A year has come and gone and I will be stateside in a few short days. It feels wrong to leave without creating some sort of guide to this beautiful country. The guidebooks for Guatemala are often wildly inaccurate, more so than in other places I’ve visited, so word of mouth is the way to go. These suggestions are based on my year living here from July 2015-July 2016.
I hope it will be useful as you plan trips to the land of volcanoes and avocados. The weather is great almost year round, though I would avoid coming in September/early October as it can be super rainy (though it never rains all day, so don’t despair if your schedule is set). November and February had the best weather, in my opinion, but that can vary year to year. Be prepared to pay in cash (quetzals), you don’t need a converter for chargers, and you will want to take lots of photos. Bring a water bottle, flat shoes, and a flexible attitude.
This was my base for the year and it’s, IMHO, the best part. About a dozen towns surround this volcanic lake and each one has a very distinct character. There are two Mayan peoples on the lake, the Tzutu’jil in Santiago, San Pedro and San Juan and the Kachiquel on the rest of the lake.
Santiago Atitlán (home sweet home):
Santiago is the largest town on the lake, over 50,000 people including the surrounding communities but it’s one of the least touristed. Many people take day trips here but if you can stay longer, you might be surprised. It’s one of the most resilient, intact indigenous communities in the world and the views (and people) are for the most part, incredible. Expect lots of tuk tuk traffice, traje (the traditional dress), and busy streets. None of the streets have names and it’s a little intimidating to navigate as an outsider.
What to do:
Visit Cojolya! Take an artisan tour or a weaving class and learn more about the art of the backstrap loom. I’ve spent a year working here and believe so strongly in the mission of this association, to preserve this prehispanic tradition of weaving and give dignified work to a talented group of artisans. You can email email@example.com to schedule tours or weaving classes but the store is open 7 days a week! If you’re looking to buy traditional clothes, ask in Cojolya to go to Maria’s shop. She’s our master weaver and an all around excellent human who makes beautiful traditional things in addition to her work at Cojolya.
Walk around the market and church. It’s overwhelming but cool, though the unrefrigerated meat never fails to gross me out even after a year of near daily visits.
Go relax somewhere. The palapa at the Posada de Santiago has adirondack chairs and incredible views. They make great bean dip and margaritas. If you’re there before 10:30 am (good for you), definitely get breakfast. Swimming off the dock is gorgeous and quiet in the bay.
Volunteer or visit La Puerta Abierta. This school, library and community center is one of the happiest places in the world and they are always looking for volunteers, both short and long term. Bonus points if you bring some children’s books or school supplies with you!
Visit Pueblo a Pueblo. This community development organization works with coffee growing communities all over the department of Solola and they do great work! You can visit one of their project sites if you contact them here and definitely look for their delicious honey, sold at the Posada and Las Lagartijas.
If you have medical expertise or interests, Hospitalito Atitlan is a great place to visit and volunteer.
Where to eat and drink:
The most variety can be found at Las Lagartijas (closed Wednesdays), a tiny garage turned restaurant outside the main town. Don and Barb moved down here almost ten years ago and have built a friendly business, with housemade pickles, peanut butters and hot sauces for sale. There are options for all diets. My favorite dishes are the mexican eggplant torta and the vegetable taco salad and I always get a kombucha. For pie fans, Barb makes a different pie each day. Pro tip: Mondays are mexican mondays so all mexican items are 10Q off. Tell a tuk tuk to go towards Hotel Bambu and get out when you see their tiny sign.
Buen Apetito on Calle Principal: If you need to get food in the center, don’t go to El Pescador (it’s overpriced mediocre food for tourists). Buen Apetito, right next to Cojolya, is fresh and tasty and the family who owns it is lovely. I love their vegetarian burrito and guacamole and their beans are some of the best in town (they use a combo of red and black). Ask for the housemade hot sauce and get a licuado if you need to cool down. If you eat meat, the plato economico is a great off menu deal. You get a protein (chicken or beef) with rice, salad, and guacamole, plus tortillas.
Cafe Rafa: Cafe Rafa is a little bit up from the docks on the right and the best coffeeshop in town. The owner, Juan, is selective about the coffee he buys and the staff is lovely. They have wifi and are open every day (sundays they close at 2). Sometimes they have non dairy milks and if you ask nicely, sometimes they’ll stock them for you. They also have non styrofoam to go cups, phew. Their iced blended drinks are great when it’s hot out, but make sure to ask for no sugar. The quesadilla is a quick option in a pinch but I don’t like their desserts.
