Everyone loves Lake Atitlán…but maybe you should go here instead

If you ever make it down to Guatemala, you’ll be hearing a lot about Lake Atitlán. How beautiful it is, how it’s a must-see destination that should be on every backpacker’s to-do list, and how plenty of visitors end up staying for months on end.

It’s a peaceful, picturesque lake, surrounded by volcanoes, and populated with indigenous Maya communities, each with their own traditions, distinct even from one town to the next. It all sounds pretty great.

San Pedro La Laguna, Lake Atitlán, Guatemala
Looks great, too.

But when I arrived in Atitlán, I didn’t find a place where backpackers go to discover the natural beauty of the mountainous landscape, nor to immerse themselves in the rich, ancient cultural heritage of the Maya…who are literally still called Maya…but instead found a superficial tourist town where backpackers and other expats go to drown themselves in whichever form of intoxication suits their fancy. Drinks. Drugs. Yoga. Whatever. It’s a weird place.

You can start to see the red flags when you get closer to the water, where you’ll find an alternate reality, which exists exclusively for tourism:

San Pedro expat signs
I mean, I love free Wi-Fi too, but still…

This is San Pedro, one of the best-known and most frequently visited of the lakeside towns surrounding Atitlán, where you’ll find all the amenities of predictable backpacker life, and…that’s about it.

After dark, nothing happens. Literally nothing. Each and every backpacker is stuck inside the hostel, many of whom are drinking heavily. There’s nothing else to do in town. The streets remain eerily silent, nearly devoid of life.

This wouldn’t be so bad sometimes. Meeting new people is great, and I’ve done this a million times. Taking a break from sightseeing for a few days is nice, and it’s about as much fun as you can have in a sleepy town without much to do.

But if there’s not much to do…why do people talk about how great it is?

Why you might still want to visit Atitlán

What’s even weirder is that there is stuff to do. Atitlán is literally surrounded by volcanoes, with all sorts of great hiking trails for outdoorsy types, and each indigenous Maya town along the water is culturally distinct from its neighbor. You’ll see variations on the traditional Guatemalan highland outfit from one town to the next, and seeing those brightly-embroidered outfits alive, after centuries of colonial oppression and decades of made-in-China Western fashion onslaughts, was a small highlight of my time in Guatemala.

But when I was there, all anyone was doing was getting drunk in the hostel.

Sigh.

later met people who did far more interesting things while visiting Atitlán, like visiting some of the other lakeside towns (who doesn’t love boat trips around a lake?), or climbing up the mountains in the early hours of the morning for a sunrise view of a magnificent dawn. That’s why you should visit Atitlán. Those are damn good reasons.

And even if all you want to do is take it easy, you can still make the best of things while you’re there. The backpacker atmosphere is stupidly over-saturated down by the water, but if you leave the touristy part of town (the size of which I expect varies from one town to the next), you’ll find the other side of the bizarre Atitlán alternate reality, which consists of…normal Guatemalan people, doing normal Guatemalan things.

Like football:

Kids playing football in San Pedro, Guatemala
I hope they don’t break any windows.

That’s not even a good example. There’s a tour agency right there. But it was still nice to see a snippet of regular life, especially in a town that was so thoroughly saturated by tourism. Not that there were all that many tourists, but there were so many services catering to them (hotels, restaurants, laundry, free Wi-Fi) that everything just seemed so very superficial.

All around the lake, you’ll find small towns that work much the same way; the waterfront is flooded with souvenir shops and all sorts of other touristy businesses, and you’ll be left wondering if anything else ever goes on there.

But yes, it does:

Santiago Atitlán street market
These street markets have more color than the towns themselves.

A few minutes up the street, and it’s a totally different town. No tourist shops. Nobody asking you if you want a guided tour. Nothing of the sort. Just regular, everyday life for a typical Guatemalan town. Busy street markets, friends catching up on gossip, buses zipping along, and…despite Spain’s best attempts at crushing indigenous culture…native languages that preceded Spanish, still in use, all over town. Take that, conquistadors!

Atitlán can be great. Just be sure to get out a little, and you’ll find a totally different atmosphere, very much worth visiting.

Where you might want to go instead

So even after visiting the not-so-touristy areas of a couple Atitlán towns, and after wandering around other parts of the country, I couldn’t help but start thinking that everyone’s just going to the wrong lake.

