Two Days at Lake Atitlan, Guatemala

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Transportation to Lake Atitlán

After working on the Bottle School, I spent the night in Antigua before getting transportation to Lake Atitlán.  I was in Guatemala for the busiest season at Easter, but I was able to get transportation easily with the help of my hotel, La Casa del Mundo, located between the towns of El Jaibalito and Santa Cruz La Laguna on the edge of the lake.  If they couldn’t have helped me, the hotel in which I was staying in Antigua, Hotel San Jorge, would have helped me. It seems to be common for each hotel to offer excursions and transportation.  I was a little concerned about not reserving a space in advance, but it didn’t seem to be a problem, at least not for one person.

Normally, I would have been more proactive in booking a shuttle, but I didn’t have the full grasp of how the transportation systems worked in Guatemala.  Basically, there are public buses (Camionetas) which are refurbished school buses that look fancy, but are mostly ridden by locals.  In addition, there are tourist shuttles, which was the recommended form of transportation with certainly at a much higher fee.

The tourist shuttles schedule a pick-up time, such as 7am, and then plan to pick up passengers during a 30 minute window of time on either side of the departure time.  In my experience, the shuttle never arrived on time.  It was usually 40 minutes late.  I’m not sure if that was due to the Easter holiday, the location of my hotel at the south end of town, or that other passengers were late (the common accusation when my hotel called to find the location of the bus)!

Other options to the lake from Antigua include a full day group tour or a private tour.  I would not recommend these options as it takes at least three hours to get to the lake resulting in six hour roundtrip for maybe six hours at the lake which really deserves at least a 4-5 day visit.  I only allowed myself one night (two days) and really wished I had more time there, especially because the weather wasn’t great, despite being the dry season.

So my adventure to Lake Atitlán began early in the morning when I picked a seat in the bus that flew backwards each time we hit a big cobblestone in Antigua.  I was hopeful, that once we drove on smoother asphalt, that this would subside, especially for the person behind me, as the only other seats left on the bus were over the wheel wells.

After the third or fourth time of falling backwards, a gentleman on the bus who was more fluent in Spanish than me, told the bus driver who responded, “It’s always like that!”  I thought to myself, then they probably shouldn’t sell this seat.  Fortunately, each row included a jump seat that folded out into the aisle, so once we picked everyone up, I moved into the aisle.  While the seat was fine, it provided a very good view of the road and traffic.  Normally, that would be nice, but we just missed hitting a dog, and a chicken bus decided to pass us on a curve with a truck on coming.  If our bus driver didn’t brake, I likely wouldn’t be here today.  I tried not to look the rest of way to the lake.


Our drive to the lake took exceedingly long.  We were subject to two roadside police checks, one on the highway and one as we entered Panajachel (Pana for short).  In Pana, the police wanted a payment to “enter the park.”  I’m not sure if this was normal or not.  The bus driver claimed he only had 15 Quetzales which is $2.  He handed it over and after a little more debate we were waved through to the town.  We also dealt with heavy market traffic, so our three-hour ride was closer to four hours.

All I knew about Lake Atitlán, is that the mode of transportation is via water taxi and tourists pay 20 Quetzales per ride, no matter how far, on the public ferries.  If the public water taxi is full, private taxis are available for double to triple the price depending on negotiation.  Usually this only comes into play toward the end of the day when the schedules ends at dusk.  While I was there, I couldn’t tell by looking at the boats, which were public and which were private, so I assumed I wouldn’t end up on a private boat without having to negotiate first.

The shuttle bus I took seemed to be geared toward a day tour as many people were shuffled into a restaurant for breakfast where the bus stopped.  I believe the shuttle company was supposed to drop me off at the dock, but instead they pointed down the street and in Spanish directed me to turn right, left then right again.  This will be interesting I thought as I hoped the dock would be easy to find.  I was thankful to only be carrying a small backpack as I left my suitcase at the hotel in Antigua to which I would be returning.

I slowly wandered the streets in a town that was MUCH larger than I expected, stopped at a corner store to confirm I was on the right path, and soon stumbled across the docks.  Upon arrival, a gentleman manning the docks asked where I was going to which I responded Casa del Mundo.  He showed me to the small boat and after a ten-minute wait or so, we motored off in a counter-clockwise direction with the first stop being Santa Cruz La Laguna.  They seemed to have the system down and direct traffic smoothly to the ferry.  La Casa del Mundo was the second stop where I disembarked and paid 20 Quetzales after a safe arrival.

