My wife and I were staying in Panajachel for a few days in October and we decided to do the hike along the northwest side of Lago Atitlan towards San Pedro. We did not see a hiking path from Pana to the first village, Santa Cruz, so we had to take a boat for the first leg of our outing. If anyone knows of a footpath along the coast between these two towns, please post a response!
The first collectivo lanchas of the day do not leave the docks until 8am, so getting up at dawn and heading out early was not really an option unless we wanted to hire a “privado” lancha for 250Q from one of the many boat captains working the dock early in the morning. So we had a late breakfast and made it down to the dock in time to pay 25Q per head to board the collectivo to Santa Cruz. Make sure you do not accidently board a direct lancha to San Pedro. And remember that there are two separate docks in Pana, one servicing Santa Cruz and San Pedro, the other going to Santiago Atitlan.
Because it was the first boat of the day it filled up fairly fast and by 8:15 we were underway. It took about 20 minutes to reach Santa Cruz. Heading left from the dock was the stone walkway along the lake shore towards San Pedro but we had also read about a path that ran parallel higher up on the hill. We grabbed a tuk-tuk to go up the steep hill into “al centro” Santa Cruz. We had told the driver that we were going to hike towards San Pedro but we did not want to walk along the shore. As we were going up the hill into town he pointed out the staircase to the alternate path.
The center of town was a little concrete plaza with a church, school and hospital on three sides and kids playing soccer in the middle. We checked out the church (not much to see) and then ducked into the hospital to use the bathrooms. From there we hiked up the steep road towards the cemetery.
I cant stress how steep and windy this road was. And narrow. Along the way we saw different groups of kids hanging out. Eventually we got to the cemetery but it was a pale version of the one we had seen the day before in Chichicastenango so we did not stay long. We headed back down hill and after asking some directions, we started making our way southwest on the footpath to the next town, Jaibalito. I would say it was about 9:30AM at this point.
It was a nice hike through varied terrain (corn fields, forests, etc.) some of which was challenging, some of which was fairly easy. But the view of the lake was great and the odd cluster of flowers blooming here and there along the path was very pleasant. A bit after 10am we came across a sign directing us to the hotel / café Isla Verde or onto Jaibalito. We were getting a little hungry and the only food we had with us were our power bars. We decided to hoard our food for later just in case so we ducked into Isla Verde for second breakfast.
It is an upscale eco friendly hotel with yoga center featuring organic and locally sourced foods. The food was indeed good but they took the “slow food” concept a bit too far as the simplest requests (like water) took upwards of ten minutes to fulfill. Since the ratio of staff to occupied tables was an even one-to-one, this got a bit annoying. But the staff was really nice, the food was good and the overall setting was super nice, especially the view from the dining area. And they have three very large, very friendly dogs. I would recommend Isla Verde.
It was about 11:30AM when we headed back out on the trail and we got to Jaibalito a short while later. On our right we could see a large public event so we headed up that way to check it out. It was a school graduation. We hung out for a bit, people were friendly. We did not head into town but instead kept moving through the forest along the path, crossing a bridge and then crossing another stream on foot, in front of a nice waterfall where we took a break. Again, very scenic, moderate difficulty in the hiking.
From there we kept on our way to the next town, Tzununa. Again, it was a pleasant enough hike, only a bit challenging in spots. We passed some local workers, a few dogs that were guarding their territory, the odd lodge or building, and so on. Except for a couple hiking the other way, we did not seeing any other tourists. So it was fairly isolated.
It is worth mentioning something about the dogs we met, though. Several times the hiking trail ran along what appeared to be private property and there would be a two or three dogs that would bark up a storm as we passed by. While there was no fence and they were not leashed, they never came down on the path or tried to close in on us. And after we had walked on a certain distance, they stopped barking. I don’t mean that they barking petered out our lessened. It stopped like a switch had been thrown, it was kind of funny. Anyway, I mention it because I could see where some people might be a bit startled by the dogs. Don’t worry, just keep moving. What ever you do, do not stop and do not try to engage them.
As we got closer to Tzununa the path gave way to an actual dirt road. At this point we ran into a patrol of three national police walking towards us. It seemed odd to see them walking, in town you always see them in their pickup trucks. So I think they were heading for the hiking trail. They said hi to us and kept moving. But it was kind of re-assuring to see the police out and about.
We caught up to a woman walking along our way. We were getting a bit hungry and low on water and asked her where the local shops were located. When we got to the spot she indicated, the road turned right to go up hill into Tzununa proper or you could follow it left onto the next town, San Marcos. At this intersection there were a handful of shops. The problem was that they were closed because it was siesta. Yes, it was already 2PM! She said we had to head up into Tzununa if we wanted to find something open. Uphill.
Fortunately we didn’t have to go too far, there was a road side shack selling cold drinks (including gatorade!) so we stopped and got something to drink and some chips. There was a local woman visiting with the shop owner and she tried to sell us some crafts and she was kind of chatty. After resting a bit and finishing our drinks, we headed back down the road and headed out to San Marcos
From here we hiked another 30 or 40 minutes and we got to a crossroads, a paved road going up the hill to a town in one direction and down to the lake in the other direction. Was this San Marcos? No idea, there was no signage. But after a few minutes a woman walked by and we asked her which way to San Marcos and she indicated straight ahead. So it was good that we did not turn off there.
It was almost 3pm by the time we got into San Marcos, the new-age power crystal center of Lago Atitlan. And we were kind of done hiking. The next stop would be Santa Clara La Laguna, about another 45 minutes out. We had already been there Saturday on a hike up Indian Nose. And from there it would be another 45 minutes to San Juan and the same again to get to San Pedro. So there was no way would make it there in time to catch the last lancha of the day that departs at 5pm from San Pedro.
And frankly speaking, once got off the hiking trail and onto the wide open dirt road, it was much less interesting of a hike. Finally, the weather pattern in Lago Atitlan is pretty predictable – sunny in the morning and early afternoon, with growing cloud cover and light rain by late afternoon. So, it was getting a bit dark and the prospect of getting rained on did not seem too appealing.
We poked around San Marcos for a bit, there seemed to be more commercial activity here than in any of the previous towns we had been through. Then we headed down to the docks and waited about 20 minutes for a collectivo heading for Pana from San Pedro. We got on and it was loaded pretty heavy, the lip of the boat was barely half foot above the water line, it was a bit alarming.
But after stops in Tzununa and Santa Clara our boat docked at Panajachel. It was a bit after 5pm by then. So, all and all, a nice day of hiking, nothing too challenging. Security was not an issue, the views were great, people were friendly. If you are staying in Lago Atitlan, this is definitely a nice way to spend the day.