Lake Atitlan is so beautiful that nobody could blame you if you decided to simply sit back and admire the view. This doesn’t mean there’s nothing else to do here, though. The lake area offers a plethora of activities, whether your interests are cultural or of the outdoors kind. To get you started, here are 5 things to do at Lake Atitlan.
1. Take a Spanish course
To really appreciate all the treasures of Lake Atitlan and its people, you need to be able to communicate. Along the southern shore of the lake, most people speak Tz’utujil as their first language, while the first language for the majority of people along the northern shore is Kakchiquel. However, the lingua franca here – like everywhere in Guatemala – is Spanish. The lake area has several Spanish schools, such as San Pedro Spanish School and its sister schools in San Juan and San Marcos, where you can learn Spanish for a very reasonable price. Classes are usually one-on-one and interactive, so you’ll learn Spanish in no time. A great advantage of studying at one of the Spanish schools at Lake Atitlan is that the Spanish spoken in the area is clear and slow, so you can easily follow what is being said as you practice your skills.
2. Go town-hopping around the lake
Every town and village around the lake has its own unique character and lots of Insta-worthy scenery. One way to explore all the lakeside communities is to get a group together and hire a private lancha – a kind of motorboat that’s the main form of transport on the lake – to take you from one town or village to the next. If you prefer taking your time to get a closer look at local culture or if you’re on a budget, there are several public transport options to choose from too:
· Public lanchas can take you to Panajachel, Santiago Atitlan, San Pedro La Laguna, San Juan La Laguna, San Marcos La Laguna, Tzununá, Jaibalito and Santa Cruz La Laguna.
· Public buses – also called chicken buses or, in Spanish, camionetas – serve Panajachel, Santiago Atitlan, San Pedro La Laguna, San Juan La Laguna and San Pablo La Laguna. Chicken buses aren’t recommended for long distances, so traveling between the lakeside towns will give you this quintessentially Guatemalan experience without the safety risk.
· For Santa Catarina Palopó, San Antonio Palopó, San Lucas Tolimán and Cerro de Oro, your best bet is a ride in a tuk-tuk or the back of a pick-up truck: an adventure in itself. Most other towns and villages around the lake have tuk-tuk or pick-up connections too.
3. Take a hike
There’s some splendid hiking around Lake Atitlan, offering incredible views. Among the most popular hikes are the Indian Nose, the San Pedro volcano and Cerro de Oro. It’s best to do these hikes with a reputable local guide, not only for safety but also because a guide can offer insights and point out things you wouldn’t have noticed if you’d gone on your own.
Another option is to hike between villages. Most towns and villages around Lake Atitlan are located no more than a few miles from one another, making for an easy stroll along beaches and past fields and coffee plantations.
If you do go hiking around Lake Atitlan, it’s a good idea to wear sturdy shoes, take some drinking water and sunscreen, hike in a group and not take any valuables with you.
4. Go kayaking
Motorized water traffic on Lake Atitlan consists mainly of the lanchas transporting passengers between towns and villages. Jetskis and speedboats are almost non-existent here, which means that you can paddle on the lake in peace. The shoreline is a joy to explore this way, with lots of lovely beaches and hidden coves where you can take a breather. You may even kayak in the ruins of an old house!
Most Lake Atitlan travel agencies and many hotels and hostels will be able to help you with kayak rentals, which are normally by the hour. It’s best to kayak with a friend or in a group. Remember to wear lots of sunscreen and to take enough drinking water when you venture out on the lake. Good sunglasses will help protect your eyes against the glare.
The best time to go kayaking on Lake Atitlan is early in the morning, when the water tends to be calm and there’s generally a gentle breeze to keep you cool. In the afternoons, things can become choppy as the wind known as Xocomil blows across the lake.
A great way to learn more about Guatemalan culture, make new friends, practice your Spanish and give back to the community is through volunteering. The Lake Atitlan area is home to a huge variety of projects that welcome the help of volunteers. Whether you want to help rescue stray animals, try your hand at permaculture, build homes, work with children or get involved in a lake cleanup, there will be a project that suits your talents and interests.
To find a volunteer project, you can simply ask around. Even easier is to get involved through your Spanish school, since many offer volunteering opportunities too. For example, San Pedro Spanish School works closely with the Community Educative Association Niños Del Lago – ACENLA for short, which supports educational opportunities for the children around the lake. You can volunteer to teach children English or Math, help them with their homework or assist in workshops like painting or crafts.