La Casa del Mundo

La Casa del Mundo is a charming hotel that was a 17-year project for Bill Fogarty (from the USA) and Rosy Valenzuela (from Guatemala) who met and married in Alaska.  They dreamed of having a home on the lake which resulted in a hotel in order to have a livelihood in Guatemala.  They purchased the land in 1980 while living in Alaska with their two boys, and started construction in 1988 after hiring and training local workers.  Little by little, the small cottages, boat house, restaurant, patios, gardens and even a hot tub heated by wood were completed for guests to enjoy beginning in 1997.

While I didn’t allot myself enough time to see all the lakeside towns, I’m confident based on seeing El Jaibalito, Pana, and Santa Cruz La Laguna, this oasis of tranquility is the best place to stay in the area, though beware of the stairs!  Built on the cliff side, getting from the dock, to the restaurant, to the cottages, to the trail above required lots of stair climbing!  It is not a place for the disabled.

After an extremely informal check-in process, I was showed to my quaint room located a few flights of stairs above the restaurant.  My room was part of a three-bedroom cottage with a shared bath and patio.  I would have gotten my own bath if I could have, but it was only one of two rooms available when I booked and frankly, sharing the shower room, sink and toilet wasn’t a problem as we all followed different schedules.

Just as with every hotel I have stay in for me week in Guatemala, La Casa del Mundo, didn’t offer air-conditioning or much insulation.  I opened my screened window to circulate cooler air into my room, before I headed directly to the restaurant for a late breakfast.  Fortunately, breakfast and lunch do not need to be pre-ordered, though dinner requires one day advanced notice.  I pre-ordered dinner upon booking my reservation online, and after my experience of seeing a few other towns, I likely would do that for every night of my stay had I allowed more time at the lake.

While eating, I reviewed the hotel’s excursion package as I watched the picturesque scenery slowly fade behind the building smoke from a small fire in Santa Cruz La Laguna.  I later learned the afternoon air quality is poor and the best time to enjoy the views at the lake are in the morning.  After looking through the excursions which included a tour of the larger towns surrounding the lake, a hike up San Pedro volcano, a visit to a coffee plantation, a visit to a textile factory and a hike through the highlands to small Mayan towns with a visit to the market and a ride on a chicken bus, I chose the latter.  I booked it for the following day.  A minimum of two people were required, so I just paid double the fee.

In the meantime, I had the afternoon to explore.  While I wanted to hike to San Marcos La Laguna, after input from the hotel and other locals, I learned this hike was discouraged for tourists on their own around Easter time when thieves tend to visit.  Without a guide, I opted for hiking to El Jaibalito and Santa Cruz La Laguna instead.  The hotel information explained that El Jaibalito is a very small town 10-15 minutes from La Casa del Mundo via the upper or lower trail.

El Jaibalito

I selected the upper trail and was at El Jaibalito in about 5 minutes walking out a slow pace as I took in the surroundings…a soccer field, play ground, and few small convenience stores on the main sidewalk.  With only five minutes into my walk, it looked like I had reached the end of town.  I asked a lady if I could go any further to San Marcos.  While looking at my camera, she said no, but pointed up the sidewalk to the right, and said I could climb up the trail behind El Jaibalito which circles back around.  I only had to watch out for the dogs.

That sounded easy enough, so off I went.  I followed the sidewalk past a variety of homes and a few growling dogs until I reached a bridge that I crossed to a dirt trail.  Along the way, I passed locals doing laundry in their outside basin, gardening, and cutting and carrying firewood.  Soon I found myself climbing dusty steep terrain through arid grassland, dried corn fields, and coffee bean patches.  I found myself climbing up and up and never “circling back around”.  Figuring I was likely heading closer to San Marcos La Laguna than El Jaibalito on this upper trail,  I turned around, descended and took a less traveled connecting trail with my goal to at least reach the cross on the distant hillside overlooking the town.

I continued without much success as this trail seemed to go back into the valley rather than cross behind El Jaibalito.  Since I hadn’t told anyone where I’d be and slipping could result in sliding off the loose dirt trail or into barbed-wire, I thought it best to simply return and explore the small town.  I actually liked wandering along the sidewalks of the town the best anyway.  Close by the dock was a room to rent and a “coffee shop”.  Farther up the hill was a colorful church.  Kids played around their houses while adults manned small convenience shops.  There really wasn’t much for a tourist here by the way of restaurants, so I headed back toward the hotel in the direction of Santa Cruz La Laguna.

