I was quick to admit that Guatemala just wasn’t my jam. Yet there was one destination on my itinerary there that stopped me in my tracks, a place that made me nod my head and say, oh yes, yup, indeed I see it now — this is what everyone is going on about.
And that place was Lake Atitlán. This volcanic lake is historically, ecologically, culturally, and economically significant to Guatemala and is noted as one of the world’s great mystical energy centers. I’d heard friends, bloggers and fellow travelers lavish praise on this high altitude Central American highlight for ages, and I carefully noted their opinions on the various villages doting the lakefront. Though one of my goals for this trip was to spend more time in less destinations, I couldn’t pick just one to base myself in, and decided instead to hop between a few of the favorites.
I’m glad I did. The villages are so tiny that eight nights in one might have been excessive, and it was quick and easy to travel between them via boat.
My first stop was one that people couldn’t stop raving about — Santa Cruz. As far as most backpackers are concerned, Santa Cruz is La Iguana Perdida, the lakefront oasis with views that just beg you to kick back and stay awhile. Here I found a friendly place where the staff greeted you by name after you arrived and hugged you goodbye as you left, a place where guests struck up conversations in front of the fireplace in the evening, a place where time seemed to slow.
I loved it. My goal for my week in Lake Atitlán was to find an inspiring place to write and read, reflect and reconnect — and La Iguana Perdida couldn’t have been a better base for it.
Santa Cruz was unique among the four towns I visited in that the village itself was perched high above the water, reachable via a steep hike up from the lakefront. The lakefront was made up of La Iguana Perdida, the village dock, a few luxury hotels and a smattering of high end homes. Because it is so small and isolated, there are a limited number of dining options in Santa Cruz. That means that La Iguana becomes more than just a place to rest your head at night — it really becomes home away from home.
Dinner at La Iguana is served communally, which I grew to love. Because I was traveling alone and spending my days mostly writing and reading in silence, it was wonderful to be thrust into such a warm — yet totally low key — social situation every evening.
One thing that took me by surprise about Lake Atitlán was how affordable it seemed after being in Antigua. At La Iguana, basic private rooms ranged from 70-100 quetzales ($9-13), and options included a room with a writing desk and a water view and a treehouse with a private balcony. Open-air dorms were just 35 quetzales (less than $5)! Higher-end options with private bathrooms were also available.
I heard some backpackers grumbling that the communal dinner was a little pricey at 60-65 quetzales per night (about $8), but considering that the meal included a delicious soup, an entree and a dessert, it seemed pretty fair to me — however, with no kitchen available and limited options in Santa Cruz, you don’t have many options. The only thing that rubbed me the wrong way was that there was a charge for coffee and tea, which are free at many hostels around Central America, but I guess nowhere is perfect. (I do think La Iguana comes pretty close, however.)
La Iguana is home to one of Lake Atitlán’s only international dive center (another, based in Panajachel, targets domestic tourists), and I’ll be writing a separate post about my experience going for a dip. But there was more to do than just dive. A yoga teacher in residence offered daily donation classes that I loved on the patio, and on Saturdays a local market set up on the same stones.
If you come to Lake Atitlán and don’t stay in Santa Cruz, (which, BTW, you crazy), the small market definitely makes Saturday the day to drop by.
It seemed that the only thing on the agenda for most visitors was finding a cozy spot to curl up and dreamily stare out at the lake. In my three nights in Santa Cruz I left Iguana Perdida just twice, to take a photo walk around the lakefront and then later up to the town. Lonely Planet Guatemala warned me that Santa Cruz was the prettiest of the lakefront villages, and I’m glad I soaked up every bit of my time there.
Because they were right.
Though many who stay on the water in Santa Cruz never make it up to the village above, I was so glad I made the trek. It didn’t feel respectful to take my camera out, but I’ll treasure the memories. I went up on a Sunday afternoon, and was treated to a rare view of a way of life frozen in time. The sounds of competing Sunday services filled the air, and I wandered from church to church smiling as I saw women do the family laundry in communal basins in the plaza, locals playing basketball in traditional Mayan dress, and children smiling and waving at me from their house windows.
It was a slice of life from a time I thought had long passed.
Because La Iguana is purposely wifi-free, I almost didn’t stay there — so glad I didn’t make that tragic mistake! Turns out, it was the perfect place to unplug for three nights. There is a paid-use computer room available before 8pm, which allowed me to rest easy knowing there were no work fires I needed to put out and that my inbox wasn’t piling up in my absence. But aside from those thirty or so minutes per day, I enjoyed working totally offline and the clarity and focus that gave me to write. Writing for myself, and not for my blog — what a novelty! I almost wish I’d prepared further ahead so that I could have stayed more than three days.
