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Secrets To Travel: Navigating Lake Atitlan

Lake Atitlan in Guatemala is one of the best places to travel, period. Aldous Huxley loved it here1). At the time of Huxley's visit, the lake was hardly developed at all. Indeed, today much of the land directly in front of the lake is developed, but almost all of the towns have people living well up on the volcano and mountainside, where there are no tiendas, no restaurants, but plenty of nature and simple homes huddled behind the dense plant life. With one notable exception, the lake's hotels and hostels have ditched the air conditioned high rises for more tranquil cabins and simple luxuries. The main way to get around is by boat, although a few towns have roads that connect to each other and (eventually) connect to the highway. Usually the boat ride is faster than taking a car or taxi.

The lake is surrounded by three volcanoes; one of which is definitely dormant, another which is probably safe to call dormant, and the last is technically “active” although the last known eruption was over 150 years ago 2). Most people refer to all three as dormant. It is home to mostly Mayan people, except with small to moderate amounts of Ladinos (mixes of Mayan and the Spanish conquistadors) and expatriots from other countries.

This guide will give you some insider tips on living and vacationing around Lake Atitlan, inlucuding where to stay, how to get food, travelling around the lake, and the little things you wouldn't think to ask.

The Common Towns Around the Lake

Panajachel

Panajachel (or “Pana” for short) is the main hub of the lake. Shuttles from the airport and other locations tend to drop off in Pana as they have the easiest access to the major road system. One might call Pana the most “developed” of the towns, with the most cars, the biggest food market, the biggest fabric and tourist goodies market, the most banks/ATMs, the most shuttle services in and out of the area, and the most restaurants.

If you did take a shuttle and it drops you off in Pana, the driver typically is responsive to taking you to your hotel or hostel. If you are staying on one of the other towns (i.e. San Pedro, San Juan, San Pablo, San Marcos, Tzununa, Jaibalito, or Santa Cruz) around the lake, he should take you to the “Pana dock”. There is another dock if you are staying in the town of Santiago aptly called the “Santiago dock”.

There is the highest concentration of retired expats in Pana. It probably has to do with the fact that everything is in Pana that you need. All of the other towns have one or two things missing (like ATMs or banks) that require you to take boats to other towns. Hopping into and out of boats isn't for all elderly. If you have a physical injury or are incapable of uncomfortable travel, Pana is probably for you.

Food

If you like diverse food, Pana is a good place to be. There are plenty of ways to get a bite. We venture a guess that there are well over 50 sit down restaurants to choose from and probably 25 street food vendors. Pana is the place for a “steak house”; it's no American $50 a steak place (you can find those in Antigua, Guatemala) but there are a handful down the main street, “calle Santander”. You can also find the most diversity of restuarants in Pana; Chinese, Vietnamese, and Ecuadorian are one's that come to mind walking down calle Santander. Tips are generally included in the total bill. Look at the bill for confirmation. Some restaurants put that information on the menu. You are not expected to double tip but your ignorance is greatly appreciated. 10% is a typical tip amount if it isn't included in the bill.

Getting To The Market And Then Some

Pana is home to the biggest food market around the lake. There is an even bigger one just one bus stop away in Solola, but this should suffice for your daily needs.

Most things in the market cost less than a US dollar and sometimes less than 50 cents. Therefore be mindful of the fact that these Mayan food sellers cannot break 100 Q bills all that easily. One plan you can do is find a food seller who has most of what you need. Spending at least 50 Q (around 6.5 bucks) would show support to them once you bust out a 100 Q bill (which is all the ATMs spit out). Another plan you can try is going to the grocery store first and buying some non food items that you need for the week; dish soap, laundry soap, body soap, toilet paper, etc and add up the total as you shop. Try and spend less than 50Q and use a 100Q, or less than 150Q and use two 100 Q bills. Grocery stores have much less of a problem with change than independent business owners like the food sellers.

Let's assume you are coming from the Pana boat dock. Walk straight off the dock, up the hill and continue walking straight (about ten minutes) until a road joins it from the left and your road begins to bend right. Take the slight right and follow that around another 10-15 minutes. You should know when you are at the entrance of the market. If you can't find it, ask anyone “Pardoname, donde esta el marcado?” [par-doe-nah-may, doohn-day ess-stah el mar-cah-doe]. They all know where it is.

