Every backpacker in Central America finds themselves in San Pedro La Laguna at some point. Some stop by for a few days, hoping to sample its reputation as a party town, while many more stay for weeks – even months – drawn in by the stunning, volcano-ringed Lake Atitlan and its laid-back vibe.
Nestled between the verdant slopes of San Pedro volcano and the enchanting lake, the town is home to a population of 13,000 people, primarily of Tzutujil Mayan descent. Alongside them are an eclectic mix of ex-pats, hippies and international backpackers.
I was a little wary of visiting San Pedro due to its reputation as a heavy drinking, hard partying, backpacker hub. I had spent the past few weeks sinking plenty of ‘Gallos’ with my fellow travellers and was heading to the lake for a little relaxation. I needn’t have worried. While the beer is cheap and music loud, there is plenty to make San Pedro worth visiting even if you don’t intend on overindulging.
The lower, lakeside area of San Pedo is a labyrinthine maze of nooks, crannies, and dusty alleyways meaning it is best to get around by foot. Here in this gringo ghetto, you will find the majority of the town’s bars, cafes and hostels. The layout can be a little disorientating but don’t worry, the locals are incredibly friendly and always willing to help you find your way.
As you move uphill you will find yourself in the more traditional, Maya area. Here you will find the local market, church, and town centre proper.
It is not recommended that you walk inbetween villages as there have previously been robberies by banditos preying on backpackers. Instead, flag down one of the many tuk-tuks waiting in the centre of town.
Where to Stay
Callejon a I-82 Zona 2 Canton Chuacante 4
Possibly the best budget accommodation in town. This hotel consists 12 rooms of 2, 3 or 4 beds – plus a 6 & 8-bed dorm for solo travellers – spread over 3 floors, each with their own en-suite bathroom and some even have a view out over the lake. There is a bar/restaurant on the third floor and a beautiful rooftop terrace with a vista to die for. The best thing? The hot tubs on the upper deck are a perfect spot to watch the sunset behind lake Atitlan’s surrounding hills.
The hotel is a little bit of a walk from the main dock but that can be a good thing when you tire of the music emanating from San Pedro’s bars. Staff are helpful and will assist you in organising tours/ transport to other regions in Guatemala.
Dorm bed – from £5/ 50Q
Twin room – £15/ 150Q
Double room – £21/ 200Q or £38 / 369Q for a luxurious room with a terrace and lake view.
Hostel Fe is a party hostel with a capital P and a complete contrast to Hotel Mikaso mentioned above. With over 50 dorm beds and 10 private rooms, it can get pretty rowdy in the on-site bar with people jumping from the deck into the lake below. Having said that, it is also a great place to meet other travellers. I wandered in for a couple of beers and bumped into at least 10 fellow backpackers that I had met on the road in other countries.
Dorm bed – from £5/ 50Q
Twin room – £15/ 150Q
Hotel Pinocchio San Pedro
7 Av Callejon E 7-50
A cheaper alternative to Hotel Mikaso, most rooms come with a terrace, private bathroom and even a TV. It can feel a little basic but the hotel boasts a lush garden area and a panoramic rooftop terrace.
Twin room – from £13/ 125Q
Where to Eat and Drink
A 5-minute walk from Panachel dock in the hip area of ‘Otro Lado’, Buddha serves some of the best Asian food in central America. Try the pad Thai and their speciality Mayan curry. The place is spread over 3 floors and plays host to pool tournaments, live music and cinema screenings. I found myself heading there most evenings to meet up with fellow travellers and, on the weekend, watch the football thanks to the fact they even show Sky Sports.
A great little lakeside restaurant serving awesome breakfast and lunches. The Wifi is fast and they show movies nightly. Try to get a seat on the balcony outside for a perfect view over the lake.
