How to spend a day at Lake Atitlan, Guatemala

It’s only six am here in Antigua as I hear my loud alarm fill the room with sound. My head has a slight pound in it from the night before and my body is yelling at me. Why am I up so early after staying out too late? Because today I’m heading to Lake Atitlan with my dear friend Mike. We’ve decided to take a chicken bus to the Panajachel side of Lake Atitlan known best as Pana.

Transportation

Yes, I said a chicken bus… For those of you who don’t know what a chicken bus is I’ll quickly explain, there retired USA buses that are purchased and revamped to run in Guatemala. There typically painted in bright fun colors which are deceiving because the ride is far from fun. They drive like a bat out of hell and pack them full till there’s not even a space to stand. There’s no air conditioning and the seats seem to move slightly as the bus does. The good thing is there cheap our three-hour ride on this moving death trap is just 35 quetzal or “q” for short.

The trip starts with a good distances walk to a “tour company” which is actually just a basic desk  that sits in the entrance of a coffee shop. We’ve arrived early so we grab a cup of not good coffee and a croissant filled with ham and cheese. It’s been maybe fifteen minutes we’ve been waiting and still no one has arrived at “the desk”. Luckily a small Guatemalan man arrives and asks if we’re waiting for the bus? He kindly walks us over to the terminal and shows us where to wait. Even though I’m drinking the worst coffee I’ve had in Antigua it does seem to help the slight pounding in my head to subside.

The ride

A few minutes later our chariot arrives we both climb aboard and are thrilled that the bus is only about a quarter of the way filled. Both of us claim a seat in the back hoping to keep our seats to ourselves. This particular bus has a T.V. mounted to the front of the bus and we both laugh because blaring on it is Woody the Woodpecker. I tried to relax knowing it’s going to be a long ride as we pull out of the makeshift bus terminal.

Not more than thirty minutes into our ride the bus begins to fill up quickly. Within the first hour, it’s standing room only and I’m holding on to the seat in front of me for dear life. The driver is without a doubt maneuvering this huge vehicle at well above a safe speed. Each corner we take I have no choice but to grab on and pray I don’t fall into the aisle. Not that I could actually fall into it since there’s two people smashed in next to me and two standing next to the seat. I fight to focus on the scenery to keep my mind from screaming “We’re all going to die”

Views

The mountainous range is stunning each town we drive through is just a little different from the one before. There are many Guatemalan natives moving from place to place some carrying an unbelievable amount of products on their backs and heads with the luckier ones having wheel barrels. One thing that strikes me is that they all seem pretty happy laughing and moving along with a calmness.

We’ve been moving for a good couple of hours at this point and I’m beginning to get excited I’ve heard that Lake Atitlan’s town of Pana is absolutely beautiful. It’s a more touristy area named after a place of the Matasanos derived from the Kaqchikel language and roughly translates to the white sapote fruit tree. There are approximately 15,000 people who live in Pana most of whom cater to the tourism climate. There is also a small presence of expats who also call Pana their home. The bus starts to empty out a little to where I now only have one person sitting next to me. Finally, we make it the top of the Guatemalan mountain area and I can see clearly Lake Atitlan. I am not at all disappointed it is an incredibly picturesque view so amazing I’m able to concentrate on the view for a moment instead of feeling like I’m about to flip off the road. Which is actually a surreal feeling since I’m looking down a twenty-foot drop off the side with no railings to stop the chicken bus if it was to flip off the road.

Lake Atitlan

The bus drops us off at the beginning of town, after our crazy ride we both decide we’ll take a shuttle back. The ride has wrecked my back and it hurts to walk, it’s about ten thirty so we head to the first little tienda we can find to grab a cold beer. To get to the beach area we walk down the main street where there is easily a hundred small stalls filled with marvelous splendidly colored products, Blankets, shirts, pillows and more, some handmade.

Pana

In the sixteenth century, Lake Atitlan was a battlefield where the Spanish and their Kaqchikel allies beat the Tz’utujils. Soon after the conquest a Roman Catholic church was built and used as a place to covert the indigenous people to the Catholic faith. Teaching in the indigenous language in the afternoons, classes started for children six years of age and older. You can see the heavy presence of this faith throughout the area. Some of the many stalls selling product were filled with nothing but crosses and religious artifacts made of various materials.

