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  • Writer's pictureKristin

Lake Atitlan: Learn Spanish & Explore the Lake

Lake Atitlan is one of the places in Guatemala that is highly recommended to visit. We actually had planned to spend 2-3 weeks in total at the lake, but due to a positive Covid test result within our family, we had to cut our time here short and were only able to spend one week. If staying on the lake there are numerous boats to get you from point to point around the lake – either privately hired or by boat taxi service. We had planned to do quite a bit of activities during our 2nd and 3rd week, so this definitely isn’t an all-encompassing list; but these were a few of the main things we were able to explore during our time there. However, I will also include a list of the things we were planning to do for the rest of our visit.

Lake Atitlan blue lake with the volcanoes in the background. Guatemala
View of Lake Atitlan from the road heading down to the lake.

Take Spanish Lessons

Guatemala is actually known as being a popular spot to learn Spanish. There are numerous Spanish schools – especially in Lake Atitlan and Antigua. Part of the reason learning Spanish is popular in Guatemala is because the locals tend to be patient, speak slower and they don’t have as much of an accent. Plus, it is super affordable to get a week of Spanish lessons. Many of the programs also offer the opportunity to do a homestay with a local Spanish speaking family!

There are so many options of schools. After doing some google searches and reading reviews, we decided to attend San Pedro Spanish School. (This school also has locations in San Marcos and San Juan around Lake Atitlan.) They were eager to teach our children – ages 5 & 8 years old and had many positive reviews online. One other thing we really enjoyed about the school was that the school's location was right on the lake and they had a garden where there were various huts where you work with your individual teacher. We did the 4-hours of Spanish for 5 days and the homestay for 7 days. Within the homestay they provide 3 meals per day for 6 days of the week. The food we had at ours was incredible, plus it provided a real authentic feel of Guatemalan cuisine and the culture there. I didn’t know how Spanish for the kids would be, but they were matched with a great teacher who did activities and crafts with them to learn Spanish and sometimes would just take them down to the lakeshore to explore. They both really enjoyed the lessons and were disappointed when we weren’t able to go back as planned.

While in the area, you need to take some time to explore some of the lakeside towns. We didn't get as many of the towns explored as we had hoped, but here is our take on the places we did visit.

San Pedro la Laguna

This town was our home for the week at the homestay. It is a popular backpacker spot and to be honest one of the things that amazed me the most was the numerous bakeries there! The park in the center of the town was a beautiful park with The Catholic Church of San Pedro La Laguna as its backdrop. They had a little trampoline there too that you could take a small fee to jump on as well, which was a fun thing for the kids to do one afternoon.

There are also numerous tours you can do around the lake that showcase the Mayan traditional chocolate making process and weaving process. We visited one in San Pedro where we learned about the cacao plant that is grown locally and how they take out the seeds to roast and then grind down to make chocolate. Once grounded, it is mixed with orange juice and ground sugar cane to make traditional Mayan chocolate. They also have varieties that include these three ingredients in addition to milk added to them. The kids weren’t huge fans of the dark chocolate, but they did enjoy grinding the cacao seeds.

They also did a weaving demonstration for us where they showed us how they use the cotton grown in the region to make thread, dye it with natural elements like fruits, peelings, etc. and then weave using the traditional backstrap loom, which is over 2,000 years old.

[One of the activities we had planned to do in San Pedro once we had returned was to do a canopy zipline tour, which the kids and I were really looking forward to trying; but will have to try next time!]

San Juan la Laguna

While we didn’t get to visit all the towns around the lake, San Juan was one of the favorites that we did visit. This town is very well decorated – all the way from arriving at the Pier to the top of its main street. The indigenous people take great pride in their crafts – especially weaving and painting. The shops along the main street reflect that, with many shops selling beautiful and brightly colored paintings. There is also a coffee farm located near San Juan.

