It was finally time for us to move on to Guatemala. After 2 weeks of regular travel through Mexico, we had lined up Lake Atitlan for a week, relaxing and exploring the various nooks and crannies of this famous region.
To get to Guatemala from Mexico, we booked a tourist shuttle, which would take us to the border, and put us on another once we crossed. There are a lot of these services in Central America, and they vary wildly in price. We got our shuttle for only $20USD each, and made the decision based on the fact we estimated using local transport would only save us $5-7USD each. It proved to be a clutch call, as we somehow ended up with a whole shuttle to ourselves on both sides of the border, which made getting some shut-eye nice and easy. The shuttle drivers even stop regularly for snacks and toilets, so was money well spent, as the journey ended up taking close to 11 hours (instead of the advertised 8.5)!
We arrived at the main town of the lake, Panajachel, and we were just in time for the last boat of the day. Considering how much we had spent on accommodation for this week, we were quite nervous as the hours widdled away on the shuttle! Jonny hadn’t eaten much, and seemed to pick up a combination of altitude sickness, dehydration and starvation, so wasn’t in a great state. However we got to Jaibalito, and were greeted by Venturo, the caretaker. After taking one look at us he kindly led us to a local restaurant for dinner, and then up the hill to our accommodation. Jaibalito is the smallest town on the lake, and was very cool spending a bit of time there, feeling like the only tourists. Our accommodation was simply amazing, and after a few weeks of hostels, having a whole house with views like this was incredible at only $50USD/night.
We essentially spent the first three days at the lake wandering along the northern shore, enjoying some awesome and manageable hikes, and seeing what each little village has to offer. That, or just drinking tea, watching Friends and reading while enjoying our view. It was fantastic (although there were unanticipated scorpions…).
Two of the main villages on the north shore are Santa Cruz & San Marcos. These have very different vibes, so it was great to see both. San Marcos is the more famous of the two, renowned for exceptional tranquility, and lots of opportunities to do yoga, meditation and ‘find yourself’. While the village itself was exceptionally beautiful, we were quite glad we didn’t stay there due to the type of person it seemed to attract. Santa Cruz on the other hand did have our sort of vibe. There are essentially two parts to the village – the lake front hostel/hotel area, and the local village situated up the top of the hill (it was a decent hill, one we decided to climb instead of paying $2USD to tuk-tuk….).
This village was really cool, and we happened across a local P.E. Class playing football in the centre of town. We grabbed a couple of cold drinks, and just sat and watched local life go by. It was really cool.
For reference, there is a very walkable trail that extends from Santa Cruz in the east, all the way to San Marcos in the west, and it would take about three hours. Luckily, with the regular boat system, you can just go one-way. We highly recommend the Jaibalito to Tzununa leg of this hike, as it is beautiful. Note: there have been reports of some robberies on this track so best to check in with locals about what the situation is. We didn’t encounter any issues but we have heard the safety changes regularly.
After a few days of excellent relaxation, we put our backpacker hats back on, and headed across the lake to San Pedro, a backpacker hotspot, for two nights. We had had a recommendation to stay at Mr. Mullets, so we booked in for $20USD/night (private room, but was literally just a bed). However, the common and bar area was an excellent place to meet people, and we spent both nights there enjoying some drinks and chatting with other travellers. We can recommend staying here, as the rooms are good enough, and breakfast is first-class (choice of eggs, pancakes or a big bowl of granola/fruits, prepared for you when you order), but there are a few other options in town you can explore. It’s a pretty small place, so you do not have to go far if you want to check out other hostel bars e.g. Hostel Fe (bit more party-party).
We found some surprising good eating while at Lake Atitlan. We ventured into Panajachel to do a grocery run while staying in Jaibalito but found the grocery prices a lot more expensive than we were anticipated. Consequently, we ended up eating pasta for the time at the Air BnB. However while in town we found a great brunch place called Mister Jon’s that served up American style grub. The best meal came when we stumbled across The Fifth Dimension cafe in San Pedro. Alex was craving some healthy food after all the tortillas and cheese in Mexico, and she was not disappointed. This cute cafe with amazing views of the lake had an amazing menu of vegan and vegetarian eats. Alex ordered a tofu salad and omnivore John had a burrito. Would highly recommend this place if you are in the area, but get it quick as it closes at 5pm.
Overall, Lake Atitlan was a great choice to spend some days relaxing. We can only imagine what it gets like in high season when the sun is out and there are more people around, but we liked it a bit quieter.
For the sake of comparability, we will state all our costs in USD. The costs below are an approximate total for two of us over six days:
Total: $501 USD / $734 NZD
We obviously spent a little more than our usual budget on accommodation but it was well worth it. We cooked for ourselves while staying at the Air BnB but found groceries in Guatemala fairly expensive.