Santa Cruz La Laguna

The sun was out in full force for the afternoon, so I stopped for some water and shade at the hotel before continuing on to Santa Cruz La Laguna.  The dirt trail to Santa Cruz took me past a few businesses, through a flooded out area where I detoured briefly onto another trail to someone’s nice home, beneath a tunnel of flowers before I eventually reached a road that led from the docks below to the town on the cliffside.  It was easy to assume the docks were below as Tuk Tuks carted passengers up the steep incline.

I walked up the street where I found a general map of the town.  According to the tourist map, the highlights in town were a wine and cheese shop, a chocolate workshop, a women’s association with gifts and a café.  I didn’t see any of these places except the café, as I zig-zagged around the roads, sidewalks, alleys, and stairs.  Really the town offered a view into the daily lives of the locals.  Boys played soccer on the cement court in front of the church.  Others carried big bags of corn on their backs up the hills while ladies tended to their small grocery and convenience stores.

I suppose I was expecting these towns to be more catered to tourists, but perhaps those are the larger towns like San Juan La Laguna, San Pedro La Laguna, Santa Clara La Laguna and Pana.  Now I was feeling slightly disappointed that I did not schedule enough time to see these places.  Oh well.  I had walked for hours up countless hills so I opted for the short ferry ride back to the hotel rather than another 25 minutes on the trail.  I’m glad I chose this route, as at least down by the dock there were a few restaurants and an adventure company that seemed worth visiting upon a future return.  I think there are countless hikes to do in the area, and I expect a guide is worth the money spent as I never saw any trail signs.

La Casa del Mundo

I returned to the hotel about an hour prior to the 6:30 pm family style dinner.  I couldn’t help but relax in one of the many hammocks at least briefly before the night air cooled.  At dinner we were seated together with other hotel guests and were served the individual meals we had pre-ordered.  I was seated next to some of my suite mates who had come from California.  They rented a car and drove from Guatemala City!  That would not be on my list of things to do.  Apparently, they were charged a “park entrance fee too”, and didn’t bother to argue it, so maybe there is a legitimate fee to visit the area.  At least they were not pulled over on the highway.  They only had about four days in Guatemala and were barely at the lake for 24 hours.  It seemed like most of their vacation was going to be spent in a car, but to each their own.

With the night, came heavy rain which lasted until 10am the next morning.  This prompted me to cancel my hiking tour.  It did not seem appealing to hike in mud and rain while soaking all that I had with me in my small back pack which included my camera and computer.  While the sun came out late morning and the skies cleared, I had to be back in Pana by 4pm for my scheduled pick-up, so due to the limited time for exploring, I spent the day relaxing at the hotel’s wonderful grounds.  Not to mention, I was pretty sore from all the climbing yesterday anyway.  For most of the time I was in the area, the sky was hazy with smoke or the lake and volcanoes were enveloped in fog from the storm.  I was especially pleased that I got a few hours to enjoy the lake and surrounding volcanoes toward midday.

Transportation Around the Lake

The water taxis run every 30 minutes from 6:30am to 5pm beginning in Pana and San Pedro.  As such, I wasn’t exactly sure when they would be arriving at La Casa del Mundo except that it wouldn’t on the hour or half hour, but sometime in between.  I went to the dock early and waved the first one down that passed .  I wanted to be early to Pana because I wasn’t for sure where I’d be picked up given my transportation didn’t drop me at the correct location.  The hotel assured me it would be just a block up from the docks, but I felt the need to arrive early in case of any problems.

Backpackers and tourists waited in front of the small travel agent shop where shuttle drivers wander by and shout names.  It’s a miracle they find everyone.  Sure enough, the second bus drive who came by found me.  I handed him my slip of paper that served as a ticket and boarded a packed shuttle back to Antigua.  This was an unsettling process to me.  I thought it would be easy to be left, but one girl was missing as she didn’t arrive 15 minutes before departure, and they looked for her for a while before they finally found her and we left!  I definitely need to return to La Casa del Mundo and the lake as there is much I’d still like to see.  While I’m glad I came at Easter in order to see the processions in Antigua, though I think it would be best to visit the lake after the rainy season when the hillsides are lush and green rather than dry and brown.  Regardless, it warrants much more than two days and a return visit.  ETB

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Beth Bankhead

Former public finance professional turned award winning travel blogger and photographer sharing the earth's beauty one word and image at a time.

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