La Posada: In addition to being a great place to stay, the Posada has hands down the best breakfast in town. The fruit is perfect, the blue corn pancakes with macadamia syrup are legendary, and the guatemalan breakfast and huevos rancheros are an elevated classic. There are housemade jams and salsas, great coffee and views of San Pedro. Breakfast only runs till 10:30 and the rest of the menu is not as strong so get up and enjoy this! Bonus if you jump off the dock for a pre breakfast swim. N.B.: they take credit cards with a 100Q minimum.
Quilas: I saved the best for last. Quilas is one of my favorite places in Santiago, if not the world. It feels like a living room filled with some of the kindest people I’ve ever met. If you go more than once, you’re a regular and every query is answered with a smile. The menu is simple but well executed. My go to order is a quesadilla with beans (it’s served with guacamole and totally addictive) and a spicy ginger margarita (the tequila is infused with hot peppers and muddled with fresh ginger). The house pickled vegetables are served with everything. My meat eating friends love the burgers. Keep an eye on their facebook page for the bi monthly barbecues, which feature ribs, veggie burgers, coleslaw and homemade desserts. For non alcoholic options, the frozen mint lemonade is a winner. Everything is executed with care and I cannot recommend hanging here enough. N.B.: they are open Wednesday-Sunday, 5 pm-10 pm and located around the corner from the docks.
Where to stay:
I can only vouch for the Posada de Santiago (and my absolute gems of a host family) as I’ve stayed here twice with visiting family. Rooms are comfortable, the atmosphere is relaxed and it’s a great base for exploring the lake. There is sometimes live music at night but it never goes too late.
If you’re staying for a while:
Try the mango off the street, with pepita, chile, limon y sal. Try the atole (atolido is my favorite, it’s cinnamon-y), ask someone to take you to tacos secretos and get pupusas de queso with all the salsas. Eat desayunos chapines and lots of tortillas. Rent fancy houses in large groups. Learn at least three words of tzutuj’il and take as many pictures of the lake as you possibly can. Email me for more ideas.
If you’re on Lake Atitlan, you’ll probably wind up in Pana at some point. It’s a big connection hub and a convenient place to stay though it is short on charm and pretty flat (meaning minimal views beyond the dock). I stop here all the time on my way to Guatemala City or Antigua (I highly recommend this shuttle company, prices are slightly lower if you buy in person at their office). The dock has great views but once you’re in town, you can’t see much. There are an overwhelming amount of restaurants on Calle Santander and some stand out for sure.
For coffee, Crossroads Café is special. Mike, the owner, roasts beans every morning, hand sourced from all over Guatemala. He makes all sorts of coffee drinks and sells coffee by the pound. He’s fastidious and pays coffee farmers extremely well (he bought an entire crop once for double the fair trade price). The treats sold here are great and based on his wife’s recipes. I love the carrot cake and the cookies. This is a little off the main street (the first right off of the street with Circus bar, then a left) and you’re very likely to have a conversation with another patron. Closed sundays and mondays and everyday at lunch time (from 1-2:30)
Cafe Loco is a cool Korean coffee shop right on Santander. It’s packed on weekends and people sit on the front stoop and watch Pana go by. If you’re spending time here, get a punch card and they’ll write your name in Korean! They have a fun menu and so many coffee brewing methods. Also great iced drinks for a sunny stroll.
Chinitas is a garden-y restaurant run by a sweet Malaysian woman whose lived in Pana for years. The menu is varied and many items are strong. The salads aren’t the best but they have great soups (hot and sour with mushrooms), summer rolls, teas, and really good breakfast. All the hot sauces are homemade and it’s fun to put sesame seeds on top of everything. I love the coconut oatmeal at breakfast time and they open before 9, which is rare for Pana. People come and try to sell stuff to you while you eat but it’s still a very calm environment.
Restaurante Hana is Japanese food in a beautiful garden right off of Santander. There’s a big sign that says Sushi to lead you there. Soy free vegetarian options are slim but I go for the vibe (and the veggie sushi is much better if you add avocado). Until noon, this space is the original Mr. Jon’s breakfast spot (which is much nicer than the new Santander location) and it’s the perfect spot for a Sunday breakfast. The hashbrowns are awesome and the pancakes are huge.
Cafe Moka, with a beautiful terrace, above Santander makes great drinks and is where many Pana nights start. During the day, their matcha latte is a fun way to feel trendy while living in Guatemala, which is not easy to do. They have wifi if you need to get some work done.
