2019 Guide to Guatemala - Antigua and Lake Atitlán
My husband and I had the pleasure of visiting Guatemala at the end of December in 2018 when I was hired to photograph this wedding in Antigua. After reviewing the hundreds of photos sitting on my iPhone, I realized that I have enough content to provide a helpful visual guide through our experiences in Guatemala. We visited Antigua and Lake Atitlán in one week, so I will be discussing those regions below.
We really loved our time in Guatemala and found the people to be incredibly friendly and patient as we stumbled through communicating with broken Spanish and zero knowledge of Mayan languages. It truly is a special place worth visiting that accommodates all personality types and budgets. This was our first international trip and it was a highly positive experience for us!
A cute little city with colorful colonial buildings. We stayed here for three days and found it to be charming and friendly. It was a great jumping off point before heading into more remote parts of Guatemala.
Accommodations - Meson Panza Verde
After our Airbnb hostess fell through at check-in and left us basically stranded at night in a foreign city with our valuables, our angel of a taxi driver brought us to Meson Panza Verde nearby - a boutique hotel with a clear rooftop view of Volcán de Agua and the colorful buildings of Antigua. Though their reception was technically closed down for the night, they were empathetic to our situation and had one room left and our little panic was over. Conveniently located in Antigua, it’s a super short walk outside of the main square of the city. Far enough away to enjoy a quiet night, but close enough to join in on the energy if you’re up to it. Our room also had a peaceful private outdoor garden equipped with a hammock and some patio furniture.
website - panzaverde.com
Things to Do - Walk Around Antigua
We found taking a wandering stroll early in the morning was the most enjoyable. There is a lot less traffic and the vendors aren’t out yet. By 10:00 AM, traffic picks up and it stays busy late into the night. Wear sneakers or flat sandals when walking here - many of the streets are cobbled and uneven. Do not get on a tuk-tuk with a headache (:
While walking around in the afternoon and at night, we also stopped for local street food since it is everywhere. Super delicious, assembled right before you, insanely affordable. We found before our trip that there was a lot of skepticism in many articles that warned against consuming street food to avoid gastrointestinal infections from unfiltered tap water since most of Guatemala does not have access to properly sanitized water. We decided to chance it on cooked foods and we both felt completely fine.
Things to Do / Eat - Caoba Farms
Caoba Farms is an all-organic farm that also hosts a farm-to-table restaurant. My husband and I stopped by an hour after their doors opened on a Saturday and there were only a few customers. By the time we were done with breakfast, it was 3/4 of the way full. The walk is quiet and pretty with views of two different volcanos - and if you stay at Panza Verde, it’s only an easy 7-minute walk down the same road. It’s visually very beautiful and the food is even better.
I recommend the avocado toast with sprouts and their Mayan hot chocolate.
website - caobafarms.com
Things to Do - Cafe La Parada
Coffee is a huge part of Guatemala’s economy due to its altitude and fertile soil, so make sure to prioritize a trip to a local coffee shop to grab some espresso. We went to Cafe La Parada off of a suggestion of a friend and it was wonderful. It’s directly across from a quiet park and by one of the more famous large cathedrals, so an easy stop if you’re sight-seeing.
Things to Do / Eat - La Cuevita de los Urquizú
The draw for us was a traditional Mayan dish called pepián - a rich, spicy, meaty stew with various takes. It is one of the oldest dishes in Guatemalan cuisine and is highly representative of the local flavors. The hospitality was great and after, our waiter took us up to the rooftop for some aerial views of the city. We would have returned if we had more time in Antigua.
facebook - facebook.com/lacuevitadelosurquizu
Things To Do - Hike Volcán de Playa
An easy-moderate hike up a volcano depending on your fitness level and the humidity. We hired a shuttle through the Tropicana Hostel and went out with a large group. It took about half of a day with the round-trip drive from Antigua.
The day we went, there was cloud cover, so a lot of the views of the neighboring volcanos were obscured for the most part. I personally enjoyed the fog in the crater we walked down into and we were eventually able to get a peep of one of the volcanos (and some hot lava!) on our way back down the trail. The way back is in the dark, so bring a flashlight! You have the option of hiring a horse to carry you on the way up the trail, so there’s horse poop on the trails (hence why the flashlight is so important). I recommend bringing water and hiking snacks since it is a half day trip with no stops.
Also, note that if you hire a shuttle in Guatemala, there’s a high possibility you are sitting shoulder-to-shoulder and hip-to-hip in a van at full capacity with zero air conditioning.
One really helpful tip we learned shortly after arriving in Guatemala — Make sure to screenshot everything on your phone. Directions, addresses, maps, contact information, etc. There is little Wi-Fi available and absolutely zero signal. If your Spanish is broken and not entirely conversational, this can be very useful.
