When I traveled to Guatemala for the first time fifteen years ago as a backpacker, I immediately fell in love with it. I’ve been back many times since, and to be honest I still can’t believe it’s not a hotspot. The landscapes, the history, the food, the atmosphere – it’s all phenomenal, especially in Antigua and Lake Atitlan.
I recommend spending at least 5 days in Antigua and in the towns on Lake Atitlan. Delta flies direct from New York to Guatemala City, and the flight takes just five hours. From Guatemala City, it’s about a 45-minute drive to Antigua.
The entire city of Antigua is a UNESCO World Heritage site. The setting is stunning: the town is nestled in a beautiful valley surrounded by three volcanoes. The ruins, the colors, the colonial architecture, the cobblestoned streets, and the courtyard gardens give it a very special atmosphere.
The food is incredible in Antigua. Be sure to try corn tamales, and chicken pepián, a rich stew made with fruit, vegetables, and roasted spices – and don’t be afraid to sample the street food, which is safe, delicious, and super cheap. This being a coffee-growing country, there’s also fabulous coffee. The outskirts of Antigua are full of bars you can close down with the locals. And if you like the beach, it’s just a 45-minute drive away.
From Antigua, it’s about a 3-hour bus ride to Lake Atitlan, which is one of the most beautiful places on earth. Encircled by mountains and a trio of volcanoes covered in wildflowers, the lake is home to about 15 indigenous Mayan towns and villages, some more picturesque than others. The weather is similar to Colorado – expect super hot days and cool to freezing nights. It’s easy to travel from village to village, either by boat (lancha) or via hiking trails.
NOTE: Make sure you book early to get great, and affordable, places to stay. December, January, and April are the high season months. The dry season is from November to April.
Getting To Antigua:
Take a taxi from Guatemala City Airport to Antigua. The ride takes 45 minutes and costs about $35. Just before you leave the airport, you'll see an information desk, and they’ll show you where to book the taxi. Don't take the shared shuttle, as it takes a long time -- make sure information points you to the taxi desk and not to the shuttle desk.
Where To Stay In Antigua:
Aurora is an unpretentious, hacienda-style guest house in the center of town with a beautiful inner courtyard . Rooms have tile floors and traditional wood furniture, and they come with free Wi-Fi, flat-screen TVs, and en suite bathrooms with walk-in showers. It’s just two blocks from Antigua’s Central Park, and a minute away from the chocolate museum. Expect to pay around $80 a night, including breakfast.
A centrally-located guest house in a converted traditional home, Casa Ovalle has an intimate, family-run vibe and a beautiful roof deck where you can see the Agua Volcano. All eight rooms are decorated with traditional wood furniture and have private bathrooms, WiFi, cable TV, coffee makers (with coffee from Antigua!), and balconies with garden and patio views. Cost is approximately $75 a night, breakfast included.
Set above a coffee bar, Casa del Arco is a central guest house with big, clean rooms that have comfortable beds, private bathrooms, and WiFi. The highlight is the owner, a laid-back, super-helpful family man from Buenos Aires who gives great local recommendations and made us really like being here. Be sure to book a room upstairs. The roof deck is relaxing but not as nice as Ovalle’s. Cost is about $70 a night and includes breakfast.
This is a peaceful, colonial-style guest house with rooms facing a pretty courtyard, where you can see all three volcanoes that surround Antigua. All the rooms are spacious, with queen-sized beds, good bedding and linens, and have their own bathrooms and WiFi. It’s about a 7-10 minute walk to the center of town, and it’s near the speakeasy and the best neighborhoods. On Saturdays and Sundays, there’s an outdoor brunch down the street. Dido can direct you there. Rooms cost around $30 a night.
Where To Eat & Drink In Antigua:
Refuge is known for top-notch lattes and pour-overs featuring espresso made with beans from Atitlan and other nearby farms. The baristas are really friendly, the décor is modern and understated, and you’re likely to meet lots of other travelers here. If you’re craving something sweet, sell individual Oreos for dipping.
One of the best little cafes in Antigua, Y Tu Piña feels like it belongs on a Mexican beach. They serve natural foods-style sandwiches, soups, omelets, banana pancakes, smoothies, organic salads, and other goodies to eat there or take away. Be sure to check out their new weekend brunch. The coffee’s good, too.
There’s a reason people like to get married here: the setting, a beautifully-preserved colonial mansion with a rooftop terrace overlooking the city, the mountains, and the surrounding volcanoes, is stunning. The history – it’s a classy, family-run spot that started out as an almacen (general store) in 1898 – and the impressive wine list also make it worth visiting. You can also pick up bottles of wine to go at their shop.
When I’m in Antigua, I usually end up eating almost 50% of my meals here. From the outside, it looks like an upscale deli/bakery -- walk all the way back until you hit the gardens and head to the left. There’s an English menu with a lot of options. At dinner, try their chicken pepián. For breakfast, I love the tamales and the fresh OJ.