Circus Bar is a Pana classic and a great spot to hang out and catch up with friends. The U shaped bar is cozy and they always have a wine on special.
Chapiteau, across from Circus Bar, is the best place to dance in Pana, where everything shuts down by 1:30, except for the taco vendors on the street. There’s no cover and good reggaeton music.
Tbh, I’m in Pana often and always stay at the same tiny, bare bones hostel. It’s cheap, clean enough and since I’m there one night at at time, the lack of wifi and hot water is no problem. It’s called Rooms Santander if you have similar needs.
Otherwise, I’ve been to Hotel Atitlan once for two hours and can attest to its luxurious status, though it’s far out of town. Get the sangria if you find yourself there and bring a bathing suit.
Fron Pana, you can also visit San Antonio Palapo in a flete that leaves from near the grocery store, a beautiful town known for its handmade ceramics in blue and white. You can buy them at MayanKe, a great store in Pana run by a family from there or at the source. The views are also stunning.
From Pana, you can take a lancha to the other towns on that side of the lake.
Santa Cruz is up in the hills above the lake and a tiny slip of a town. The main reason to go (aside from much beloved hostel Iguana Perdida which I never went to) is the view from Sabores Cruceños, a restaurant run at a capacity building center in the town. To get there (it’s open from 8-3, monday-saturday) you can take a real steep walk or a tuk tuk. The view is amazing, the food is really good (guatemalan specialties and great breakfasts and smoothies) and you’re supporting a great project.
Another tiny town, my passion for Jaibalito is really for Ven Aca, a gorgeous restaurant/lakeside club that makes you feel like a VIP. They are open till 5 pm and it’s the best place to day drink and soak in the lake. You can swim in their infinity pool or off the dock in the lake. Recommended dishes: vegetarian appetizers, gin and tonics and chilled white wine. The ceviche is also beloved.
San Marcos is full of hippies on various spiritual quests and energetic journeys. It’s tiny, seemingly totally separate from local populations and crunchier than the crunchiest health food store.
It is, however, a beautiful place to swim, maybe one of the best on the lake. There is a Reserva Natural with miradors, trails and a 10 meter jump (you can also enter normally) that you can find to the left of the dock. It’s 15 for foreigners to enter and such a beautiful place to spend the day. The water is turquoise, there’s no boat traffic and the views are insane. If you’re scared about the high jump, just do it! The longer you stare down, the harder it gets.
I love San Juan. To access it, take a tuk tuk from San Pedro (should cost 10Q). It’s well maintained, has great mountain and lake views and beautiful shops. The weavers here specialize in natural dyes (though mainly for tourists it seems as they all wear traje with chemical dyes) and you can get great scarves and other textiles. Some of the shops are cooperative models. There aren’t a ton but I like Batz and Artesania San Juan, which is on the main street coming up from the dock. If you’re interested in coffee, take a tour with Cooperativa La Voz (follow the signs that say coffee tour). It’s best during harvest season so late fall, but you’ll see how coffee is processed and try a fresh cup.
Food wise, San Juan has one of the best meals/experiences you can find in Guatemala: Wine and Cheese. Wine and Cheese, formally known as El Artesano Vino y Queso, is only open on the weekdays during the day and serves exquisite cheese platters with housemade bread in a beautiful garden. It’s the perfect place to celebrate life and enjoy a leisurely afternoon with loved ones. It’s so incongruous in the middle of Lake Atitlan but that only makes it more impressive. The owner does a ton of work to source these cheeses, making some of them himself and every garnish is deliberately added, from housemade jam to nuts, olives, and strawberries. The wine is so delicious and with half liters available, you can try lots of types if you bring a group. CALL and MAKE A RESERVATION. If you can’t get one or don’t want to plan ahead, the owners also have a coffee shop across the street with desserts and cheeses for sale.
San Pedro is one of the most visited towns on the lake after Pana and attracts a crowd of backpackers and people studying spanish. A main attraction, of course is hiking San Pedro and there are some worthy spots in town as well. There are direct lanchas from Santiaog and Pana or you can take a local one from Pana to make other stops. Like San Marcos, I don’t love the vibes of San Pedro and have only spent one night here. It’s fun to rent kayaks here and explore the little bay.