Lake Atitlán —
The second half of our trip was in Lago de Atitlán, a crater lake surrounded by three large volcanos. We loved Antigua, but this place blew our minds and we were happy to spend the most time here. There are several villages lining the lake, but we had a chance to only experience four in total - Jaibalito (where we stayed), Santiago, San Pedro and Panajachel (the village you arrive in).
Our shuttle was running 1.5 hours late out of Antigua (we found that this was pretty normal), so we ended up getting to see it for the first time as the sun was setting with a light fog, pictured above. The shuttle from Antigua takes you into Panajachel, the biggest village on the lake. Transportation between villages is completed through boat taxis, or lanchas. Because of the quickly setting sun, we hired a private boat taxi to get to our village of Jaibalito before dark, which took approximately 10 minutes dock-to-dock. Private lanchas go straight to your destination vs stopping at every dock to pick up more commuters. No waiting required. Definitely worth it if you’re in a hurry!
If you’re worried about finding the right boat to go to when getting to any of the docks at any village on the lake, all you need to do is say, “Quiero un lancha a (village name) por favor” and you’ll be pointed in the right direction. We found that there were usually English-speaking people to help guide you to a boat to speed up the process.
We stayed in the village of Jaibalito, which is the most underdeveloped village on the lake. You get stunning, clear views of all three volcanos and a good sense of local life. It’s the least busy, but still full of life - a lot of children, a few expats, people going about their day. All of the views in the photos above are from Jaibalito.
The residents are mostly Mayan, so you will hear a mixture of Kakchiqel (their native language) and Spanish. The kids are eager to help and will expect a quetzal as a tip, so make sure to have a few handy. It seems to be quiet and sleepy during the day, but wakes up at night. Music gets louder and there are a ton of dogs that bark through the entire night. We didn’t mind the noise at all and turned the fan on in our Airbnb to wash it out.
We were there during New Years, which was a magical experience for us. At midnight, the opposite shoreline danced with large fireworks for 30 minutes. Jaibalito continued with large fireworks and loud church music for over an hour and outlasting all of the other villages. We ended up falling asleep to the sound of fireworks (and loved it). Earlier in the day, we purchased little firecrackers at the market in Santiago for the kids in Jaibalito and they loved it.
Getting there - You can either hike in from Santa Cruz on a trail or arrive by boat taxis (lanchas). There are no cars, trucks are chicken buses here.
IMPORTANT — If you stay here, make sure to get cash or any groceries you need from Panajachel or neighboring villages with markets. There are no ATMs and limited groceries in Jaibalito. The boat taxis stop at night and don’t start back up until 6:00 AM.
Jaibalito - Where To Stay
We booked La Casita de la Sirena through Airbnb (pictured above). The owners were away on vacation, so we had the entire place to ourselves - our guest suite and the public spaces. The backyard and gardens are stunning and the front yard has a straight shot view of the lake and volcanos. All for $30/night.
A few things we loved - all of the faucets, including the shower, have filters, so we could fill up our water bottles for the day from there versus buying plastic bottles throughout the week. We could take showers/brush our teeth without worrying about contamination. The Wi-Fi connection was solid.
The hostess was incredibly knowledgable and kind. Even though she was on vacation, she booked our shuttle to Guatemala City for us, had a detailed breakdown of boat taxi rates/routes and was incredibly responsive.
The casita is also centrally located. The docks are a two minute walk from the entrance (there’s only one sidewalk, so you can’t miss it). Eighty feet away is El Indigo, a little cafe/bar we went to every night. To the right is a three-minute walk up to Posada Jaibalito to catch a bite and drink a beer.
Airbnb - La Casita de la Sirena
Jaibalito - Where To Eat
Posada Jaibalito (Han’s Place) — Open from 8 AM to 8 PM and a short walk from the docks, we ate here the most while staying in Jaibalito. Super affordable and the menu features various dishes from around the globe prepared by local women who are employed there. It isn’t a fancy joint and also doubles as a hostel.
What we loved most was the atmosphere - it was a nice place to get a filling meal, a couple of beers and a little chat with fellow travelers. If you’re uncomfortable with the idea of dogs, chickens and ducks roaming around where you eat, you might not like it.
My favorite dish was their chicken, black beans and rice, finished off with a Gallo. Francois enjoyed the spätzle.
El Indigo - A lovely and new little bar owned and operated by a friendly expat and steps from the main dock. We enjoyed a drink or three every night while watching the sun set over the lake. We learned to order straight alcohol versus a cocktail because they don’t make the drinks very strong, which we didn’t mind. As with everything in Guatemala, the prices can’t be beat.
