Last Updated on August 16, 2019 by Bryony Clapperton
Guats up? I read this phrase on a t-shirt around the shores of Lake Atitlan Guatemala and instantly added it to my vocabulary.
Arriving in Lake Atitlan, Guatemala from Mexico became one of those nightmarish but fun travel stories that you tell everyone.
We travelled from San Cristóbal de las Casas into Guatemala at the La Mesilla border crossing. A hectic and very Central American border crossing.
Mexico to Lake Atitlan Guatemala
Getting from Mexico to Guatemala
After several weeks exploring Mexico and experiencing Day of the Dead in Oaxaca City. We arrived in San Cristobal de la Casas we made a split second decision to bypass Belize and head straight to Guatemala.
It would be our first border crossing over land on our Central American adventure.
San Cristóbal de las Casas to La Mesilla
From San Cristobal, you can take a 4 hour bus to La Mesilla. Busses depart from the main station in San Cristobal and as with most Mexican travel tickets are well priced.
Once you arrive in the border town of La Mesilla you will need to exit the bus. Busses don’t cross directly into Guatemala at this crossing.
Instead you will need to cross between Mexico and Guatemala through the offical ‘no-mans-land’. You can cross on foot, but it is standard to take a taxi for a small price.
Luckily we are able to taxi with someone who’s done the crossing before. This is quite common as most people leaving the San Cristobal bus are heading to the entry point.
The Guatemala border
After taxi the short 5-10 minute taxi ride across the ‘no-mans-land’ that separates Mexico and Guatemala we arrive at the La Mesilla border crossing.
The taxi driver informs us he can’t take us any further, our Spanish speaking companion let’s us know this. The three of us exit the vehicle and head full speed into Guatemala backpacks and all.
La Mesilla is hectic to say the least. Arriving in Guatemala at a very busy border crossing in the midday heat of Central America is not advised.
At the crossing, you’ll need to hand over your passport to immigration potentially pay a bribe like we did and then head on into Guatemala.
Of all the Central America borders I experience this was my least favourite. To say I was less than prepared would be an understatement.
We arrived in Guatemala with no local currency, no onward travel plans and only the very basic Spanish. I would recommend, for this crossing specifically to be more prepared.
How to get from La Mesilla to Xela
From La Mesilla our destination of choice would be Xela. We’d spend a night in Xela before taking the bus to Panajachel.
From the immigration office at La Mesilla, you’ll want to walk to the top of the hill to reach the bus terminal. We took a tuk tuk from the bottom to the top because of the sun and our backpacks. It is walkable though.
There are some amenities at the bus station but not many. There are no toilets here so remember this!
Tika busses in Central America
Traditional Central American ‘chicken busses’ or tika busses leave the bus station at La Mesilla very regularly. There is a sense of frantic urgency about boarding these busses. Anyone who has travelled Central America significantly will know they are always just ready to depart.
Chicken busses/tika busses are used mainly by locals and some travellers. They are more prominent in Guatemala than other Central American countries. However, they can be found throughout Central America.
Chicken busses can be a great budget way to get around. Although, they are not as comfortable or as safe as organised busses and mini bus services.
Our bus was heading to Xela also known as Quetzaltenango, a destination we had vaguely looked up in our Lonely Planet.
We were told we’d have to change busses, but the drive and his crew would let us know when. At this point I was blissfully ignorant that the journey would take us four hours.
Xela also known as Quetzaltenango, a destination we had vaguely looked up in our Lonely Planet. We knew about t he famed Xela markets and the easy passage from here to Lake Atitlan, our destination of choice.
Unprepared and rushed onto our departing service we found ourselves experiencing sunset on the most spectacular winding roads with Xela in our minds.
Our Spanish speaking companion from no-mans-land boarded with us. He also swapped some of our Mexican Pesos for the local Quetzal. As I mentioned, it isn’t advised to be this unprepared!
After two or three hours, a change of tires and an extremely rushed roadside toilet break (remember no facilities at La Mesilla), we were instructed to get off the bus by our newly acquainted Spanish speaking friend.
We left the bus and our bags were thrown at us from the roof (typical of this kind of service), we boarded our second service to Xela.
If you would like to learn more about crossing the border from Belize to Guatemala then check out Parenthood and Passports – Belize to Guatemala.
Where to stay in Xela
Xela is a really lively backpacker hotspot and a destination I only wish I had spent more time in.
If you are heading to Xela (Quetzaltenango) I recommend checking out the Black Cat Hostel.
Here the rooms are basic, but located around a traditional colonial style central area. The reception is friendly and each nights stay comes with a very delicious free breakfast.