- Climbing the volcano is something I highly recommend. Take a tuk tuk from the dock to the national park entrance (again should be 10Q) and pay the 100q entry fee, use the bathroom and make sure to get a walking stick. The guide is included with the price and will escort you at least the first half hour as the trail is a little confusing at first. Once it’s a straight shot, you can proceed without a guide (as I did both times). There’s a mirador with a bathroom that you’ll reach and from there it’s about two hours to the top.
- Go on a clear day! A cloudy day means a sub par view with just as hard of a hike.
- Bring water and snacks, fo sho!
- Bring a sweatshirt for the top as it gets windy.
- Start early. Aim to start hiking at 8 am or earlier.
- In town, eat at
- Zoola’s, an israeli hostel/restaurant. The Israeli platter is great to split and they have a happy hour 2×1 deal.
- Idea connection has incredible croissants and good breakfasts plus very fast wifi.
- El Barrio has a great brunch deal where 40Q gets you a fruit salad, an egg dish and potatoes, pancakes and a cocktail! It’s a ton of food and pretty tasty.
- Hummus-Ya has good falafel and sabich, a fried eggplant sandwich.
- The health food store in San Pedro has a very wide selection.
- Zoola’s, an israeli hostel/restaurant. The Israeli platter is great to split and they have a happy hour 2×1 deal.
Beyond Lake Atitlan
Antigua is basically the tourist hub of Guatemala. About an hour from the airport, it is a common first and last stop and as a result, incredibly touristy. There are restaurants and hotels everywhere you turn and things can get very fancy. In the city itself, there’s not much to do besides look at beautiful ruins (Antigua was the first capital of Guatemala, the full name is la Antigua Guatemala and was at one point the capital of a huge viceroyalty. Earthquakes changed that real quick), eat, shop, and sleep. After spending a lot of time here, Antigua became a respite to do non Guatemalan things, which is why so many of these suggestions are about italian food. People just arriving will understandably have a different perspective.
- Sleep at Hotel la Catedral (expensive but great location and includes breakfast) or Posada San Sebastian (love this place, it’s reasonably priced, in a great location and has very cool decor).
- Visit the chocolate museum (the class is a great value considering how much chocolate you make), Hotel Santo Domingo to look around, Algodones Mayas for unique souvenir, Colibri for Cojolya products and other goodies. Nim Pot is a bit of a mixed bag but worth a peek and it’s definitely worth a dollar to enter the Cathedral.
- Los Tres Tiempos : a beautifully designed restaurant with dishes from all over Guatemala. They also make vegetarian version of lots of things including a hearts of palm ceviche and a version of pescado garifuna, a coconut seafood stew, with oyster mushrooms.
- The wine bar right next to the arch. It’s a tiny table and fun to chat with other patrons. Note that the discounts on second and third glasses of wine only apply if you get the same type for each glass.
- Luna de Miel for crepes and salads. The terrace is beautiful and the service is some of the best I’ve seen in Guatemala; they use iPads to keep track of things and the crowd is mostly guatemalan.
- Frida’s for margs and guac. It’s a classic
- Samsara for mostly vegan food if you really want something different. They have good soups and smoothies.
- Quesos y Vino is decent italian food in a pretty garden. Good wine selection and pizza if you crave. I preferred the pastas though.
- Sobremesa has incredible ice cream in lots of unusual flavors. They are liberal with providing samples.
- Metiz is a french bistro with really excellent, large salads.
- Tartines has simple french food (get the lentil salad) and an incredible view overlooking the Cathedral.
- Angie’s is an argentine place with pretty good pizza right next to Cafe No Se. A glass of wine (not keeping with the Argentine spirit!) is super expensive here so stick to cocktails.
- Fonda de la Calle Real is an old school Guatemalan restaurant with all the classics, including vegetarian pepian, something of a unicorn dish. Bill Clinton has eaten here, if you care about things like that.
- Cafe No Sé is the expat bar in Antigua. There’s live music almost every night and great mezcal.
Use Antigua as a base to hike Acatenango, which you can read about here.
If you’re around at the beginning of November, the kite festival for dia de los muertes in Sumpango is a very cool stop. About 40 minutes from Antigua, you’ll see huge kites meant to release spirits to heaven.
Guatemala’s capital of over a million people definitely gets a bad rap, but there are gems here. Zona 10 is a safe and nice place to stay as you can walk around and are very close to the airport.
- Quetzalroo is a good hostel with nice breakfast, though they do try to upsell you on the tours they offer.
