Ever since Aldous Huxley passed this way in the 1930s, writers have lauded the natural beauty of Lago Atitlán. Ringed by three volcanoes, the lake is also surrounded by a series of Maya villages, each with its own appeal and some still quite traditional, despite the influx of visitors. A week spent circumnavigating Atitlán is the ideal way to experience its unique blend of Maya tradition and bohemian counterculture.
Start at the main entry point, Panajachel, which was “discovered” by beatniks in the 1950s and remains the most popular lakeside settlement. The hotels and shopping (especially for textiles) are excellent, even if the place has become something approaching a resort.
By contrast, Santiago Atitlán remains close to one hundred percent Tz’utujil Maya and has a frenetic and non-touristy market that fires up early each Friday morning. It’s a riot of colour and commerce as a tide of highlanders overloaded with vegetables and weavings struggles between dock and plaza. Elsewhere, drop by the textile museum, the parish church and the shrine of the Maya pagan saint Maximón, where you can pay your respects with offerings of liquor and tobacco.
Neighbouring San Pedro is another Tz’utujil village, but in the last decade or so has become Guatemala’s countercultural centre, with a plethora of language schools and cheapo digs for backpacking bong-puffers and bongo drummers. Even if this puts you off, you can content yourself with the village’s wonderful restaurants and a hike up nearby San Pedro volcano.