Xela to Panajachel
Where is Panajachel
Panajachel is a lakeside town that sits on the on the Northeast shore of Lake Atitlan. Generally Lake Atitlan is a must see for most people backpacking Central America.
Pana is an incredibly popular tourist destination and often the first stop for most people arriving in Lake Atitlan. Panajachel’s popularity with tourists is reflected in it’s prices.
It is quite easily the most inflated town on Lake Atitlan and prices here exceed that of other lakeside towns by over half.
Lake Atitlan facts
For anyone visiting Lake Atitlan, you may want to get comfortable with these Lake Atitlan facts.
- Lake Atitlan is sat in the Guatemalan highlands in the Sierra Madre mountains
- The lake itself is surrounded by several volcanoes
- Volcan Atitlan and Volcan Pedro are just two of the volcanoes in this area
- Many people around the lake speak some ancient Latin languages
- Maya culture is still very prominent in the area as is the Mayan language
- A lot of the population around Lake Atitlan Guatemala are indigenous to the area
- The main mode of transport on the lake is boat
- The lake is around 350 meters deep at it’s max depth
- Lake Atitlan is one of Guatemala’s most popular tourist attractions
Getting to Panajachel form Xela
From Xela getting to Panajachel, Lake Atitlan is much easier than the La Mesilla to Xela journey.
By this point in our Guatemala chicken bus adventures we were prepared to ask every person on the bus where it was going before boarding, just in case.
The bus from the main bus station in Xela goes to Panajachel with one change but this time we were ready for it.
Note that often in Guatemala the bus drivers may not be going to your final destination but they will tell you they are. This happens frequently in Guatemala.
Is Panajachel budget friendly?
My first thoughts of Panajachel for budget travellers is that it is very overpriced.
Room prices are some of the highest I experienced in Central America. Almost all of the accommodations offer privates but no budget dorms.
The tourist presence and lure is evident in Panajchel, Lake Atitlan. There are tourist-oriented deals and drinks promotions in every restaurant and the streets are lined with souvenir shops.
After one day of exploring and an overpriced night we decided to head to another smaller, less developed village on the other side of Lake Atitlan.
San Pedro is much more suited to backpackers and budget travel. In fact its an actual backpacker magnet and much more budget friendly.
San Pedro La Laguna
The next stop on our Guatemala adventure was San Pedro La Laguna, or San Pedro to most.
You’ll find San Pedro on the Southwest shore of Lake Atitlan, you will want to take a bus or a boat to get here from Panajachel. I recommend the boat option. They leave very regularly from all the lakeside towns.
Whatever you do in Guatemala make sure you visit San Pedro for a fun time.
Remember San Pedro was where I heard my favourite Guatemalan phrase, Guats Up?
Spanish schools in San Pedro
Don’t be shocked to find yourself speaking more English than Spanish as the main language here is Mayan so all the tourists and locals converse in English.
However, the Spanish accent here is very neutral so many backpackers choose to take part in home stays and language courses in San Pedro.
This is not exclusive to San Perdo, many towns along the shore of Lake Atitlan Guatemala offer perfect language learning courses. All of these are great for backpackers looking to learn some Spanish skills.
Things to do in San Pedro, Lake Atitlan
San Pedro, Lake Atitlan is your standard backpacker spot, all the hostels, all the bars, all the hippy market stalls. It’s easy to see why most of the people staying in San Pedro stick around.
The top things to do in San Pedro are endless;
- Spanish schools and learning some language skills
- Explore the local crafts and markets
- Take part in some textile and weaving lessons
- Try some traditional Guatemala cooking classes
- Hike around the lake with or without a guide
- Try out some horseriding
- Check out the yoga and sporting activites
- Rent a kayak or canoe and get on the lake
- Rent a jet ski or boat
- Take a boat tour of the lake
- Try out some fishing
- Swim in the lake or enjoy one of the jetty’s
- Explore the other lakeside villages and towns
- Get to know the locals, they are super friendly
Water sports on Lake Atitlan
On the morning of our 5th day on Lake Atitlan we decided to do something adventurous and rent some kayaks.
Our small group rented the kayaks for a very optimistic 3 hours and headed into the depths of Lake Atitlan.
The lake is around 350 meters deep as mentioned in the above Lake Atitlan facts. When you’re 25 minutes from shore on a flimsy seen-better-days kayak you begin to worry about what’s between you and the bottom.
We managed to not capsize surprisingly but after an hour and 40 minutes we headed back to the shore. Defeated and betrayed by our abilities. I’d recommend this as one of the top things to do in San Pedro Lake Atitlan.
