Lying at the foot of the San Pedro volcano, this little bohemian town is nestled between verdant mountains and the enchanting Lake Atitlan in Western Guatemala. Its ethereal location makes it a popular destination for backpackers, culture seekers and Spanish students.
San Pedro La Laguna
Mayan towns dot the majestic lake, but humble San Pedro stands out for its eclectic assortment of people – a growing ex-pat community, neo-hippies, and friendly locals in traditional garb that mix and mingle in one cohesive population.
Walking around San Pedro is the best way to explore its nooks and crannies and take in all the vivid traditional Mayan colors. The terraced arrangement of the town mean there are a lot of hills to climb so expect burning calf muscles. Even though it is modest in size, the town’s layout is confusing. Its many twisting tiny dirt roads almost ensure you will get lost. Don’t worry, locals are very helpful and will send you in the right direction.
Keep in mind, there are no real addresses. Locals describe locations by landmarks. A good rule of thumb: uphill leads to the market and the center of town, downhill is towards the lake and most of the hotels and restaurants. When you first arrive you will most likely be near the main Panajachel dock (referred to as ‘Pana’ by the locals). Taking a left at the corner will lead you to a large selection of hotels, cafés, and restaurants such as D’noz, Allegre Pub, Café Luna Azul, Casa Elena.
Another area of ‘downtown’ where most Spanish schools and restaurants, including the Buddha, El Barrio, Jarachick and Hotel Ti’kaaj are can be reached by walking up the road directly in front of Casa Elena. Follow that through until you reach El Otro Lado bar. Make a left at the bar. This will lead to a narrow pathway with many food options and the famous San Pedro ‘solar pools’. They aren’t really pools, more like bathtubs in the ground heated by black tubes. Late afternoon is the best time to soak. Let them know at least an hour before so they can prepare it. The price is 25Q or $3 for however long you can take the heat.
If you get tired of walking, the recent addition of ‘tuk-tuks’, a scooter with a covered bench, will carry you to your destination.
San Pedro is one of the cheapest places in the world to learn to speak Spanish. Because of this quality of instruction varies. The San Pedro Spanish School is highly recommended. It is certainly one of the more beautiful schools to study, with its small thatched lakeside cabanas to practice conversation. One week (20 hours) of private lessons will cost roughly $50 dollars. Also, it is possible to live at a home stay in conjunction with your studies. This is optimal for a total immersion. The school will place you with a family nearby. For around $100 dollars a week this includes, Spanish lessons, room, and board.
Out of Town
Many attractions draw visitors to San Pedro each year besides the Spanish schools. Explore the lake by renting a kayak or canoe. A rental shop sits beside the Santiago dock and costs $1 an hour. Or hike up the San Pedro volcano. The journey takes roughly 4 hours. Hire a guide ($5) by visiting one of the tour agencies across from Café Tzutujil, or by word of mouth. Also, it is possible to rent horses to shorten the journey. Note: it is essential to hire a guide, as there have been many reported robberies at the base of the volcano.
You can also visit the adjoining villages by taking a launcha (speedboat) from the main dock. They run every half hour until 6pm. The cost are $1 – $3 each way, depending on where you are going.
Panajachel is a great destination to buy hand-made crafts and clothes. Visit the steady line of street vendors that frame Calle Santander. The town has become a center for commerce and trade and is a jumping off point for all other towns. Over the years the town has become overrun with tourists, but it still has its charm. There are many hotels with stunning gardens, nightspots, and wonderful restaurants, most off Calle Santander. Depending on how you travel to San Pedro you may have to stop over in Pana. It is worth spending the night and exploring.
San Marcos is the spiritual epicenter of all the towns. There are no paved roads, only small footpaths with handmade signs to guide the way. Many courses and treatments are offered in yoga, reiki, and massage. An array of tranquil hotels, organic restaurants and secluded areas to meditate are in the area. Visit Moonfish to experience their amazing vegetarian breakfast. They make salads from their own garden. If you decide to spend a night, Aacalaax is built into the hillside and decorated with recycled glass. It can be reached by heading straight up on the road from the dock and following signs.
Lake Atitlan has its own history and mythologies. The lake was created by the collapse of a volcanic caldera, and provides unique underwater scenery for anyone interested in learning to dive. Santa Cruz La Laguna has the majority of dive shops and is a few towns over. It can be reached by launcha ($2 one way).
Swimming in the lake is refreshing, and on hot days, is sometimes is a necessity. Make sure to swim upstream from the ladies washing clothes, otherwise you will get a mouthful of soap.
The climate around the lake is generally mild yearlong. The rainy season is between May and October, but even then the sun comes out at least part of the day. If you want to see the town in full swing, visit during Easter week. It’s like spring break.
