Panajachel is one of the most popular spots to stay around Lake Atitlán, Guatemala (known as Lago de Atitlán in Spanish). When we were travelling in this area, a lot of people told us not to bother with Panajachel because there’s not much to do there. They told us it was one of the best places for travelling to Lake Atitlán from Antigua, but the best things to do are elsewhere.
I totally disagree!
We took their advice and stayed in San Pedro La Laguna, but when we visited Panajachel we found that there is actually plenty to do there, especially for such a small town. We didn’t spend the night in Panajachel, but I definitely would if I was going back. Panajachel is a great spot for making the most of your trip to Lake Atitlán.
If you’re heading to Lake Atitlan from Antigua, Panajachel is one of the easiest places to get to. A lot of people will stay there for at least one night, and make the most of all the things there are to do in Panajachel, Guatemala.
Lake Atitlán is one of the most beautiful lakes I’ve ever seen, and it’s full of great places to stay and explore the area. No matter where you choose to stay, you’ll have the best time, but if you do decide to stay in Panajachel here are just some of the top things to do there.
I’ve broken this list down into sections, so you can choose based on what you like to do most:
Nature and Hikes to do in Panajachel, Guatemala
1. Natural Reserve
The natural reserve in Panajachel was our favorite place in Lake Atitlán. On our last day we took the boat over from San Pedro to Panajachel and hopped in a tuk tuk to the nature reserve. You can walk to the nature reserve. It’s only 20 minutes, but there is not much in the way of sidewalks!
Also, if you’re doing this on your first or last day at the Lake, you may well have all of your bags with you. We didn’t fancy the 20 minute walk with all of our bags (after a night out in San Marcos…) so we went for the tuk tuk, swapped numbers with the driver, and asked him to pick us up when we were done (this is pretty common, so ask your driver if you want a sure ride back to the town!).
The nature reserve is a former coffee plantation, and although it is quiet and small, we had a great time there and there was a lot to see.
Luckily we were allowed to leave our bags in the reception/office of the nature reserve, so we could do our short hike with day bags. It wasn’t the most secure in the world, but the nature reserve was quiet and there was generally a member of staff milling around.
This short walk was our mini-preparation for heading up Acatenango Volcano the next day!
We paid 85Q each to enter the nature reserve. Inside there was free seating and drinking water, clean toilets, and a simple cafeteria. It was the perfect place to recoup and reorganise our bags.
The natural reserve is small, but it packs in a lot. There are hanging bridges, a waterfall, animals and even a zip line (although you had to book that in advance). There are several routes you can take to suit different abilities, and there’s even a route for younger children and those of anxious disposition that avoids the largest hanging bridges!
There’s also a small beach on the site of the nature reserve, but we didn’t have time to go before we travelled back to Antigua.
2. Mariposario (Butterfly Farm)
The butterfly farm (Mariposario) is actually inside the natural reserve, so if you want to go here you will have to pay the 85Q entrance fee to the natural reserve. Of course, the best thing to do is do the short hike and the butterfly farm at the same time.
I’ve just separated it out in this list because it really deserves its own mention. The butterfly farm is not very well advertised, but all of the staff at the nature reserve are friendly and will point you in the right direction if you ask.
We stumbled upon it by accident on our way to the beach, and what a find! The Mariposario itself is quite small, but it’s absolutely full of butterflies and we were the only people in there, so it felt quite magical. There was a huge range of plants and species to see, and we spent a while in there.
Be careful not to touch any of the plants or the butterflies themselves, so as not to disturb their habitat.
Turning right out of the dome of the Mariposario, we came across a display of caterpillars, all the way from hatching as babies, to full-sized caterpillars, to being in cocoons, to hatching from their cocoons too. It was really incredible to see, and compare the different species to each other.
3. Hiking in the Surrounding Mountains
If the natural reserve isn’t enough to get your blood pumping (and especially if you’re preparing for the Acatenango Volcano hike), there are plenty of mountains in the surrounding area that will push you a bit further. This is a great way to see some of the natural beauty that Lake Atitlan has to offer.
