Where one chooses to stay on the lake can largely determine what experience they are going to have. Suffice it to say, what you are seeking, you will find.
San Pedro: largely known as a party capital, it’s the second largest town on the lake. Though it doesn’t face the volcanoes like the other side of the lake, many hotels still boast a pretty lake view. There is no shortage of cheap accommodation (avg price is 150Q or 20$ for a double room with breakfast), restaurants, stores (including a health food store), shops selling artisanal goods and handicrafts, markets (everyday goods and produce one, daily until 1 pm), bakeries, Spanish schools, spas and massage places. Places are best booked on the spot, there are so many options that you’re best to walk around and see for yourself rather than booking in advance. Even in the high season, mid-December, there were still quite a few options available.
Hostel Fe, a popular cheap option
San Juan: a quiet largely local village that is home to the women’s textile collective, offering workshops (quite entertaining, from what I’ve gathered). The town has no lodging, but is a quick 10Q tuc-tuc ride from San Pedro, making it a nice excursion for a day to learn the textile craft or visit the highly rated wine and cheese restaurant (though by appointment only).
San Pablo: a more poor and run-down version of San Juan,it is by far the dirtiest town of all the small ones on the lake. There aren’t many places tourists will stay, just a retreat centre and an Airbnb place, so the locals aren’t used to tourists and it’s quite a surreal experience being the only one in the whole village. While we stayed at this Airbnb place, simply because it was one of the few available on Airbnb and I felt better about booking in advance, it was honestly my least favorite. You are much better off staying in San Marcos or San Pedro for the same price of 20USD/night.
There’s absolutely nothing to do here unless you’re attending a retreat at The Hermitage (which are usually fully catered, so I doubt you’d walk into the village at all), no restaurants or cafes but there are plenty of churches! During our 12 days stay there (we left days early, having found a monthly rental shortly after), we’d had the pleasure of being unwilling participants in at least twice daily service…yes, the village is that small and yes, the service is that loud.Fun story: one time I’d walked into the lady’s house who sells tortillas, asking to buy 8 (they’re a 4 for 1 Quetzal). She stared at me for a few minutes, unable to comprehend what this “american” is doing in her house asking for tortillas, then gave me the best and freshest tortillas I have tasted to date!
San Marcos: the place we’d chosen to spend almost 2 months in. Admittedly small, there is a cozy vibe. After a few days, familiar faces are everywhere. It has a number of well-stocked shops, including a small health food store selling the indigestion and parasite essentials (more on that later!) as well as plenty of Mayan chocolate, raw cacao and locally harvested and roasted coffee. There are also a number of stalls selling fresh fruit and vegetables, bread and even cookies, though times and variety and a bit hit and miss and you’re best advised to grab it while you see it, as now that it’s days later, I am still searching for the lady with the magical 1Q/lb potatoes (typical- a Russian longing after potatoes!).
There are advertisements of workshops, events, healing sessions and so on everywhere as well as a website (albeit in progress), which tries to keep up with weekly events. Besides that, the best thing I’ve done was join the San Marcos La Laguna Facebook group, where you can keep track of events, rental opportunities, things offered and sought and make connections to make your stay here as meaningful and memorable as you wish.
Best and cheapest lodging: Hostel Del Lago. Not bookable in advance, plenty of shared or private room options, a quick 5 min walk to town, this is a little town on its own, with daily events, from yoga on the deck to kirtan and language workshops. A great vibe, decently priced food and room prices, it’s a great way to get familiar with San Marcos and figure out if you want to stay longer!
More upscale and secluded: Hotel Jivana, on the road towards San Pablo. Rates negotiable, starting at 45$USD in high season, though the rooms do not have a refrigerator or any ability to self-cater, but they do have a very nice restaurant on site. This feels like a luxurious resort at a modest price and would be well suited to those who prefer to eat out and relax.
Santa Cruz: sleepy village, home to some of the more upscale accommodations that can be reasonably priced when rented by the week or month. Also home to the La Iguana Perdida, an affordable stay where a family style dinner is only 50Q and a number of activities can be arranged for you. Picturesque and quiet, this is a good place to relax and recharge your batteries, get away from it all, but no longer than a week at most.
Panajachel: The lake’s largest town, the population swells on the weekends when locals come to relax and party at the lake from Guatemala City. It has a large expat community, plenty of rental options, large markets selling textiles, produce and everyday goods, with the largest day being Sunday. Plenty of lodging options, from hostels closest to the docks to nicer resort style hotels, mostly servicing the locals coming from Guatemala. There’s usually an ad or two advertising places for rent in different cafes in town. If you think it suits your interests and want to stay long term, prices can run from 350$+ per month for a self-catered one bedroom (we rented a 2Br with weekly cleaning, wi-fi and a nice yard for $425USD, in high season)
Boats: the easiest way to get around from one village to another is by boat (lanchas). Some towns have 2 separate docks, depending on which direction you’re going (Pana and San Pedro), others just one and the man at the dock tells you which boat to get into.
Know what to pay or you will be charged extra!
Prices from San Marcos: to San Pedro: 10Q pp, same for return trip (disregard the board with “posted prices”, which is only put up to get more money from the tourists); to Pana: 25Q pp each way. From San Pedro: to Pana 25Q, to Santa Cruz 20Q.
Tuc-tuc rule is: 5Q per person within the village or to the next village, then it’s 5Q for each additional village. For example, we only paid 10Q pp from San Pablo to San Pedro, but on return there weren’t too many people wanting to make the rough trip (though we could’ve taken the boat to San Marcos, then tuc tuc to San Pablo), we negotiated 30Q return trip (for 2) but it took some persuasion.
Hope you enjoy the info and let me know how your trip turned out!