As I sit and completely mesmerized at the bright blue waters of Lake Atitlan I’m approached almost immediately by a young boy he’s maybe six or seven years old. He’s holding a fairly large basket filled with small trinkets that he’s trying to sell to us. My immediate reaction is why is this child not in school? Sadly this is quite common in many of the towns outside the larger cities here. Most of the schools are far away and the ones that are not are costly so a large population of the children here never step foot into a classroom. Later in the day, my friend Mike purchases a very basic wallet from another child similar to this one.

There are already quite a few large boats catering to the tourist bring them around the lake cruising around. Some are more like party boats and others are just to transport people to other places around the lake. Lake Atitlan is surrounded by more than a dozen small towns. Some of the more popular ones are Pana, San Pedro, San Juan La Laguna, and Santa Cruz La Laguna. There are some small fishing boats also that I actually enjoy more than the commercial boats they seem more unique and interesting to me.

Food lake side

After we finished our cold brews and I took a couple of ibuprofen we decide to find a restaurant where we can watch all the action on the lake. The streets are filled with prosecutions of tuk-tuks which are small two passenger rickshaws of a sort. They are motorized with the front end being made of a motorcycle and the rear end having a bench seat. I carefully weave in and out of the traffic these little things move pretty quick.  

The streets here and in most of Guatemala are narrow so these tuk-tuks make for an easy way to get around. There are amazing smells filling the air from all the food stalls and restaurants. There are so many it was seemingly impossible to choose so we go to one that has a good portion of consumers already inside. Fortunately, we find a table right at the railing of the deck so we have a perfect view from Alta Mar’s outdoor seating area. It’s a little pricier than the food stalls by little more I mean double but the view is phenomenal so we stayed. I order a basic breakfast of eggs, fruit, and toast. It’s not bad but as I said the view was worth it.

Bellies full and another beer later Mike and I walk through the town. Unfortunately, my back is still hurting but we take it slow. I stop in at a few stalls eventually buying a handmade weaved throw pillow case. I couldn’t help myself the beauty and colors just called to me. I pay the man who runs the small stall fifty-five Q about eight dollars US. Good deal all in all I think especially for the details in my purchase. I’m happy!

Walking the town

There’s so much to see stall after stall of bright colors but I can’t help thinking how on earth do these people make money. Most of the stalls carry nearly the exact same things and the competition is steep. It resonates with me how the difficulties of needing to make sales must be for all of them. My heart wants to buy one small item from them all but my wallet says no way. So, for now, I’ll stick to my pillowcase.

On the other side of this little town is where there are stalls filled with a variety of farm crops that many of the indigenous people here sell. There are lots of corn, cucumbers, garlic, pitahaya fruit, and coffee just to name a few that this area grows well. Lake Atitlan also supplies much of the protein sold here.

Hanging out

Our shuttle doesn’t leave till four pm so after walking around for some time we decide to find a comfortable place to kick our feet up have another beer and wait. We find a palapa-style bar with fairly priced refreshments and to my joy plugs for my dying phone. The internet was down but that was okay I was happy to not have any way to connect for a while and being forced to have downtime.

By late afternoon the town was filled with loud noises coming from mini-parades of sorts celebrating enthusiastically Guatemala Independence day. Small groups of people running through the streets blowing horns and using other noisemakers happy to celebrate the day. Guatemala Independence day isn’t till the fifteenth but from what I learned it typically starts the day before.

Getting back

Four o’clock arrived and we boarded our shuttle it was a nice one very new and clean. At first, we were ecstatic there were very few people who boarded with us and the seating was comfortable. The price was good only forty Q each what a deal. The comfort situation was short lived. Quickly the little shuttle was stuffed and we rode backpack like little sardines in a can. The traffic was extremely heavy on our return trip much of it caused by the small individual running groups carrying torches for Independence Day. There were some groups with trucks playing music behind them and even some that threw water out of the back of them. I will say Guatemalans are very proud of their independence. It took nearly four and a half hours to get back to Antigua by the time we finally arrived we couldn’t wait to get out of the shuttle. We jumped off at the edge of town happy to be standing it was a bit of a walk to get to our next destination. But even with my back hurting and my legs numb, I was happy to be out of the sardine can.

Lake Atitlan is really a cool place I’d say when you’re in Antigua it’s definitely a must see. If time permits I’d also have to suggest staying at least one night traveling to and from Antigua in one day is very time consuming. Have you ever been to Lake Atitlan? What was your experiences? Do you have questions about the area? Drop me a comment and I’ll get right back to you.

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