Guatemala with Kids: A Boat Tour of Lake Atitlán

Lake Atitlan with kids
Lake Atitlan with kids

 

Exploring Lake Atitlan With Kids (Lago de Atitlán)

 

In his book, Beyond the Mexique Bay, British author Aldous Huxley likened Lake Atitlan to Lake Como in Italy. He said Como ‘touches the limit of the permissibly picturesque’ and Atitlan ‘is Como with the additional embellishment of several immense volcanoes. It is really too much of a good thing’.

I’ve never been to Lake Como but I can certainly vouch for Lake Atitlan’s beauty. Located in the highlands of the Sierra Madre mountains, the sparkling, sapphire-blue waters of the lake are flanked by three dramatic volcanoes: San Pedro, Tolimán and Atitlan.

The lake was formed 85,000 years ago after an enormous volcanic eruption blew a staggering 270km3 of volcanic material out of the caldera! The massive hole that was left eventually filled with water and is now the deepest lake in Central America.

 

 

Today, it’s peaceful setting and lakeside villages lure visitors from all over the world. It is one of Guatemala’s most popular sights and definitely one to include if visiting Atitlan with kids.

The best way to explore the lake and its artisan villages is by boat. Below is our guide on what to see and do in Lake Atitlan with kids.

 

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The Artisan Villages of Lake Atitlan

Lake Atitlan with kids: the artisan villages
The artisan villages of Lake Atitlan

 

The lake is known for the little artisan villages that dot its shores (Atitlan means ‘at the water’ in Nahuati). Admittedly after Antigua, I didn’t find the villages particularly beautiful. With all the hype that they get I had something more like the pueblos blancos of Andalucia in mind. Although the villages are full of character (and gringo hippies!),  it’s the lake itself that is the star attraction here.

 

 

The Three Village Boat Tour of Lake Atitlan

Lake Atitlan with kids: The Three Village Boat Tour
The Three Village Boat Tour

 

The best way to explore the lake and its villages is by boat. If you only have a couple of days here, it’s worth taking the Three-Village Tour which takes you to three villages of your choice in the course of a day. We opted for this tour and decided to visit the following villages:

  1. San Juan La Laguna
  2. San Pedro La Laguna
  3. Santiago Atitlan

 

Boat Tours of Lake Atitlan: Private vs Public

Lake Atitlan with kids: Boat tours. Guatemala
Boats on Lake Atitlan

 

The next decision is whether to take a private tour or to use the public ferry service that shuttles people to various spots across the lake. Naturally the latter is cheaper but with no official timetable you need to factor in a lot of waiting time (not ideal with kids!).

If you’re looking for freedom, flexibility and space, your best bet is to hire a boat for your family. I booked a private boat through an agent and our experience was extremely good!

 

Lake Atitlan with kids. Taking a boat tour. Guatemala
Catching up on some reading, as you do when on one of the world’s most beautiful lakes!

 

 

San Juan La Laguna

Lake Atitlan with kids Guatemala: the indian's head
Arriving into San Juan La Laguna – can you spot the Indian’s Head?

 

Our first port of call was San Juan La Laguna, a quiet little town that is known for its weaving cooperatives. As you pull into the harbour, ask your kids if they can spot the Indian’s Head. Our guide pointed it out by showing us a photoshopped image of the head on his phone. It’s like one of those 3D ‘Magic Eye’ pictures – strangely satisfying when you see it!

 

 

Lake Atitlan with kids Guatemala: the indian's head
A handy photoshopped version of The Indian’s Head!

 

 

The Weaving Cooperative

San Juan is famous for the ancient craft of backstrap weaving. Dating back to the pre-colonial times, it is a Mayan art form that has been practised for many centuries in countries such as Guatemala, Bolivia and Peru. Passed on through the generations, women are taught how to make their own huilpil (the traditional Mayan dress). Much like the Scottish clans and their tartans, each Mayan community has their own identifiable fabric.

