With emerald green waters surrounded by towering volcanoes, Lake Atitlán’s jaw-dropping beauty alone would make it a must see. But it’s the volcano hikes, lake kayaking, local artistry, and Mayan culture that will move it to the top of your Central America travel plans. In 48 hours, you can get a small taste of the best of Atitlán, but don’t be surprised when you find the lake irresistibly calling you back to savour more.
Day One: Nature and Spirituality
Paddle the lake. There’s no better way to appreciate Lake Atitlán, the deepest lake in Central America, than gliding quietly across its surface in a kayak or canoe. As mist rises from the shimmering lake, you’ll spot birds and wildlife greeting the morning, and pass fishermen casting their nets as their ancestors did. Slip along the scenic western shores, or head to the biodiverse Tolimán Bay, where expert guides can help you spot local bird species, including prized life-list favourites like the Horned Guan and Azure-Rumped Tanager.
Participate in a Mayan fire ceremony: Experience Mayan spiritual traditions in a fire ceremony atop Cerro de Oro (Hill of Gold). A short-but-steep hike along mountain trails leads to breathtaking views and a sacred ceremonial site. A Maya spiritual leader (shaman) will ignite a fire in a sacred circle symbolising the eternal circle of life, sending thoughts skyward with the smoke. As you share in the ceremony, you’ll learn about the shaman’s role as a timekeeper, and Mayan perspectives on the connection between the elements and time.
Visit Maximón: They say no trip to the lake is complete without visiting Maximón (also known as San Simón) in the bustling rural city of Santiago Atitlán. This colourful Mayan saint, known for delivering both blessings and curses, is represented by a wooden statue smoking a cigarette and adorned in brilliant scarves. Protected and cared for by members of the cofradía (religious brotherhood), he sits in a room surrounded by offerings—money, cigarettes or cigars, spirits, candles, and incense—left by his visitors. His dwelling changes every year, but the local children and tuk-tuk (motorized rickshaw) drivers are always delighted to show you where he’s staying.
Indulge in a little nightlife: When the sun sets, Lake Atitlán’s laid-back vibe extends to its nightlife. You’ll find relaxed pubs and bars, sometimes with live music, in Panajachel, San Pedro La Laguna, and Santiago Atitlán. Ferries only run during the day, so unless you hire private transportation, it’s best to play near where you stay.
Day Two: Hiking and Mayan Culture
Hike Nariz del Indio at sunrise: Take a predawn trek to the top of “Nariz del Indio” (Indian’s Nose) to watch the gold, pink, and lavender sunrise reflected on the lake. The wooded trail and jaw-dropping views from atop this sacred mountain, said to resemble a proud indigenous profile, make the sometimes-steep trek worth every step.
Lunch with a Maya family: Sharing food and stories is the perfect way to discover a community’s heart and soul. Taste a traditional local meal—a fusion of Mayan and Spanish-influenced flavours—in the home of a local T’zutujil Maya family. You can try your hand at patting tortillas (not as easy as it looks!) or even take a cooking lesson, where you’ll learn to make delicious cuisine, like a rich and spicy pepián stew, from a local chef.
Explore San Juan La Laguna: Stroll among the shops, galleries, and workshops of this proud Mayan village full of artisan cooperatives. Here you’ll find vivid street murals celebrating the end of the 13th Baktún and the beginning of a new Mayan era. A short tuk-tuk ride leads to a coffee farm, where you can witness the origins of your morning brew. Back in town, immerse yourself in local traditions in one of the many women’s weaving cooperatives, where you’ll learn how they make their distinctive natural fabric dyes. You can even try your hand at the traditional art of backstrap weaving. Explore galleries filled to overflowing with the brilliant hues of naïf paintings. Surrounded by such unique artistry, you may find yourself with more than one shopping bag in hand before you leave.
Kick back, Lake Atitlán-style: After two days of active Atitlán adventures, it’s time to appreciate a different kind of “nightlife.” As the sun sets over the lake, kick back with a cool drink in an Adirondack chair at your ecolodge or hotel. Let your mind ponder the mysteries of the lake and the generations who have lived here, or just watch the stars appear above the volcanoes as you relax to nature’s nighttime serenade.
Just 2-3 hours’ drive from Guatemala’s airport or Antigua, it’s easy to include 48 hours in Lake Atitlán in any Central American vacation. But once you discover this highland gem, you’ll likely find yourself extending that 2-day stay to add a little horseback riding, scuba diving, biking, yoga, and spa treatments to your unforgettable Atitlán experience.