Do in Lake Atitlan -

Visit a Tul Plantation in Traditional Cayucos

Most tourist get around the lake with the speedboats, but there’s another way to explore in a slower more traditional way.

Cayucos are dugout canoes with a distinct shape different from traditional North American canoes. They’re usually used for fishing. You can try it out and row across the boat while learning about Tul, a plant that plays a crucial role in the region’s environmental and cultural heritage in Lake Atitlán.

Hidden Guide to 30 Best Things To Do in Lake Atitlan -

This is the tour for you if you’re into learning about both the culture and the local biodiversity.

Try Temazcal

After a cold plunge at Cerro Tzankujil, it is worth trying the local version of sauna. These temezcals are small pods made of concrete or mud with an opening to feed the flame with wood, which then heats up the temezcal inside.

Temazcal
Source: loppear

The Mayans considered Temezcals to be a way to cleanse the body through heat. Be careful though because it can get pretty smoky from using Temezcals. There are local families that can host you in this Temezcal cleansing ritual and prepare you dinner to end the day.

Go to a coffee tour

Shangri-la Atitlan offers a 2.5 hour long coffee production tour. You’ll be taken to the local coffee farms, where you can see the farmers harvesting the beans and Tim, the owner, will explain the cultivation process and what makes Lake Atitlan unique for coffee growers.

The tour ends at the coffee roasting facility where the robust scent of coffee lingers even outside. Tim, of the to owner, will explain the different types of coffee and how each type of processing impacts the batch of coffee that gets to the consumers’ hands.

More information on Shangri-la Atitlan tours.

Try Fresh Chocolate

Even though Santa Cruz is more famous for chocolate, we’ve also heard a lot of praises for the chocolate from San Marcos’ Dalileo Chocolate. The facility was difficult to find and you’ll have to walk to the higher area of town to get to the it, so we were bummed out to find that it was closed when we got there. Apparently, there should be a chocolate tour available there. We were lucky enough though to get a couple of these chocolates from Shangri-la Atitlan that sells them.

Hidden Guide to 30 Best Things To Do in Lake Atitlan -

Believe me when I say that Dalileo is the best chocolate I’ve ever had. I can’t think of another brand or chocolate that can compare to how decadent it is. It’s so good that they even export it in small batches to both US and European countries.

Get a Massage

After a long day of hiking and exploring the stunning scenery of Lake Atitlan, treat yourself to a rejuvenating massage at Tami’s. This skilled therapist has a gift for identifying and targeting specific areas of tension, leaving you feeling relaxed and refreshed.

With her intuitive approach and expert technique, Tami’s massage services are a must-try for anyone seeking a little R&R during their Lake Atitlan getaway. If you’re lucky, maybe she’ll tell you a thing or two about the mysticism of Lake Atitlan in her many years of living near the lake.

You can find her at San Pedro, Lake Atitlan.

Stand up paddle board on Lake Atitlán

Explore the lake’s crystal-clear waters and take in the stunning scenery of surrounding volcanoes and traditional Mayan villages with a paddle board. From your board, you may see birdwatching spots, and local landmarks.

Hidden Guide to 30 Best Things To Do in Lake Atitlan -

You can also opt to stop at secluded beaches or take a refreshing swim. No experience is necessary, and you just need to rent the board itself.

Hidden Guide to 30 Best Things To Do in Lake Atitlan -

If you’re coming all the way from Antigua, you can also just get the tour company to pick you up and get you to Lake Atitlán.

Improve your spiritual well-being

During my time there, I’ve met a lot of travelers that sought out Lake Atitlan to improve their connection with nature and themselves. The local community still honors their Mayan heritage by actively practicing traditional ceremonies, such as fire and cacao rituals, which offer a unique opportunity for spiritual growth and self-reflection.

Hidden Guide to 30 Best Things To Do in Lake Atitlan -

Los Elementos and Kawoq Forest (formerly known as Yoga Forest) are two of the premiere eco-tourism agencies at Lake Atitlán. Both offer fire, cacao, and other traditional mayan ceremonies

More information about Los Elementos’ Fire Cleansing Ceremony, and Kawoq Forest

Learn more about local Weaving at the Women’s Co-op

In San Juan La Laguna, you can experience the tradition of weaving, watch the process, and purchase handmade textiles.

This community-driven cooperative is dedicated to preserving the ancient art of backstrap weaving, passed down through generations of Mayan women. Visit the co-op to learn about the intricate process of natural dyeing, spinning, and weaving, and watch skilled artisans at work.

The co-op also offers a wide range of handmade textiles for purchase, including scarves, shawls, and bags, all made with love and care by local women.

By supporting the co-op, you’re directly contributing to the preservation of Mayan culture and the empowerment of women in the community.

