Lake Atitlan, Guatemala

It was supposed to be the main attraction in Guatemala. Lake Atitlan was/is after all the crown of Guatemala and maybe the most visited of its place. However, I struggled to like it. I wanted to like it so bad coz it was going to decide if I would come back to Guatemala ever again. Even worse, I did not like Guatemala too. Maybe coz I saw the country in the lake and only with North Americans. So many of them were there around the lake, that I felt Cancun was more Mexican! So, when someone told me, “you have to try San Lucas de Toliman on the lake” I felt like going all in, and include it in my group tour itinerary. Hoping that If nothing works then maybe the only thing that remains will. Well o Well, and did it work this time!!

View from the Hotel – San Lucas Toliman

I should have written this from Lake Atitlan, I am thinking now. I should’ve written it from San Lucas de Toliman, the small town on the lake that changed my view of all things previously imagined. There were crowds here too, but they were just locals. Families enjoying a quiet Sunday by the lake. There was no sign of English or people who spoke it as their first language and that was refreshing. I do not want to sound anti-English, but when only one kind of tourists come to town, the town becomes them, rather than they become the town.

Also, a crowd of locals does not feel like a crowd as they seem to somehow merge with the place. I am writing now however from 30000 ft above and on my way to Cuba. I can still see from way up here, the volcanoes that overlook the lake. San Pedro and Atitlan though may have erupted hundreds of years ago but for the many tourists who come back from the lake, the images keep erupting in their mind way after. The volcanoes of Patagonia have an ice cone whereas here its pure soil.

The more local town – San Antonio Palopo

The other towns on the lake like Panahchel, San Pedro and San Marcos are nice but then they have so many tourists and shops selling things catering to them that I struggle to find the lake in the towns. They have the view, they have an international vibe, but in them, Guatemala feels, unlike Guatemala. San Antonio de Palopa feels a little more of Guatemala to me in the series of towns around the lake. Just like Lake Bohinj in Slovenia feels more like Slovenia than lake bled.

The quiet lane at San Marcos

Sometimes in the night when I look at the Atitlan, and well, I can’t really see anything but yet there is the wind and there is the sense of being around the water. The volcanoes that guard the lake are lost in the darkness but even in that, there is the feeling of someone watching over the lake. Someone, not some mountain. With the lake, the extinct volcanoes feel active. The Volcanoes and the Lake complete each other.

If there is a day of touring around the lake then this is how I would recommend you to do it.

Around the lake in a day!

  • Take the boat and start early, after 4 pm the lake starts to feel like a sea when it’s windy.
  • In San Antonia Palopo to see the locals while not being bothered by tourists.
  • In San Pedro be in presence of party-goers and feel the buzz.
  • In San Marcos walk in the narrow lane lined with yoga casa’s, organic café’s.
  • In San Juan explore the coffee and the chocolate makers.
The town for Coffee and Chocolate – San Juan

I would come back to the lake and always stay at San Lucas Toliman, but for what the lake is, to each one his own. I am sure just as I found my lake in Toliman you would find yours elsewhere on its periphery.


Antigua – Guatemala

As my mini-coach entered the cobbled stone lanes of Antigua, I noticed two things. One, there were more locals that tourists. Two, the tourists had a very easy pace. In the first few minutes of looking at Antigua from a partially blocked view in my coach, I fully knew that this would be ‘the place’ in Guatemala. Maybe I expected too much from Lake Atitlan or too less from Antigua, that turned the tables in favor of Antigua as my favorite town in not only Guatemala but in entire Latin America including Mexico.

closeup of Guatemalan cuisine

Sometimes on a research tour, when I go to places which are high on the ‘must go’ list, I end up not liking it so much. It has the face but just lacks the soul. Lake Ohrid in Macedonia, in the Balkans was one such place. With Lake Atitlan it was not as clear as Like Ohrid. I knew there was something there I was missing, and I knew I would find it. I can however say that I found what I was missing in Atitlan when I walked the streets of Antigua.

