Lake Atitlan, Guats up?

Saturday, November 14, 2015


Lake Atitlan, Guatemala - Guats Up?

Guats up? Arriving in Guatemala from Mexico was a nightmare! Leaving Mexico from the Mexican border onwards to Guatemala was an extremely pleasant and official affair. The Guatemalan border on the other hand extremely informal and simply a nightmare. If you plan on doing the crossing from Mexico to Guatemala at La Mesilla read this carefully. Because I can imagine, like us, you've read lots of blogs and articles that tell you that as border crossings go 'it's pretty easy'. La Mesilla would be our first overland crossing and it was not easy as the blogs told us. 

Lake Atitlan at a glance

✓ Language: Spanish - Don't be surprised to hear some Mayan

✓ Currency: Quetzal

✓ Street food: Noticeably less around the lake

✓ Restaurant food: $5

✓ Drinking: $1-$2 for local Cerveza

 Tuk Tuk: Always negotiate first

 Chicken Bus: Depends on journey - Great value for budget travellers

✓ Where to stay: San Pedro - All dorms $10 per night and there's plenty of budget hostels on Lake Atitlan

All prices in US Dollar


Our first border Mexico to Guatemala at La Mesilla

Here's roughly what occurred during our La Mesilla border crossing. 

From 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 as I've mentioned. Here's the long winded version of our hectic Mexico/Guatemala overland border crossing experience.  

San Cristóbal de la Casas, Mexico to Guatemala

We leave Mexico after a 4 hour bus journey from San Cristobal to La Mesilla and jump in a taxi through the official no-man's-land area between Mexico and Guatemala. Luckily we are able to taxi with someone who's done the crossing before. Great, easy just like the blogs said it would be. He's also fluent in Spanish, double great for us as our Spanish isn't as developed as we would like it to be at this point in our trip. 

We arrive close to La Mesilla and the taxi driver informs us he can't take us any further. Which is not so great. The three of us exit the vehicle and head full speed into Guatemala backpacks and all. 

Arriving in La Mesilla in the midday heat of Guatemala Jamie and I have realised we have well and truly left Mexico behind us, we dubiously head into the immigration office past the blue tarpaulin shops and the machete wielding man. Passports stamped, great. Another easy, just like the travel blogs told us. 20 Mexican Pesos per person? Not so great, something doesn't feel right the travel blogs never warned us about this one. 

Lake Atitlan - Eating up everything in sight

We know we don't have to pay to enter Guatemala at the crossing but there's an angry Guatemalan man holding our passports hostage and asking us for money. This is where our Mexico/Guatemala border crossing became not so great and not so 'easy', like the blogs told us. 

We quickly reclaim our passports from our first Guatemalan friend and pay him pay our £0.79. 

We have crossed the border into Guatemala officially now and head to a bus to take us to the next big town. Before we know it were on our first Central American chicken bus heading two hours into Guatemala to get another chicken bus for another 2 hours to eventually arrive in Xela (Quetzaltenango), which would become our first stop on our Guatemalan adventure.

The chicken bus to Xela (Quetzaltenango)

For the most part of the journey we actually have no idea where we are going and just hope for the best. We also get to experience Drag Me to Hell on a flat screen TV inside a bus, in Spanish. During our bus rides we manage to swap some Mexican currency for the local Quetzal, almost get left on the side of the road and almost fear for the safety of our bags strapped to the roof of the bus.

Not to self, never enter a country without that countries currency. A great lesson was learnt. 

It's quite late when we get on our second Guatemalan chicken bus and by this time the sun has completely set. Nobody really wants to tell us how to get to Panajachel which is our final destination and I get the impression it wasn't going to happen until the following day. Feeling frustrated we decided to spend the night in Xela, get some sleep, get some cash and try again in the morning. We head straight for the most stereotypical 'free-breakfast' backpacker hostel we can find just for some comfort and security. 

Our first overland border crossing was a rushed and unprepared affair. We thought we had read all we need to know but nothing could have prepared us for leaving Mexico and entering Guatemala in such a way. I'd like to thank the kind Dutch stranger that helped to first timers cross the border and exchanged some money with us. I promise our Spanish improved as did our style of overland border crossing.

If you would like to read more on Guatemala border crossings check out Parenthood and Passports experience crossing from Belize to Guatemala

Guatemala, Border crossing, travel blog, travelsandmore, lake atitlan
Jamie and I on the 'trampoline' in San Marcos. Volcan San Pedro looking spectacular in the background 

Xela to Lake Atitlan

Our border crossing trauma led us to Xela, a backpacker hotspot many people hit up for the great markets before heading to Lake Atitlan. Lake Atitlan was our destination of choice to visit in Guatemala. Xela = Quetzaltenango! 

From Xela getting to Panajachel, Lake Atitlan is much easier than the La Mesilla to Xela journey. By this point 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. Be firm when asking where and when to change bus.

Also note that chicken bus travel in Guatemala is the cheapest way to travel and drivers want your money. Always ask passengers on the bus if the bus definitely stops at your stop. 

The second leg of our Xela to Lake Atitlan bus was a dream. The scenery approaching Lake Atitlan and Panajachel made drama of getting to Guatemala suddenly seems very worth it.

Click here to see more photos of Lake Atitlan

Panajachel to San Pedro - Lake Atitlan

Panajachel, Lake Atitlan. Any tourists first stop around Lake Atitlan. My first thoughts of Panajachel for budget travellers is that it is very overpriced. Room prices are some of the highest we've seen in Central America. And almost all of the accommodations offer privates but no budget dorms. 

Trying to get the perfect photograph by Lake Atitlan
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. 

San Pedro, Lake Atitlan

Whatever you do in Guatemala make sure you visit San Pedro for a fun time. 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. San Pedro, Lake Atitlan is your standard backpacker spot, all the hostels, all the bars, all the hippy market stalls. We even managed to stumble upon a full English breakfast, I'm still deciding how I feel about this. I guess I didn't care as much when I was hungover, but I've always had an issue with being a classic Brit abroad. 

Besides the mass of friendships to be made with Aussies, Brits and Americans there are so many endless possibilities of adventure around Lake Atitlan. Spanish schools, local markets, weaving tutorials, cooking classes, hiking, horse riding and more. On the water there's also endless activities including kayak rental, lake jumping, jet skis and when you've had enough of speaking English there's water taxis in abundance to take you to all the other villages. 

Plenty of water taxis to take you to the many villages on the shores of Lake Atitlan

Waiting to be collected to head back over to San Pedro after visiting another village around the lake

A week filled with lakeside Lake Atitlan fun

Originally we had planned to spend 3 nights in San Pedro because we thought we'd done all the adequate research. On our 5th day we accepted we liked being by Lake Atitlan so much we'd stay for a full week. I've heard that Lake Atitlan has that effect on most people. 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.

San Pedro, Lake Atitlan was to become the first time and place I truly felt like I was on the road. 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. There's also lots of people studying Spanish and on homestay programs in San Pedro and San Marcos (the hippy village across the lake) which I'd consider doing next time round or some other time. 

On the morning of our 5th day on Lake Atitlan we decided to do something adventurous and rent some kayaks and head out onto the water with some new friends and quiz team members we had met the night before all staying at the same hostel. Hostel Fe - which I do not recommend for sleeping but do recommend for eating and drinking. 

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 and 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. 

Lake Atitlan, Guatemala - Guats Up?
Exploring an abandoned house on a shore reclaimed by the lake

Guats Up? Lake Atitlan and San Pedro

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. 

Click here for more Lake Atitlan



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