I just paid a visit to the wonderful country of Guatemala and WOW did I fall in love! I spent ten days between the UNESCO World Heritage site of Antigua as well as Lake Atitlan. Lago de Atitlán is like the Cinque Terre of Guatemala, with much less vino and much more rice, beans and free spirits lol. The lake sits in the Guatemalan Highlands of the Sierra Madre mountain range. It is in the Sololá Department of southwestern Guatemala and is the deepest lake in Central America. Aside from knowing that I would be surrounded by beautiful nature in a spiritual and wellness mecca, I hadn’t done much research prior to my trip on what to do. And I had one of the best trips of my life for so many reasons, so I’m sharing my favorite things here with you!
What to do in Lake Atitlan, Guatemala
Hike a volcano
Lake Atitlan has some super incredible views. There are many hikes you can do (even at sunrise) to catch the view from above. The Indian’s Nose Sunrise hike is a popular one, but we were told there has unfortunately been crime on the trail in recent months. Therefore, we decided not to go. But as with everything abroad, just use your judgment and take caution as needed! Many of the towns also actively promote a variety of volcano hikes from Antigua as well so you can get your fix before or after spending time at the lake.
Make some new friends at a hostel
To be honest, I really thought my hostel days were over. But hostels in Central America are more like small boutique (no-frills) hotels, and it’s a GREAT way to meet people. And, it’s incredible value for what you get! We spent the first few nights at Casa Kaktus and paid about $40 for our room which also included a home-cooked breakfast. I spend that much on a cab sometimes in New York! Many of the hostels such as Iguanas also do community dinners, where you can stop in even if you’re not staying at the hostel. This is another really nice way to connect with other travelers. As of late, I’ve become way to into hotel design and aesthetics (which I do still love), but the vibe can be a little closed off and not as exciting at fancy places. The people I met at the hostels were truly incredible humans. Everyone was super cool and we had a lot of laughs with these kind and gentle souls. Sometimes when you travel you get lucky and happen to have really magical connections with others, which is just total dynamite. So check out the hostel scene and carry an open mind!
Attend a festival
The lake is a great place to have a good time. My friend discovered a festival called Cosmic Convergence that was taking place over New Year’s Eve. It was definitely an adventure having to cross the lake from one town to another hitchhike our away in a pickup truck to the festival destination. But then we arrived the space was beautiful in the mountains of Santiago. There were definitely more hippies than I’ve ever seen in my life all together, with some really cool unique artwork, stages, and a little village where you can buy some really tasty snacks and handmade items. While I did get festive, after a few hours I chose to leave since it wasn’t really my scene, but it was definitely an adventure!
Lake Atitlan is a spiritual place. There’s plenty of yoga centers and all sorts of related fun things I noticed on Google Maps there was “hypnotherapy” and thought it would be really cool thing to try out. The essence of the experience is more like a deep meditation – you are guided on this personal Journey connecting with your spirit guide who shows you and helps you recall things in your life that has shaped who you are and will inspire you where to go next. I loved the experience and I felt very calm, collected, and confident after my reading. When I began I was feeling a little nervous and scattered about where I was in life, but after going on this journey I was reminded of how much abundance I have in my life. I felt secure I’m where I need to go next. And I even had an extremely coincidental thing occur right after the reading that really made me believe that this is not Hocus Pocus and that the work was real. So check out Guides of Wisdom if you’re up for it!
Do all the yoga
I love yoga. One of my most favorite things to do when traveling is to find a yoga studio and drop into the community and practice. San Marcos is probably one of the more popular places where you can find wellness centers and yoga facilities. Many of the hotels as well also offer yoga retreats and hotels where you can practice daily. I’d recommend stopping by Isla Verde in Santa Cruz for an 8:30 a.m. class. It’s taught by a lovely woman who also makes very beautiful malas and the yoga studios are absolutely gorgeous. In San Marcos I would suggest day a trip to the Yoga Forest where you can practice in their yoga studio that overlooks the volcano in the mountains. It’s about a 20 to 30-minute hike from the center of San Marcos, so pack light!
Go kayak or paddle-boarding
Being out on the lake is such a gift. One of my most enjoyable afternoons was renting a kayak from a small shop in Santa Cruz and taking it out for a quick session solo. It cost $5 per hour at the place next to Isla Verde in Santa Cruz. I would totally suggest finding one of these small independent locals to rent from. Some of the hotels and even hostels will have a markup. I noticed about a 400% markup at one hotel to rent equipment which is seriously outrageous. But make sure you take the time to either kayak or paddleboard. Being able to drift out on the lake and just be and that beautiful place in nature with yourself or a friend is a really lovely experience!