They could be visiting here instead:

Canoeing along Lake Izabal
Now that’s a cozy riverside bungalow.

Welcome to Lake Izabal, the exquisitely gorgeous, canyon-surrounded, national-park-festooned, criminally under-touristed, maybe-you’ll-see-a-jaguar alternative to get-drunk-all-night, druggie-filled Atitlán. It’s just great.

I kept mentioning to other backpackers that I really wanted to visit this area, and most of them seemed to have no idea what I was talking about. Which means you can stay in a place like this, all by yourself:

Izabal Bungalow
The perfect eccentric weirdo hermit paradise.

Seriously, why does no one go here?

One of the weirdest things about visiting Atitlán was how everyone kept going on and on about how “nice” it was, even though the lake is too polluted for swimming, and certain “streets” were just garbage-filled dirt paths, and many of the buildings were just decaying shacks with rusting corrugated sheet metal rooftops. That’s real life for a lot of people, and something everyone should experience first-hand…but…nice? Is it really nice?

Over in Izabal, on the other hand, you can swim. So if either of them wins the “nice” label, it’s Izabal for sure. It’s not like it didn’t have its fair share of rundown areas, but adorably cozy lakeside cabins were everywhere.

I mean, come on. Just look at it:

Lilypads on Lake Izabal
This is way better than a lawn.

I expect that part of the reason it’s a comparative ghost town is that it’s quite underdeveloped…and it’s underdeveloped, because not too many people go there. It’s a self-perpetuating cycle that’ll take years to change (though finding nice places to stay isn’t a problem), but it deserves a lot more attention than it’s getting.

Around the lake itself, as well as the canyon-surrounded river leading to the Caribbean, you’ll find things like hike-worthy mountains, nature reserves on all sides, hot springs, hot spring waterfalls, a tiny kayak-able canyon, plenty of jungle walking opportunities, several peacefully secluded riverside lodges, a colonial Spanish castle, busy port towns, and even some authentic Guatemalan nightlife, with nearly no out-of-towners at all. There’s a lot to do here.

Castillo de San Felipe, Guatemala
Who doesn’t love castles? Morons, that’s who.

You’ll also find the Caribbean enclave of Livingston, populated mostly by African refugees, with their own distinctive culture, entirely different from anywhere else in Guatemala. Here you can enjoy a nice seafood break from the rice, beans, eggs, and tortillas of the rest of the country, and even take a few cooking classes, to take the dining experience home with you. Livingston had plenty of souvenir shops and restaurants with English menus, but only along one street, whereas the rest of town was just a regular town.

It’s great for kicking back, too:

Kicking back in Livingston
It’s a good day for…nothing.

The minor challenge over in Izabal is that certain places aren’t so well-connected. Many of the surrounding mountains, for example, look like they’d be great places to hike, but you might have to go on your own and stamp out your own path, and arrange transportation yourself, rather than go with a group of hostel buddies with a guide who knows the route, like you can do over in Atitlán. It’s not like you can’t get anywhere, but logistics are sometimes trickier, and it might stay that way for years.

So although there’s plenty to do, you might just end up going over to Izabal and just kinda hanging out for a few days, without doing much of anything. It’s pretty much what I did. But at least it won’t be fueled by audacious quantities of alcohol and other things, like some of the parties over in Atitlán. Izabal is just a much nicer place to visit, and lots of visitors to Guatemala are just missing out.

So by all means, go to Atitlán. But check out Izabal as well. No one’s ever sad they did.

Check out some other favorites too.

About SnarkyNomad

Eytan is a pretentious English major whose rant-laden sarcastic tirades occasionally include budget travel tips and other international nonsense. You can follow his every narcissistic word on Facebook, Twitter, or Google+.

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23 Comments on “Everyone loves Lake Atitlán…but maybe you should go here instead”

  1. I talked to a couple of the folks at your hostel in San Pedro. They said they didn’t tell you about all the nightlife because you are such a prick. At least 3 or 4 places with live or dj music almost every night there, not to mention hiking, boating, kayaking and almost every other type of adventure travel fun. Even an amazing and safe zipline 20 minutes away.