A tuk tuk ride will also get you there. You should be able to pay 5Q for the ride but you may need to pay 10Q. You can walk directly up the dock and go straight for about ten minutes or until the road no longer goes straight and veers right. From here, follow the turn right and take this road as it slightly curves left and right up the slope. Take a tuk tuk from this point and you should definitely pay 5Q.

Don't just buy food in the outskirts of the market. Walk deep within the market, there is an entire inside area. You can also eat lunch at the market at a local lunch place if you so desire. Most of the cheaper prices exist within the center and most of the higher prices are on the outside, but this isn't always the case.

Kinds Of Food You Can Get In The Market

You can get just about anything you want with a few exceptions…please be aware that these prices are accurate as of March 2014. Prices may change according to season, unusual weather, and of course over time with inflation.

If you are quoted a price that you believe is WAY too much, you can haggle or just say no and walk away. That's the great secret of all haggling; if you walk away they usually will drop lower because you are halfway out the door…they might as well. On the other hand, if you walk away for good, you can ask another food vendor because very rarely is there only one garlic seller, celery seller, etc. Pay attention to what each of them say and see if you can determine an average. Generally speaking, you shouldn't haggle a food vendor unless you are pretty sure they are giving you a high quote. While they will give a tourist a high quote every so often, the locals accept the given price unless they follow the rule above (i.e. they are pretty sure that price is bullshit).

Another strategy you can employ is to always listen to other transactions going on. Pay attention and see what others are paying. Truthfully, the locals tend to get a slightly lower quoted price, so if you see a local paying 4 Q for garlic, your quoted price of 5 Q isn't all that bad and you should probably just accept it. If you are quoted 8 Q, that is when you walk away. Remember, you are a traveler who probably makes 10x more money then they do. So don't be that traveler who tries to get the local price for everything. You will get the local price for some things, just not all things.

For food lovers, Guatemala is heaven. Most of your food items fall under the price of 5Q per pound. Most vegetables in the market are 75% less than what you pay in the United States, sometimes more and sometimes less. We will give you the pleasure of converting all your favorites food prices from Quetzales into dollars. Buen provecho!

Quetzales to Dollars guide

This is an estimate subject to change. Quetzales range from 7.5Q up to 8Q per dollar, finding an average around 7.75 Q per dollar. You can give yourself a math break by assuming the price is 8 Q to 1 dollar but be advised it is actually closer to a $1.10. 1Q= 12.9 cents 2Q= 25.8 cents 3Q= 38.7 cents 4Q= 51.6 cents 5Q= 64.5 cents 6Q= 77.4 cents 7Q= 90.3 cents 8Q= 1.12 dollars …. 100Q=12.9 dollars

