Between Marjorie and I, we’ve almost been to all of the central American countries (we’re gonna get to you eventually, Panama!) and right now we can easily say that Guatemala tops the list. If you’ve been eyeing this country as a potential destination, don’t sleep on it. We had such a fantastic experience!
We made three stops while there – Lago Atitlan, Antigua, and Paredon. We highly recommend them all!
Day 1 – Travel to Guatemala – Lake Atitlan and Casa del Mundo
Anytime you travel, there’s always an interesting debate on whether you stay in the city you arrive in, or continue an already long travel day to make it that much longer. We opted for longer, since notoriously Guatemala City is more of a means to an end. Is there something valuable in the capital city? No idea. We only saw the airport, the traffic (so much traffic), and then we were on our way.
We both arrived in Guatemala City shortly after noon. We knew we wanted to go straight to Lake Atitlan so we arranged for a private shuttle to pick us up from the airport. It’s not a short drive (2+ hours) and the shuttle wasn’t cheap ($120 USD total). But it was convenient and dropped us off in the main city of Panajachel (Pana) at Lake Atitlan. This is essentially your only way in or out of the Lake Atitlan area by car – all of the little towns connect by boat.
We found our way to the boat shuttle and they were able to take us directly to the dock for our hotel, Casa del Mundo. Be warned – anytime you are taking a boat from Pana, you’ll be waiting. While all the other locations seemed to be constantly moving, these is the “origin” spot and they’ll basically wait until the boat is completely full until taking off. We easily sat for 15-20 minutes each time we boarded in Pana.
But once you are moving, it goes quickly. I was personally surprised by just how big the lake was and how bumpy it could get, especially in the evenings. If you are a motion sick person like me, make sure to pack extra Dramamine. I took one every day I was there.
That being said – it’s absolutely beautiful and pulling up to the self-proclaimed “magical” Casa de Mundo was… well… magical. There are a lot of establishments around the lake but let me tell you this place is 100000% worth the hype.
We spent a total of four nights here and the staff and service was impeccable. The grounds were so much fun to explore with a seemingly infinite amount of cozy beautiful nooks and crannies. But – the stairs here are no. joke. I’ve never felt so out of shape in my life. Our room was beautiful but toward the top of the mountain (yes, mountain) and I was absolutely fighting for my life by the time we got to the door, every time.
But then we had this view. So… yeah, it was worth it.
And let’s not forget that Casa del Mundo has an incredible restaurant. The Lake Atitlan area has lots of little towns – emphasis on little. You aren’t going to find a ton of restaurant options outside of Pana – and you pretty much have to be back to your home-town by dark because the boats stop running. So Casa del Mundo was where we ate all of our breakfast and dinners and we never got sick of it.
Day 2 – San Juan and San Pedro
Our first stop was ultimately our favorite of all the little towns around Lake Atitlan. We got up and took the boat over to San Juan – the “artsy” village on the lake. Right when you get off the boat you immediately walk up a road lined with art galleries, food, and souvenir shops. You have the umbrellas all over it -it’s an Instagram dream.
We stopped in the very first art gallery we found (and all those thereafter) but the first one ended up also being our winner. The owner, Senor Gonzalez, was truly painting and while you’ll find a lot of repeat designs throughout the town, you can feel confident they are hand painted. He explained that there are many lessons and schools in the town and as the students are learning they essentially all make the same prints. Likewise most artists get into a groove of style and roll with it – it’s not just “art” but also a living so they figure out what sells and it works. I fell in love with a painting and was able to purchase it, have it rolled up, and carried it with me through the rest of Guatemala.
San Juan was a lovely town to bop around in with a few good spots for photos. We stopped at Maja Bistro to get a drink (blended mint lemonade!) before wandering a little more and deciding to use our sore legs to get to an absolutely breathtaking viewpoint at Mirador Kiaq’Aiswaan. It’s worth the cost (about $10 each for foreigners) and stairs, I promise.