This San Pedro mainstay, located just on the corner of Pana dock, has been around for years and with good reason. Not only is it the best sports bar on Lake Atitlan, it’s probably one of the best in Guatemala. Serving pub staples such as pies, burgers and fish & chips, it’s a great little home away from home for those that have been on the road for a while and missing good ol’ Blighty. After an early morning hike up Indian Nose, I cant tell you how grateful I was to be able to stop by for a mug of Yorkshire tea (my first real cuppa in months) and a huge fry up.
Just by Hostel Fe, this peaceful cafe complete with garden and hammocks is the perfect spot for vegetarians and vegans. The 5D Burrito and tempeh pizza are wonderous things but they also serve a great selection of smoothies and herbal teas. I recommend trying the vegan cocoa with cardamom on a chilly day.
A San Pedro institution, Sublime is pretty much the place to be for an evening of drinking and dancing. They have a good booze selection and even throw theme parties on the regular such as pyjama parties, twin night (bring a friend and dress the same), and black light parties. There’s a good variety of music and they tend to concentrate on a different genre each night. Once a week they have a jukebox party where it is all requests.
Locally owned, Cafe Atitlan is a great spot for relaxing lunch by the lake. The service is good and the reasonably priced portions can be huge. They pride themselves on their coffee which, although won’t blow your mind, is probably the best you will find around the lake.
I can’t write a guide to San Pedro La Laguna without mentioning the delicious street food. Most of the stalls will pop up around Main Street from a couple of hours before lunch until the evening, dishing out Guatemalan classics such as tostadas loaded with guacamole, papusas and chuchitos.
Things to do
Hike Indian Nose
Of the lake’s bordering knolls, Indian Nose, La Nariz de Indio, is the most politically incorrect yet the most famous; a series of prominent hillocks that when seen from across the lake, resembles the profile of a sleeping Mayan. The viewpoint on its peak gives a spectacular vista over the lake and its surrounding volcanoes, especially at sunrise. To get to the top it was a 4 am start, taking the chicken bus to Santa Clara La Laguna and beginning the hike from there. However, it was totally worth the early wake-up call.
Multiple tour agencies will cajole and harangue you as you wander around San Pedro, all of the offering trips up Indian Nose. The prices range from 50-200 Quetzals depending on which agency you choose. We paid 200Q for 2 people travelling with Elmer Gonzalez. His details are below:
Elmer Gonzalez, Tour Guide
Another tour company that comes highly recommended is Geo Travel, run by a Geology Graduate named Matt. He will go into detail about the history and formation of the caldera in which the lake now sits.
It is possible to do the hike yourself but I would highly recommend taking a guide. Armed muggings and robberies have been known to take place on this trail and there is a chance that you may get lost in the dark, which can be dangerous in itself if it is the early hours of the morning. However, with a guide, you will be completely safe and there is the added bonus of paying into the local community.
Hike San Pedro Volcano
If you are looking something a little more challenging with even better views at the end, then hiking San Pedro Volcano may be a better option. I didn’t climb it myself, but I have heard that it is spectacular.
The walk takes around 3 – 5 hours each way and once again I would recommend taking a guide, even though it is fairly easy to find your way on your own.
Go for a swim
It may be the stunning setting, or it may just be that you want to escape the oppressive Guatemalan sun, but it is hard to spend any time at Lake Atitlan and resist the urge to jump into its water. You will usually find people leaping from the dock at Hostel Fe or taking a dip by ‘Los Rocas’, the towns premier swimming spot.
A word of warning: Although the government is doing its best to clean up the water, the area around San Pedro is still fairly polluted. While I was near Lake Atitlan, I spoke to at least two backpackers that had become ill after swimming in the lake.
What better way to spend a morning than casually paddling on the water and exploring the lake at your own pace. Most agencies in town will rent you a kayak or alternatively, you can pick one up from the lakeside. Prices start at around 15Q per hour.
Guatemala is the perfect, inexpensive, place to study Spanish and San Pedro is no exception. In fact, many backpackers stop here specifically for that reason. The majority of schools offer homestays included in their price and have packed social calendars in the evening time such as meals, movie nights and group tours (at an extra cost).