  • broccoli-3 to 4 Q depending on size
  • cauliflower-3 to 4 Q depending on size
  • carrots- Typically 1 Q per average sized carrot. Sometimes big carrots fetch 3 carrots for 5Q. Don't pay more than 2Q per carrot unless you want to.
  • potatoes-2.50 to 3.50 Q
  • onions- 5 Q per pound
  • tomatoes- 2.50 to 4 Q depending on size. Smaller tomatoes tend to be cheaper and just as delicious
  • peppers (hot)- TBD
  • peppers (regular)- 3 to 5 Q
  • celery-3 to 4 Q per bunch
  • spinach- typically 5 Q per pound. They are very aware westerners like spinach AND the grocery store is more like 30 Q per pound because they import it. Any quote over 8 Q I woud probably haggle.
  • mayan plant variant of spinach- Ask for spinach (“tiene espinaca” or [Tee-en-ay ess-pee-naa-kaa]), and if they so no but show you something else, it's this unnamed plant. Typically 1 to 2 Q per bunch. Not as good as spinach but still worth trying.
  • lettuce (green leaf, red leaf)- TBD
  • cabbage-4 to 6 Q
  • camote (their version of a sweet potato)- 5Q for a handful
  • avocadoes- 1 Q for the small local variety up to 4 Q for a bohemoth avocado. Never pay more than that, ever. Typically you hear 1.5 Q, 2 Q, 2 for 5 Q, sometimes 3 for 10 Q. Anytime someone offers 3 for 10Q, we suggest counter offering 2 for 4Q. They usually take it. If they don't, they then usually take 2 for 5Q. This author rarely ever pays more than 2.5Q per avocado. That is 2 avocadoes for around 60 cents total!
  • coconuts- Typically 5Q, could depend on season or if the seller thinks you will pay more. 8-10Q if they meticulously removed the coconut hull and only edible meat and liquid remains. Keep an eye out for the coconut flesh inside; if it is hard and thick, it is full of coconut fat and worth smashing open to eat. Ask a coconut dealer to slice it open once you have drank the coco water inside.
  • cilantro- TBD
  • parseley (multiple kinds)-TBD
  • basil-TBD
  • squash-mulitple kinds-TBD
  • zucchini-can be as low as 1Q per zucchini. Frequently hear offers at 2 for 5Q. We suggest countering with 3 for 5Q or 2Q each.
  • strawberries- as low as 3Q per pound and as high as 7Q for an average of 5Q per pound.
  • blackberries-As low as 3Q, as high as 7Q per pound. It is highly recommended that you eat whatever blackberries you want fresh the day you buy them and then freeze the rest. Their scooping of the berries into a plastic bag and your walking/banging out until you get home makes your take a little less.
  • oranges-TBD…cheap
  • mandarines-TBD…cheap
  • apples-TBD…shiny ones are not local and probably carry a USA sticker. Not cheap but not expensive, either.
  • grapes-TBD…also probably come from outside Guatemala.
  • bananas-Many different kinds of bananas here. Some are pink, some are “normal”, some are half size, and some are quarter sized. Normal can be .5Q to 1Q per banana; pink bananas 1Q per banana, half sized .5 Q per banana, and quarter sized tend to get 3-4 bananas per 1 Q.
  • papaya- TBD…it's a local fruit so probably 10Q…they are massive. This author doesn't like papaya so he never purchased it.
  • pineapple-5 to 10Q depending on size. Most are 8Q and lower.
  • eggs- as low as 1 Q per egg to 1.5 Q per egg
  • garlic- Both the kinds from China (in white mesh packaging) and the local variety (three bulbs with two feet long connecting strands twist tied together). Each fetch around 5 to 6 Q.
  • dried beans (many varieties)- 5-6 Q per pound.
  • rice-TBD
  • lentils- TBD
  • cucumbers- TBD
  • radishes- TBD

In addition to all of these fruits and vegetables you love, you can find exotic fruits you have never seen or heard of. Walk around and try one every so often; you might something you didn't know existed now becoming your favorite fruit!

Swing by the carneceria (meat shop) and get whatever you want. mexican chorizo-3 Q per chorizo spanish chorizo (chorizo espanola)- 3 Q per chorizo cow liver (higado)-15-20Q per pound other meats…TBD

Unfortunately this is all the meat this author can give prices for but you can get different cuts. Chicken and fish are also available but prices are not available currently (the author was mostly vegetarian at the time).

Santa Cruz

The first stop from the Pana dock is Santa Cruz, 5Q for most people. You should know when you get there because a handful of tuk tuk (taxi) drivers will rush the dock and ask if you want a ride. Why, you ask? Santa Cruz is waaaay up the mountain side, and there is only one road that goes vertical. It will take probably 20 minutes to walk and there is no way you will be walking with your bags that high. The cost should be 5 Q per person.

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A view of the dock from the boat. Note the tuk tuk drivers (one in the yellow shirt) running to get your service.

Fortunately, a few of the places you can stay are down on the lake. Iguana Perdida has a sign right at the dock; it is on the right hand side of the road. Arc de Noa is on the left hand side of the road. If you are staying at Isla Verde, you have to walk around fifteen minutes left along the lake. You will be walking on dirt paths and a walking dock that over hangs the water here and there. Ideally, tell the boat driver you are going to Isla Verde because they have a dock. If he takes you, it will probably now be 10Q. Do your best to talk him down if he tries to charge more than 10Q but 10Q is okay because you just asked him to take you to a private dock. DO NOT ASK how much when you are getting off, that is a sure way to get quoted between 15-25Q. If you go to Santa Cruz and plan to walk, just stay along the water's edge and keep walking. There are a few places that diverge right off the path and none of them get you there.