Thanks to Lake Atitlan sitting in a valley, it is literally surrounded by mountains and you can basically choose any hike that suits your abilities (or willingness for that day!). For a lot of the best hikes, the best way to start is with a short boat ride to a nearby town. Some of the best hikes you can do independently are:
Camino a Tierra Linda (accessed from Panajachel)
Piedra del Zope (accessed from Panajachel)
There is usually an extra cost to enter the national parks that look after these amazing routes.
4. Hiking in Nearby Towns
For a lot of the best hikes in Lake Atitlan, the best way to start is with a short boat ride to a nearby town. That’s one of the best things about Lake Atitlan: you can take the boat to just about anywhere in under half an hour! Some of the best hikes you can do from surrounding towns are:
The Lower Mayan Trail (accessed from San Marcos La Laguna or Santa Cruz La Laguna)
Indian Nose Peak Hike (accessed from San Juan La Laguna)
San Pedro Volcano Hike (accessed from San Pedro La Laguna)
Some tourists have run into trouble with robbers on these hikes, so you may want to take a guide even though it is not necessary for the hike. If you want to do the hike yourself, remember to leave valuables at your hostel, respect all of the local customs, don’t litter, take the common trails and don’t try to avoid paying the entrance fee to any of the national parks.
5. Take a Quetzal Bird Watching Hike
As you may have guessed, the Guatemalan currency, the Quetzal, is named after their national bird. These birds are magnificent, full of vibrant colors, and really stand out in the local environment. If you want the best chance of seeing a Quetzal, I’d recommend taking an organised hike or a local guide that can help you. They know all of the best spots in the local area to see Quetzales, and they can do the bird calls that attract them outside of their homes and nests.
Tour guides can also make sure you stick to a trail, let you know the local customs, and make sure you’re not accidentally doing anything that could damage their habitats.
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Water Sports on Lake Atitlan
Of course, being such a large lake with a calm surface, Lake Atitlan is one of the best places in Guatemala to do water sports. Fun fact: Lake Atitlan is also the deepest lake in Central America! Water sports, in my opinion, are always best during the dry season, but there is something pretty magical about doing water sports in the rain, too. Here are just some of my favourite water sports you can do on Lake Atitlan from Panjachel.
6. Paddle Boarding (SUP)
Of course, being on a lake, there are many water sports to choose from and there will be quite a few on this list! Paddle boarding is one of my personal favorite things when it comes to water sports, because it takes a little more concentration and balance than something like kayaking, but it’s not so difficult that you need to take lessons or it’s totally out of someone’s abilities.
This is one of the best ways to see Lake Atitlán and everything it has to offer, and you get some of the most stunning views of the lake.
Like I mentioned, there are a lot of water sports you can do from Panajachel and I’m not going to list every one, but I also think that Kayaking is a great way to see the lake. Especially if you book to go kayaking during the late afternoon, you’ll catch the sunset falling over the lake.
8. Cliff Jumping
There are several spots to do safe cliff jumping in Lake Atitlan. The most famous is close to San Marcos, but there’s another spot close to Santa Cruz, too. I met a lot of people who took matters into their own hands and went cliff jumping themselves, but I would recommend doing this on a tour. This is simply because cliff jumping is not something you want to go wrong. With organised tours, the spots they take you are guaranteed to be safe and usually are tested by the guides themselves. Most spots offer a lower jumping point of 1-3 metres (this is my kind of cliff jump, to be honest…) or higher jumps up to 10 metres.
Cliff jumping is quite a well-known activity in Lake Atitlan, so you’ll probably be able to book a tour or find out more information by asking at reception in your accommodation.
9. Wild Swimming
You can’t beat wild swimming on a sunny day. Seriously, it can be glorious and although it might not technically be a “water sport” it’s definitely something to try during your trip to Lake Atitlan. Unfortunately, these days, it’s a little more complicated than just changing into your bathing suit and jumping in. This is for various reasons:
Firstly, the water close to the larger towns, including Panajachel, is at risk of contamination. This is due to run-off and other sewerage problems. You may see people swimming in the lake nearby large towns, but I wouldn’t recommend it. This is why you may hear travellers say “don’t put your head under the water” as though the water may be tainted in the same way as the tap water. It’s actually safe to wild swim in Lake Atitlan, as long as you go to a less polluted spot.