Casa del Mundo - A little isolated from the village of Jaibalito, but still an easy walking distance from the center. This is a boutique hotel with a nice little restaurant perched up high for an alternative view of the lake. We stopped by a little after sunrise for a quiet traditional Guatemalan breakfast. I’m not sure we would want to stay here since it feels so separate from the village - we really enjoyed being in the local scene. If you’re looking for something quiet, you’ll want to book a room here.
website - lacasadelmundo.com
Santiago sits between two volcanos and is the largest village on the lake with a mostly indigenous Tzutujile Mayan presence. It’s a bustling, colorful village and many of the locals are dressed in traditional garments - beautifully embroidered huipiles (a tunic) and striped skirts for the women and embroidered striped pants for men.
Maximón - When you get off of the dock at Santiago, you’ll likely be asked by several folks to go on a tuk-tuk tour around the major attractions in Santiago. We did it and loved the little half hour we had of being zipped around and getting a quick education. The first stop was a little house that hosted Maximón, who is an important folk saint that is represented as a dressed wooden effigy smoking a cigarette surrounded by burning candles and flowers with two guards always keeping him company and keeping his cigarette lit. There was a shaman blessing a woman who traveled there to ask for prosperity for her business and they made offerings. I felt like I was intruding since we were in somebody’s home and towering over everybody, even though we had permission, and only took a photo of the burning candles at the altar. If you like learning about history and culture, you should definitely take the tour!
Markets - The market scene is large here and we went on a Sunday. There’s a lot of souvenirs and knock-off products for the tourists, but if you do your research and persevere through all of the markets and search for food or vintage vendors/local artists, you’ll find some of the more authentic experiences and products.
We discovered that they make and sell patín here (pictured above), which is a pre-Columbian Mayan food. It consists of a rich cooked tomato and chile sauce that is smashed over with a pestle and mortar and mixed with smoked, salted minnows from the lake wrapped up in plantain leaves. A little salty for my taste, but it was ultimately delicious and interesting. We found it by looking for folded up banana leaves near women selling fresh produce.
We also heard that a granizada was a must-have. It’s a freshly shaved ice snack that is customizable to sweet or salty. We eventually found a Mayan mother near the large adobe church who was a vendor. The children in Santiago are learning Spanish, so through her daughter, we were able to communicate what we wanted. It was a lovely experience and the end result was amazing. I had mine packed with fresh fruit juices, ground pumpkin seeds, fresh chopped mango and a little bit of ground red chili pepper for heat. I recommend getting this above anything else, especially if it’s toasty outside. We sat in the shade on the church steps overlooking the central square after a full morning and afternoon of exploring and it was a fun way to pass time.
We only spent half of a day here at high noon and had enough time to explore along the busier lower portion. It felt crowded and loud and touristy. However, after reflection, my husband and I both felt like the magic of San Pedro and it’s “backpacker’s paradise” reputation likely lies within staying there for a few days and feeling it out. As you go higher up into the village, it gets quiet. We were also recommended by several friends to hike the Indian Nose at sunrise, but it wasn’t an option for us since we were staying in Jaibalito across the lake. It seems like something worth doing if you stay here.
And finally —
While prepping for our trip, we read a lot of articles and reviews that complained about being “extorted” by boat captains and vendors. Locals will receive a lower rate than you for almost all things and that is okay. According to data from World Bank, over 50% of Guatemalans live below the poverty line and almost 12% live in extreme poverty on less than $2.00 a day. A few quetzals more is still less than a US dollar and the tourism is what drives their economy.
Immediately outside of the bubble of Antigua, you will be face-to-face with the reality of poverty and it can be shocking. On our shuttle to Lake Atitlán, there were barefoot children picking through heaping piles of garbage, young girls hanging out in doorways wearing very little and being propositioned by older men, malnourished children, starving and dying wounded dogs and so much more that was hard to look at.
A few things you can do while in Guatemala is tip well, don’t haggle on pricing and support smaller, local vendors and restaurants. If you’re searching for ways to help beyond your visit, consider donating to organizations like:
Mayan Families — An accredited 501(c)(3) non-governmental organization that facilitates developmental programs in the Lake Atitlán region. Their programs focus on bilingual fluency, parental education, early childhood literacy and nutrition. The nutrition programs have helped to not only improve Guatemalan children’s weight, but their oral hygiene and scholastic performances as well. You can make general donations or sponsor students and the elderly.
Water For People — The water that you’re scared to drink and brush your teeth with while visiting is what the majority of Guatemalan civilians live with permanently since most of the water systems do not meet government standards of quality and quantity. This causes chronic malnutrition and food insecurity. Water For People collaborates with municipal governments and community leaders to align local efforts to protect the watershed and build sustainable programs for water sanitation.
Guatemala is incredibly beautiful and diverse. There is so much more to explore beyond Antigua and Lake Atitlán. If you ever get an opportunity to go, do so!