Santa Cruz is a good place to go if you want minimal tourist attractions, tranquility, and more local flavor. The three hotels named above all receive good remarks from travelers. There is a local market here on Saturday but it is much smaller than San Pedro's or Pana's market. The prices listed above are comparable to the Santa Cruz market. You can find a guy selling local, raw goat's cheese, milk and yogurt at this market. You may need to arrange with him before the market to get an order in. His name is Shad. The details on that arrangement are in the Jaibalito section.

Jaibalito

Jaibalito is the second stop from the Pana dock. If you show your face for well over a month, you may be able to pay 5Q. Otherwise, the cost is 10Q for tourists.

This one of the smallest towns around the lake. There is no road access to this town, which means anything like a refrigerator, an oven, or anything of massive weight and size has to be brought in by boat and then carried by hand up into town. Thus, there are about two hostels you can stay at in Jaibalito. The most famous is called Posada Jaibalito and is run by a man named Hans. It is a very well run place and the locals like Hans. If you go to Jaibalito, eat lunch at Hans' by simply asking a local tienda owner where his place is (“Done esta el restaurante de Hans?” or [Dohn-day ess-stah el res-taer-an-te de Hans?]. Lunch is good and very reasonably priced. There is a cadre of expats who either live in Jaibalito or just love Hans' atmosphere and you can find lively discussion every now and then under their roof. There are dogs and ducks wandering around the property and it is well covered by palm trees and other foliage.

Hans knows the man who sells the goat dairy products, Shad. Ask him for his number and you can arrange with him to get some of the freshest dairy around. Shad tends to eat lunch after the Saturday market at Han's Posada Jaibalito restaurant so you could try and meet up with Shad himself that day. He may or may not have anything left over. Expect to pay American prices.

Tzununa

This is the third stop from the Pana dock. It will cost a tourist 15Q. This is not a touristy town in the slightest but it is worth visiting if you have the time and you want to see authentic Guatemala. There are no more than three hostels that you can stay in Tzununa. You can take a tuk tuk from San Marcos. The cost is most likely 10Q a person. If you live there long enough this could come down to 5Q.

San Marcos

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A reputable holistic health center in San Marcos. Lots of that here.

The fourth stop from the Pana dock is San Marcos, the mecca of hippies everywhere. San Marcos is replete with yoga havens, message centers, reiki sessions, and a doctor who reads auras. People who have a tendency towards natural things, organic food, and conversations about consciousness would be advised to pick their hostel in San Marcos.

San Marcos is also the most likely place to hear that the lake is a “vortex” of energy. If your energy harmonizes with that vortex, you will love the lake. If your energy does not, well, you won't like the lake. Regardless of whether this is an accurate description of what happens here, numerous tourists do report coming here and feeling as if it is home, or conversely, they will never come back again. This author personally knows multiple people to whom this has happened to. Interestingly, it happens to couples where one loves the feel and the other despises how the lake makes them feel. Take from this what you will.

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A splendid view of the Lake and the volanic background from the San Marcos dock. Huxley was right about this place.

Most places carry the hippy, environmentalist vibe to some degree or another. When you step off the boat at San Marcos, walk straight and past the first left (it should be into a place called “Posada Schuman”). The second left is the important option; their are three main streets in San Marcos and this intersection splits into two of them. neither of these streets are accessible by car or even tuk tuk, they are soely walking paths. You should walk down both streets to see the hostels and restaurants on each of them. If you are trying to get to the main street that has car access, walking straight will get you there faster. Both non car streets lead to the third main street.

The First Left…look for the red arrow

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The path looks like this…

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Take a left when the path meets this restaurant/hostel location, probably 100 ft from the first fork…

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You will only be able to go 20 ft or so and forced to turn right. Follow that path for another 100 ft until it crosses a paved path. Look left and you should see the Lake. Look right and you should see this path leading slighty up hill…

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…Follow this to find more restaurants, more hostels to stay at and eventually it leads you to the main road.