We spent ample time enjoying life before walking back down and grabbing a tuk-tuk to head over to San Pedro. Not every location is connected by roads but the places that are means it’s very easy to get a cheap ride in a little tricycle motorbike.
We had ours plop us in the middle of town and then we found lunch at Sababa restaurant. The food was good with an excellent view – though the only table they had left put me absolutely roasting in the sun. Still, I’ll do anything for a good outdoor view.
From there we headed back to Casa del Mundo for some rest. If you travel to the Lake in winter you’ll find you often have early nights – the boats don’t run long after dark and if you aren’t home by then, then you aren’t getting home. We found ourselves eating every dinner at the Casa and we weren’t mad about it at all.
Day 3 – Santa Cruz, Santa Catalina, and San Antonio
If you stay at the Casa del Mundo, there’s a lovely little walking path you can take to Santa Cruz. So we climbed even higher than our room (brutal) and then the path led us directly there – but only halfway up the nearly vertical town. Quads burning, we made it to the Cafe Sabor Cruceno for breakfast. It’s a culinary school with a cute little gift shop and it was nice to support the non-profit. It also has amazing views, though when we were there it was very overcast. Still, well worth the stop (honestly, one of the only places in Santa Cruz!) if you are going to visit this town.
Walking all the way down to the dock was killer on the knees, but it’s the only way to get out of there, other than the way we came. So we took a boat over to Pana where we then waited until we could go one to explore two other teeny towns – Santa Catarina and San Antonio. We stopped first at Santa Catarina due to the way the boats were landing. Honestly, we didn’t find anything to “do” there at all – but I personally really enjoyed seeing it. It’s a vibrantly colored town, heavy on blue, and around every corner you could find some beautiful murals.
It’s a maze of narrow stairways and we had to ask for directions to find an actual road. We were probably wandering through people’s backyards but no one seemed to mind. We eventually made it to the top and had an incredible view.
We flagged down a tuk-tuk to take us to San Antonio, the tiny town known for its blue pottery. He dropped us at a pottery workshop where we purchased a couple pieces and then they kindly took us to the back rooms so we could see the different parts of the process. The pottery is unique in design but also due to it’s clay – as you might expect in such a volcanic area it’s special in it’s own right and apparently it’s great to work with.
We spent some more time wandering a town that is thoroughly not meant for tourists before taking a long tuk-tuk back to Pana. We grabbed lunch at The Little Spoon (delicious with a rooftop!) before heading back for an afternoon and evening reading and enjoying the space at Casa del Mundo.
Day 4 – Lunch with a Local
Pre-trip we had booked a Kayak Hike that was cancelled last minute (honestly, we didn’t have a great communication history with Ox Expeditions. They might be great, but I’d shop around if you are thinking of using them). So instead we found a cultural experience that was really memorable. While not perfectly coordinated, we did meet up with a lovely local woman in Santa Cruz and battled that dang mountain again to find ourselves in her kitchen. She showed us how to made a traditional lunch over her woodburning stove.
We provided minimal help but she was kind and listened to our chatter. She then showed us, and allowed us to try our hand at, two of the weaving styles. Our Spanish dialects didn’t work well together – she mostly seemed to speak a more local dialect/language entirely – so we only spoke high level but she was so kind and it was a lovely glimpse into her life and supported the Mujeres de La Luna non-profit.
After that, we really just spent the rest of our time at the hotel. It may seem boring, but Casa del Mundo is a destination in of itself. We did take a very short walk (5 minutes) over to the docks at Jaibalito and grabbed a snack at El Indigo Bistro just to move around a bit. (It was fine, but not great). But it was a truly pleasant last night at the Lake.
If you are planning your time here, this was perfect and perhaps even a smidge long to spend there. Totally depends on your pacing. If you want to take it slow then 4 nights is *chefs kiss*. But if you need a little more excitement you might want to plan an extra excursion or one less night. That being said, most of our time there was overcast until our final day so I highly recommend you give yourself plenty of down time because you can’t depend on the weather – and the views are essential.
