Why I Didn’t Like Lake Atitlan

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This post was originally written in 2014; updates from 2016 & 2021 are at the end.

There’s a phrase in Spanish, caer mal, which  is a way of saying you don’t like someone; for example, Me cae mal tu amiga means “I don’t like your friend.”  The phrase has a few other uses, typically for describing how food sits with you or impressions of news or announcements.  However, I find the literal translation a good one to describe travel experiences: to fall badly.

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Sunrise over Lake Atitlan

And that’s how I feel about Lake Atitlan.  It was the first place I studied Spanish in Guatemala and a region that is recommended by every single person I talked to, but it fell badly on me.

I won’t go as far as to add it to the list of places I haven’t liked (it had the potential to be wonderful), but for the time I was there, it fell short of my expectations.

No question about it, Lake Atitlan is a natural beauty, a place that ordinarily I’d expect to fall in love with. The photos don’t lie: it honestly is a gorgeous lake ringed by volcanoes and covered in lush greenery. How can you go wrong?

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Overlooking Lake Atitlan, Guatemala

My base on the lake was San Pedro La Laguna, a town that’s host to a dozen Spanish schools, party hostels (free tequila with breakfast, just to prove my point), and seemingly more tourists than locals.  

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Is this really Guatemala?

Up the hill, where I lived with my Mayan host family, was the “real” center of things. Like much of Guatemala, roosters crow long before daylight, women make fresh tortillas at all hours, and chicken buses and motorbikes hustle down the road. They set off firecrackers to wake people up on their birthday and everyone knows everyone in this community.

Segregation between Gringo-town and local town is nothing new in Guatemala; few cities do well at interweaving hotels and tourist restaurants with lived-in neighborhoods. Unlike other places in Guatemala, though, only in Atitlan did I notice that many of the locals weren’t interested in a cultural exchange. Try as I might, I wasn’t able to enjoy the connections that travel so often brings.

Since I didn’t like San Pedro, I left.  

I tried my best to find a town on the lake that better gave me what I craved: a chance to love Lake Atitlan like everyone else seems to do. After all, there are a dozen or more villages dotting the lakeside. Surely one of them would be a better fit.

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Finding a little local spirit in San Marcos

I side-tripped to some of the other towns on the lake: Panajachel, San Marcos, San Juan, San Jorge, and nearby Solola in the mountains.  Some of the towns I liked better than San Pedro; others were worse.  But none of them gave me that wow factor that I found in other parts of Guatemala.  None of them won my heart.

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Map of Lake Atitlan

Luckily, Guatemala is a varied country and even though Lake Atitlan fell badly on me, there have been a lot of other places that I’ve truly enjoyed.  Obviously I missed something and that’s okay.  

No one loves everywhere they visit and I feel incredibly blessed to have found so many other parts of Guatemala that I sincerely love. I’ll gladly spend my time in those other areas and leave this one for everyone else.

Go ahead and visit to make up your own mind — if nothing else, it’s beautiful — and let me know whether or not the lake won over your heart.

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2016 Update: This post is the driver for more reader emails than any other article I’ve ever written.  I get it, you love Lake Atitlan.  Apparently everyone does.  I took your collective advice and gave it a second try with an open mind — I returned, stayed overnight in a different town and spent my days hiking and exploring without the responsibility of Spanish class.  Yes, the second visit was better than the first, but it still didn’t jive with me. I’ll admit, I’m the odd duck here, but I don’t think it deserves a third chance. Travel time is too precious to force yourself to like something so feel free to enjoy it without me.

2021 Update: No, I didn’t go back a third time but based on my Instagram feed, the lake must look and feel entirely different now. There are a LOT of gorgeous new resorts along the lake. For a relaxing and scenic getaway, I’m sure it doesn’t get better than that. For an uncontrived cultural experience, I have to imagine this makes it even more difficult. Go in with realistic expectations of what your stay will prioritize.

What places have “fallen badly” on you?  Let me know what you think in the comments!

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25 thoughts on “Why I Didn’t Like Lake Atitlan”

  1. Atitlan is the one part of Guatemala I haven’t made it to. Surprisingly I don’t think the people i know there like it either, which is why I’ve never been. My favorites are Antigua, Tikal, Isla Flores, and Semuc Champey. I cannot recommend Semuc enough, I just adore it and it’s a joy to swim in.