The third left from the dock is a place called The Pyramids. This is the biggest hub of New Age-y classes in the town. Anything from lucid dreaming classes, yoga, silent meditation retreats, herbology, reiki, and other healing modalities are taught here. You can meditate under metal pyramids in their garden, hence the name. Expect to pay a little less than the going American rates for these classes.

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Like it was stated previously…it's magical here…a bit too magical at times…

  • Shady activities at I-Sheem Massage Healing Center*

Feel free to shop around for messages and healing classes, but do NOT patronize “I-Sheem” which offers a variety of massage options. As traveler who has been in San Marcos on and off for months, this author can tell you there are multiple reports of sexual harassment coming from massages at this place. Until that situation is taken care of, do not go there.

Food

Expect food to be more expensive in San Marcos as there is no proper “market”. Compare with the Pana list above and be prepared to pay slightly more. The same path that you walk from the boat directly to the main street has a handful of fruit and vegetable vendors. There is another turn left off the path (right if you are coming from the car accessible main street and walking towards the dock). This path actually connects the two main waking paths, and in between these walking paths are a couple more fruit and vegetable vendors.

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When you walk straight up from the boat at San Marcos, after a few minutes you should see this sign on the LEFT. There should be a path left. That is the connecting path, very useful.\

There are about a dozen restaurants in San Marcos and you can check out their menu's as to what fits your palate. Most of these are expat owned restaurants, so if you want to patronize a truly local restaurant, get to the main, car accessible street and find the large, half covered basketball court. You can't miss it. Face the basketball court and turn left. Stay on the left hand side and as the road begins to turn left and up a hill, there should be a small food stand there. Half of what they do is fruit and vegetables, but they also sell typical lunches. Alternatively, face the basketball court and turn right. As you walk you should see some tostada set ups run by locals (check during dinner hours). Follow the road as it bends right. On your left should be a restaurant called Los Abrazos. It has a decent menu, good food, and is completely Mayan owned. Third, during the dry season you can find a completely home made set up for dinner down the main walking street to the boat. It is located right where you turn for the connecting path to the other street.

Aura readings and more

There is a place called the Elephant House and it is home to a number of metaphysical physicians of sorts. Chiromancy, astrology, aura readings, things of this nature. There is an actual doctor who is within this crowd. This author can attest to the validity of the doctor's aura work and to his MD (it's hanging on his wall). If it's your cup of tea, it is worth it. If this is too woo woo for you, then obviously its a waste of time. Regardless, they can be very booked, so go there the first or second day and that way you can set an appointment. Bring a piece of paper and pencil because you might want to right down what you learn from the experience.

To get to the Elephant house, you can either take the indirect path from the boat dock (that's the turn left) and as you are walking towards the main street it will be on your right. Look for an elephant decoration on the second floor of a stone building. Or you could walk up the direct path from the dock to the main street and turn left at the connecting path. The elephant house will be on your left.

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As viewed from the second walking path looking right. If you take the connecting path, the elephant will be on your left.

As you will see from a typical bulletin board, the Elephant House is hardly the only place to do energy work. You can get this sort of thing all over San Marcos. Interestingly, the next big tourist town, San Pedro, is full of drug use. Many expats who do long term travel stay in San Pedro, have too much fun, and then do a (hard) drug free retreat in San Marcos. If you are traveling long term, be forewarned that many a long term traveler has gotten stuck in San Pedro with drugs. Don't fall into that culture if you can help it; you can find fascinating conversations about energy instead in San Marcos.

There are also cacao ceremonies going on, as the Maya had awesome fucking cacao and they recognized it's power by naming at least four dieties to it. There is a man named Keith who runs cacao ceremonies all the time. Basically, you drink a lot of pure cacao chocolate and allow its effects to happen. Generally you sit in a circle and Keith encourages people to notice their intermal emotions more. Some people are able to really connect with themselves and others during this ceremony. We don't know what the cost is but some people go frequently so it can't be too much. If you want to participate in one, ask around at Hostel Del Lago and someone should be able to point you in the right direction.