This is a colonial-style café with an attached bakery where they bake banana and carrot bread fresh daily (it comes out around 2pm). You can buy a half loaf of banana bread for $2 (they don't sell half loaves of the other breads). It’s the perfect thing to snack on during the shuttle ride to Lake Atitlan.
Carlos and Carolina are the charming couple who run this tiny little bar-restaurant on Avenida Sur. There’s no sign, and the space is warm and intimate, with a living-room sort of vibe – they actually want you to write on the walls. If you want to dine upstairs, you have to climb a ladder. Try a Moza beer, or a mojito, and if you’re hungry, their lomito (beef) is excellent.
If you’ve ever wanted to try mezcal, this is the perfect dive bar to do it. Owner John is a New Yorker who’s lived in Antigua for 18 years, and he has a great selection of aged and new mezcals, including single-batch ones from a private plantation. You enter through a refrigerator door, which adds to the fun.
What To Do In Antigua:
Take the free shuttle from the Casa Santo Domingo – the most luxurious hotel in Antigua – to the art garden on the edge of town at Santo Domingo del Cerro, where you’ll have gorgeous views of the city, the valley below, the always-smoking Volcan Fuego, and Volcan Agua. The grounds are dotted with sculptures by local artists, including Efrain Recinos, who’s known in these parts as Guatemala’s Picasso.
The shuttle to Santo Domingo del Cerro leaves every 30 minutes from the front door of the hotel, and the ride takes just 10 minutes – be sure to check out the hotel’s spectacular grounds and museums while you’re waiting. Casa Santo Domingo is set in a 16th-century convent, and the architecture is incredible. This is where the Clintons stay when they come to Antigua.
Behind the Pollo Campero fast food place, this is a tourist-oriented market, but it’s colorful, and clean, and you’ll find local handicrafts and plenty of bright textiles made into everything from backpacks to tablecloths. Know that vendors quote prices that are usually three times the going rate, and expect to haggle.
This is a great shop on Antigua’s main street founded by American girls who teamed up with local artisans to re-imagine Mayan textiles and traditional shoes in contemporary styles. They carry hand-made boots, one-of-a-kind fringe clogs, lux leather bags, and accessories, along with clothing that takes a fresh, modern approach with hand-woven fabrics.
Explore The Courtyards
Along the streets near the Parque Central, you'll notice courtyards you can wander into – they’re full of little cafes, and locals selling textiles and other handicrafts. Definitely worth checking out.
Take A Walking Tour
I haven’t heard great things about the walking tours here, but if you’re curious about the ruins and history of the city, it could be worth it. Daily photography walksby Rudy Giron of the Antigua Daily Photo website get good reviews and combine history, culture, and street photography. If self-guided tours are your thing, you can find lots of Antigua sightseeing tours at GPSmycity.
Visiting Lake Atitlan
My favorite towns along Lake Atitlan are San Marcos and Santa Cruz. San Marcos is unofficially known as the spiritual center of the lake, or the hippie town. Though it’s a little overrun with the whole spiritual backpacker vibe -- everyone has dreadlocks, didgeridoos, and ipads -- it’s a pretty, quiet town with plenty of yoga, reiki, and massage studios and meditation halls for everyone. There are practically no roads here – you reach just about everything via walking paths lined with plants and flowers. Ten minutes from the center of town is one of the most popular cliff-jumping sites on the lake.
Santa Cruz is the most chill and beautiful of all the lakeside villages. There are only a few restaurants and a bar, but there’s a diving pool and a great network of walking trails that lead to tropical gardens and waterfalls. It’s also the only town along the lake that can’t be accessed from the road. The hike between Santa Cruz and Jaibalito is one of the most beautiful on the lake.
Avoid the towns of San Pedro and Santiago if you can. Fifteen years ago, they were pretty and relatively untouched, but now they’re run-down party towns.
Getting To Lake Atitlan
Take the 8am shuttle bus from Antigua to Panajachel, the main town on the lake ($15 per person). There are tons of travel agencies in town where you can book the trip, or you can book ahead online here.
Between stopping for bathroom breaks and picking up passengers around town, the shuttle takes between 2-3 hours – keep in mind no bus arrives on time. From Panajachel, you can take a boat to San Marcos, Santa Cruz, or the town of your choice.
Note: There is NO ATM in Panajachel, so you need to bring enough cash to cover your trip here - or you can take the water taxi to San Pedro (a shabby party town) where there’s an ATM at the dock. If the one on the dock isn’t working, have the a tuk tuk take you to the ATM in the center of town. I had to do this twice, but the boat ride is nice, so it's not so bad.
Where To Stay On Lake Atitlan
Hotel Silani – San Marcos
Not really a hotel, this is a couple of simple cabins and a tree-house on the water. The rooms are super basic, but pristine, and the setting is just so tranquil. Try to book the "house with bathroom" or the tree house. The tree house has one matrimony bed (a bit bigger then a single) and a single. The house has a double bed (I'm pretty sure) and its own bathroom and is really comfortable. There’s also a beautiful communal shower and bathroom that’s always being cleaned and has a spectacular view of the lake. Cost is $20-35/night. To book, call +502 5088 3131(ask for Heraldo, and tell him Amy and Brett sent you) or email [email protected] (This is Heraldo’s sister Dido – be sure to mention Amy and Brett).