Eat and drink!
I’m a big fan of eating all the local things when traveling. The lake is definitely not as busy as the town of Antigua, so it’s important to know a few things:
- Dinner reservations are a must. Since it’s a lot of effort to transport things to the lake, help the restaurants and hotels by informing them of your plans. The venues typically require you to confirm dinner plans by 4pm the same day
- Wine is not flowing freely at the lake. In fact, bottles from Europe are quite pricey. Try the Latin American stuff from Argentina or Chile instead.
- Check back for my guide to where to eat & drink in Lake Atitlan and Antigua!
Sleep in a treehouse
Please do this for your soul. Find a place that has treehouse cabins to enjoy for a couple of nights. These are not only more eco-friendly but just SO cool. One night we had a little rain but it was so calming and nice to be tucked away in a little hut! And you get to really feel and hear the jungle come alive. Just a disclaimer, there are spiders and the occasional scorpion! It’s part of the jungle experience : )
Guatemala is known for its craftsmanship in woven goods. It was hard not to but many things there, but what I’d suggest is stopping at Hiptipico in Panajachel for sure. I love this company, and they make so many amazing things working with the local women. They even offer vegan made versions of things, and they offer cultural tours as well – another great opportunity to support local women and do something fun! You can also stop by CECAP for breakfast and visit the shop there. You can take a tuk-tuk to the top of the town (or hike about 30 mins up) to meet local men and women working to improve lives in the village. Students learn new skills from carpentry, culinary arts, and weaving, to better support themselves and their families. You can also schedule a group lunch at the rooftop restaurant and a cooking, weaving, or beading class to fully immerse yourself in Mayan traditions. I got a great bag that was perfect for day outings.
Learn a new skill
Whether or not you visit Hiptipico or CECAP, I suggest you find yourself a cultural activity to get into! There’s so much offered from natural dye workshops, weaving, coffee making, and more. The most rewarding thing about these activities is knowing that your support and funding are not only helping families but giving them the empowerment they need to grow.
Indulge in a massage
I got 4 massage treatments in 1 week here! I just could not help myself. But I was really into the conversion rate and YOLO. Our hotel at Isla Verde had an in-house masseuse who was great and focused on shiatsu. He also is very informed on Chinese medicine so basically gave me a reading as we did the bodywork. For a little over an hour, the session was about $40. I also wandered into San Pedro town to find a lot of affordable massages and ended up getting one in the back of a laundry service for $15 lol. If you’re looking for something a bit fancier, I made it over to another town and had a massage looking over the water at Hotel Lomas de Tzununa for about $40 which was just heavenly. And if you make it to Antigua, the sauna and massage at the new Palo Santo Hotel is unreal. Must do. My advice: call and book at least a day in advance since the therapists typically need time to travel to the venue/hotel.
Shop the look:
Visit the Villages
Lake Atitlan is so great for the diversity of towns to visit. While they are similar, they are all a little different! Here are my faves in order:
- Santa Cruz – I may be a little biased since this was the town we slept in most, but it’s so calm and cute and mellow. There’s really not a whole lot to see or do other than relax, lay in a hammock, kayak, and enjoy some cocktails! This town is home to CECAP and my fave hotel, Isla Verde.
- San Juan – this town is very cute and has some really great shopping. Once you get off the boats you strut up the main street which is full of some really lovely items. Save your shopping for this town, then make sure you visit Cafe El Artesano (but you must call to book as they get busy)!
- San Pedro – this town is definitely more touristy and busy with vendors trying to sell you tours etc once you arrive, but once you past that there are some cool things to do. Like, get hypnotized, or lay in one of the thermal volcanic baths!
- San Marcos – people love this town and I did NOT. I bought a really pretty piece of jewelry from a street vendor there, but I got such a weird vibe from this town. There are a lot of hippies (think, Phish show) and I just sensed a weird energy that was not positive. While Lush Atitlan is located there, a hotel I wanted to stay at, the rest just feel like it’s a town for wandering hippies with minimal goals or direction that just want to live in some artistic community. Not a fan.
Relax at the volcanic thermal baths
For $10 you can have this epic view overlooking the lake all to yourself. Located in San Pedro, this little operation is run by a lovely Mayan woman who has the kindest eyes ever. You need to allow them 30 mins to fill up the pools, as they fill one with hot water and one with cold water. I went to the wellness shop and picked up some essential oils and magnesium salts before going to sass it up. I loved my little session all alone here. Best advice, go at night with a bottle of wine and bring some candles! Just search for thermal baths on Google Maps and you’ll find it!