San Pablo

This town is reachable by tuk tuk from San Marcos. It is about a 5-10 minute ride and it costs 5 Q for locals. You CAN get 5 Q as a price if you make it known that you know it should be 5Q. If you don't speak spanish, you are probably better off just paying 10 Q.

Public boats usually will not take you to San Pablo. Once you are there, you will see an ordinary lake town without much attempt to accomodate travelers and tourists. This could be a good town if you are looking for a very cheap place to rent an apartment for long term, but you will have to be okay with no extra western necessities. The reality is San Pedro and San Marcos have apartments less than $300 a month, some considerably less. You have to really be keeping a tight budget to need to live here.

On your way in by tuk tuk, keep and eye on your left for a pizza place called Pizza Pablo. This restaurant is just on the edge of town. It is open on a bizarre schedule but they reportedly have good pizza. They deliver on special days and do some mega deliveries to San Pedro. You could make a lunch trip to San Pablo and have a pizza, which is basically the only western restaurant in the town. It is technically owned by an expat. However, he has a Mayan wife with two or three kids and speaks the local Mayan language, so he really is half local.

There is a man here in San Pablo who makes and sells drums, didgeredoos and other things for tourists. He also is a mentor for a number of fatherless children in the town. His father was a shaman who passed away and he considers himself a young shaman. For those who want private lessons from a Mayan shaman, this can be arranged. His name is Pablo (which isn't giving much away because there are a lot of people named Pablo) and he frequently sells his instruments in San Marcos. He will give you almost daily lessons but you will need to negiotiate a price. Don't expect too many book lessons; he is going to take you into the mountainside and give you an experience of shamanism.

  • Warning: Scammer**

Be advised that there is a scammer named Pablo who tends to hop from town to town but you usually find him in Pana. He is elderly, frail and likes to wear a cowboy hat. He seems to be impersonating this younger Pablo (who is around 30 years old). The scam always starts with him forcing a very warm, smiling handshake while you are walking to the Pana market. He then claims to be working with an orphanage in one of the towns a tourist is unlikely to investigate and tries to arrange large scale donations for his non existent organization. If you meet this older Pablo, try and go see his orphanage. Find the name of it, find others who work in it. You will probably find that those things don't exist. If you want to make a donation to an organization like that, you need to find a more secure way to do it. Someone on the street asking for large amounts of money should be suspect.

The Best Hostel For Budget Hippies

Note: We use this term “hippy” in a positive sense. As this author considers himself a member of Rainbow Gathering Family, he would be remiss if he didn't spread the word about this specific hostel place because it is home to so many other Family members. No, it is not free, but the vibe will remind any Rainbow Gathering patron of home.

While there are probably a couple dozen places you could stay in San Marcos, the best place for a hippy on a budget is Hostal Del Lago. In high season, dorms are under 10 bucks a night and rooms are under 20 bucks a night. The price is much less during the low season. The price will decrease for the longer you stay. They rarely take reservations because they prefer to allow people to come to Hostal Del Lago and choose to stay as long as they want. Indeed, this author travelled to this hostel in and out for over 9 months, and a few travelers were there from the beginning.

While all of the places offer some degree of a hippy vibe just by existing in San Marcos, this one wins the gold. There is a beautiful yoga tree house over looking the lake. There are classes almost everyday during the dry season and people can use the platform without taking a class whenever it is not officially in use. Indeed, you don't even have to be staying at Hostal Del Lago to take the class or use the yoga tree house! There is a restaurant inside the hostel called the Ganesh Collective and they encourage non hostel stayers to come enjoy the food and atmosphere. You don't even have to purchase something to hang out as the owner wants to create a friendly vibe! The activity board lists things like music nights, documentary showings, and other things found in hippy communities. They have an organic food garden, probiotic bliss balls, homemade kombucha, and ginger beer as well. You can be having a conversation about consciousness while a musician serenades you with bob dylan, there is yoga happening on the platform, a person practicing aerial silks, and someone practicing their poi. We mention this place because if you consider yourself proudly a hippy, you will be disappointed if you stay anywhere else.