Five facts about Antigua

  1. Only Colonial city in Latin America with the backdrop of two volcanoes.
  2. The favorite city to learn Spanish for American and Europeans.
  3. Although the cuisine is not as popular as Peru, it still has a spark.
  4. Beautiful old world charm hotels for less than $30 per night.
  5. Best infrastructure for tourism in Guatemala.

It was lunchtime. Tourist friendly, lonely planet and TripAdvisor ranked restaurants had laid out their menu card out, with a person talking about it. I had left Atitlan without breakfast and it was nearly 2pm. Today however, it felt like walking not in search of lunch, but to just feel the cobblestones under my feet and to watch the locals eating at joints or having a dessert from a street seller. I think I could only keep up with the ‘oh I want to walk’ for the next 15 mins though. To blame, were the two ladies who just when I walked past their space, opened two big metal containers of food and pulled out the food with a ladel. I think since I couldn’t see what they were serving, the pure scent of it pulled me in. I simply nodded to what one of the ladies said and under a minute I was having a hot and hearty meal. Under $5 with a refreshment and a desert, it was as good as it gets.

Lent carpets outside church & volcano, Antigua, Guatemala

As the evening came in, the temperature came down. I had to go to my hotel room to get an extra layer. I think the warmth of the room made me a little lazy and I ended up taking a nap. When I woke up it was already time for dinner. I did not complain.

At the end I know there is a lot that I would’ve not done in Antigua in my first visit. But then that’s why going there again and then again would be good.

Lake Atitlan, Guatemala – To Be or Not To Be!

I had never thought of Guatemala much at first. When the name began to surface in my travel plans, for Latin America, it was still a filler country. Mexico for its heritage and food, Cuba for its ‘travel back in time‘ feel and Guatemala for?! It was a question I needed to find an answer to, and just Guatemala as a filler did not make me feel good. I had seen images of this turquoise lake and the two volcanic mountains at the edge of it. I had also heard that the Lake Atitlan was very touristic in places but even then there were a few corners that felt peaceful perhaps like its southern counterpart, Patagonia. I had seen the lake and the surrounding towns, enough on the map. It was time to find it out for real.

The hostel where I chose to stay was heavily recommended on both lonely planet and TripAdvisor. It also had a beautiful location with direct views of the two volcanoes. Inside though it felt more like the U.S than it felt like in Guatemala. I think that was the first reason I wanted to stay as much out of it as possible. So I traveled and traveled a lot to find where on the lake it feels like Guatemala.

After spending 24 hours on the lake I was still trying to find out that one place which was charming and not just pretty. When in an open truck as I passed through the tiny hamlets of San Catarina and San Antonio, the first feel of being on a lake in ‘Guatemala’ struck me. Sometimes in my hunt of a destination to stay for my group, I come across places like Lake Atitlan, beautiful but yet something feels like not complete. Maybe I judge too much or maybe I should just let the work to score over personal preferences. Or, I should just wait and let it grow. Sometimes what we expect and what comes up is so different. In Guatemala, I fell in love with Antigua and only liked Lake Atitlan. I had thought the reverse would happen. With Lake Atitlan, I think I would wait and let it grow on me, coz for the people I know it would be an instant ‘wow’.

The accommodation possibilities on the lake range from hostels to guest houses to fancy hotels. I had to find a hotel for my tourists but before that, I had to find that one village where it felt different than in most places on the lake. San Lucas de Toliman did not have the view as it was directly under the volcano. I did not find time to look at it, but a hotel surfaced and I will take my group there this November. I will also hope that I like the lake better.

My favorite towns on Lake Atitlan and why?

Panajachel – Entry point and good to stroll around even at the expense of being super touristy.
San Catarina & San Antonio Palopo – Unpretentious and calm, easy access from Panacjel.
San Marcos – As Hippie as it gets but good for a walk and some really good cafes.