Day 5 – Travel to Antigua
This was our day with the biggest snafu that wasn’t really an issue at all. We started off slow with breakfast and then got all checked out and down to the boats. They took us to Pana where we then grabbed a tuk-tuk to Crossroads. I picked up some really great coffee beans so I recommend this place for coffee but not for wifi, given they had none. That had been part of our plan because we had heard that instead of getting a shuttle, we could likely call an Uber to Antigua. It’s a long trip so we weren’t sure it was going to work but decided to give it a try anyway.
Not surprisingly we weren’t able to get on after all so we ended up taking a tuk-tuk back to the tour agencies and had to wait around a little for a shuttle. It worked out fine though we did waste an hour or so in the waiting. Still – in no time we were in what was practically a private van (just one other couple) and heading our way to Antigua.
Our driver was great and ended up giving us tidbits about the area we were driving through. Guatemala is very agricultural and we saw some amazing crops. Broccoli was being harvested at the time and there were piles everywhere.
We eventually made it into the hustle of Antigua and in a flurry of activity we checked into our hotel and then power walked to get to the free walking tour for the day. You know me – I love making my first activity a walking tour to set the ground work and this one did just that. Antigua is quite small and we quickly were shown a number of the best sites, along with recommendations of what to go back to. I wouldn’t say it was the best tour I’ve had but he didn’t steer us wrong on any of the places we went back to.
Our first dinner was at Angie’s Cafe – a truly beautiful spot with decent food . They do have live music, though not while we were there.
Day 6 – Explore Antigua and hiking Volcan Pacaya
Our hotel gave us breakfast tickets to Fernando’s Kaffee – unfortunately while we were at this hotel so was a massive group that was here for some kind of service trip and they had completely taken over the cute place. It’s worth enjoying though there are lots of places in Antigua to get coffee and breakfast so we did spread the love.
We decided to take a nice walk through the streets and then up the path to what was supposed to be a beautiful look out at Cerro de la Cruz – only to find it completely blocked off with construction at the time (WHY they couldn’t put a sign at the bottom, my thighs will never forgive). It would totally be worth it, once the construction is done.
We then took our obligatory arch pictures, stopped at the world’s prettiest Starbucks (just for a photo op, obvs) and grabbed a smoothie at Y Tu Pina Tambien.
We did pay to see the Cathedral de San Jose ruins which was a nice spot before heading to eat at Rainbow Cafe (tasty!) and back to our hotel to get ready for our trip up the volcano!
If you research volcano hikes in Guatemala, the most common one you’ll hear about is Acatenango. It’s supposed to be amazing, but we opted for Pacaya – known to be an easier and shorter hike. We weren’t prepared to do more than one night in a tent and the timing worked really well.
We did our tour with Old Town Outfitters and I can’t recommend them enough.
We did the overnight tour which I highly recommend. The high was strenuous without being too difficult and our guides were amazing. Leaving at 2pm, we made it to the top of the mountain just a little ahead of sunset. We had absolutely perfect views and were able to see all the volcanos in the distance as well as the one right next to us.
We were rewarded with a roaring fire, with marshmallows to roast, and a delicious camp cooked meal. They pulled out all the stops. It wasn’t supposed to be a private tour but no one else showed up – while that meant we didn’t get a reduction on our sliding-scale pay, it did mean a private tour.
I ended up having a touch of altitude sickness so my night in a tent wasn’t the greatest experience but that was definitely no fault of out guides (in fact, our guide took my pack when I was having trouble catching my breath on the way up – he was seriously SO kind).
Day 7 – Hiking down from Pacaya, Antigua Exploration
In the morning we didn’t get to see any pre-dawn lava flow because it was way too foggy. We were totally engulfed in the clouds which was honestly cool in of itself.
It was definitely a major life highlight. How often can you say you’ve camped on a volcano? It was beautiful, unique, and just the right amount of exertion.
Post hike they dropped us off at our hotel where we tidied up and then grabbed an Uber out to the Valhalla macadamia farm.
