Fly into Guatemala City. The airport’s clean, modern, easy to navigate. Don’t change your money there if you can help it. The kiosks here give the worst exchange rate in the country. Bring US dollars to change, or use your ATM card to get cash.
A word on safety here: Follow basic precautions. Lock up your possessions when you leave your hotel room, keep your passport in a hotel safe, and don’t display flashy, expensive gear. Don’t walk alone at night or loiter in remote areas in daytime without a guide.
Getting to the Lake
Two options. Take a taxi or group shuttle to the lovely small city of Antigua, 40 minutes away ($30 at most; less in a group shuttle). If you’ve got the time, Antigua’s well worth a day or two. From here you can take a tourist minibus ($12; you’ll find offices all over town) that will bring you to the main tourist town at the lake, Panajachel. It’s a two-and-a-half hour trip to the lake. Get there in time to watch the sunset over the volcanoes. Or, have a private car pick you up. I recommend Geovanni’s Car Service. Geovanni is super reliable, speaks English, has a safe, modern vehicle, will stop along the way if you want a break, and if you’re going to San Marcos, he ‘ll bring you to the dock. Cost is 900 quetzales (roughly $115; 011 502 5866 0125).
It’s fun for shopping on Calle Santander, (or the once a week Antique Huipile market on Tuesday monings at the Fire Station) and the nature preserve with monkeys, butterflies, and azipline is great, but for my money, the best option once you get to Pana is to hop on a boat (public boat: 20 quetzales or $2, private $30) and have the driver bring you to the town of San Marcos la Laguna. Just get money first. There are no banks or ATMs in San Marcos.
Where to Stay
No big hotels here but a handful of nice options exist, none in the high-rise category. My choices: (directly at the dock, with a lovely garden, breakfast, and several rooms overlooking the water. Price range $25-$50). Up the path, and a little cheaper is Paco Real (011-502 4084 5974), which has rooms as low as $15, but some very sweet bungalows for around $30. My favorite place, if you can swing it is the magical, super-romantic —whose one-of-a-kind rooms feature handmade stained glass windows made from salvaged bottles, rustic furnishings, turreted balconies overlooking the lake,and even an outdoor tub.
What to Do
You’ll get the layout of the village easily: a couple of small footpaths, lined with flowers and bouganvillea vines and stalls selling coconuts, weavings, jewelry, coffee, local chocolate, handmade flutes and drums and rugs. Because San Marcos has also earned a reputation as a center for alternative healing, you’ll also find a dozen or more spots where someone has hung out a shingle advertising some form of therapy, from cranial sacral massage to Emotional Freedom Technique to the Chocolate Shaman. Get a massage at Aaculaax or La Paz, the lovely vegetarian hotel/ hostel/ restaurant, which also offers daily yoga at nine every morning in a beautiful open-air thatch roof palapa, for $5 a class. Other options: rent a kayak. Check out the non-tourist barrio up the hill. I like to take in the sunset—possibly with beer in hand—at the park known as The Trampoline (though no trampoline exists here) along the rocks just beyond Hotel Aaculaax. Some people dive off the rocks from here. I sip my beer and watch them.
Hop on one of the public lancha boats that pass the dock every half hour and check out San Juan, with its textile cooperatives, run by indigenous women, who weave shawls and table clothes and bags, dyed with natural plants, and galleries filled with primitive paintings.
Let a guide bring you to the town of Santa Clara. Hike to the top of Indian Nose (a challenging hour-and-a-half at most). On your way back, make a stop at the more-extreme zipline here (100 q.).
In San Pedro, you can visit the market, take a dip in a hot tub, rent a horse, or (if you’re in shape for this) climb the volcano. Bring a guide for that one. It’s a challenging climb, though a breathtaking one.
Or take a boat to the larger town of Santiago, where villages maintain an altar to Machimon, patron saint of smoking, drinking and womanizing.
Where to Eat and Hang
Nobody would travel to San Marcos for high-end gourmet experiences, but a number of good dining options exist, most under $10 a meal, most outdoors, with the occasional dog stopping by for a visit. My particular favorites are Fe, for the curry, and Tul y Sol, where the Swiss chef Guy serves shrimp from the coast, outdoors by the water, and a crazy, fanciful Japanese restaurant called A La La run by a Japanese woman named Seiko, hidden at the end of a narrow path that looks like something from The Hobbit. You won’t even mind the incredibly long time it takes to get your tempura, because you can shop for used clothes or just take in the atmosphere, a fairy world of white lights and tree branches and tinkling bells.
On Friday nights, there is very good live blues from Carlos (and the occasional guest) at Blind Lemon’s. If you read the bulletin boards in San Marcos (and you always should, because there’s always some kind of musical performance or tantric workshop being announced, or someone looking for a didgerydoo player for his band), you may discover it’s Improv night at Hostal del Lago, or that the local hip-hop band is playing that night. (and they’re actually good).
Not to Miss
I try never to let a day go by at Lake Atitlan without swimming at least once. As with many aspects of life in Guatemala, you can find people who will tell you there are problems with the water here—and it’s true: an outbreak of cyanobacteria a few years back made swimming impossible for months—but recent testing of the water around San Marcos confirms that the water is once again clear and safe. Speaking strictly of my mental health, I cannot think of a single life experience that has done more for me than a swim under the stars at Lake Atitlan, or at daybreak, with a flock of herons circling overhead and the sun just coming up over the volcano.