If you’re new to Lake Atitlan area of Guatemala, chances are you will hear facts about Panajachel and think this is the biggest town on the lake. Well, it’s not. It may be the most notable one for the foreigners that populate it and visit it, however, the biggest city is actually Santiago. That’s why I wanted to make a complete post about Santiago Atitlan, I gathered a lot of information, things to do, where to stay or eat, and more!
When we first pulled up to this town, we were amazed at the amounts of boats that are parked at the dock. Even though you can drive into this city, the majority of the people still use wooden canoes as a mode of transport. FYI, it takes a good 1-2 hours to go anywhere with these little guys, obviously, there is no rush for anything!
So what’s the big deal with this town as compared to the next. Well, it’s tradition. First of all, its main inhabitants are Maya and they are still practicing their traditional ways here. Their religion has long ago mixed with the Catholic church, but this town still holds one of the highest esteemed Mayan Icons – Maximon.
Things to Do in Santiago Atitlan
Maximon, also called San Simon or El Gran Abuelo, is a Mayan deity that is recognized for wearing a big hat, a tie, and colorful suits. People usually offer him cigars and place him in dark rooms. The effigy is huge, life-sized. He’s a total mystery and a unique experience in Santiago Atitlan, you should check it too! But be prepared, in order to visit him you need to pay with some candles, cigarettes or a bottle of alcohol.
We were asked by our little guide, “do you want to see the fake Maximon, which is here in the center, or the real one?” Is that even a necessary question? Of course, we wanted to experience the real thing!
So off we went to see the real one. He was located about 2 kilometers out of town, so we needed to take transportation there.
Iglesia Parroquial Santiago Apostol
Guatemala has a huge catholic influence, and you can find a ton of stunning churches around the country, so, visiting a church is a great way to immerse in the local culture. The Colonial Church of Santiago or the Iglesia Parroquial Santiago Apostol dates back many centuries (from 1540 or so), and you will notice this for the facade of the building. An interesting place to visit.
Head to the Local Market
Being one of the most populated villages around the Atitlan lake means that you’ll find an amazing local market, and since the biggest part of the people here is Mayan or descendants, you will be able to shop for a wide variety of stunning handmade crafts, from clothes, accessories to decorations and ceramic items. Even if you aren’t shopping for anything, you should definitely check it out. I’m sure you’ll end up buying some souvenirs!
Learn History at Parque de la Paz
Every year, on the 2nd of December, the people of Santiago do a memorial to remember the people that died in this place. Parque de la Paz used to be a camping site for Guatemalan Soldiers. The massacre took place on the outskirts of Santiago Atitlan and is an important part of the culture and history of the town. Even to this day, soldiers and militia people from the country aren’t allowed to go to the village but don’t worry, the place has local police.
You can read more about this incident, here.
Visit Mirador del Valle
Looking for the best lake views in the town? Mirador del Valle has it. This is usually the first step for tourists, most of the tour guides introduce the town here. This is not the typical viewpoint, you won’t find any structure or something like that, but you can have a clear view of the lake, a part of the town, and the Volcan San Pedro.
Go to an Art Gallery
You can find several art galleries in Santiago Atitlan, and most of them are different. The paintings have a clear and obvious influence coming from the Mayan culture. You don’t need a guide to go to an art gallery, but I totally recommend it. Once in the galleries, the owner will explain the paintings, talking about the history, style, and symbols you’ll find. Is hard to explain to put it into words, since you can find a wide variety of different paintings, from scenes, aerial perspectives, and people.
I know birding in Guatemala is not something every tourist has in mind, but it’s something you need to try at least one time. Outside the town, you’ll find a birding or birdwatching tour, hosted by a local company. The guides are professionals, well-trained, and will do an amazing job helping you to spot many of the different birds, like the Resplendent Quetzal (Guatemala National Bird).
I can’t think of a better place for a yoga retreat than Lake Atitlan, it’s so stunning and one of the most serene places in the world. The mystical yoga farm is a yoga retreat center that offers a relaxing experience in a secluded area of the zone called Finca de Yoga, where you can enjoy vegan food, a yoga platform, a tea room, and practice or learn yoga by the hand from professionals.