Santa Cruz was just magical.
But indeed, after three days with no wifi or ATM, I was in fairly dire need of both a connection and some cash. The two main hubs of Lake Atitlán are Panajachel and San Pedro, the only two towns around the lake with ATMs. I’d entered the lake through Panajachel and not been impressed — after lunch and a stroll around town I was more than ready to go — and so I thought I’d check out San Pedro this time around.
I arrived, checked into a private room at a hostel called Zoola, and thought I’d found my happy place.
Yet San Pedro had a notably different vibe than Santa Cruz. Notably different… and notably more seedy. I’m sure I’d have had a good time in San Pedro if I were with a group and down to party — Adventurous Kate had an amazing time there with her tour group — but for the reflective and creative mood I was in, it just totally was not my scene. Not to mention, when I was there in March it was freezing at night (well, okay, it was in the low 40’s). Even the staff at La Iguana confessed that it was unseasonably cold and they’d run out of spare blankets. Once the sun went down each evening, I piled on every layer of clothing I had and pretty much ran to bed at 9pm, willing myself to fall asleep and wake up when it was warm again. Dramatic? Slightly, but seriously, I was chilled to the bone. Hence, yet another reason nightlife was not on my itinerary.
So I hit up the ATM and soaked up the good wifi and new dining options for two days, and then quickly hit the road — er, the lake.
Colorful? This is still Central America, so heck yeah. But charming? Not really, beyond these photos I snapped on one of my daily walks. The frozen-in-time feeling I’d had in Santa Cruz was replaced by a tension between a people clinging to a traditional way of life and a merry band of travelers who seemed vaguely oblivious to it. One evening, I noticed a group of women washing their families’ clothes in the river banks — had I taken a photo, you’d never have known that just a few feet away, gringos were sipping cold beer and singing along to Down Under. I’ve been plenty of places in the world going through this awkward transition, but for some reason, here, it made me uncomfortable.
But I have to admit, as far as ATM stops go, it wasn’t an awful one.
My final stop around Lake Atitlán was San Marcos, home of yoga fanatics and permaculture enthusiasts alike. I’d been running with a pretty hippie dippy crowd since Equilibrio and more than once I’d found myself stuck in awkwardly deep eye while someone with unshaved armpits extolled the virtues of this transcendent little town.
Though I wasn’t ready to toss my own razor just yet, I was intrigued by this particular sub-culture of travelers and was excited to experience this place I’d heard so much gushing about.
A friend of mine had recommended Hostal del Lago, and up arrival I melted. A yoga platform over the lake? Stunning views of the volcano? A colorful restaurant filled with hippies wearing bindis and typing on Macbooks? This is my kind of place, I thought.
Unfortunately, things kind of went downhill when I realized my private room was a mess, none of the showers worked and there was a major insect problem in the restaurant. The friend who recommended it to me went back a few weeks after I did and said she was shocked by those issues, so unfortunately I don’t think it was a fluke. If I were to ever return to San Marcos, I’d make it a priority to stay at Yoga Forest and align my stay with one of their writer’s retreats. I even considered moving there during this trip, but I only had three nights in San Marcos and wasn’t prepared to go without wifi again (Del Lago has it, and Yoga Forest does not — though the connection at Del Lago is pretty horrific).
And that kind of mirrored my overall experience with San Marcos. I was surprised by how small it was, I was disappointed by the lack of healthy eating options (Circles Cafe, below, was one notable exception, but overall I had better salad and smoothie opportunities in San Pedro!), and I kind of kept wondering where the “there” was. Sure, I found plenty of posters advertising bring-your-own-crystal Cacao Ceremonies and heart-opening drum circles and healing guided meditation sessions, but I didn’t feel the strong sense of community I expected — perhaps that would have required a much longer stay.
That said, I loved my daily yoga classes on the Del Lago platform and it was nice to run into some of my friends from Equilibrio again.
Overall, I adored Lake Atitlán. I came here to write, and words poured out of me. I came here to read, and I soaked up page after page. I came here to do yoga and to reflect, and I found a dreamy, volcano-dotted setting to do it in.
While I didn’t fall in love with either San Pedro or San Marcos, I am glad I took the time to explore them — and it made me appreciate the beauty I found in Santa Cruz even more! If I ever find myself in Guatemala again, I’ll absolutely return to Santa Cruz, and also set aside a few days to explore a few of the other villages I didn’t get the chance to see. I love that there’s a little something for everyone around Lake Atitlán, and I certainly found what I was looking for and more. As Aldous Huxley famously wrote of Atitlán, “It is really too much of a good thing.”
Have you been to Lake Atitlán? If so, which village was your favorite? If not, which would you head to?