Go Rock Climbing with Los Elementos

Kayak Guatemala Los Elementos Adventure Center, which is within town of Santa Cruz La Laguna, is the premier tour company at Lake Atitlan. They offer activities such as rock climbing at the sole crag in the area. There’s only six routes available, but the routes are suitable for intermediate and fairly advanced climbers.

Paraglide

If the zipline did not give you enough of an adrenaline rush, why not take it a notch up and try paragliding a thousand feet above Lake Atitlan? While I have not personally tried paragliding in Lake Atitlan, travelers I met on on the trip recommended Realworld Paragliding in Panajachel.

Hidden Guide to 30 Best Things To Do in Lake Atitlan -

The flyers are licensed and have experience paragliding in other parts of the world like Italy and Himalayas.

Admire the street art at San Juan

San Juan, a town on Lake Atitlan, is the town with the liveliest street art. Vibrant murals and graffiti adorn walls, buildings, and streets, reflecting the town’s rich Mayan heritage. Traditional symbols, gods, and goddesses are depicted alongside scenes of daily life and struggles.

Hidden Guide to 30 Best Things To Do in Lake Atitlan -

Bold, bright colors and textures add depth to the artworks, making them almost three-dimensional. Abstract pieces, political murals, and whimsical cartoons showcase the artists’ unique perspectives.

Whether you’re an art enthusiast, photographer, or curious traveler, San Juan’s street art will make you admire the skills of local artists.

Go on a Quetzal Birdwatching Tour at Santiago

The Quetzal Birdwatching Tour at Santiago, Lake Atitlan, offers an opportunity to explore the cloud forests and spot the elusive Resplendent Quetzal and other avian species.

Hidden Guide to 30 Best Things To Do in Lake Atitlan -

Led by expert guides, you’ll learn about the quetzal’s habitat, behavior, and cultural significance, as well as its importance in Mayan mythology and culture. In addition to the quetzal, you’ll also have the chance to spot other bird species, including the Azure-rumped Tanager, Horned Guan, and Emerald-chinned Hummingbird.

Learn to Cook Mayan dishes

Learn the art of traditional Mayan cuisine with cooking classes! Discover the rich flavors and ingredients of Mayan dishes, passed down through generations. Local instructors will guide you through the preparation of authentic Mayan meals, such as Pepian.

Learn about the significance of traditional ingredients like achiote, chilies, and corn, and how to combine them to create bold and aromatic flavors in three hours of cooking Mayan dishes.

Try your hand at Traditional Fishing

Local fishermen can take you out fishing in the lake with Cayucos, which are their traditional fishing boats. They’ll teach you the techniques that have been passed down to them through generations.

Hidden Guide to 30 Best Things To Do in Lake Atitlan -

Enjoy a relaxing day at the lake and hang out with the locals while getting yourself food for dinner!

Get an introduction to the world of Metaphysics

If participating in traditional mayan ceremonies wasn’t enough and you want to get deeper into your spiritual journey.

Las Pirámides is a spiritual center with two locations in Lake Atitlan. It offers meditation temples, pyramid-shaped cabins, an esoteric library, medicinal plant garden, communal kitchen, sauna, and special diet options. The center provides various courses and programs, including yoga, meditation, and metaphysics classes, as well as intensive retreats ranging from 1-40 days.

Las Pirámides is a hub for spiritual growth, self-discovery, and transformation, attracting seekers from around the world. Its unique environment and programs foster a deep connection with nature and inner self.

Scubadive in a volcanic lake

Divers seeking a unique challenge will find Lake Atitlan, a dormant volcanic lake in Guatemala’s southwestern highlands, an intriguing destination. Situated 1,500 meters above sea level, this location presents an opportunity for high-altitude diving, a specialized type of diving that requires careful consideration.

As experienced divers know, altitude diving involves distinct risks and requirements. The reduced ambient air pressure at higher elevations results in a more rapid pressure change during the initial 30 feet of descent, necessitating precise dive planning and execution.

Hidden Guide to 30 Best Things To Do in Lake Atitlan -
Source: ati divers

Lake Atitlan’s unique geology and ecosystem, shaped by its volcanic history and high-altitude environment, offer an unparalleled diving experience. The lake’s crystal-clear waters, stretching 18 kilometers in length and reaching depths of up to 341 meters, provide a fascinating setting for exploration.

You can get equipped with the gear at ATI Divers at Iguana La Perdida Hostel.

Volunteer at a local NGO

Volunteer at local NGO’s in the Guatemalan highlands above Lake Atitlán. You can contribute by teaching, helping in construction, or farming among other things. You’ll make a real difference in the local community, while getting comfortable accommodations and meals.

Hidden Guide to 30 Best Things To Do in Lake Atitlan -

One NGO looking for volunteers is the Opal House. Conveniently located half an hour outside of Panajachel, Opal House provides a peaceful atmosphere perfect for relaxing and recharging, while giving you the opportunity to contribute to meaningful projects and initiatives that benefit the local community.

