Village Spotlight: Travelers Guide to Panajachel
Panajachel is the hub of all tourist, artisan, and traveler activity around Lake Atitlan, the most beautiful lake in the world. Guatemala’s low cost of living makes it an affordable travel destination!
What is Pana
Panajachel, or Pana as we affectionately call it, has the ideal balance between traditional Guatemalan culture and modern conveniences that travelers crave. The rich Guatemalan history and culture are Today, the vast majority of Pana’s population has Maya heritage and speaks one of the indigenous dialects. Many residents still honor traditional Maya dress, and some practice a hybrid religion that combines Maya beliefs with Christian ideas. The central church dates back to the Spanish conquest--when the colonists joined forces with local Cakchiquel natives to defeat the Tzutujils.
When to go
Guatemala is often called “land of the eternal spring.” Because Lake Atitlan is located at 5,000 feet above sea level, the climate is pleasant all year round! The temperature rarely goes above 80 F or below 50 F, making it a great vacation destination. It’s not humid either, but beware of the strong Central American sun.
Guatemala’s rainy season is from roughly June-October. When planning your visit, keep in mind that risking imperfect weather will certainly pay off as you’ll enjoy low season prices, much fewer people, and greener scenery. Most visitors come January through March during dry season. November is our favorite month on the lake, with glorious fall-like weather and the most spectacular sunsets.
How to get there and around
Panajachel is located on Lake Atitlan, 90 km west of Guatemala City. From the airport, it takes about three-four hours by chicken bus or private shuttle. We recommend making a shared tourist shuttle reservation through the Tierra Maya agency for 150-175 quetzales (Q). Another option is to book a private taxi, here is our direct taxi contact Ramon: (+502) 5425-2911.
If you’re traveling on a tight budget, public transport is your cheapest mode of transportation. Common forms of public transport are pickup, microbus or "chicken bus" at around 30Q from Guatemala City to Pana. From the airport you’ll need to make a few transfers depending on which ride you catch -- San Lucas, Los Encuentros, Solola to finally arrive in Pana. While the chicken buses are cheap; they can be dangerous especially in and around Guatemala City. We recommend taking them for shorter trips once outside of Guatemala City. The chicken buses from Solola to Pana are "safe".
Day to day, Pana is small enough to pretty much walk anywhere. But our preferred method of transportation is tuktuk! We’ve included the contact info for our go-to tuktuk driver: Esbin #89: (+502) 5018-4255.
To get to other towns, you can take a picop (pickup!) ride or hop on a boat. We love our neighboring towns and often make day trips to visit them. To the east, there’s Santa Catarina: a quiet town with nice lakefront restaurants. To get there from Panajachel, hop in a 3Q pickup truck at La Dispensa, the big grocery store near the center of town. Or, if you’re feeling ambitious, it’s about an hour walk--head towards Puente Amistad and follow the signs to Santa Catarina. Our favorite bike rental, Power Bike, is conveniently located across from La Dispensa and has day rentals from 30Q. The winding mountain road boasts stunning views of the lake--if you haven’t gotten enough yet, head on through up to San Antonio, the next town over.
For a quiet day, we love going to Santa Cruz to relax at one of the hotels. Head down to the “San Pedro” dock in Pana--there will be plenty of attendants helping you get on the right boat. Public boats leave when they’re full--you’ll pay 10-15Q to Santa Cruz, one of the very first stops. If you have a big group or are in a hurry to get to one of the further towns like San Pedro or San Juan, it may make sense for you to get a private boat (lancha privada). These generally cost around 200Q a ride or 500-800Q for a full-day rental. Contact Ramos for private rides (5351-1638).
What to do
Like we mentioned before, something about November makes it the best time of the year for sunsets on Lake Atitlan, but you may still get lucky if you don’t happen to visit then. In Pana, the most popular place to watch the sunset is down at the shore of the lake--follow Calle Santander down to the end, grab an ice cream or michelada, and enjoy the show! In addition to the gorgeous pink and orange hues, you can watch funky street performers--musicians and fire dancers. Not your scene? Hang left and follow this pedestrian street down to find a quieter place near the beach to enjoy the view.
What better way to enjoy the lake than from right on the water?! The best way to explore the lakefront is by renting from the new paddle boarding place. We recommend going as early in the morning as possible, when traffic is light and the water is the most calm. For ##Q an hour you have free reign over where you paddle to! And once you’ve worked up an appetite, there’s no shortage of brunch places--most lakefront hotels offer brunch and so do several nice restaurants on Calle Santander.
Walking / Hiking:
There are a few easy treks that you can do from Pana! The walk up the road to Santa Catarina is quiet and boasts a nice mirador, or lookout point, at the top. From La Dispensa, head towards the river and cross the bridge, following the signs to the right towards Santa Catarina.
The Godinez trek offers an impressive (and unique!) view of the lake and can be done downhill by taking a local shuttle to the top and working your way back down to Pana. Find the shuttle (10Q) at the market in Pana (to “Godinez”) and ride it all the way up (45 minutes or so) to the town of Godinez. Head straight towards the mirador and then down through town and corn fields. In the middle of the flower fields, don’t miss the right turn that will take you down towards Santa Catarina through forest and more onion fields.
The Nature Reserve (Reserva Natural) also has some nice jungle-y hiking trails (with monkeys!) in addition to a butterfly garden and ziplining runs. Located up outside of Pana, the best way to get there is by tuktuk (10-15Q). Admission: 35Q for foreigners.
Where to shop
Pana is a bumpin’ tourist destination so there’s no shortage of souvenir shops, good restaurants, and comfortable places to stay. Calle Santander is a long street where you can find anything you’re looking for! There’s lots of shops selling products made with upcycled tipico or inspired by traditional Maya designs. Feeling a bit overwhelmed? Contact us for a private tour with artisan visits, weaving classes, and personal shopping: (firstname.lastname@example.org).
If you prefer a more DIY method, every Tuesday and Friday you can find the vintage market in the parking lot of the fire company on the Calle Principal. Bomberos is where we source the raw material for our more hard-to-find items in addition to our vintage huipil blouses and rebozos. If you’re like us, you could spend hours here sifting through the piles of gorgeous textiles. You should be able to find treasures for any price range: cool belts and miscellaneous fabric for 50-100Q, nicer Maya blouses (huipiles) for 150-200Q, and exquisite vintage samples from 400Q.
A word on bargaining: Guidebooks will warn you about getting the “gringo” price at the market. Although we acknowledge that you can often work a vendor down to a lower price, we encourage you to remember the people behind the products you’re buying. The tourist market is so saturated that vendors are often forced to sell at such a low price that they’re barely breaking even. Street vendors that travel from other towns to sell in Pana will even take a loss if it means having enough cash to get home in pickup. So please consider how much you would pay for handmade goods back in your home country before haggling a dirt cheap price.
Still feeling a bit lost? Stop by Cafe Loco on Calle Santander-- our friends are happy to help with recommendations and hook you up with the best gourmet (fair trade!) coffee in town.
Looking for unique food and drink recommendation in Panajachel? Check out Alyssa's street food guide here, you find these local spots in your travel book.
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