Thursday, April 21, 2011

Exploring Panajachel on Lago de Atitlán in Guatemala

Photo by Emilio Piovesan
Once you arrive at Lago de Atitlán, the view almost takes your breath away. The calm morning waters reflect the blue skies and the landscape includes not one but THREE gigantic volcanoes, which are all fortunately dormant. This beautiful location has been compared to other lakes such as the gorgeous Lake Como in Italy but just with the added benefit of having volcanoes in the surroundings. For anyone visiting the country of Guatemala, it should definitely be seen.

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 ( and Antigua Tours ( 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!

Exploring Panajachel

(photo by Axcordian)
OrientationOnce you arrive in "Pana," you will immediately realize that it is surprisingly small and you can walk just about anywhere in less than 10 minutes. In addition to the lake, most of the action is centered around its main commercial street: the Calle Santander. Many restaurants, bars and shops are located on this strip and it leads right into the Calle Principal, which is the road that takes you out of the town. If you prefer to be driven around, there are always the tuk-tuks, which are Indian-made, three-wheeled motorized taxis seen throughout Guatemala. They circle the streets at all hours of the day and the ride is usually around Q5 for anywhere in town. 

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 ( 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

(Courtesy of Reserva Natural Atitlán)
Reserva Natural Atitlán: Before taking that boat trip away from town, make sure to visit the Reserva Natural Atitlán ( located in the Valley of San Buenaventura. This nature reserve is a short 10-minute walk from Pana and if you take a tuk-tuk, you can get there in about three minutes. Its major attractions include a visitor center that explains everything about the natural history and ecology of the lake, great trails with a 75-foot waterfall, several suspension bridges, a butterfly preserve with approximately 300 butterflies native to Guatemala, enclosures with monkeys and other wildlife, and a private beach. There is also the Cables X-Tremos, which is a series of eight ziplines that range from 295 to 1,050 feet in length offering spectacular views of the lake. The tour lasts about two hours.


  1. Hi to all, the contents present at this web page are really remarkable for people experience, well, keep up the
    good work fellows.
    Stop by my webpage : Geoffrey

  2. fantastic post, very informative. I wonder why the other
    experts of this sector do not notice this. You must continue your writing.
    I am confident, you've a great readers' base already!
    Here is my weblog ; ig