|Photo by Emilio Piovesan|
Located approximately 90 miles west of Guatemala City, this lake is situated in the cool Guatemalan Highlands. Considered one of the deepest in Central America, it was formed more than 80,000 years ago after water filled an enormous caldera that covered an area of 50 square miles. As a reminder of more dramatic times in the region, three volcanoes sit quietly on its southern side: San Pedro at 9,920 feet, Tolimán at 10,361 feet, and the Atitlán, which is 11,598 feet.
Getting to Panajachel: Although there are other towns around the lake, I did what most people do and traveled to the town of Panajachel. If you choose to drive there, just go west from Guatemala City on the CA-1 (the Pan-American Highway) past the town of Chimaltenango. Once you go past Los Encuentros, veer left toward the road to Sololá and Panajachel. The drive takes about two-and-a-half hours. For those in the historic city of Antigua, there are convenient door-to-door shuttles from Antigua direct to Panajachel through two reputable companies: Turansa (www.turansa.com) and Antigua Tours (www.antiguatours.net). For the adventurous on a small budget, there are also "chicken buses" that leave from Guatemala City approximately every hour for about US$3.
For your first experience of the lake, make the town of Panajachel (located at the one-o’clock position on the lake) your home base. Then the rest of your time can be spent exploring the town itself or traveling by boat to any of the other lakeside communities. What makes the area special is that each town is completely different from one another with a unique charm based on their own Mayan culture, history, and belief system. Everyone I know who has visited the lake has their favorite town based only on their feelings after being there. For your favorite location, you will just have to find out for yourself. In my experience, the lake is one of those locations that you end up unexpectedly staying longer than planned.
Ferries: The passenger ferries in Pana are located at the dock on Calle Rancho Grande. They make at least eight daily departures across the lake to Santiago Atitlán, one of the largest communities. If you want to explore the other towns in between there are plenty of smaller boats (known as lanchas) that are ready and willing to go. Some have schedules while others function as collective water taxis that depart only when the boat is filled. These are also more affordable than taking a private boat, which you always have the choice to do. Prices are generally around Q5, which is around 65 cents. So be careful when they try to ask you (the obvious foreigner) for outrageous amounts such as Q200 for a trip!
|(photo by Axcordian)|
Tourism is the primary source of the town’s revenue. You see it in everything from the groups of travelers arriving by ferry, the restaurants that each face the water, and the streets lined with vendors selling everything from fabrics and jewelry to paintings of the landscape. As far as vendors, they are all ready to bargain, so be prepared to do so if you care.
Dining: If you get hungry, there are many restaurants in this relatively small location. I recommend El Patio located in Plaza Los Patio on Calle Santander. Any restaurant that locals enjoy eating at is always a good place to try. The restaurant is known for its version of the Guatemala dish Pepián, which is traditionally made with chicken or turkey (sometimes pork or beef), rice, and a fleshy green vegetable known as güisquil. The ingredients are smothered in a sauce made from tomatoes, sesame and squash seeds, cinnamon, and chile. For me, the sauce is the best part, and don't worry about manners because you can use your warm tortillas to wipe up the remaining sauce.
Accommodations: There are also many choices when it comes to finding a good overnight accommodation. It all depends on your budget and whether you prefer a room with a lake view or an in-room bath. A recommended hotel is the Grand Hotel Panajachel (www.grandcorporacionhotelera.com) located on Calle Principal. It provides cute, comfortable guest rooms with nightly rates that start at US$50. The property also includes a quiet garden, a swimming pool, and a decent restaurant. Another great place is Jenna's River Bed and Breakfast. It is located just a half block from the lake and it offers charming guest rooms, a beautiful garden terrace (seen in the photo to the left), and a choice of either a freshly prepared full Guatemalan or English breakfast. For reservations, go to their website at www.jennasriverbedandbreakfast.com.
|(Courtesy of Reserva Natural Atitlán)|
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