Exploring Lake Atitlan Guatemala on a budget
San Pedro, Lake Atitlan Guatemala was to become the first time and place I truly felt like I was on the road during the start of my Central Ameirca trip.
We met a lot of people who were just passing through and had ended up staying weeks and even months in some cases, living and working, partying too.
Eating and drinking
Originally we had planned to spend 3 nights in San Pedro by our 5th day we accepted we liked being by Lake Atitlan so much we’d stay for a full week.
Looking back Lake Atitlan was the first time I truly felt like a backpacker, maybe it was the presence of a strong backpacker population or maybe it was the experience we had in general.
The lake can be very budget friendly and eating and drinking can be too. Most places offer well priced meals and alcohol is also very cheap. If you drink local beers you’ll be paying the equivalent of $1 for most beers.
Lake Atitlan accommodations
Lake Atitlan Guatemala has a whole range of hotels and hostels to suit any budget. You can fine all sorts of Lake Atitlan accommodations on hostelworld.
For the budget option and for backpackers it is cheapest to stay in a dorm room. For low-mid range travellers it is also cheap to stay in a private shared bathroom accommodation on Lake Atitlan in a hostel.
If you have a mid-range budget there are a wide range of Lake Atitlan accommodations to pick from, esepcially family owned hostels and hotels.
Lake Atitlan Hotels price ranges vary depending on destination. Panajachel being the priciest of the lakeside resorts to stay on.
Try La Casa del Mundo has great views of the lake, the hotel has a large terrace/balcony that guests can enjoy.
In San Marcos on Lake Atitlan there are also a range of yoga retreats and quirky hotels and hostels that can be enjoyed by tourists. Some of it is a little out there be warned.
In terms of Lake Atitlan accommodation to avoid, I recommend you stay clear of Hostel Fe in San Pedro.
Its a great place for eating and drinking with some of the cheapest drinks and best food in San Pedro but the rooms are terrible and from our experience the bed sheets do not often get changed.
You can party all night here and even cure your hangover with a lake jump from their platform. The only upside to staying here is the delicious free breakfast.
The owner of Hostel Fe is also great and very involved in the running of the hostel and it’s many quiz nights. He’s great and lots of fun, just a shame about the sheets!
San Marcos La Laguna
There are actually a lot of villages and towns around Lake Atitlan, some of the most popular have been mentioned.
Along with San Pedro, you can visit San Marcos La Laguna, or San Marcos. An equally as popular, but more hippy lakeside town on Lake Atitlan.
From San Pedro you can get to San Marcos by boat very easily. Along with San Marcos, San Juan is another of the popular tourist and backpacker destinations.
If you are into yoga, crafts, responsible travel, vegan eats and plant based clothes San Marcos is for you. Worlds away from San Pedro, but only a short boat ride across the lake you will find this hippy hot spot.
If you plan to stay in San Pedro I 100% recommend a trip to San Marcos the boat is very cheap, quick and easy.
As with San Pedro there are plenty of homestay programs in San Marcos.
Money, currency and ATM’s
We ran out of cash in San Pedro La Laguna. The ATM’s all conveniently stopped working during our stay and this led to us having to start a tab in our hostel. Risky business.
The currenty is the Guatemalan Quetzal. 1 Quetzal is around £0.10 or $0.13.
Like many areas of Guatemala and Central America as a whole small change and smaller denominations of currency are hard to come by.
ATM cash points can also be temperamental, I advise you to carry all the money you will need for your time in Lake Atitlan.
San Pedro isn’t the kind of place you fall in love with for the culture and it certainly isn’t the kind of place you go to when you want to be off the tourist trail.
But for us after 8 weeks of travelling San Pedro was the kind of place that made us want to stick around. We’d made friends, we’d shared our experience with people we’re probably going to remember forever and I liked that feeling.
Before this trip someone wise I know told me how important it is to sometimes just stay still for a while and for us Lake Atitlan was the first place that made us want to do that. We felt a part of something and we were too happy to move on in our allotted 3 days.
With travelling I have learnt that sometimes you just want to be somewhere long enough to have a bowl of pasta and wash your clothes. San Pedro had enough home comforts and cool people to make staying in one place very enjoyable.
Don’t get me wrong I’m not talking about a full English breakfast, but after seeing so much in such a short space of time I was satisfied with a hot shower, laundry service and some clean sheets.
Lake Atitlan is a very special place and it’s so easy to see why so many people stick around for so long. I know I’m already thinking about my next visit. Thank you for having us Lake Atitlan, you beauty.
A 20-something travel blogger based in Liverpool. Covering all things from Latin America to Liverpool local guides and everything in between.