Their open door policy extends to Mayan locals as well. Don't be surpised when you are cooking in the kitchen to make lunch and some Mayan children come up and try to sell you empanadas, fruits, chocolate, bread, or other items. As long as they don't bother you, they don't bother the owner and they are welcome to be there. This author finds their company tends to be pleasant and happy to converse if you can speak Spanish. They will even hang out and chat with you if you don't purchase anything. It adds to the good vibes at this place that everyone is welcome here. The empanadas are pretty good when hot; don't be afraid to try them with some avocado!

To get to Hostal Del Lago, you follow the initial path from the dock straight up until you reach the main street. You should see the basketball court in front of you. Turn right and follow that road as it bends further right towards the lake. The hostel will be on your right behind large wooden doors.

There is a secret way to get to Hostal Del Lago and it allows you to see something few tourists see in San Marcos. As you walk from the boat dock up the direct path, keep a close eye on your right hand side. You should be looking for a grey cement wall that is painted with a beautiful green dragon and an arrowing pointing off the main path. There is a hotel right next to Del Lago called El Dragon. Follow this path until you see a gigantic soccer field (it should take around a minute until you see the field). The entrance to El Dragon is in the back right corner of this soccer field. Either walk across the field or around its edges. Don't forget to turn around and look at the incredible view before you leave the soccer field. Instead of entering El Dragon, simply turn left and walk up to the road. Del Lago is directly on the right. We don't recommend walking this way for your first time off the boat in San Marcos, as if you get lost you will not have any sense of orientation. Take this path once you know the general layout of the town.

The secret sign (El Dragon is directly next to Hostal Del Lago) pointing you in the right direction…

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follow the path for less then a minute and you should see a massive soccer field. It is almost completely hidden from view at any point within town. A true gem…

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The field never gets a chance for fresh grass growth…but with the mountains in front of you and the lake behind you, hidden from the town, its the perfect getaway spot.

Santa Clara

This town actually has no boat access, although if you take a shuttle to either San Pedro or San Marcos, you will drive through this town as it is closer to the highway.

San Juan

San Juan is another small town that has a small amount of tourist presence but is largely a local town. They are famous for being the best place to obtain textiles and fabrics around the lake. They also have a cheese and wine place that tourists rave about 3).

This town is sometimes accessible by public boat. Ask the boat driver and if he refuses to take you, now you must go to San Pedro and take a tuk tuk.

San Pedro

Welcome to the cheapest place on Earth. You can find room rentals here south of $150 with utilities included. Prices vary for wet season and dry season. There are hostel beds for around 30-40Q (4-5 bucks) but most trend a little bit more than that. Property itself is supposedly cheap as well although this author cannot confirm or deny this.

Food

San Pedro has a large food market and some of the cheapest food prices around the lake. Take a look at the food choices and prices listed in Pana; the San Pedro list is comparable.

To get there, step off the boat from the Pedro dock and walk directly up the hill. You see that daunting gradient ahead of you? That continues for another few minutes. Tuktuks will happily take you up the hill. They will try and charge 10Q but here is how you can stop that. Hop into the tuk tuk and say you want to go to the top of the hill where the juice ladies are. In spanish that is “Vamos a la cima de la colina, donde estan las damas de jugo” (note: you shouldn't try this unless you speak a modicum of spanish). If you can't speak Spanish, you can point up the hill BUT don't say “marcado”. Once the tuk tuk reaches level ground, say “aqui esta bien” [ah-key ess-tah bee-en]. You should see a couple juice stands run by Mayan women. The market is only another five minute walk from here and it its only mostly flat terrain. This should be 5Q. If they charge 10Q, you can try a whiny “por fa-vor!”. The reality is it is 5Q around most of the town, so for them to charge 10Q to go 200 yards is pushing it in this author's opinion. If you take the tuk tuk all the way to the market, they have more ground to stand on when they charge 10Q.

You will see the food vendors lining up along the street. There is a large roof covered area of the market that is worth checking out as well. Inside there is more than just meat, fruits and vegetables. There are some people preparing soups and lunch type meals. A lady typically sells tostadas for cheap in the back right corner (if you are facing the market from the street). Go quickly, however, because the locals will eat her out of stock and she goes home once all the food is gone.