Our guide took us up a steep hill to one of the village’s many weaving cooperatives where the Tz’utujil women of San Juan run demonstrations for tourists. Although it feels rather staged (the women stick to a script), it is a fascinating tour and a fun hands-on learning experience for children.

 

Stage 1: Spinning the wool

Inviting the kids to join in, they explain how to prepare the wool for the dyeing process. My daughter (aged 9 at the time) had fun learning how to spin the wool and discovered that girls start learning this skill from the age of seven. Even as a baby, the child is subjected to an important ceremony in which the mother passes miniature weaving instruments into the girl’s hands, praying she will become a talented weaver.

 

Antigua with kids: Hands-on experiences include learning how to spin the wool
Hands-on experiences include learning how to spin the wool

 

Stage 2: Dyeing the wool

In the next step another woman showed us how they dye wool using natural plant pigments from fruits, vegetables and herbs.

In Peru we experienced a similar demonstration, but one that also included a vibrant red dye made with the blood of cochinillas!

 

Antigua with kids: Learning about the natural dyes used
Learning about the natural dyes used

 

After years of experimenting and perfecting their craft, the women can create a wide range of hues just from one plant. The intensity of the colour depends on how long the yarn is boiled in the dye and when the plant was picked – for deep colours the leaves are best picked during a full moon.

 

Antigua with kids: Threads dyed using rosemary. Different hues according to the different stages of the moon.
Threads dyed using rosemary. Different hues according to the different stages of the moon.

 

Antigua with kids: Dyed yarn
Yarn dyed with natural ingredients

 

Stage 3: Weaving

The final stage is the backstrap weaving demonstration where the yarn is meticulously woven into colourful fabrics used for clothing, tablecloths, shawls, blankets and other household textiles. As this process is such a fine art I didn’t dare ask if the children could have a go. It might have been fun to have a demo loom just for visitors to try though – one for the suggestion box!

 

Antigua with kids: learning the traditional backstrap weaving techniques
Final stage: learning the traditional backstrap weaving techniques

 

The tour ends in the shop at the back where all profits go directly back into the community.

 

The Chocolate Factory

Lake Atitlan with kids. Guatemala : The Chocolate Factory
The Chocolate Factory

 

The history of chocolate began in Guatemala with the Mayans. They worshipped the cacao tree and called chocolate the “food of the gods“. Amen to that!

 

Lake Atitlan with kids Guatemala: A demonstration at the Chocolate Factory
A demonstration at the Chocolate Factory

 

We enjoyed a short chocolate-making demonstration at the local Chocolate Factory in San Juan before buying a number of bars to take home with us.

 

Lake Atitlan with kids Guatemala: buying chocolate
Chocolate with chilli, chocolate with mint, chocolate with orange – which one to buy?!

 

For more details on the art of chocolate making, see our Bean-to-Bar Chocolate Workshop in Granada, Nicaragua.

 

 

Paintings

Lake Atitlan with kids Guatemala: "Vista de Parejo" paintings
“Vista de Parejo” paintings

 

San Juan La Laguna is also famous for its paintings and there are a number of studios where you can see artists at work and buy a colourful piece to take home with you. Unique to Guatemalan art are the “vista de parejo” (birds-eye view) paintings depicting images and scenes that are an integral part of village life. Some of the most popular themes include harvesting corn and coffee and festivals or market scenes. They are wonderfully colourful and a great souvenir!

 

Lake Atitlan with kids Guatemala: Watching the artist at work
Watching the artist at work

 

 

San Pedro La Laguna

Lake Atitlan with kids: San Pedro
San Pedro

 

The second village on our tour was San Pedro La Laguna that sits at the base of the (dormant) San Pedro Volcano. Home to some 15,000 people the village is a lot bigger and busier than San Juan and popular with backpackers who come to learn Spanish and find themselves staying for years!