If you’re short on time but are still interested in contributing to a local cause, you can visit a local vocational school, learn more about what they do, and get a tour of Santa Cruz.

Learn Permaculture & Homesteading

With Lake Atitlán being a eco-tourism destination, it’s not surprising that Atitlan Organics set up shop near the lake. They provide courses to help you become a self-sufficient homesteaders through Permaculture and Regenerative Design principles.

Hidden Guide to 30 Best Things To Do in Lake Atitlan -

You can take courses in Permaculture, Design Certification, or specialized courses like Natural Building, Sacred Earth Yoga Teacher Training, Composting Chickens, and Intuitive Plant Propagation.

Go Horseback riding to Pa Kamb’al I’X at San Juan

This may be one of the least known activities in Lake Atitlan. Pa Kamb’al I’X is a natural reserve with waterfalls and springs that overlooks the lake. There’s also caves made of volcanic material.

Hidden Guide to 30 Best Things To Do in Lake Atitlan -
Source: sanjuanlalaguna.com.gt

This tourism project takes guests to the viewpoints where they can hike, swim, go birdwatching and try Temezcal, and even camp! While I wasn’t fortunate enough to discover this place when I visited a couple of years ago, it’s no on my bucket list on my next visit to Lake Atitlan

More information here: Tours Ecologico Pa Kamb’al I’X

See objects defy gravity at the Mysterious Step in San Lucas

This mysterious stretch of road appears to defy gravity, causing objects to roll uphill instead of down. This reminds me of Santa Cruz, California’s The Mystery Spot.

Located about 135 kilometers from Guatemala City, this enigmatic phenomenon has been fascinating visitors for years. The road, which connects the municipalities of Patulul and San Lucas Tolimán, appears to be a normal slope, but don’t be fooled – objects placed on the surface will inexplicably start rolling upwards.

Hidden Guide to 30 Best Things To Do in Lake Atitlan -
Source: visite san lucas toliman

Whatever the explanation, visitors can’t get enough of this mind-bending phenomenon. People from nearby villages have grown accustomed to watching tourists conduct experiments on the road, placing bottles, balls, and even vehicles on the surface to see them roll uphill in defiance of logic.

Do a photography tour with a local guide

Explore the natural beauty and cultural richness of Lake Atitlan through the lens of your camera. A photography tour with Henry is a great way to experience the vibrant Mayan villages and stunninglandscapes surrounding the lake. I can personally vouch of his storytelling skills and ways with cameras, since we did our Indian Nose hike with him.

You can design your itinerary with him whether that’s visiting San Pedro la Laguna to wander the colorful streets with a or visiting the historic cemetery.

Either way, I’m almost sure that Lake Atitlan will be a good destination for capturing photos and landscapes.

More information at Sur Mesure Tours

Shop at Panajachel

For sightseeing and shopping, Panajachel’s Santander street is the destination for handicrafts, textiles, and any souvenir that you can imagine. It is the largest market in the area, and you will not have a hard time looking for things to bring back home.

Hidden Guide to 30 Best Things To Do in Lake Atitlan -
Source: michael swigart

You can even practice your Spanish when bargaining with vendors, but make sure you don’t bargain them out of their profit. Tourism is among the main sources of income on the lake.

Camp at Cerro Chuiraxamolo

Head to Cerro Chuiraxamolo’s stunning forests after a scenic hike and breathe in that fresh mountain air! Surrounded by rolling hills and a starry sky, this is the perfect spot for nature lovers, travelers, and families to unwind and relax.

Hidden Guide to 30 Best Things To Do in Lake Atitlan -

And if you’re an early riser, you’re in for a treat! Catch the sunrise over Lake Atitlán, widely considered the most beautiful lake in the world, and watch as the first light of day dances across the water. From the top of Chuiraxamolo Hill, 2734 meters up, you’ll feel like you’re on top of the world – and that crisp mountain air will leave you feeling refreshed.

Relax & Do Nothing

If this list alone makes you tired, it’s also okay to just relax and do nothing. During one of the days of my stay there, I just spent the day people watching and admiring the lake from where I sit.

And that’s perfectly just as good as any other day.

Hidden Guide to 30 Best Things To Do in Lake Atitlan -

Finishing Thoughts

Lake Atitlán has a special place in my heart because it was my first leisure trip out of the country. If anything, it’s what made me love traveling. In my one week stay there, I was only able to cover a handful of the things I suggested here but I was able to look into other things that I hope to try out when I come back to the lake again in the next few years.

If you’re still not convinced whether Lake Atitlán is the right destination for you, I’m telling you right now that it is worth a visit (unless you prefer beach destinations). If you’re already in the middle of planning, then great to hear! I hope this guide helped you in your planning.


Leave a Comment