    1. @Carolyn, You may be the first person to second the notion about Lake Atitlan, interestingly enough. I also really enjoyed Antigua, Tikal, and Flores — Semuc Champey is next on my list to visit, so I hope I love it there also!

      1. All the places listed are on the Guatemala “tourist trail”. Get off the tourist trail and you’ll find the “authentic” Guatemala: high crime, few consumer goods, boring food, and beggars. Budget tourism is a first step to introduce 3rd world countries to high end tourism, and the big bucks. I’ll give you the same advise I give to all tourists who complain about “authenticity” of their experience: get off the tourist trail. That will relieve the perceived overpopulation of tourists by one, at least. I’ve retired to Lake Atitlan (for 8 years now), and couldn’t be happier. Those Spanish schools who make you work so mercilessly are fueling the local economy and making a beginning at teaching the Mayan community the skills they will need to cater to the wishes of the truly persnickety, the rich. Your “fly in, pontificate, and fly out” research model may increase the hits on your blog, but does a disservice to a country that is struggling mightily to fuel some growth. Or is that taboo in your utopia.

      2. @Brian, Thanks for stopping by! I spent about 7 weeks in Guatemala and throughout my stay saw plenty of the tourist trail as well as more remote places, such as parts of the Peten untouched by tourism, Nebaj and the Ixil Triangle, Laguna Lachua, and rough spots of Guatemala City, among others. I lived with host families, camped, and stayed in hostels, so I think I saw a fairly good sample of the country. I’m not really sure why you think that I flew in and flew out…maybe because I only spent a short time at Atitlan itself…but frankly, why would you stay somewhere you disliked? I loved Guatemala on the whole, but found that the lake itself wasn’t a good fit for me (the same way there are places in the USA, Europe, and elsewhere I wouldn’t return to). Glad it’s a a home you love, but I’ll find my home elsewhere.

  2. Sorry to hear that you didn’t like Lake Atitlan! I can understand your reasons though, especially San Pedro is extremely gringo-fied. My favorite day was when I hiked from Panajachel to Sta Catarina and didn’t meet a single gringo, only very nice Maya families, unspoilt nature and these magnificent views over the lake. I wonder how I’d feel about it now – I actually want to go back soon to find out 🙂

  3. I only went to Santiago, and only for a day, but the sheer strangeness of Maximon made it worth it for me.

    And Bali me cae, big time!

    1. @Dia, It figures that Santiago would be the one place that’s different 😉 And Bali…well, I have mixed feelings about it before even going there!

  4. I would have to agree with most everything mentioned in this article, being that I lived in that particular village for a few years. The first mistake you made was attempting to learn Spanish in a village where the official language is Tzutijil, it would be similar to learning English in the Czech Republic. Any place that would offer tequila shots in the morning before learning Spanish is abysmal. I know these two segregated groups very well, both have very genuine and good people within the two groups, and likewise each respective group has a very ‘unlikeable’ and ‘ignorant’ portion also. There is a major clash of culture happening there, a fundamentalist evangelist movement and a neo-hippie bohemian rhapsody, or an ancient indigenous group attempting to hold onto their culture where a multi-national upper social class has formed that controls all tourism in regards to restaurants, bars and other forms of nightlife. It almost happens to every traveler, they first see the lake and are magically hypnotized, they mingle through the town and see so many ex-pats and see with their very own eyes the ‘gringo-a-zation’ of san pedro la laguna. They in turn are indulged to return home and save and create something they would never ever have the option of doing in their country of origin, this then creates a foreign class of hooligans, shenanigans and other types, who indeed control the tourist industry, that in turn creates a vicious cycle within the society. These ex-pats live in a world where their countries of origin are so bad and inhospitable that they feel this move to paradise is flawless, but when Guatemala has a six percent murder conviction rate and extortion is so rampant, I can’t explain it any other way than ignorance is bliss and what you have in san pedro is unique in the world, it has awesome aspects, but those awesome aspects cause much chaos in the process, whether it is religious enforcers called ‘cocoles’ or all night rave full moon parties that disturb the complete tranquility of the village, not to mention cause the neighbors in the vicinity to not sleep, considering the primitive style of housing that exists. These people are hard workers and do rise before the sunrise, just when the neo-hippies are off to another ‘after bar’ or ‘after party’ all san pedro is to many tourists is a drug deal. It is so unfortunate that a once tranquil and spectacular place has turned in to dirty capitalism and a clash of culture that shows no sign of ending, but the tourist are to blame, since they choose to interact with ex-pats and frequent their establishments. You will see a local and their restaurant completely empty and see some Irish bar or pool party place completely full, talk about jaw-dropping. But karma has already paid back many thus far, some establishments are literally under water and others are just confiscated by the land or building owners, so they don’t comprise too much power, the local can take it all away at any time they wish. You should have visited the other side of the lake, Santa Cruz, Jaibalito or other great destinations, avoid san pedro, unless you want to feel at home in Oklahoma or Roma.

