Ah, magical Lake Atitlan, the crown jewel of Guatemala ... and where we both got food poisoning that immobilized us for the better part of two days.
We had high hopes for Atitlan, since every guidebook and blog post I read before departure insisted that if you make only one stop in Guatemala, Atitlan must be it. And indeed it was beautiful, as we winded down the treacherous mountainside road to reach Panachajel, the most popular spot to stay on the lakeshore, which, despite its forgettable nature, has the most amenities around the lake (including the grocery store that would be the culprit in our future misfortune).
Lake Atitlan is surrounded by a handful of small towns, some of which are reachable from Panachajel only by boat. Each lends itself to a varying degree of isolation, but most seem to consist mainly of expats and backpackers, whether of the meditating-and-yoga or pot-smoking and hard-drinking variety. We stayed in Santa Cruz La Laguna, one of the more secluded villages. A large and popular hostel, La Iguana Perdida, dominated the lakeshore, while our casita was a ten minute walk up a sharp hill which conspicuously lacked any night-time lighting (thank God for the iPhone flashlight feature).
Though our hotel lacked the hyper-sociability and set communal dinners (US$10/pp) of the co-run La Iguana, it more than compensated with a stunning view over the lake itself and its setting in a well-tended, peaceful garden. It likely would have made a better setting for an explicitly romantic getaway, given its remote location and the utter silence that fell over the property at night. We had the entire bottom floor of a house to ourselves, complete with a giant balcony and our own kitchen (more on that later).
Our first day, we gamely set out to explore the lake. Water taxis leave from each port every half hour or so, or whenever the boat captain decides his vehicle is full. We paid about around 15-20 Quetzales per person per ride (around $2.50), a price which is jacked up for the foreign clientele. Still, the boats were a pleasant way to transverse the lake, and were filled with an interesting mix of backpackers and Maya in their traditional dress.
We stopped first at San Pedro La Laguna, the town with the reputation for the hardest-partying backpackers around. The lakefront was dirty, dusty, and unpleasant, but a walk up the steep hill revealed a more interesting Guatemalan town on what appeared to be a market day. The number of travelers dropped precipitously with the incline of the hill -- it seems to be the rule around Lake Atitlan that there is an inverse relationship between the altitude of the location and the number of backpackers.
We paid a visit as well to San Marcos La Laguna, known as the 'hippie' town of the lake. The main street into town was set under a trellis of flowering bushes, and on either side of the walkway were signs advertising meditation retreats, yoga classes, and vegan food. The town also features a nature reserve, Cerro Tzankujil, with a small entrance fee (Q$15/pp). The park has great views of the lake as you climb its paths, which leave something to be desired in the maintenance department (be careful you don't lose your footing). There is also a dock around 20 feet above the water, locally famous for being a jumping spot. We contemplated the distance and chickened out (though I did have to yell at D to step back from the edge with his expensive camera).
The lake is indeed beautiful -- clear and cool in the morning, with views of the three volcanoes that circle it, and misty in the afternoon, the surface turning turbulent as the wind moves in. That said, don't underestimate its isolation. We had a difficult time finding a place to eat each day, and most restaurants seemed to require that you sign up for dinner by 3pm. The last boats leave the dock for Panachajel, and vice versa, around 7pm. There are no street lights, and nothing open past about 9pm as far as we could tell. Great for a romantic getaway or if you just want to relax and read on a balcony with a beautiful view, but I felt a bit limited for options on what to do. Which soon would not be a problem ...
Where We Stayed
Villa Eggedal, Santa Cruz La Laguna. US$98/night for a full apartment with hot water, kitchen, two full beds, wifi, and access to pool. We also had a very helpful property caretaker who lent us his cell phone when we were desperate to order food and couldn't figure out Google Voice.
That said, the hostel on the waterfront is a much cheaper option at US$17.50/night for a private room with a bath, has a much more convenient location, offers communal dinners, and seemed to be the social and informational hub on Santa Cruz.
Where We Ate
La Iguana Perdida, Santa Cruz. The hostel serves breakfast and lunch, and has a communal dinner every night at 7pm, for which you must sign up by 3pm. We had roast chicken with a multitude of sides, which was delicious. The lakeside dining location adds to the atmosphere.
La Arca De Noe, Santa Cruz. Another hotel with set dinners, and again you must sign up by 3pm for dinner, which is served at 6:30, 7, or 7:30. This dinner was on the pricier side (around $US30/pp), but included an appetizer course, dessert, and a more refined atmosphere.
Cafe Sabor Cruceno, Santa Cruz. This student-run cafe is perched all the way on top of the hill, in the actual village of Santa Cruz (as opposed to the lakeside development). It's quite a work out to get to, and the day we hiked up we were disappointed to learn it's closed on weekends. However, we ordered delivery from here a few days later, and were brought a selection of tasty if undersalted traditional Mayan cuisine, like Kaq-ik, a curry-like chicken dish cooked in a dark red, spiced broth.
Again, you must order before 3pm, and food is delivered between 5-6pm. The minimum order is Q$100, and our total of two dishes and two lemonades came to around Q$120 (US$15.50).