To obtain fresh milk and other dairy products from a family farm, start back at the first intersection from the San Pedro boat dock. Facing the water, you should turn right. Walk this road until it seemingly runs into some corn fields unused land. There should be a paved road to the right. Follow that until you hit a T and take a right. This road is a walking only road. Take it until you reach a paved, car accessible road and turn left onto that road. Walk on it until you reach a T and turn left, where the road is now paved but too small for a car. Follow the paved road with a quick turn right, pass the “Naked Sushi” restaurant and follow the road as it turns left and a quick right again. Down this road, on your left, should be a bookstore called Zuvuya Books. Inside that bookstore is a refrigerator and they sell (raw) butter, yogurt, cheese and (pasteurized) milk. You can place an order for raw milk as well. The farm is located on what is known as the “finca road”, about 30-45 minutes from this location. Expect American prices but the quality is top notch, even if a bit variable depending on the batch.

Restaurants are plentiful in San Pedro. Just by walking around you can find street fare, locally owned taco and tostada shops, locals walking around with empanadas and other snacky foods in baskets, and your typical sit down restaurant.

Be advised that drugs are plentiful in the town of San Pedro and you don't really want to mingle with drug dealers who think it's cool to find foreigners and joke with them about drugs. If people come up to you off the street and what to joke with you about cannabis, even if you like it, you're better off giving disinterested communication signals and leaving it be.

The Paths Between The Towns

There are ways to travel between towns without taking a boat. You may want to be a seasoned traveler to try these methods as they are pretty rugged. There is a driveable road between the towns of Tzununa, San Marcos, San Pablo, San Juan, San Pedro and Santiago, although driveable is a subjective term. People who own pick up trucks are willing to take pedestrians who want to avoid the boat between these towns. Times are variable; ask your hostel owner or around town to find where these leave but it should be pretty obvious…as there is only one road going into and out of these towns.

The cost of a pickup from San pedro to San Juan is 2Q. Then you can take a pick up to San Pablo for 2Q. A pickup from here to Santa Clara will probably cost 5Q. If you want to get all the way to San Marcos, a tuktuk fee fron Sablo to there is only 5Q. This way isn't recommended alternative way to get from San Pedro to San Marcos, even though 2 + 2 + 5 is 9 Q, 1 Q less than the 10 Q boat fee. You don't know exactly when these pickups will run and this could take much longer than the boat ride (at maximum you will wait 30 minutes for a boat and then the ride should be less than 20 minutes). Plus you have to stand on a pick up as it goes up and down a mountainside. Since the boats rarely drop off that these towns, this is the best way to get to Santa Clara, San Pablo and San Juan. The better alternative would be to take a tuk tuk from San Pedro to San Marcos. The fee is 5Q per town, which adds up to 15Q to get to San Marcos. You need to bargain to get to this price, however.

Obviously, you could walk the roads between the towns, but a tuk tuk is less than 75 cents so you would only be walking for exercise and the experience. But even between Tzununa, Jaibalito and Santa Cruz is onlylking path. These paths are walkable, although not for those who are in feeble physical fitness; occasionally you will need to climb rocks and steep inclines. From San Marcos to Jaibalito is about a 2 and a half, 3 hour hike. Tzununa to Jaibalito is around 2 hours of a hike.

The safety of these paths decreases as you decrease your group size. If you walk these paths in a group of three or more, no one should bother you. While plenty of peope successfully hike this by themselves without trouble, some don't. Smaller groups and single people have reported being robbed on these paths. Atitlan is perfectly safe to travel to and there isn't anything to be concerned about. This is kind of like that street in your town that is potentially troublesome, you just stay away from that part of town. It is not even that bad because the people who rob you on this mountain path are beyond poor by your standards. There are people who make less than 1,000 bucks a year here, so when you come waltzing along with your Ray Bans and your camera, you could provide them with potentially half a year of income. We do not know that kind of poverty in the United States. This is only advice for the paths on the mountain side between Tzununa, Jaibalito and Santa Cruz. You are completely fine to walk around the towns listed and all the other towns.

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