Secondly, boats. I know it sounds daft, but you are at real risk of being hit by a boat if you swim close to the pier. The boats go faster than you think, and the chances of them seeing your tiny little heads bobbing around in the water is low.
In my opinion, the best place to safely wild swim is at the private beach within the nature reserve that I mentioned earlier. It is quiet, unpolluted, and free of boats. A win!
Your hostel or locals will be able to tell you other great places to wild swim near Panajachel, or alternatively you can rent kayaks and head out in search of a secluded spot.
10. Boat Trip
A boat trip is great to do from Panajachel if you don’t have much time at Lake Atitlan. These boat tours generally only take you to places you can get to using public transportation anyway, but you save a lot of time by using a tour. You’re also contributing to the local economy this way, because of course, it’s a little more expensive than going DIY. The guides will have a boat waiting for you, so no need to wait for the next public boat taxi to come along, and they have a lot of local knowledge. Just a quick conversation with your guide will help you figure out how to make the most of your boat trip in Lake Atitlan.
Shopping & Leisure in Panajachel, Lake Atitlan
11. Visit the local market (Mercado Central or Mercado Principal)
No matter where I travel to, I always try and visit the local market. It’s often a great way to get to know the culture a little better, contribute to the local economy (that is, if you buy something, of course), and, if you dare, try some truly authentic food. (Around the world they do vary in safety, so check with your accommodation before you go, but here in Panajachel there’s nothing to worry about as long as you don’t have your phone hanging out of your back pocket.)
The Mercado Central in Pajanachel is no different, and as it’s right there at the top of Calle Santander (the main road in Panajachel), it’s really easy to get to. For such a small town the market is big, and packed with stalls selling everything from handicrafts to food to household goods.
Shopping on the main street of Calle Santander is a great way to get to know the local culture. You can walk away with some true, artisan treasures made in Guatemala by locals, as well as clothes and souvenirs to take home with you from your Central America adventure.
Both at the market and on the main street, you may get charged more for being a tourist. Whilst a lot of people find that irritating, remember that the minimum wage in Guatemala is around 400$ a month.
13. Grab a Coffee (or Hot Chocolate)
Panajachel has some lovely coffee shops and serve really good quality coffee. If you want something with a bit less of a kick, help yourself to a cup of hot chocolate… or cold chocolate, if the weather already has you sweating!
14. Get a Massage
There are quite a few spas and holistic therapy centres in Panajachel, most of which appeal to tourists, so don’t expect the low costs that you might find elsewhere in Guatemala! If you want a totally fuss-free experience, you can usually book with your hostel or hotel, but I would recommend at least a quick google search to make sure you get the experience that you’re looking for. (There’s a world of difference between a relaxing holistic massage and a sports massage!)
15. Take a Day Trip to San Juan or Santa Cruz
The variety in the different towns around Lake Atitlán is one of the things that make visiting the place so unique and special. You can read my guide on the different cities and towns surrounding Lake Atitlán here. Some of the favourite spots to visit using the small boats (referred to in Spanish as “lanchas”) are San Juan La Laguna and Santa Cruz La Laguna.
If you want to go on a night out, San Pedro La Laguna is the place to be, but it’s usually only worth it on a weekend. If you want to stay in a party hostel, Mr Mullet’s Party Hostel was the most talked-about by our traveller friends. Note: if you’re not planning to stay the night, you’ll have to book a private boat (aka water taxis) to take you back late at night, which can be very costly. You’re unlikely to find a taxi or Uber willing to drive you all the way around the lake. Alternatively, you could party until the first boats start at around 6am…
San Marcos La Laguna is known as the hippie town, and it’s a great place to visit if you want to do some yoga or get a massage.
San Juan La Laguna is known for a more artsy vibe, perfect if you’re looking for a little relaxation after a busy few weeks travelling.
(I’ll be writing a whole article soon on where to stay in Lake Atitlan, so stay tuned!)