  5. At least you didn’t get your bank cleaned out. Many tourists I met were being “robbed’ after using the ATMs around lago atilan.

    1. @Joseph, Unfortunately that has been an issue all over Guatemala. Try to use ATMs in actual banks or built into the sides of buildings.

  6. It’s good to read about Guatemala. I was Panajachel in 1976 or 1977. I’m sure it’s much different now. ( I visited again in 1996) It was a pretty quiet town. They did call it Gringo tanango. But there wasn’t even a market there. Where the market is now, was a place called “Club Cabana” It was a grass roof building with plywood dividing the rooms. There were two spring cots in each room with a matteress on each, the place wasn’t very secure. The local gringo bar, was run by a couple of Americans. We did rent a house for a month where there is a museum now. It was 3 houses away from the lake. There was a man building a pretty good size boat right there on the side of the road between the house we rented and the lake.
    Anyway, for my 60th birthday, next year, I want to go back to Guatemala and go to a Spanish school. I also want to learn to weave on a back strap loom. I’ll be looking around for a Spanish School.

    1. @Michelle, What a wonderful memory! There are some weaving classes in San Jan la Laguna (near San Pedro, but a much smaller town) and San Pedro Spanish School has a great program. You can walk or tuk-tuk between the towns, so it might be a great combination for your needs. Good luck deciding 🙂

    2. @Michelle I would really like to know more about your time spent in Panajachel in 1976/77. I spent a month and a half around the Lake (mainly in San Pedro) and I am trying to write a story with the lake as the setting, the story will take place in both modern day and the 1970s, would you be able to provide me some information?

  7. I appreciate your honesty and while I liked Lake Atitlan, I only spent 2 days there and was not impressed with the villages around the lake. They felt grubby and the gringos were gross. I couldn’t wait to leave. I found Xela to be far more gringo free and interesting, and found an amazing teacher in a wonderful Spanish school, and a good homestay.

  8. I just got back from Atitlan and it was….meh. It has TONS of potential but the lake needs to be treated with the care it deserves. There is too much trash on the lake, what a pity. Plus my wife and I did not see the friendliness quite as much (and my wife is super friendly). They would not leave us alone or take no for an answer The sales people are relentless. I understand asking someone ONCE if they would like to buy something but they do not take NO for an answer and will follow you, asking several more times as if a no will suddenly magically turn into a yes (hint: it does not). That is NOT okay. If you politely say no once, as a sales person, MOVE ON. If you say no 3, 4, 5 times, GO AWAY! For instance, if I have a boat lined up, no amount of convincing will magically get me to go with your boat, that is just common sense. Plus the locals thought my wife was Guatemalan and said to her when trying to sell something “It is 20 for you, 30 for gringos”. Too much greed in Pana, too much dishonesty. My wife and I got a private boat with a few friends and agreed on a price and timetable for roundtrip. On the way back the guy tried to charge us more than what we agreed on. We refused, sticking to what WE agreed with, with the boat guy..So finally he relented but it was a VERY rough boat ride back. This lake has so much potential but it needs to clean up its act both literally, with the trash and figuratively with pushy, dishonest sales people.! As usual, it is humans, with their greed and disregard for things not related to them that hurts the place.

  9. I spent @ 6 months in Panajachel in 1977, we ranted a house by the Lake with a banana tree and hammocks in the garden. I went again in 1978.It was a magical time, there were expats and us hippies there but mostly it was a very peaceful and quiet town. The Lake was sparkling clean and we swam in it daily. So sad to read how the Lake is now contaminated, the towns of Atitlan are over run with tourists and crime is rampant. I’ve always planned to go back but from what I’ve read I don’t think I will, I’d rather go to places that’s are less polluted and still authentic, so sad ?

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