Jenn Miller is in her fifth year of full-time slow travel with her husband and four kids.They've cycled Europe & N.Africa, road tripped North and Central America, and are currently backpacking in Asia.You can follow their adventures at: http://www.edventureproject.com. ...Find out more!
Lago de Atitlan, Guatemala is one of the true gems of Central America. More than a kilometer deep, this crater lake is tucked between volcanoes in the highlands of what was the ancient Mayan kingdom. Panajachel, the big town at the end of the lake, is on the well worn travel path of every backpacker and tour company visiting the country, but that doesn’t mean that there aren’t plenty of unique, quiet hideaways and hidden gems to be found and explored in your own way. In fact, there are plenty!
I recommend making a day trip to San Marcos. Head down to the public boat dock in Panajachel and hop on a boat going to San Pedro and you’ll stop in San Marcos (it’s the stop after Tzunana and just before San Pedro). There is a ton to explore in this sleepy little town and the warren of foot paths that encompass the waterfront district are charming way to get lost on a warm afternoon. Stop for a massage at the Flower House (ask for Ito or Caroline) have lunch at Fe (order the lentil curry) and grab a coffee at the Moon Fish cafe on the path out toward the cliff, which is why you’ve come!
It used to be just a bare cliff and a leap into the deep blue, but the town of San Marcos kindly upgraded the jump point to a beautiful deck overhanging the lago suitable for sunbathing as well as screaming the forty or so feet down to the big splash.
Tips for success:
Pencil dive, feet first and go in straight. Trust me when I tell you that landing on your tailbone is a bad idea.
Commit. Jump. Just do it.
Don’t leave your stuff unattended at the top or it may not be there when you get back.
Plan your cliff diving trip to San Marcos on a Tuesday and catch Blues Night at Blind Lemon’s. Named after the first working street musician of the 20th Century, this restaurant is the only place we know of to get a real, honest to goodness American style hamburger on the lake. Carlos, the owner, is a long time resident of the lake, a stunning Blues guitarist and host to a surprisingly fabulous string of guest musicians in his establishment during the high season. Be sure to order a meal, the food is great, but the music is even better.
Anyone in town can tell you how to find his place. Walk straight up from the boat to the main road, turn left and walk a couple hundred yards until you see a road to the right and the “Blind Lemons” sign. Tell Carlos we said, “Hi.”
Cerro de Oro is the bump shaped lava dome sticking up in front of Volan Atitlan and Volcan Tomilan. Lots of people climb the big volcanos and there are guides in every town who will take you, for a fee. Cerro de Oro is lesser done, there are no organized hikes, and is an easy climb.
To get there, take an early morning boat to the town of Santiago. Take your first left on the road up from the boats (headed out of town) and walk until you can hail a pick up truck. They’ll drive you to the turn off for Cerro de Oro (bang on the roof of the truck when you want them to stop).
The view from the top is stunning. Have a picnic under the palapa. Scream at the top of your lungs to hear the echo and take some pictures.
If you have some time a walk clear around the Lago is a beautiful way to get off of the beaten path, see the countryside, interact with the locals in lesser-known pueblos, and have a real adventure along the way. The hike takes 3 days to a week, depending on how fast you go!
Follow the power lines around the lake and you’ll find the paths. There are no lines between Tzunana and Jaibalito, but you’ll see where to walk.
It is not advised to walk the road between Santiago and San Pedro as that is systematically patrolled by banditos, instead, walk the shore. You can catch a local boat across any bay that you don’t want to walk around; just wave them down.
You can typically stay in small hotels or hostels in the towns around the lake if you plan your walk. We know people who have camped au plein aire, but there are risks associated with that. Walking during daylight is always safer as is making the walk with a friend instead of alone.
There is no reason for undue fear, but there are occasionally reports of theft or some mistreatment on the trails around the lake. Ask around before you make your walk and plan accordingly.
There are some pretty great salsa studios in Panajachel - one European lady I know met her husband taking lessons from him! If you’d like to try salsa and don’t want to pay the big bucks or commit to a block of lessons then you can do so in various bars and restaurants around the lake, for free! The lessons are given by the various dance teachers around the lake in an attempt to drum up new students, but you can learn a lot for fun and for free by simply turning up on Tuesday nights ready to sweat and have a great time.
Watch the signboards outside of restaurants and cafes and the message boards in hostels and hotels for details.