Backpacking Destination: Lake Atitlan, Guatemala

Lazy Days at Guatemala’s Lake Atitlan

Lake Atitlan, Guatemala

Guatemala is a pretty cool place to travel in and it doesn’t get much better than spending at least a few days on the banks of Lago Atitlan. The giant lake is not the only attraction as volcanoes, dodgy boats, funky little towns, chicken buses, colourful locals, spanish schools, cheap bars and very basic accomodation help make this a great place to hang around while travelling through Latin America.

PANA ROCKS!

PanajachelThe lake is a vast at 130 km² and is surrounded by stunning mountains as well as three volcanoes. There are many small towns and villages on the banks of the lake, and boats make the bumpy crossing many times a day between the main towns. When heading to Lago Atitlan you’ll most likely arrive in Panajachel (Pana for short). It is a good base with basic rooms for under $5 a night and some lively bars and nightly live music at Pana Rock! The main street. Calle Santander (right) has all you would expect from a popular backpacking town including internet cafes, laundry services, cheap restaurants and street food. From Pana you can catch boats to all the main towns including San Pedro, San Marcos, Santa Cruz and Santiago (fares range from Q10 to Q25….$1=8 Quetzals). All the towns have their own unique qualities and are worth a visit if not neccesarily a nights stay. San Pedro is similar to Pana just with less stray dogs and a bit more of a stoner hippy vibe to the place. There’s some good nightlife and nightly live music and movies plus some real dirt cheap places to stay so it’s worth stopping here a night or two once you’ve had enough of Pana.

LIFE ON THE LAKE

Lake Atitlan boatsThere’s plenty stuff to keep you occupied during the day here including hiking up the San Pedro or Atitlan Volcanoes. You can swim in the lake or rent a kayak from many places in San Pedro. Scuba diving is another option, Pana or Santa Cruz are your best bets for this. Guatemala is a popular place to learn Spanish and there’s many language schools offering cheap and intensive 1:1 tuition. There’s a load of volunteering opportunities here including helping local disabled children and ecological projects but it’s best to ask at your hostel or a language school for more info. Or you can simply hop between the different towns on the lake and get to know the Maya people who have lived on these shores for centuries. If there’s no public boats running, there’s normally many locals who’ll take you on their boats to where you want to go (negotiate the price).

WATCH OUT FOR THE WEATHER!

A word on the weather, the lake is 1.5km above sea level and needless to say the volcanoes are even higher. So basically this is at fairly high altitude and is far from the tropical paradise you might expect from this part of the world. It gets cold and wet here so pack as if you’re going on holiday in Britain! Otherwise Lago Atitlan is fantastic place to spend a few days or even hang around here for a few weeks while you improve your Spanish.

Useful Lake Atitlan Links

Lagomap: Local Run and easily the best info on Lake Atitlan

Wikitravel
GoNomad
Info on San Pedro

 


This page was last updated in June 2013.


 

Top 10 Latin America Travel Highlights

Top 10 Latin America Travel Highlights

Ordered geographically from North to South, these are our Latin America travel highlights.

1. Smoke cigars, drink rum and travel like it’s 1959 in Havana, Cuba.

Latin America Travel Highlights

Read our Cuba backpacking budget for more info on travel on the Caribbean island.

2. Explore colourful Central America on Chicken buses.

chicken bus in guatemala

3. Reach the summit of an active volcano in Guatemala.

volcano in guatemala

Check out our Central America backpacking route for some inspiration.

4. Discover Caribbean beach paradise beneath snow-capped peaks in Colombia’s Tayrona National Park.

tayrona national park

5. Sail deep into the vastness of the Amazon.

amazon river

6. Follow the Inca Trail up to Machu Pichhu.

machu picchu

One of several destinations on this list to make our South America backpacking route.

7. Lose yourself in a world of salt at Uyuni, Bolivia.

salt flats uyuni bolivia

8. Party hard at Carnaval in Brazil.

carnaval in brazil

9. Witness the World’s most wonderous Waterfalls.

iguace waterfall

10. Explore the incredible landscape of Patagonia.

patagonia argentina

Take on our Backpacking Route for Patagonia.


This article was published in March 2014.

Get our Backpackers Guide to South America 2017-2018  for a full overview of budget travel in the region.


Popular Backpacking Route in Central America

latin america routes

south america | brazil | patagonia | central america


Backpacking Route in Central America

Mexico aside, the countries in this part of the world are really small but there’s loads to see and do. Backpacking around Central America on this route will see you pack in 6 countries, Mayan ruins, fiery active volcanoes, stunning lakes, colonial towns, and chilled out Caribbean beaches while trying to avoid the hellhole capital cities in the region (Panama City is the exception). You may well need to change buses in Managua or Tegioculpa for example but even if you’re a city lover you seriously won’t want to hang around long. As well as plenty to see, it’s a cheap region to learn Spanish, which is handy especially if you are heading onto South America.


Palenque Mayan ruins

Mayan ruins in Palenque, Mexico


TIME NEEDED – 2 MONTHS

On average we’d suggest spending about 10 days in each country although you could squeeze it all into 6 weeks at a push. With lots of volunteering and learning opportunities you could stick around for longer.


POSSIBLE BUDGET – £1500 €1700 $1800

This doesn’t include flights in/out of the region or other pre-trip expenses. It is based on prices and exchange rates as of January 2017.