Airbnb: Las Vistas – Santa Cruz
This house is great. I actually met the original owner 15 years ago, and just saw it on Airbnb – you may want to split your time between here and Hotel Silani. It’s an architectural gem of a round house with a central courtyard, a garden, and beautiful lake views inside and out. The room has a queen-sized bed, a private porch with a hammock, and free WiFi. You share the master bathroom with the owner, but it’s attached to the room. At the dock – a five-minute walk away - they have campfires at night in front of the dive school. It costs about $70 a night.
Isla Verde – Santa Cruz
Another great spot to stay. They have eco-friendly cabins set on a hill with views of the lake. The décor is simple – lots of Mayan textiles – and there’s a pretty lakeside garden with hammocks and chairs for relaxing, a yoga studio, a library, a sauna, an open-air hot tub, and restaurant-café where we end up eating a lot of our meals (more on this below). Cabins with private bathrooms cost $55 per night for two.
Note: Again, be sure to book now. These places fill up fast during the high season months, and if you don't have a nice place to stay, it's not the same experience.
Where To Eat on Lake Atitlan
Il Giardino – San Marcos
Of all the restaurants in San Marcos, I like Il Gardino the best because it's the nicest environment – they have a really pretty garden – the portions are huge, and the food is flavorful, though it is vegetarian. The owners are Italian, and they serve good breakfasts, including delicious eggs Florentine, and a decent veggie burger.
Fe – San Marcos
A little more expensive than other restaurants in the area, Fe serves Indian vegetarian food, pizza, and other international favorites. Curries and pizzas are good, and the veggie burger is great, but the food isn’t always consistent, nor is the service, and the atmosphere isn’t as relaxing as Il Giardino. Still, if you come on a good day, their coconut shrimp is sensational.
Moonfish – San Marcos
It’s all about healthy food - like tempeh sandwiches, tofu scrambles, and falafel - at Moonfish, where they often cook with ingredients from their own garden. If you do yoga, check out their bulletin board for details about upcoming classes and retreats. Be sure to try their fresh fruit pancakes.
Street Food – San Marcos
Street food is safe and delicious in San Marcos, and most dishes are vegetarian and made with fresh local produce. Stick to the stands on the main path.
Isla Verde – Santa Cruz
The chill, beautiful in-house restaurant café at the Isla Verde Hotel. They serve healthy food using ingredients from their own garden, following the Slow Food philosophy. They make everything themselves: breads, desserts, jams, pâtés, pasta, ice creams, granola, yogurt, and more. The café is open all day long, and the views from the lakeside deck are unbeatable.
What To Do At Lake Atitlan
Hike around the Lake
The views from the paths that line the lake are truly amazing, as is the scenery as you walk from village to village. You can hike the paths on your own, but you need to be careful – there’s a lot of robbery here, so if you don’t feel confident, it’s often best to go with a guide. You can hire a guide locally for about $20, or book ahead with an agency like Adventure Atitlan Tours, who offer a series of different walking tours, including a 4-hour, $40 guided tour starting in the village of Santa Cruz.
Visit Other Lakeside Towns
You can easily take the water taxis from town to town. Besides San Marcos and Santa Cruz, San Lucas is worth exploring. It’s a clean, quiet town with great murals, and a market on Tuesdays, Fridays, and Sundays (Sundays are the best).10 minutes from here is the village of Quixaya, where you’ll find the fair-trade coffee coop Comité Campesino del Altiplano, which offers tours of its processing plant on a small coffee farm.
Rent A Boat For Day
For about $40, you can rent a boat with a driver for a day and explore the towns along the lake at your own pace. Bring beers and friends and take as much time as you like in each place – your driver will wait at the dock for you. You’ll find drivers waiting at the docks in all the towns along the lake – be sure to negotiate your price before your take off.
Explore The Lake From A Kayak
The Lake Atitlan Nature Reserve is about a 15-minute walk from the Hotel Silani in San Marcos, and there you can rent kayaks for the day. Paddle east toward Pena D’Oro to see all the cool waterfront homes and villages along the lake. Kayaks rent for around 15-25Q ($2-3). Head out in the morning to beat the high winds.
It's about a two hour bus ride from Panajachel to Chichi (a.k.a. Chichicastenango) Market, and it's definitely worth it. This is one of the best flea markets in Guatemala, and neither Antigua or the Lake really have anything as unique as what you'll find here. Look for great wood carved animals and bowls, and beautiful woven pouches and fabrics. Ask the travel agents in Panajachel to book your seats, or book online here. Shuttle buses leave at 8am on Thursdays and Sundays and cost around $9.