Much has been written about Lake Atitlán as well as the town of Antigua Guatemala, everything mostly in a positive fashion. I admit that both places deserve compliments, although my subjective input here would not keep them in the same league. While Antigua certainly is one of the nicer colonial towns on a gringo trail, Lake Atitlán is far more that just another nice lake – it’s stunning and it’s also special. Below, I will try to explain what I mean by that.
La Antigua Guatemala
Located in Panchoy Valley, only about 40km from Guatemala City, La Antigua Guatemala is the best and fastest escape from the rather unpopular capital for most of the travellers. Known for its well preserved colonial Baroque-ish architecture, this UNESCO World Heritage site offers many stylish cafés and restaurants as well as rather vibrant nightlife.
Like many of the Spanish colonial towns in the continent, the city is laid out around its main square in pattern, with streets running north to south and from west to east. Many of Antigua‘s 35 thousand inhabitants make living out of the well oiled tourist-industry machine, the region benefits from. It’s close proximity to Monterrico beach or volcanoes Fuego and Acatenango as well as to numerous other attractions gives Antigua a lot of attractive treks and other various “tourist boxes” to be ticked.
As opposed to hot Pacific coast, as well as pretty much most of the places I went through, coming here from the south, the city is blessed with pleasant climate, which makes it also one of the favourite locations where many travellers decide to take a little break to study Spanish. The numerous language schools located in the town apparently come with a good reputation.
During the weekend, Antigua turns into a bit of a yuppie haven AKA a social playground for the capital’s youth top ten thousand. If you’ve been to Brighton or Valencia during the weekend, you know what I mean. I personally can’t say that it’s my scene but if you search only a bit harder, there are several cool spots to enjoy the alternative crowd as well as the soundtrack that fits my non-mainstream requirements – to mention at least one of them – check out Cafe No Sé if you are around 😉
Lago de Atitlán is located about 50km northwest of Antigua at about 1560 meters above the sea level in Guatemalan Highlands of the Sierra Madre mountain range. The alleged 2,5 hrs journey turned nearly 4hrs however doesn’t reflect the distance as it happens in quite a few cases when travelling in Guatemala.
Atitlán translates as “between the waters” in the Aztec language. The lake basin is volcanic in origin, filling an enormous space created by a sinkhole from which volcano erupted 84 000 years ago. It makes it a deepest lake in Central America with a maximum depth of about 340 metres.
Lake’s shore could drop or rise rather visibly within weeks, which fuels the mysterious rumours of the unknown depth where many bodies of the Mayan predecessors being frozen-buried in the depths of the lake. Several Mayan archeological sites have however been found at the lake approximately 16m under the surface making those rumours rather unrumourly…
Surrounded by 3 volcanoes and steep hills, the lake is a home to numerous towns and villages, Adventurous Kate nicely describes here in further detail. The culture of the villages surrounding the lake is influenced by the Mayans, arguably the most happy and friendly people I’ve came across in Central Americas. That should serve as rather proper illustration of how I felt about the locals.
When it comes to the surroundings, I will borrow the words of a master here:
“Lake Como [famous pretty lake in Italy] it seems to me, touches on the limit of permissibly picturesque, but Atitlán is Como with additional embellishments of several immense volcanoes. It really is too much of a good thing.”Aldous Leonard Huxley: Beyond the Mexique Bay
In conclusion, IMHO, while Antigua Guatemala is a pretty little colonial town which I would only recommend to visit if you are in the area, Lake Atitlán is different. It’s a place well worth spending far more time getting there. Why? It’s a stunning place where I felt good, creative happy and energised.
It’s that sort of place people talk about when mentioning that it has a special energy, whatever that means. It’s a place that makes one to stay much longer than anticipated. It’s stunning, it’s friendly and it has great energy – in other words – it’s special.
How to get there?
There are numerous shuttle companies one can take from Guatemala City’s airport straight to Antigua. The journey apparently takes from 45 minutes to several hours. I’ve travelled there from El Tunco (El Salvador) and the 8hrs/$12 journey through Honduran coastline was rather stunning – a word of advice – sit on the left side 😉
As for Antigua – Lake Atitlán, instead of the advertised 2,5 hours, it took about 4hrs for 80 Quetzals (€9,20). There are numerous agents offering the same trip for different prices like it happens in these parts of the world…
- Antigua: I’ve stayed in La Quinta AKA the cheapest place for the private room in town. Because of the reviews, I’ve picked the room with shared bathroom to avoid the smell caused most likely by an outdated canalisation system. FYI, this place is more about serving a function, rather than offering much comfort. But getting my own room for $5.50USD didn’t have me expecting much either. It could get a bit noisy there the air could stink a bit from time to time but I can’t say that the place was unbearable. I’ve actually extended my stay ‘cos it did have some bizarre character, plus it was located rather centrally.
- Lake Atitlán: I’ve stayed in two different places in San Pedro La Laguna. Hotel Don Chema was located in a residential area, about 15 minutes walk to the centre. The Mayan lady who is running the place was very friendly and attentive. For $10,-USD, I’ve had a huge room for myself with in suite bathroom. The place had a terrace with amazing view over the lake. After over a week I have switched to cheaper and bit more social Hotel Paraíso. For $6,-USD, I’ve had a basic private room with bathroom. It wasn’t a Hilton but for the price, it was much better than one would expect. In Panajachel, I’ve stayed in ABU Hostel in a dorm for $5.50USD. The staff was very friendly and informative and there was also a nice little garden
- Panama: Entry fee was reported to be $3,-USD by some people, I wasn’t asked to pay one. Exit fee was $3,-USD. Many travellers reported that they have needed to show the proof of onward travel. I’ve purchased the bestonwardticket.com for $12,-USD but I wasn’t asked to provide it. Flying out is however apparently $40,-USD (:0
- Costa Rica: No entry fee. Exit fee is $7,-USD. You might need to show a proof of onward travel. I have passed without one.
- Nicaragua: Entry fee was $13 ($12 + $1), exit was $3,-USD
- Honduras: Entry fee of $3,-USD
- El Salvador: Nada
- Guatemala: Nada
In case you are interested in local legends, please read here about an interesting and rather divisive figure of Maximón.