Santiago Atitlan and the Indigenous Pride of Guatemala

Lake Atitlan in Guatemala
Lake Atitlan in Guatemala

Lake Atitlan (and specially the town of Santiago Atitlan) is potentially the most dangerous place in the world for travelers: You’ll fall so much in love with it that you won’t ever want to travel anywhere else.

Sure, most visitors will just use the majestic beauty of this volcanic lake as the backdrop for partying, doing yoga and engaging in other activities that are far removed from the real Guatemalans and their indigenous pride.

Said visitors will never leave the touristy hubs of San Pedro (backpackers’ paradise), San Marcos (yoga lovers’ paradise) and Panajachel (expats’ paradise) in order to explore the many other wonderful villages of Lake Atitlan. And that’s a shame because this region has so much diversity from one town to another.

Did you know that each town has their own distinct indigenous weaving and style of dressing?

Santiago Atitlan: The crown jewel of the Lake

On the southern part of Lake Atitlan, you will find the extremely local village of Santiago Atitlan, a beautiful lake town that has seen some of the worst events of the Guatemalan civil war. It was here where peaceful protesters were shot. It was here where foreign priests were executed. It was here where Guatemala was reborn.

And yet, when you see the indigenous men and women going on with their daily life, it’s hard not to notice the way in which they all wear their traditional clothing (yes, even the men! You will hardly find jeans and t-shirts here!) and smile to each other with such a contagious joy.

One of the highlights of the town is the church where you will find some touching displays of faith. Some people wrongly believe that indigenous people of Latin America “sold out” by forsaking their own religion and embracing Christianity but that’s far from the true.

What they did was to replace the old symbols with new ones. Mayan Gods became Christian Gods and the church at Santiago Atitlan is the best way to experience how the indigenous people actually talk to the religious statues in their own dialect and yes, it’s not that uncommon to see Mayan ceremonies taking place inside the church!

How to organize a visit to Lake Atitlan

From Antigua, Guatemala you can take a direct shuttle to either San Marcos, San Pedro or Panajachel. The drive to Panajachel is extremely easy and short (2 hours and a half). The other one is not (5 hours plus a very bumpy road). Prices range from 10 to 15 USD so it’s not that expensive, however you can just get by with taking 2 to 3 chicken buses.

Since I’m a last-minute type of guy, I tried to book the day before departure so the seats to Panajachel were all sold out and I had to take the long route to San Pedro and from there take a boat to Panajachel, where I would be meeting with my hosts for the Lake, the lovely couple of Traci and Mark, two American expats that have made Lake Atitlan their home.

Boats from San Pedro to Panajachel and San Marcos leave every 20 minutes or so after filling them up with 15+ people. The price is 25 quetzals for non-locals. Yes, that even includes Guatemalans from other parts of the country. The logic is that local people constantly have to take the boats for work related reasons and they cannot afford to pay the full-fare.

As you already know, I’m a big opponent of the tourist price but to me, this just seems like a local discount (trust me, the price of gas in Guatemala is really expensive by global standards!) and I’m sure that the boat owners make a very small profit in each ride, actually.

Activities to do in Lake Atitlan

Besides hiking the many mountains and Volcanoes, one of the most famous activities in Lake Atitlan is kayaking.

Luckily for me, Traci had her own kayak and she was excited about the idea of setting off at 5 am in order to watch the sunrise from the middle of the lake.

The effects of going from pitch black darkness to an orange ray of light in the lake is definitely one of my adventure highlights.

The downside? I actually dropped my camera in the lake and while I was able to recover it, it was damaged beyond repair so from now you’ll mostly see GoPro and iPhone photography.

One of the main distinct elements of Lake Atitlan is that the water levels are rising more and more each passing year. This is specially bad for the locals who have built houses in the shores of the lake since eventually they will inevitable be devoured by the water.

However, it is always good to look for the silver linings and enjoy the unique joy of kayaking underneath a building. Can I get a hell yeah?

Where to stay in Lake Atitlan

If you’re looking for party, then stay in San Pedro and/or Panajachel, they have many budget and mid-range accomodations that cater to different crowds but if you’re looking for a real local experience, how about staying near Santiago Atitlan?

I was invited by Traci of Lake Villa Guatemala to stay at her B&B and yes, the location was amazing but the service? The service was even beyond awesome.

You see, reaching this B&B is kind of difficult if it’s your first time in the Lake so Traci kindly offered to pick me up at Panajachel and from there we drove to explore the many small villages on the way from Pana to Santiago.

These villages, such as San Catarina, San Antonio and San Lucas are rarely visited so they provide you with a better understanding of what a daily life is like for most folks in the lake: Hard work, farming, weaving and cutting wood. Plus, colorful markets where you can get things at their real price (I bought a traditional Guatemalan shirt for 30 quetzals = 3.5 USD)

The B&B has only two bedrooms so it’s extremely quiet and personal. The service also includes both breakfast and dinner… Vegan breakfast and dinner. I gotta admit that when I heard this, the first thought that came to my head was “salads, salads and more salads” but turns out that the vegan lifestyle has many interesting choices and replacements for milk and cheese.

Traci’s vegan lasagna was probably the best meal I’ve ever had during my travels in Guatemala! Sure, I love meat but hey, it’s always good to try something new once in a while, right? That’s the whole point about traveling: Experiencing new cultures and lifestyles in order to improve your own.

Lake Villa Guatemala is located at Km 11.5, a short 20 minutes ride from Santiago Atitlan. During my second day, I wanted to experience life as a local so I stayed in Santiago for some hours before heading back on my own. Sure, Traci kindly offered to pick me up but the moment I saw the way the locals traveled, I KNEW I had to try it.

You’ve probably heard all about the chicken buses, that is, old US school buses where people are crammed like chickens (and yes, some indigenous women DO carry chickens with them on the bus!). But in Atitlan they have something very unique called the chicken pick up trucks.

If you’re into extreme sports, try standing up in the back of a pick up truck with 20 more people. Trust me, you’ll love it!

Last but not least, don’t forget to use our Booking.com Affiliate Link of Wonders for making hotel reservations.

Same price for you and a small pocket money commission for this website of yours.

Sweet deal, uh?

Have you ever been to Lake Atitlan to enjoy its beauty? Would you like to? Share your opinions and let me know what you think!

9 Comments

  • Looks like a place I would enjoy. I love all those genuine destinations where people live their lives despite all the travellers! I really have to plan a trip to this region of the world soon!

  • Siempre me he sentido atraída por Guatemala, a pesar de que Antigua parecía ser el único lugar seguro para los visitantes extranjeros. Tras leer tu entrada me doy cuenta de que hay muchos más lugares que merecen una oportunidad. Muchas gracias por compartir tus experiencias y tantos datos útiles. Este post va directo a mis favoritos. Feliz día!

  • Oh that market looks amazing! With so many colours!
    Guatemala (as other countries in the area) is on my to do list when we finish Asia (which will take a while!)

    Looks like a lovely stay on the lake and a shame for your camera!

  • Beautiful place Raphael. I have long wanted to visit Central America and your series is really giving me a bad case of wanderlust. That lake looks amazing, especially in the sunset pic, that was incredible. Keep them coming!

  • Se me sigue haciendo raro ver tuk tuks en America he he he esas siempre me hacen pensar en Asia… y el lago se ve excelente!

    Saludos!

  • I love Lago Atitlan! The little towns around the local are so lovely. It is beautiful to see indigenous culture so alive & vibrant. They wear such colorful and gorgeous clothing.

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