    1. Interesting how you somehow spied on which hostel I stayed in, since I didn’t mention it. And yes, if people actually make use of the outdoors, then it’s great. But if people are just there to party, it gets old.

  2. I tell people all the time, Guatemala is the best place to vacation in our hemisphere – awesome, exotic, cheap, safe (ahem, mostly). For the record, I’m on team Atitlan. I suffer in the tropical climes. But I agree San Pedro is a s***hole. Santiago de Atitlan is a more traditional town.

    1. San Marcos is also quite different. The alcoholics go to San Pedro, and the hippies go to San Marcos. Maybe I should have found a better town to stay in…

      1. Hi Snarky, I loved your Guatemala post and hope to read more about the Maya people. Yes, you mentioned them but not outside the touristic little towns around Atitlan Lake. There is much more to see and tell: Jungle Tourism. Would love to see one day your light weight pack hiking to the Maya ruins. Happy days!

        1. I’ve got plenty more to write about, so hopefully I’ll get there soon. And yes, the indigenous cultures were quite interesting to see; for a country so close to the US, it was a bit of a surprise how they haven’t adopted Western fashions to the extent that it erases their own culture. Obviously plenty of countries still have these sorts of traditions, but I’ve mostly been to the ones that don’t.

          1. Loved the article. I visited the Atitlan in 2000, we didn’t like the towns, but walking round the lake we came across one of my favourite little “hotels”. On a crag above the lake with amazing views. If my memory serves me right, it was run by an American or Canadian and called Casa del Mundo. It appears to still be open. Walking round through the little villages was fabulous. I am sure a lot has changed.

          2. Yeah, and each town has its own atmosphere; party people go to San Pedro, hippies go to San Marcos. Maybe there’s somewhere that’s filled with people who enjoy a little more realism.

  3. I could never understand why people would spend money to travel to a place where they would get drunk (not remember what happened) and spend time with people just like them. if you have a really great day you’ll be too tired to party late into the night.
    Having less amenities is a great filter.

    1. Very true. I love meaning other backpackers, but endless partying isn’t much fun. I’d rather have a quality conversation over a few drinks than go into a week-long, expensive bender that I can’t even remember.

  4. We might be visiting Lake Atitlan and your article gave me some pause. I’ve heard of San Pedro’s darker reputation. Why do you think this is vs other locations? Is it because Guatemala’s unsafe reputation and people are reluctant to go outside at night (and I guess only can do so much to entertain themselves indoors with ought jumping to pharmaceuticals)? I’ve never been there (or central America). We are searching for a Spanish speaking country to study out for a month for our upcoming grad exams and this looked like a promising spot with good wifi, affordable location, beautiful surroundings, and close proximity to a cool city (Antigua) to check out as well.

    1. While I was there, the streets were really quiet at night, because everyone was staying in a hostel. There isn’t much to do in town at night, because the hostels have bars and restaurants inside, and no one bothers to leave. This is a subjective suggestion, but I would recommend staying in Antigua for the month, and visiting Atitlan on a weekend or something. I consider Antigua more livable.

  5. You got it right with the pollution and the intoxication. Fortunately there lot left to discover beside party life and the lake itself, I spent there 4 amazing weeks, bonding with the local Tz’utujil people.

    1. Yeah, there are a lot of interesting things to see and cultures to explore, but it takes a bit of exploration to find them. It’s so easy to stay in the touristy areas that most tourists never seem to leave them…but it’s good to get out and see more.

  6. If you didn’t have fun in San Pedro then you just did it wrong or it was a slow week because that is easily one of the coolest, most fun, most beautifully set places on earth. As a world traveler you should know by now that each place has its unique charms, thats why you go to new places. Some places are for partying with other travelers, some are for authentic local experiencing, some are for nature expeditions and guess what, San Pedro is all of those and much more if you wouldve stuck around long enough to figure it out. It makes no sense to go to party town and complain that its all tourists but then whine that there isn’t enough party. Which do you want? You can have whatever adventure you desire any day, if you don’t like tourists then don’t go to the tourist centered village. Then you go to a quiet lake and wonder why there aren’t tourists.. Well isn’t that what you said you don’t want? I’m confused. Consider each place for what it is, not compared to any other place, or some fictional ideal place that doesn’t exist.

