Aldous Huxley said it was as beautiful as Lake Como but with the added bonus of being surrounded by immense volcanoes. I’m paraphrasing what he actually said of course, but he was right on the money. Those volcanoes do make a difference and I think Guatemala’s stunningly picturesque Lake Atitlán is hard to beat.
There’s something uniquely calming about a beautiful lake that makes you breathe deeply, exhale slowly and relax. As soon as I spotted the hammocks in the hotel garden overlooking the lake I knew where I wanted to spend a fair amount of my time there. Not least because it was a respite from Panajachel, probably the busiest of the lakeside villages at any time, but completely overrun during holiday periods like Semana Santa (Easter) when I visited.
The Pana I experienced was certainly pretty full on with scantily clad promotional girls from competing beer brands Gallo and Brahva in evidence all up and down the main street, Calle Santander. It runs from the Lake Atitlán lakeshore up to the top of town and is lined with market stalls overflowing with colour. The products for sale are piled high and pretty much the same on every stall so its hard to imagine how they’ll all get sold, but there seemed to be a steady trade well into the late evening.
Down at the lakeshore there’s a busy line of stalls and restaurants, many with a great view which you can probably relax and enjoy more as you get further away from the town.
See and do
Pana’s main attraction, apart from the shopping and lakeside promenade, is the availability of boat tours to get out onto Lake Atitlán and to visit some of the other villages on its shores. You can pick up a boat down at the pier but its pretty chaotic with a multitude of people vying for the trade. Another, probably less stressful option is to go to one of the travel shops in town and book a lake tour that will take you to three of four of the villages, spending an hour or so in each. Prices can vary a bit so it’s worth shopping round. Good ones I came across were Atitrans and Adrenalina Tours, both in Calle Santander.
Interestingly the Lake Atitlán villages are quite different to one another, particularly neighbouring San Juan de Laguna and San Pedro de Laguna. San Juan is lovely. Pretty and quiet with a nice selection of galleries selling local art as well as some weaving co-operatives. These are a close to the dock and if you’re on a tour of several villages you could easily spend your whole time in them, but its worth exploring further into the village too to get a feel for the local lifestyle.
A short boat ride or 2km drive away San Pedro is much livelier. Popular with back packers and language learners its known as more of a party place and there are stacks of places to stay including some very cheap rooms. I’d been put off staying here because of this, but when I visited it seemed there was more of a mixed crowd and there looked to be some great options for eating and drinking. I passed a couple of museums on my walk around the village too and as it’s at the base of the San Pedro volcano, hikes were also on offer.
The final stop on my lake tour was the biggest of the Lake Atitlán villages, Santiago de Atitlán. Following the first two visits I was surprised at how much more workaday it seemed. Some of the buildings were pretty unattractive and the road down to the dock was surprisingly unmade. Walking up from the dock is through a raft of market stalls complete with fairly persistent hawkers. Once up onto the road tuk tuks abound and if you want to see any of the village’s attractions its best to jump in one as the distances are much greater than the other villages.
I was keen to visit the church as it was the day before Good Friday and I knew work would be underway for the following day’s Easter celebrations. I also wanted to track down the evil saint Maximón. He moves around every year or so, but as it turned out it he was in a house next to the church and our very helpful tuk tuk driver was able to take us straight there.
The church itself was a hive of activity with lots of locals working to get ready for the following day’s procession through the town. It’s worth a visit at any time though as is a wonderful old colonial church with lots of evidence of Maya religion, including rows of statues of saints wearing indigenous clothes.
So the Lake Atitlán villages were an interesting mix that would probably combine to provide the perfect place to stay – the quiet tranquillity of San Juan, the eating and drinking options of San Pedro and the sights of Santiago. Saying all of that though I’m not sure any of them had quite as good a view of the lake as from Pana.
Eat, drink, sleep
I’ve already mentioned the hotel gardens, hence its name Jardines del Lago. It’s location is undoubtedly its best asset, being right on Lake Atitlán and with large gardens to relax and enjoy the view. The rooms aren’t huge but fine and ours faced the lake and had a couple of large comfortable chairs outside that were handy for watching the sun go down. The breakfast is very good with masses of fresh fruit, eggs cooked to order and of course a view of the lake.
There are plenty of places to eat and drink in Pana but I wouldn’t go expecting a fantastic culinary experience. Having arrived from San Cristóbal in Mexico and been in Oaxaca before that, I’d had some fab food and Pana fell a long way short. Saying that I discovered a lovely cafe, Deli Jasmín, which is set in a gorgeous patio garden complete with butterflies and hummingbirds. I had a great bagel for lunch but they did offer more substantial dishes too, though I don’t think it was open very late into the evening – opening times were generally a bit sporadic over Easter. It’s at the bottom end of Calle Santander towards the pier and there’s another branch with a different name but the same menu further up the road towards town. Another nice option is the Sunset Bar, also at the pier end and has a good view, cocktails and not bad fajitas etc. And Guajimbos, halfway along Calle Santander had surprisingly good fish considering its main attraction is a huge parrilla for grilling vast amounts of meat!
So on balance definitely worth a visit to Lake Atitlán, probably wouldn’t want to stay in Pana again but whether you’d get quite as good a lake view elsewhere I don’t know. Maybe someone else does?
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