 

Lake Atitlan with kids Guatemala: San Pedro la Laguna
Lake Atitlan Villages: San Pedro la Laguna

 

It’s possible to hike the San Pedro Volcano but we didn’t attempted this with young kids, opting to ride up this volcano on horses instead! If you do attempt it you’ll need a guide.  The hike to the top takes around three hours.

If you’re looking for somewhere to eat in San Pedro then the Blue Parrott is a good bet. Katja (my blogging partner when I was at globetotting) also enjoyed this excellent cooking class in San Pedro.

 

Atitlan with kids: Nachos and Greek Salad at the Blue Parrot, San Pedro
Nachos and Greek Salad at the Blue Parrot

 

 

Santiago Atitlán

Lake Atitlan with kids; Santiago
Santiago

 

Our third and final stop was Santiago Atitlan, the biggest village on the lake with a population of 60,000. It also sits at the base of the largest volcano on the lake –Vulcan Santiago. The houses that cover the lower slopes are literally stacked up on each other, separated only by tiny narrow paths that wind their way up the hill.

The indigenous people of Santiago are known as Atitecos and have deep roots within the Mayan culture. Many of the women and men wear traditional Mayan clothing and speak the Mayan language, Tz’utujil. Kids might like to learn and try out the following phrases:

How are you? Utz (ootz) Karah?
Good Utz (ootz)
Thank You Mentiosh-Chavah
See you tomorrow Chu-Chek

The crafts to note here are beading and wood carving. Market stalls stretch from the harbour all the way up the main street through the centre of town. The busiest market days are Fridays and Sundays.

 

 

Other villages of interest on Lake Atitlan

Panajachel: It’s most likely that you’ll access the lake via Panajachel, the main town on the lake and the easiest to access from Antigua or Chichicastenango. Like many of the lake’s villages, it sees a lot of tourists but it makes for a good base and has a good choice of restaurants. We stayed in Hotel Atitlan (see below)

Santa Cruz La Laguna: Home to the luxury boutique eco-lodge, Laguna Lodge and the private Laguna Nature Reserve, Santa Cruz makes a good base for couples, nature lovers and families with teenagers. Sadly it doesn’t accept children under 13 years.

San Marcos La Laguna: One of the prettiest villages on the lake, San Marcos is known for its spiritual energy, attracting holistic therapists and practitioners.

 

 

 

Lake Atitlan: Where to Stay

Lake Atitlan with kids: Hotel Atitlan
Hotel Atitlan

 

We stayed at Hotel Atitlan in Panajachel which we found a convenient base for exploring the lake. Commanding a prime position overlooking the lake and volcanoes beyond, it is easy to access if arriving from Antigua or Chichicastenango, or as some guests did, by helicopter!  Positioned a couple of kilometres outside Panajachel it also relatively peaceful and free of crowds.

All the rooms have balconies or terraces that overlook the front garden and lake. We felt the hotel and restaurant were perhaps a little overpriced but it’s worth remembering that you are paying premium for the setting. As Hotel Atitlan was fully booked on one of the three nights we were in Panajachel, we spent the third night in Hotel Posada de Don Rodrigo. Unlike its sister property in Antiguawhich we liked very much, we found their Panajachel property soulless, and wouldn’t chose to stay there again.

 

Lake Atitlan with kids: Hotel Atitlan
Hotel Atitlan

 

One other hotel that might be worth checking out is Casa Palopo. With only 10 rooms, this Relais & Chateaux hotel is located in the hills east of Panajachel, near the little village of Santa Catarina Palopó and looks gorgeous!

 

Cruising #LakeAtitlán with kids! A guide to the villages on the lake #TBIN #FamilyTravel Click To Tweet

 

You May Also Enjoy the Following Posts:

To view all our posts in the series, Guatemala With Kids, see our Family Guide to Guatemala.

Things to do in Antigua with Kids

Colours Galore at Chichicastenango Market

Riding up the (active!) Pacaya Volcano on horse

Exploring Tikal with Kids

 

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This post was originally published on globetotting.com and co-written with Katja Gaskell.

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