Mayan weaving tour
By now you must have noticed how important is weaving in the Mayan culture, you can find tons of examples around the lakes. Each village around the lake has a way of weaving, making it unique. Mayan’s women used to grow the cotton by themselves and dye it with natural colors coming from everyday stuff like insects, roots, cactus, and many others.
If you want to learn more about weaving, head to Cojolya Association, and book a tour. It last two hours or so and you’ll learn everything about it, from the coloring process, doing backstrap weaving, and many more.
Visit the Villages Around the Lake
Around Atitlan lake, you can find more than 8 Mayan villages, each of them having something different to offer to tourists. Not all of the towns around the lake are as big as Santiago, but that can come in handy, since some villages are unspoiled, offering a true cultural experience.
Despite that I recommend you to visit the villages that stand out the most including Panajachel, Santiago, San Pedro, Santa Cruz, Jaibalito, and San Marcos. I have a full blog post about the best Lake Atitlan villages and towns, make sure you read it!
How to Get to Santiago Atitlan
Panajachel is usually the first town you’ll step a foot in if you come to this region of Guatemala. From there you can head to Santiago on the ferry or “lancha” (small boats). The cost of the boat ride is Q25 (around $3.25).
Where to Stay in Santiago Atitlan
There’s no wonder why you’ll would to spend a day or two in Santiago Atitlan, there’s so much to do in the town that a single day wouldn’t be enough. Luckily, there are many places to stay in Santiago de Atitlan and I’m going to select three options for you that, in my opinion, are the best ones.
Bambu Santiago Atitlan
Bambu is a great hotel and restaurant that’s surrounded by trees and nature, located only a 5min walk away from Lake Atitlan. The hotel is packed with all the amenities a traveler needs for a comfy stay, offering Wi-Fi, clean rooms, bathrooms, an incredible pool, and a parking spot. The staff is friendly and the hotel
Another great hotel with stunning lake views, the biggest draw of this hotel is the fact that’s pet-friendly and has a spa for you to pamper yourself. Tiosh Abaj also offers clean rooms, an outdoor pool, a Wi-Fi connection, parking spots, and a restaurant/bar. Another great addition to this is the airport shuttle, which comes really handy. Also, the staff is super friendly and helpful.
Posada de Santiago
A kid-friendly rustic guesthouse located near the lake that offers a hot tub and an outdoor pool. One of the biggest draws of this guesthouse is the food that’s served at the bar and restaurant is AMAZING and fresh, the rooms are clean and cozy. Also offers a spa hut with all the amenities for you to relax.
Where to eat in Santiago Atitlan
Most of the hotels around the area have restaurant bars, but that doesn’t mean you can’t enjoy a good breakfast or a night tout in a different restaurant/bar. That’s why I want to let you know which ones are the best ones (in my opinion).
If you want to enjoy eating with a stunning view of the lake, then your best bet is Restaurante El Mana, they offer amazing fresh food and a huge variety, from seafood, and soups, to traditional Guatemalan and international dishes. On the other hand, you can head to Germinación Cocina-Bistro, this restaurant offers a wide variety of dishes both vegan-friendly and non-vegan, serving anything from burritos to complex dishes on top of a stunning local with a great sitting area.
What’s Like to Visit Santiago Atitlan?
Once we stepped foot off our little boat onto the Santiago pier we were instantly surrounded by little kids and older men selling their services as tour guides to take you to see Maximon. One little guy stood out from the rest, no idea why. Maybe he was the most humblest of all, but we decided on him. He quoted us a price of 10 el Quetzal which is about $1.20. Yeah, I know, ridiculous price! And obviously too good to be true. But since my husband is Guatemalan and we definitely didn’t have any language barriers, we believed him.
The tour included the city center, catholic church, and Maximon. Since the town is more or less the same as the rest of the villages and it was scorching hot out, we decided to bypass all that and see Maximon.
So off we went to see the real one. He was located about 2 kilometers out of town so we needed to take transportation there. We waited and in a few minutes a pick up packed with indigenous women and men flew past out, stopping for a heartbeat as we rushed to get on board. We all towered these people as though we were giants.
The ride had just begun! Even my husband, born and raised in Guatemala knew very little about this tradition. And our pick up was certainly skyrocketing us to get there. It was like the driver was in a hurry!
The chaos had just begun…
After this crazy yet fun ride. We jumped out of that pickup truck and headed toward a small shack. We were about to meet Maximon.
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