San Pedro Spanish School offers 1 to 1 tuition starting at 750Q per week for 15 hours of teaching up to 1500Q per week for 30 hours. A homestay will cost you an additional 700Q,
The Cooperativa Spanish School has prices starting from 695Q (1350Q with a homestay) for 15 hours of 1 to 1 tuition up to 1065Q (1720Q with a homestay) for 30 hours.
Thermal Baths at Los Termales
To find Los Thermales, head down the alleyway beside Buddha Bar, following the coffee beans painted on the floor. Soon enough, you should see signs pointing to the baths. Rather than natural pools, these are more along the lines of big hot tubs that I assume are filled and heated by the owners rather than volcanic natural springs. It is best to give the owner a heads up around 30 minutes before you arrive so that they can prepare the pool for you. Cost: 25Q
Pool Party at The Deep End Bar & Pool
Located just by Santiago Dock, The Deep End is one of three pools in San Pedro but probably the best spot to hang out and drink during the day. On a Sunday they feature Smokin’ Joe’s BBQ with 15 different choices of meat. There is oft live music, adding to the party atmosphere.
Take a Traditional Cooking Class
Ixiim Cooking School offers cooking classes 7 days a week where you will learn to make authentic Guatemalan cuisine such as tortillas, mole and tamalitos. Once you are done, you can enjoy your meal in their beautiful garden. Vegetarian options are available.
Shuttle bus services can be booked from numerous agencies and hostels in Antigua for anywhere between 50 & 70Q, depending on which agency you use. The journey takes around 3 hours including a toilet and food stop. This is by far the most convenient way to reach San Pedro as there is no need to take a boat from Panajachel.
A cheaper alternative is to take a chicken bus from Antigua to Chimaltenango, then take an onwards bus towards Xela/ Quetzaltenango. You will have to alight at the turnoff to San Pedro, Kilometro 148, and take a chicken bus or shuttle the rest of the way.
From Guatemala City
Direct buses leave the Trebol bus terminal every hour from 7 am to 5 pm and cost 35Q for the 4-hour journey.
From Xela/ Quetzaltenango
Chicken buses leave from Terminal Minerva in Xela at 11.30am, midday, 1pm, 4pm, and 5.30pm. The 3 hour journey should cost around 35Q. Be sure to board a bus that lists San Pedro as its terminus.
From Lanquin/Semuc Champey
The best option is to book a shuttle from your hostel or hotel in Lanquin – I booked through Zephyr Lodge. The price is around 200Q and the journey should take between 7 – 8 hours, however, it can often be longer.
A word of warning: It can be a fairly tight squeeze in the minibus with makeshift stools placed in the aisles to fit in even more passengers. I spent most of the journey on one of these crates, sliding back and forth and bumping around for the majority of the trip. To say it was uncomfortable is an understatement.
The easiest way to get to Antigua is by minibus. There are a number of travel agencies in San Pedro that will be able to organise a seat for around 60 – 70Q.
Minibuses leave at 7.30 am in front of the Maya Tztujil travel agency by Panachel dock or at 9.30 am from in front of Casa Verde. Although the buses are advertised as daily, they occasionally don’t run (I should know as I was left waiting outside the travel agency for an hour), so it is best to book at least a day in advance. Most hostels will organise transport for you but this will sometimes cost slightly more.
There are a number of ATMs dotted around San Pedro with the 5B branded ones seeming to be the most likely to accept foreign credit and debit cards. They have a daily withdraw limit of 2000Q. It is worth noting that the majority of these ATMs run out of cash fairly quickly and if they do, you will have to make the 30-minute boat trip over to the town of Panajachel in order to find a bank. I recommend as much cash as you think you will need with you to Lake Atitlan.
Have you been to Lake Atitlan? Do you have any recommendations that I have missed? Let me know in the comments below.
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