We enjoyed just walking along the street and we even found this kid’s park where they had various things for the kids – like bouncy castles, trampolines and man-powered rides like a Ferris wheel, swings and others! We did have to pay about 10 GQT ($1.30 USD) per adult and then the rides for the kids were about $1 USD per ride. It was a fun spot for the kids to play!

One of the other popular spots in San Juan is Indian Nose Viewpoint, where many people hike up before sunrise to get the incredible view over the lake. There is also a viewpoint that you can access as well. I was hoping to do a mid-morning hike at Indian Nose on our return trip.

Panajachel & Santa Catarina

Coming from San Pedro, this was a bit of an outing to get to Santa Catarina, but it was totally worth it. We took the boat taxi, which was 50 GQT per person round-trip ($6.50 USD/$8.28 CDN), but it stops at each of the town sites along the way. By the time it was all said and done, it was probably about a 60-90 minute boat ride to Panajachel. It is one of the bigger towns on the lake and basically one of the main launching points to the lake and there are several amenities here.

Boat with skier with San Pedro Volcano behind it on Lake Atitlan, Guatemala.
Views from the taxi boat across Lake Atitlan with San Pedro Volcano in the background.

One of the things we noticed most about Panajachel is that it is a big spot for lots of shopping – there were so many stalls set up along the street selling various goods like bags, blankets and more.

However, the taxi boat doesn’t go to Santa Catarina so you have to come to Panajachel first, then catch the local truck buses that transit between the two towns. The stop for the local trucks was here and it was only 5 GQT per person – less than $1 USD -- to get to Santa Catarina. We definitely felt like the locals cruising down the road in the back of the truck.

Local transportation from Panajachel to Santa Catarina on Lake Atitlan, Guatemala.
Taking the local back of the truck transport from Panajachel to Santa Catarina.

Santa Catarina is known for its bright buildings and geometric shapes on them. Plus on the edge of the lake there are hot springs that flow in with the lake water. We found Lake Atitlan to be cooler than we expected in February, so we were looking for any opportunity to find warmer water to enjoy.

The unique geometric designs on the buildings in Santa Catarina on Lake Atitlan, Guatemala.
Santa Catarina is known for its bright colors & geometric shapes on its buildings.

Once we arrived, we headed down to the lake and then followed the pathway to the spot up against the lake where the hot springs were located. (You pretty much just take the pathway all the way until it ends.) The road down to the lake is filled with many of the local women vendors selling their goods from their local weaving co-op – there were so many brightly colored items and designs.

Mayan woman with brightly colored tapestries in the background at Santa Catarina la Laguna, Guatemala.
Local woman selling the beautiful tapestries that are weaved - Santa Catarina.

There are some spots where you can sit in the hot springs, but we actually found where they came out the water was super hot. However, we brought our SUP and headed out to enjoy some paddling there in the afternoon. The wind often picks up in the afternoon on the lake so the water was a bit choppy, but it was still possible to float around while sitting on the paddleboard.

Little boy & girl sitting in the hot spring pools of Lake Atitlan, Guatemala.
The natural thermal spring pools on the edge of Lake Atitlan near Santa Catarina.

We had also hoped to visit Chichicastenango Market in the town of Chichicastenango, which is about 2 hours north of Lake Atitlan. They have a really authentic market and a traditional cemetery that are supposed to be worth the visit. Unfortunately, we had also planned to do this the second time we visited.

Lake Atitlan is a popular place to spend time and it is easy to see why! It just brings a sense of peace and calm with its beautiful lake and the volcanoes along the shoreline. We really wish we would have had more time to spend here, but if there is anything we have learned in traveling is that plans can easily change. So we are just going with the flow and making the most of the situations that we find ourselves in. To check out some of the other spots we explored in Guatemala, check out our blog on Semuc Champey, Antigua and the coastal town of Monterrico.

Woman looking out over Lake Atitlan just over sunrise - San Pedro la Laguna, Guatemala.
The beautiful Lake Atitlan just after sunrise.

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