Lake Como in northern Italy is on most traveller’s bucket lists, and for good reason – the sight of steep mountains rising up around the still lake is enough to give you goosebumps. But did you know there’s a lake that’s just as big, beautiful and surrounded by peaks, but costs a fraction of the price to visit? Enter Lake Atitlan, Guatemala.
Located high up in the country’s Sierre Made mountain range, Atitlan draws people for many of the same reasons as Como – stunning views, peaceful atmosphere, water activities – just a much smaller number of people. And while Italy is one of the priciest destinations to visit, off-the-beaten path Guatemala is among the cheapest. You can find hostel beds for as little as $10 a night and meals for the price of a small coffee in Como.
The road less taken
Arriving by road from Antigua or Guatemala City, you’ll catch your first glimpse of Lago de Atitlan’s aqua-blue water below before beginning what can be a stomach-churning ride down through a string of hairpin turns. But you’ll forget all about that – and the outside world – once you arrive in the peaceful villages of Atitlan.
There are at least eight towns surrounding the lake, and it’s crucial to pick the one for the vibe you’re after. Most travellers find themselves in San Pedro (backpacker crowd, nightlife), San Marcos (quieter, lots of yoga and meditation) or Panajachel (bigger town, more services). If you want to treat yourself to some luxury, there are beautiful villas for hire in the hills around the lake – the kind of accommodation you’d need to sell an app idea to Facebook to be able afford at Lake Como.
Villas B’alam Ya is a property just a short drive outside Panajachel that has sweeping views across the lake, and offers four stand-alone villas to choose from starting from $196AUD per night. Pretend you’re George Clooney as you watch the sunset over the mountains from your own private abode.
Taking out a boat, kayaking or paddle boarding are all fun ways to spend your days at Lake Atitlan, but hiking at least one of the surrounding mountains or volcanoes is the best way to truly appreciate the beauty of the place. The Indian’s Nose peak (so named because it looks like the outline of a man’s face lying down) is of medium difficulty, and takes around one-and-a-half to two hours from the base to the top. Go at dawn to see the lake turn shades of purple, pink and blue as the sun comes up from behind the mountains. Indian’s Nose can be attempted without a guide but it’s not recommended due to the trail being poorly sign posted. Various companies in San Pedro and San Marcos offer tours at sunrise or later in the day.
The hike to the top of San Pedro Volcano (don’t worry, it’s been dormant for millions of years) is longer and more strenuous, taking at least three hours to reach the summit. But it’s worth it – on the way up you’ll pass through beautiful forests, and at an elevation of 3000 metres, it offers the best possible views of Lake Atitlan aside from flying over it. Go early, ideally not leaving later than 7 or 8am to ensure a clear view before potential afternoon showers, and also so you don’t find yourself trekking back in the dark. The entrance fee is 100 quetzales ($17AUD) which includes a guide if you want one. It’s easy to do on your own, although you’ll learn more about the history of the local area if you take up the offer.
Lake Atitlan has become a hub for Spanish language schools, so if you’ve got more than a few days there, consider signing up for a course – they range from a week to a couple of months. With the cost working out as little as $5 per hour for one-on-one lessons, you’ve got no excuse for not being able to hablar un poco espanol. Orbita Spanish School offers friendly, patient teachers, and the views across the lake from their semi-outdoor classrooms are so picturesque it can be downright distracting.
At Lake Atitlan you can enjoy gourmet produce to put any European nation to shame. El Artesano Wine and Cheese Restaurant in San Juan, a lakeside town near San Pedro, serves up one of the most epic cheese platters you’ve ever seen, with more than 20 types of house-aged cheese, as well as nuts, olives, honey and other artisanal products. A platter that serves two costs a very reasonable $13AUD.
There’s also a Mediterranean menu with dishes like marinated sardines in olive oil, baked tomatoes stuffed with mozzarella and anchovies, and beef carpaccio with long-aged sheep cheese. Wash it down with a glass of wine from the extensive list while kicking back in the tranquil courtyard and try to remember what continent you’re on.
(Lead image: Francisco Anzola/Flickr, all other images author’s own)
Erin Van Der Meer is a formerly Sydney-based writer who decided the whole desk job thing just didn’t allow enough time for travel. So she quit said job, bought a flight to Mexico and has been living out of a suitcase ever since. Keep track of her latest adventures on Instagram or Twitter.