What I Wish I Would’ve Known Before Traveling to Lago de Atitlan (Lake Atitlan)

The View of the Lake from the Santa Cruz La Laguna Dock

1. The scorpions won’t kill you.  Well, unless you are allergic.  One night we were getting ready for bed and there was a scorpion on the bathroom wall.  Everyone I was with totally freaked out.  I am a northerner, I have never seen a scorpion, it was terrifying.  I had booked the trip too, so my family was just looking at me like, ‘Why did you not know about the scorpions???’  After all my searching on the internet this somehow never came up.  Then we found one in our bedroom and our nine month old baby was sleeping in a travel crib on the floor.  We woke him up and got him out of there.  I guess we slightly overreacted.   We called the caretaker of the property and he said, ‘no es problemo.’ We didn’t believe him.  Finally after talking to the neighbors they assured us that their sting is similar to that of a bee, and there is nothing to worry about.  That made me feel better, but my Mother and Sister did not sleep that night. Also, a good tip to be aware of, they are everywhere in the rainy season, so beware if that’s when you are traveling!

2.  Get a house on hotel on the lake. The house we rented was not ON the lake, even though it boasted about a nice sandy beach in it’s description.  If we wanted to swim we had to climb down a mountain to get to a dock where there was a beach, but it was overgrown with grass and looked a little too swampy to be appealing for a nice dip.  Over the course of the week we saw lots of houses that were right on the lake (no hike up a giant mountain required).  Make sure you have your very own dock, away from the boats and away from the sewage that comes with being near restaurants or hotels.
We ended up spending A LOT of time in this boat

We ended up spending A LOT of time in this boat

3. Get a house or hotel near a town It was a real bummer to have to take a boat every time we were out of money or needed ANYTHING.  It made our vacation a tad more stressful.  We stayed in Santa Cruz La Laguna and, although it was gorgeous, it was too secluded. Going to dinner was out of the question. The last ferry leaves most major towns around five. In Santa Cruz you really only have the option of two restaurants.  La Iguana Perdida was excellent, but be sure to sign up for dinner by 3pm and the other, Santa Rosa, made my partner and I terribly ill.  We did grocery shop and we tried a personal chef.  The personal chef’s food was OK and the grocery thing was tricky because we had to basically buy everything, from cooking oil to salt and pepper.  San Marcos seemed like an ideal area, it was peaceful and quiet and there were nice cafes and restaurants. We really wish we would’ve stayed there! There were also convenient stores and women selling fruits and vegetables.  No ATM, but that just takes some better planning.  San Pedro seemed great if you wanted a cheap place to stay and a younger crowd.
Many areas (including the private beach by our house) looked like this.  Grassy and swampy and not appealing to swim in at all!

Many areas (including the private beach by our house) looked like this. Grassy and swampy and not appealing to swim in at all!

4. The water is not OK to swim in everywhere It was hard to get a straight answer when searching online about the water quality.  If you are near any restaurants or hotels it seems that swimming isn’t ideal, as their bathroom water runs right into the lake, or at least that’s how it smelled.  We did find this great park called Cerro Tzankujil in San Marcos.  It had a diving area and a rope to swing into the water with, and the water was gorgeous.  There was no beach but there were some rocks where you could sit and put your feet in or jump in and easily pull yourself out.  If you rent a house, make sure it is not in the path of the ferry, unless you want a boat full of locals watching you swim every fifteen minutes.
The swimming was great but only in the middle of the day, because it was hot, and at the right spot where the water was clear.  This picture is from Cerro Tzankujil, a park with excellent swimming areas in the village of San Marcos.

The swimming was great but only in the middle of the day, because it was hot, and at the right spot where the water was clear. This picture is from Cerro Tzankujil, a park with excellent swimming areas in the village of San Marcos.

5. Its colder than you think  Some days got pretty hot, but in the morning and evening there is quite a chill in the air.  I definitely needed my sweatshirt if we went anywhere in the morning.  So pack well!  And don’t be surprised if some days you can’t swim because its too chilly.
Although our fish tacos were delicious, we didn't cook the fish long enough and we all got super sick.

Although our fish tacos were delicious, we didn’t cook the fish long enough and we all got super sick.

6. You’re probably going to get sick  I have traveled all over the world and I have never gotten as sick as I did in Guatemala.  I have to admit I was not being super cautious. I didn’t get very sick in India so I had a bit of cocky attitude about it.  Well, I got it good, vomiting for 25 hours and diarrhea for over a week. It was not fun.  So be careful, don’t eat raw veggies, sanitize your hands, the whole bit.  Don’t get lazy.
You’ll probably still get sick, but hopefully it won’t get you as bad as it got me.

7. Most people will accept dollars and quetzales So keep that in mind if you have some cash with you when you get there

8.  Talk them down  Even if you are just buying fruit at the market, the vendor will go after your gringo money.  You need to argue the prices down for everything.  If you really want to pay local prices, don’t give up.  A papaya does not cost two dollars, even though it does in the states.  I don’t think I will ever know the true prices of anything there, but I know I talked most of the people down from everything I bought. The ferry prices are pretty solid, just because you have no other choice, but the locals pay much less for a ride.

9. San Pedro has awesome Falafel    Surprising right?  I probably had the best falafel of my life at Shanti Shanti.  Other than the falafel though, there isn’t much of a reason to visit San Pedro unless you have a teenage sister that wants to go somewhere to get plastered (like I did).  Zoola was a cool place to go get drunk in the afternoon next to a pool.  There were lots of young annoying backpackers, but some cool ones too.  The water in the pool was way too cold to swim in.  This is also the place to do the Volcan San Pedro hike.  After hiking up a mountain all week just to get to our house, and puking my brains out, I decided not to do the climb.
Little Ari and Joe relaxing by the water at Tul y Sol in San Marcos.  This place was a little pricey but the curry was AMAZING.  And I'm picky as hell about my curries.

Little Ari and Joe relaxing by the water at Tul y Sol in San Marcos. This place was a little pricey but the curry was AMAZING. And I’m picky as hell about my curries.

10. Relax, enjoy the slow pace, and take it all in  I’ve been to almost every country in central america now, and Guatemala, especially Lago de Atitlan seems the most culturally diverse.  The Mayan culture is alive and vibrant and the ancient ways of life are still practiced here.  I enjoyed the ferry rides from village to village because we would be next to a Mayan woman and her babies and I could look up and see giant cliffs and volcanoes peering down at us.  The lake had a certain magic to it.  I don’t want this article to sound like I had a miserable time, because I definitely did not, I just want to share the lessons I’ve learned!  I hope to go back and do a week in Atitlan right next time!

 

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