Lago de Atitlan, Guatemala's Western highlands, is even more spectacular in real life than it was in my imagination. A sparkling lake hemmed in by 3 volcanos, mountains and steep cliffs is jaw-dropping no matter which direction you look. Villages are nestled into the nooks along the shoreline and climb up the lake's steep slopes. The weather is near perfect, in our opinion. Warm and sunny but not too hot during the day and slightly chilly at night. Whether you want to hike, explore the villages or just relax in a hammock, life on the lake is a delight.
The local Mayan towns that surround the lake are all built high above the lake's water level. Every village around the lake its a steep hike up to the town with tuktuks waiting at the boat launch to take locals up. Studies show that the lake's depth has risen and fallen over the course of the centuries, so the locals with generations of knowledge know that building on the water is risky. Often, this land is sold off to foreigners. The risks of building so close to the water has never been as apparent as after Tropical Storm Stan in 2010. The lake rose 5m in 18 months! One theory is that landslides from the storm blocked drainage channels. Paths were washed away and some of the town's docks had to be rebuilt. Now you see trees standing off shore that have slowly drown since then and, most obviously, in San Juan, houses and the old cement dock sitting half covered in water! Its a disturbing, fascinating sight. One positive is that now, the sunken bars and houses offer interesting underwater sights for Lake Atitlan scuba divers!
Warning: The ever changing vistas, colourful sunsets and the many different species of birds, along with the different vantage points from the various villages can lead to the whiling away of many lakeside hours...or days. Other than its gorgeous setting, what makes Laguna de Atitlan extra special is just how very unique the villages that surround it are. The party in San Pedro, which is only a quick boat ride from yoga in San Marcos might as well be a world away. The tranquillity of Jaibilito, inaccessible by road is unmistakeable and feels completely detached from the artisan weavers in nearby San Juan. We spent a week on the lake, staying in San Marcos La Laguna, Santa Cruz La Laguna and Pana. We visited the villages of San Pedro, San Juan and Jaibilito as day trips. One could easily find themselves squeezing a few more days out of their itinerary for the lake and it's outings, especially because there are so many great places, with very different atmospheres to spend the night.
Useful Stuff: Getting around by boat (lancha) is very easy. Don't believe the scam-o-ramas in San Juan when they tell you that another boat isn't coming for an hour or two. However, if you are going to San Juan, tell the Captain because they won't necessarily stop there if no one is getting off or on. Actually, it makes sense to always tell the Captain (or his helper) where you are going to keep everything as smooth as possible. There are boats to all the villages all the time. (Exception: Santiago Atitlan is on a different route) We never had to wait longer than a half hour, and even then, you're sitting on a dock on the water with a beautiful view- so its not that rough. Take a quick look at the map so you know what direction you're headed and everything becomes very clear from there. If you are walking down towards a dock and a boat is pulling out, point in the direction you want to go and the Captain will pull back in if he's headed that way. There are lots of people on the docks who will direct you to the correct boat, although with the captain and his assistant calling out the direction, its easy to figure out on your own. As a general rule it costs tourists Q5 per stop. (I'm sure its cheaper for locals.) However, if going between San Marcos and San Pedro, it will be Q10 even if you don't stop at San Juan. And apparently San Juan- San Marcos is Q10 even though its also only one stop. Other examples are Pana- San Marcos or San Pedro Q25, San Marcos- Santa Cruz Q15, Jabilito- Santa Cruz Q5, Santa Cruz- Pana Q10. Just hand the man correct change and keep walking before he decides to up the quetzals. While it only happened once to us, we know its not an uncommon occurrence for tourists.