I had been looking forward to this for forever and it didn’t disappoint. It was a small, beautiful spot where they walked us around and gave key insights on how macadamia nuts are grown/farmed. There is a restaurant on site that served lots of delicious options. We got a free mini facial which felt amazing and bought great souvenirs with macadamia nut oil (soaps, etc). It was so fun and unique and a very easy ride from Antigua. Highly recommend.
We did a little bit more walking, grabbed some ice cream at Glacy (I personally found it way too sweet, but Marjorie didn’t mind hers) and then crepes at at well recommended place, Luna de Miel, that we were not impresed with. Then made an early night of it.
Day 8 – Travel to Paredon
Breakfast on the square at Cafe Condesa was tasty and then we decided to take advantage of our last morning in Antigua and toured the ruins at Convento Santa Clara . They were beautiful and we did opt to get a quick tour from one of the guides on site. He gave us tidbits we never would have realized on our own, it was worth the extra quetzales for his time.
Then it was back to the hotel to check out and then we started anther attempt at using Uber. It ended up working out, though to be honest I’m not sure how. But it saved us a ton of money when we found a guy willing to drive us the 2 hours to the coast. If you can find an Uber, go for it, but there’s definitely shuttles that will also make the trip.
It was a long and beautiful drive but eventually we pulled up to Swell on a sandy road. From there we started out last couple of days of beachy paradise.
Day 9 – Beach
Honestly, did we do anything on our first full day at Paredon? We really didn’t. The day was hot, the sun was out, and we spent hours by the pool.
We ate all of our meals at the restaurant at Swell which was super tasty as well as diverse enough that we still hadn’t tried everything after three days. Other than our outdoor shower not being nearly warm enough, it was absolute paradise.
Like every other person in Paredon, we headed to the beach each evening to watch the sunset over the water with our beverage of choice. For me, the local beer, Gallo, was a great beach drink.
Day 10 – More Beach and Chula Tours
We decided we couldn’t spend two entire days lounging, so we did book a fun tour with the local non-profit, Chula Tours. They had multiple options and we ended up going on the Turtle Tour. A local fisherman took us along to see giant turtles popping up out of the water.
We skimmed along the mangroves, which I always love. And the highlight of the tour in my opinion, we stopped by a salt farm. It was a very quick pitstop but it was so interesting to see how they harvested pure sea salt. We even bought some direct from the source (ask me sometime about that story, cultural worlds colliding led to hilarity). It was a delight to learn something new.
Even if you are not a surfer, Paredon was an amazing low key spot. I would highly recommend Swell to stay for a few days- the combo of comfort at the pool with the black sand beach only steps away was the perfect way for us to end our trip.
Day 11 – Travel Home
Our afternoon flight meant we had time to grab breakfast right when they started serving it and then head out. We did have to arrange for a private shuttle. Regular shuttles to Guatemala City don’t really exist and besides we were leaving too early.
It’s a long drive with a significant portion of it sitting in bumper to bumper traffic in Guatemala City. Definitely listen to the local on how much time you’ll need – we had plenty but it definitely took us longer than we anticipated because traffic is always dense.
Then we were off! With another fantastic trip in the books.
Short List of Recommendations
Lago Atitlan – Casa Del Mundo – I cannot recommend this place more! Amazing.
Antigua – Hotel Posada La Merced – we booked via Airbnb for this. It’s pretty barebones but the staff was so kind! Perfectly affordable since we left it empty one night when we hiked the volcano.
Paredon – Swell – Perfection.
Lago Atitlan: Santa Cruz – Cafe Sabor, Pana – Crossroads (coffee only), The Little Spoon
Antigua – Angie Angie, Fernando’s Kaffee, Y Tu Pina Tambien, Rainbow Cafe
Santa Cruz – Mujers de la Luna
Antigua – Valhalla Macadamia Farm, Pacaya Hike with Old Town Outfitters
Paredon – Chula Tours