See our Central America backpacking costs for more.


VISA REQUIREMENTS FOR CENTRAL AMERICA

Mostly not required for stays of up to 90 days. Guatemala, El Salvador, Honduras, and Nicaragua have a mutual agreement in place enabling you to travel freely around the 4 countries for 90 days without passport checks.

Use our visa check tool to see which countries you will need a visa for.


TRAVEL INSURANCE

We recommend World Nomads who provide excellent cover for backpackers.


Central America Backpacking Route



Mexico

Fly into Cancun – Leave Cancun ASAP!! the beach is ok but it’s seedy, expensive and doesn’t cater for backpackers.

Playa del Carmen- Nice beaches and party till dawn in one the many bars and clubs (girls drink free on some nights).


MFT RECOMMENDS – Hostel Rio Playa, Playa del Carmen 

Cool hostel with fun rooftop bar and pool that is great for meeting other travellers and pre-drinks prior to a night out.


Tulum – Great beach plus a few small Mayan ruins.

(Night bus to Palenque)

Palenque – Impressive ruins in the jungle (pic above), magic mushrooms.

San Cristobal – Colonial town at altitude hence a pleasant break from the heat, lots of hippy/bohemian types here.


Guatemala

Xela – Loads of volunteering options, salsa classes and clubs, local markets in surrounding villages.

Lake Atitlan – Stunning scenery with a huge lake surrounded by volcanoes and dirt cheap backpacker towns. See Destination: Lake Atitlan.

Antigua– Colonial town surrounded by volcanoes that can be explored on foot (one of our top 10 latin america experiences). It is also a hugely popular and cheap place to take some Spanish lessons which will certainly be handy as your progress further along this backpacking route for Central America.


Honduras

Copan – More ancient ruins.

San Pedro – City with decent nightlife but a bit dangerous! It’s on the way towards Bay Islands so could be worth a stop just to get a feel for city life in this part of the world but don’t hang around long.

La Ceiba – Nice beaches and place to catch the ferry to Utila.

Utila (Bay Islands) – Scuba diving hot-spot and one of the real highlights of the region. Caribbean beach paradise on a budget! The Bay Islands also feature in our article on 5 budget-friendly Caribbean destinations.

(Long day of travelling between Utila and Leon)


Nicaragua

Leon – Birthplace of the Sandinista revolution and still a staunchly pro-revolution town, cool street art. Read more about funky Leon!

Granada – Colonial town, perhaps the most beautiful in the region, lots of churches.

Isla de Ometepe – Island in middle of the giant lake with two volcanoes, excellent place for mountain biking.

San Juan del Sur – Good place to surf with some mental waves, OK nightlife, average beach.

Check out the cost of travel in Nicaragua.


Costa Rica

Monteverde (for Volcan Arenal) – 3rd most active volcano in the world and awesome cloud forests nearby.

Montezuma – Waterfalls, nature reserves and nude beaches!

San Jose – Capital city, bit rough but better than capitals further north (Costa Rica Backpackers Hostel, San Jose isn’t great but there are now other budget options).

Puerto Viejo – Surfing, beaches, marijuana.


Panama

Bocas del Toro – Chilled Caribbean islands covered in thick jungle.

David – Pleasant town on Pan-American Highway with good hostels.

Panama City – Vibrant modern city, the Panama Canal and lots of ways to spend any money you have left.

Read more on the cost of travel in Panama.


MFT RECOMMENDS – Casa Monalisa, Panama City 

Colourful hostel that is perfect for solo travellers. Sociable place and easy to meet people.


(Fly home, or see more of Latin America by crossing the Darien Gap)

revolutionary street art in Leon, Nicaraguachicken bus central america
Revolutionary street Art in Leon, Nicaragua & a Central American chicken bus


More Info on Budget Travel in Central America

Our Central America backpacking itinerary aims to give you an idea of popular travel spots but if the hostel scene is getting a bit repetitive then it’s well worth heading off to some of the less touristy parts (although mainstream tourism only really exists in small parts of Mexico and Costa Rica).

Outside the capitals, the people are generally very friendly and it’s really not that dangerous. While you could do this route in 2 months there are many places that you will find hard to leave and adding a few other destinations you could do as much as 6 months in Central America, particularly if you get involved with some volunteering projects.

Border crossings are relatively pain free. You can normally do direct buses between destinations in different countries but it is much cheaper and more of an adventure to get a local bus to the border and cross on foot. There will always be buses to the nearest town at border posts.

It can easily be combined with our Backpacking Route for South America.


 Budget Accommodation in Central America

Central America is one of the most enjoyable regions to travel in and it has a really good hostel scene. Typically each of the destinations on our Central America backpacking route will have a few hostels (in the European sense of the word), one of which might be generally considered the main party hostel. A bit of research online or just from talking to other travellers and it should be quite easy to work out which one it is.

In addition to the hostels, there are lots more very small budget hotels or ‘hostals’ which are little more than homes converted so some rooms are available for daily rent. They may be better value if you are travelling as a couple or with friends but single travellers may prefer to opt for a dorm in one of the bigger hostels. Expect to be paying anything from $3-10/night for budget accommodation in these parts.

For more on prices in the region read about the cost of travel in Mexico and cost of travel in Costa Rica.


 This page was last updated in January 2017.