- Worth a visit (and open 6 days a week) are the Textile and Archeology museum, Museo Ixchel and Museo Popul Vuh. They are across from one another on a college campus in Zona 10 and so well done. They provide a lot of context to a trip and are spacious and modern. Everything is in English and Spanish and they’re so poorly visited but are awesome resources.
- Good meals can be found at the beautiful L’Osteria, Pitaya (juices and salads), Tre Fratelli and in Cuatro Grados Norte, the hipster two block section of Guatemala City that is full of cute cafes. Lots of things are closed on sundays so call ahead.
- La Ciudad a Pie is a free walking tour that leaves from Cuatro Grados Norte every sunday. The group that runs it is dedicated to making Guatemala City more pedestrian friendly and their tour is incredible! You walk down La Reforma and learn a ton about the history of Guatemala from young and friendly guides. They also bring historical photos of the city so you can see how much it’s changed. If you’re there on a sunday morning, get up and do this.
- Malls are also safe and very familiar places to hang out, do some shopping, or see a movie. Oakland Mall and Miraflores are some nice ones.
Peten is a whole different beast. It’s 1/3 of the nation’s area but is very sparsely populated and the vibe is definitely jungle. I came to see Tikal and Yaxwha, two important Maya sites (Tikal was the center of the entire Maya civilization with people coming several times a year for ceremonies that coincided with solstices). The incredible part is how little of these sites are excavated and how much is unknown. Go early to experience fewer crowds and less crushing heat, but try to find a hotel with a pool and an a guide with an air conditioned car. Bring bug spray and fly from Guatemala City if you can.
Semuc Champey was one of my favorite stops in Guatemala. It’s out of the way (an 8 hour trip from Antigua) and quite remote (there are no atms in town) but so stunning.
From this post, Semuc Champey sounds unbelievable; it’s deep in the jungle, past where roads are paved and it’s a series of turquoise pools formed because a river dips underneath its limestone bed. The name means where the river goes under the rocks. It’s not easy to get to per se but it’s one of the coolest places I’ve ever been. Six of us spent the weekend there at El Retiro, a great hostel that had really nice buffet dinners every night. This isn’t the kind of place you can walk around because it’s so dark and the town is so tiny.
Lanquin, where we stayed, is about a 45 minute pick up truck ride from the park and the hostel organizes day trips. We arrived at the park and were immediately told to get on our bathing suits and head to the caves. They handed us each a candle and off we went. When we got to the mouth of the cave, the guides (who were the most hyper 21 year old boys) took ash from inside the cave and gave us “war paint,” which is why we look really dumb in all the photos. We swam in the caves for almost two hours and it was the coolest thing. There are no lights and you have to swim and jump and just keep going. I can’t do it justice but this part is fun and so different than anything else I’ve done. We followed the cave swim with a swing jump into the river, some tubing, a break for lunch (pro tip: the hostel’s lunch box is about 100 times worse than the food at the comedor where they take you to buy lunch so learn from our mistake and say no to the lunchbox) and then a (very steep and somewhat slippery) hike to the mirador and finally a swim in the pools themselves. It was an exhausting and exhilarating day and I’m so so glad we got to experience it. Nothing was too crowded as it’s a remote spot mostly with backpackers and tourists from elsewhere in Guatemala and the watery itinerary meant that people were much less concerned about getting pictures all day. (Though we all got some instas).
I definitely recommend Semuc Champey for rugged travelers who don’t care about safety regulations and are down to sit on a bus for a while for something totally mindbending. It was a total highlight.
Monterico is the nicest (apparently) of Guatemala’s beaches and it’s not the best beach in the world. I spent 4th of July weekend at Johnny’s Place, one of the oldest hotels/restaurants in town and enjoyed it. The sand is black and the currents are strong, but we were able to swim a bit. It’s quite hot and the food options are limited due to supply issues (everything has to travel and spoils quickly in the heat). Since 4th of July coincided with a Guatemalan holiday, the vibe was a little on the spring break side, though I’ve heard it’s much quieter on other days of the week and non holiday weekends. This isn’t a must do by any means, but a cool change of pace.
Xela is Guatemala’s second city and a really fun place to hang out. There’s a central square, lots of cool coffee shops and food from all over the world. Though I never did any of them, Xela is a base for lots of hikes including a lagoon and hot springs walk which sounds cool. Stay at the well located Black Cat Hostel, with good breakfast and stop in the bars around the center. They’re in an old train station so there are many all in a row.
Questions about a trip to Guatemala?
Leave them in the comments or email me! I hope this is helpful for people planning on spending time in this incredible place.