Eat & Drink
A varied selection of food from Asian to vegetarian to indigenous cuisine is available. A local dish of hand made tortillas, black beans, rice, queso fresco (crumbly, local while cheese), and sometimes eggs, is a great way to power up and start the day.
Buddha Bar has it all: delicious Asian cuisine, movie screening room, pool table, hookah bar and live music on weekends. After dinner, it’s not necessary to travel too far as there is always a party happening on one of their four floors. The roof is open for special live music performances, or sometimes even a wedding.
Hours: 9am – 2am
D’noz has been a standby restaurant for nearly 10 years. They have a broad menu, everything from chow mein to burritos. Wash it all down with a big bottle of Gallo, the local beer. They have great breakfast specials, which include coffee, tea, juice and entree of choice (try the fruit crepe), all for 25Q (about $3). Also, the banana shake is euphoric. Movies are played nightly, except when there is live music.
Hours: 9am – 2am
El Barrio has the best liquor selection is town. The hamburgers are great. Outside seating around a bonfire at night provides warmth and great conversation. Watch out for the occasional drunk local that insists you purchase him one beer. If you buy him one he will be back for number two.
Happy Hour until 9pm
Hours: 5pm – 2am
San Pedro is a coffee-producing town. Meaning wafting smells of fermenting coffee sometimes urge you to plug your nose. It is a worthy trade off, as Guatemalan coffee is the some of the best in the world. Coffee drinking happens to be a favorite pastime for many travelers in San Pedro. It’s a great way to meet locals, practice Spanish, and watch interactions. Try a latte at the Café Tzutujil (50 feet from the main dock).
Where to Stay
The selection of hotels, hostels and home stays in San Pedro are numerous and range from $2 – $35.
Mikaso Hotel (347-273-9596, website) ($8 for a dorm bed, $35 for a private double bed) is an ideal place for people that desire tranquility and surrounding nature. Its stunning rooftop restaurant, deck and private beach may encourage you extend your stay. They have wireless and will help set up special linguistics packages.
Ti’kaaj Hotel is a moderately priced, peaceful hotel in near proximity to Buddha Bar and Barrio restaurants. The rates are $15 for lake views and $8 for non-lake views. The owners are accommodating and gracious and will help arrange horse-guided excursions of the town. The lakeside sauna (free for guests, $5 for non-guests) will certainly benefit those who make the trek up the surrounding volcanoes. Make sure you let them know an hour before you want to go in—they have to fire it up.
Casa Elena ($6 a night), a sizeable pink building, won’t be missed as the resident party hotel. Large, clean rooms face the lake and hammocks swing from branches in the courtyard. They have a dock stretching out toward the lake, which is great for that 10 point cannonball.
Getting There and Around
There are two ways to get to San Pedro from Guatemala City Airport. One is to take a direct bus straight to Pana ($15). The trip is about 4 hours and will require a transfer by launcha to San Pedro ($2.50).Buses leave several times a day before 7pm in front of the airport. Another option for many people is to stop over in Antigua for a night (45 minutes from Guatemala City Airport). From there buses frequently leave directly to San Pedro ($10).
Antigua really is a must see. It is the best-preserved colonial town in Central America. The Spanish colonial style architecture, framed by the volcano Pacaya and sweeping cathedrals, creates beautiful vistas. There are many sophisticated hotels, restaurants, cafes and lively nightspots to choose from. The town itself is easy to navigate as the streets are on a grid system. Antigua is also well known for its crafts – wooden sculptures, weavings, ceramics, terracotta, traditional costumes, and jewelry.
There are many travel options once in Antigua. Buses leave from behind the market and run every hour. Mini-vans are the most comfortable and will cost about $10 one way. Compare departure times by walking around town and reading signs in front of tour offices. Ideally, the ride should be done in the day to view the stunning landscape. The roads snake around mountains for most of the three-hour trip, making a supply of motion sickness tablets indispensable.
Be careful not to walk in between towns, even though main roads connect them—there have been banditos hiding in the bush by the roads waiting for passersby. If the town is close enough to walk, take a pick-up or tuk-tuk.
When exiting from the launcha by the main dock (Pana dock) locals sometimes overwhelm tourists by offering kayaks, horseback riding tours, and hotels, even drugs. If you aren’t interested tell them you have arrangements and walk on.
Banrural Bank will exchange travelers’ checks, but do not have an ATM yet.
There is a new ATM at the small shop next to D’oz
The currency used is the quetzal (named after the national bird). $1 = 8Q
Most places will accept dollars, but it is smart to have local currency in pocket.
Credit cards are not widely used.
Americans need passports only to enter Guatemala. No visa is required.