Guatemala is a beautiful, vibrant, mountainous country, rich in semi-tropical rainforest, minerals, remarkable biodiversity and home to a proudly traditional Mayan culture.
It’s both the most populous and the poorest country in central America and is home to over 15,000,000 people. Guatemala also has more than 30 volcanos, several of which are active. One of those is Volcán Atitlán, a relatively young volcano that along with its two sister volcanos, towers over the southern shores of Lake Atitlán, central America’s deepest lake, itself formed by a huge volcanic eruption 84,000 years ago.
The entire area surrounding Lake Atitlán has been a national park since 1955. It’s easy to see why, when you gaze upon the lake’s extraordinarily beautiful vista, embellished with towering mountains, lush rainforest, 3 magnificent volcanos and tiny, Mayan lakeside villages, each one with a unique flavour.
Many of the local Mayan population, known collectively as Atitecas, still proudly wear the beautifully woven and embroidered Tz’utujil or Kaqchiquel traditional dress.
Lake Atitlan’s sub-tropical climate brings alternate dry seasons and rainy seasons whilst blessing the area with warm, sunny days and cool nights (often too cool for mosquitos, yay!)
Although the official language is Castellano Spanish, the local Mayan population proudly speak their native Tz’utujil or Kaqchiquel as their first language. Please bear in mind that the local people are pretty conservative and it’s wise to dress modestly and be respectful of local traditions. Wandering around the villages in swimwear, for example, is really not appropriate.
A town with ancient Mayan origins and the original hippy hangout of the 1960’s, Panajachel has since discarded its pachouli-scented kaftan and is now a bustling tourist town, providing the lakeside community with access to supermarkets, banks and a private postal service, courtesy of the local DHL office (Please note: Lake Atitlán does not currently have a municipal postal service). It’s noisy, hectic and the traffic fumes can be quite intense. It’s the point of arrival for most visitors to the lake and the departure point for boats or ‘lanchas’ to all other villages.
On the opposite side of the lake to Panajachel and the largest of the lakeside communities, Santiago Atitlán perches between 2 volcanos: Tolimán and San Pedro. Arts and crafts are big here, as is boat building, that’s why you’ll often find the shore ringed with newly dugout canoes known locally as cayucos.
This is also the home of Maximón, a Mayan-Catholic saint who is said to be an amalgamation of Saint Simon and a more ancient, mischievous Mayan deity. Maximón is the saint you curry favour with for the more morally dubious of prayers. Revenge, manipulation of others and misfortune to enemies are all considered fair game by Maximón, but first you must find where he lives (easy enough, just ask around). Once located, you must take him an offering of tobacco, alcohol and / or money should you wish your ‘prayer’ to be considered favourably. Good luck!
San Pedro de la Laguna
Known for its nightlife and thriving Spanish language learning centres, San Pedro is fun and groovy and where people head for a lively night out. It’s home to a huge, sprawling market, full of local food and delightfully random bric-a-brac. The atmosphere is laid back, down to earth and prices across the board are quite a bit cheaper than San Marcos. The restaurants are amongst the best on the lake too, with 5th Dimension veggie restaurant and the Blue Parrot bar receiving a particularly big thumbs up from the Hummingbird crew!
San Juan de la Laguna
Just a short boat or tuk-tuk ride from San Pedro is the quaint Tz’utujil village of San Juan. The village is home to a number of traditional artisan cooperatives and is the perfect place to shop for locally made, exquisite pieces of hand woven fabric, local folk art and paintings.
Small, charming and bursting at the seams with handicrafts, rainbow people and good vibes, San Marcos is the current hippy mecca of the lake. Artisans, and in particular, jewellers are abundant here and it’s a great place to get custom-made, uniquely crafted pieces for very reasonable prices. It’s also where you’d go to get tattooed, body pierced, massaged, learn tantra, meditate, buy a bow and arrow, receive Reiki healing or have feathers attached to your hair. Ommm.
Part affluent lakeside resort that can only be reached by boat, the Santa Cruz waterfront is full of well-heeled ex-pats from the US, Canada and Europe. Impressive looking villas and hotels line the lakeside and it’s from here that scuba diving enthusiasts can book a high-altitude submersion into the lake’s unfathomably deep and mysterious waters. 600m uphill from the prime waterfront real estate is its traditional alter-ego – the authentic Kaqchiquel village.
Until very recently, Tzununa was a little-visited Kaqchiquel village, just a 2k walk, 10-minute tuk-tuk ride or 5-minute boat trip from San Marcos. Most local people wear traditional dress here and it’s home to Shad’s permaculture farm, Max’s off-grid campsite boasting incredible views of the lake and of course, your very own humble, Hummingbird Hostel! A river runs through the village and a half-hour walk up the mountain from the dock brings you to a beautiful waterfall where you can finally fulfil your fantasy of being in a Timotei advertisement. Delightfully off-the-beaten track, this is authentic Mayan mountain territory.
Editors note – this is not the waterfall at Tzununa!