    1. I didn’t mind the fact that there’s a party town somewhere, but when people talked about it, they didn’t really mention that. They just said it was great, and didn’t give the specific reason. If they had said “this one is the party town, and this one is the quiet relaxing place” then it would have been easier finding the right atmosphere for each traveler. Imagine some elderly couple looking for a nice place to relax by the beach and then going to a giant frat party on the street because everyone said it was so great, for example.

  7. Great blog :) Where did you stay on Lake Izabal? We’re heading there in a few days and hoping to find a quiet little piece of paradise… Is it easy to find places? And to travel around the lake?

    1. Not so much. The lodges along the lake will set up a pickup and drop-off, but you’ll have to call them ahead of time, or arrive sometime during the day, so they can drive their boat over to the bus stop. Each of those lodges is a little isolated, so you’ll have to figure out their particular instructions one by one, and plan on taking some time during the day to just read a book, or do nothing.

      1. Thanks for the reply. For anyone else who reads your blog and thinks, ‘Ooh yeah, Lake Izabal sounds like my kind of place!’ – as we did – it’s probably worth clarifying that finding places to stay on Lake Izabal *itself* is pretty close to impossible (at least until more people discover how lovely it is). After much fruitless searching, we discovered that most of the cool-riverside-lodge-type accommodation is actually downstream from the town of Rio Dulce (east of Lake Izabal), where the river widens to form a smaller and equally beautiful lake, El Golfete.

        We ended up having a very pleasant stay at a place called Casa Perico. Like several of the other hostels/hotels in the area, it’s only accessible by boat; they run a shuttle service from Fronteras (Rio Dulce town). It’s all built on boardwalks among the mangroves.

  8. Fascinating article. I’m a Canadian who has been living in Panajachel for three years. I want to comment on a few things.

    Yes, you can swim in Lake Atitlan. It’s quite lovely. Jucanya beach is shallow and very popular with the locals, especially on Sundays. They swim in their clothes and gawk at us when we bare our snow-white skin in swimsuits! :) Swimming is better further away from the towns and waaaaay far away from where the sewage is dumped directly into the lake. Two highlights: a high-platform diving spot in San Marcos and in-lake hot springs in Santa Catarina.

    Yes, San Pedro is a combo of party-slash-hippie town. I’m not sure what you *expected* to do at night though. Bowling? The movies? The sun sets at 6:30 every night. People gather in the streets to eat and chat. There is live music in the bars and lots of interesting people to meet. I’m not much into drinking either (Pana is even worse than San Pedro for that) but I love to hang out downtown at night and sip a margarita and laugh with my friends. I live here though, so I can always go home and hang with my boyfriend and write silly comments on blogs. :D

    In my mind, Lake Atitlan is a lot like Niagara Falls. (The Canadian side, eh?) It’s so touristy and kitschy but at the core of it all is the beauty of nature. One can’t help but be entranced by Lake Atitlan and its three benevolent volcanoes.

    Come on over to my blog and check out my silly observations on life as an expat. It’s not all sunshine and rainbows, for certain, but it’s certainly life-altering.
    http://chasingmarbles.blogspot.com

    1. I suppose I didn’t know what to expect, but something just felt a little off to me. I kept running into the run-down areas and touristy spots, and it just didn’t scream “paradise” to me the way people kept saying. Ah well. There’s certainly still plenty to enjoy about it, but it was a little too much in some ways for me.

  9. Wow, such a negative post. I’ve been to Lake Atitlan 3 times, and while I do hate tourist traps, and a couple of parts on the lake are like that, most of it is not!
    I came for the natural beauty, and guess what? I found it! Straight up and clear 3 giant volcanoes, hard to ignore the beauty! I hiked the volcanoes, cooked with the locals, took endless pictures of the beautiful lake.

    Travel is all about attitude. Only someone with a terrible attitude would dare to represent Atitlan as ugly. It’s like calling Adriana Lima ugly. lol
    Don’t let this guy fool you people! Lake Atitlan is gorgeous and definitely worth a visit!

    PS: the kids in the one picture are just playing… what’s the problem. They’re just having fun, something you clearly don’t know how to do.

    1. Hmm, I said the kids playing football were a pleasure to see. Not sure how that was miscommunicated.

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