Lake Atitlan (Lago Atitlan), Guatemala is the most beautiful place I’ve ever visited. And my favorite thing to do there is to swim.
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About Lake Atitlan, Guatemala
Lake Atitlan is arguably the most beautiful lake in the world. Surrounded by volcanoes and situated around 5,128 feet above sea level, the region has warm but mild weather year-round. Most of the year, you’ll enjoy temperatures between 66°F and 77°F. Several Guatemalan villages sit along the shore of the lake, each with a unique charm and draw. Locals and tourists can easily travel between towns in inexpensive water taxis (50 cents to a few USD per ride).
While I 110% recommend Lake Atitlan, it is important to mention this area of Guatemala is extremely impoverished. If you don’t wander outside of the touristy areas, you might be able to avoid seeing it, but the poverty is still there. In one of the most popular villages (San Marcos La Laguna), 49.8% of children suffer from chronic malnutrition.
Interestingly, you will have difficulty finding meat in certain villages (particularly San Marcos) because it is too expensive to be a regular part of local’s diets. The abundance of vegan and vegetarian food options is actually a draw for many tourists (my vegan self included). However, that does not discount the fact that the lack of meat results from extreme poverty.
The level of poverty and malnutrition amongst local Mayan populations is not a reason to avoid Lake Atitlan, but it is something to be aware of as a conscious traveler. I encourage visitors to book accommodations with locally-owned hotels, support local artisans, and tip well throughout their travels here (and really, everywhere). Locals are incredible kind, warm, and welcoming. Another thing to note is that the local population is mostly Mayan, and Spanish is their second language. Some older Mayans around Lake Atitlan don’t even speak Spanish.
If you visit San Marcos, I highly recommend you visit Konojel Restaurant. It is an incredible social enterprise owned by a local charity. The restaurant’s proceeds to support various essential programs for Mayan women and children. Their menu includes traditional dishes from all across Guatemala, which are all vegan. It’s also affordable and one of the only spots in town where I saw locals eating alongside tourists. And of course, the food is incredible. Konojel is one of the highest rated restaurants in all of Lake Atitlan.
Swimming in Lake Atitlan
Lake Atitlan Water Quality
Is it safe to swim in Lake Atitlan?
Most of the time, it is completely safe to swim in Lake Atitlan, as long as you’re at one of the popular swimming areas.
On occasion algae blooms have made the water dangerous for swimmers, but outside of those rare instances, the water is safe for swimmers. If you’re unsure about the water quality, ask your hotel receptionist, Airbnb host, or another local.
Most people avoid swimming near the lake’s larger cities like Panajachel and San Pedro, and you’ll, of course, want to avoid swimming in the path of boats.
The best Lake Atitlan swimming spot: Cerro Tzankujil Nature Reserve
The Cerro Tzankujil Nature Reserve near San Marcos village is the best place to go swimming in Lake Atitlan. During a five-day vacation, my husband and I went swimming here three times!
On any given day, dozens of locals and tourists can be found swimming, cliff jumping, and sunbathing at the nature reserve. With dozens of benches and rock ledges, there is plenty of space for each visitor to take in the natural beauty of Lake Atitlan, observe the park’s unique geological formations, or read a good book. Even though it’s a popular spot, it never feels crowded.
Lake Aitilan cliff jumping
One of the reasons that so many tourists (and locals) are drawn to Cerro Tzankujil (and San Marcos) is cliff jumping.
There is a wooden deck at the nature reserve built for cliff jumping. To find it, follow the signs for “trampolin”. The trampolin is around 40 feet above the water, and it has a constant flow of cliff jumpers on busy days.
Since the trampolin was built specifically for cliff jumping, and everyone’s doing it, it seems safe enough. However, a cliff jump from 40 feet can result in a serious injury. I learned this the hard way after anxiously Googling and even going to the doctor when I got a bruise on my tailbone that lasted a month. Thankfully, I was fine, but I don’t know if I’d make the jump again now that I’ve read stories online of folks who suffered much more severe injuries.
With that in mind, jump at your own risk! I jumped off two times with no problems. It was the third time (a few days later) that I landed weirdly and bruised my butt. Looking back, I think it was because it was a slightly windier day and there were more waves. My husband also jumped a few times and was completely fine.
If you choose not to jump, it is still worth visiting the trampolin to watch others jump!
How to visit Cerro Tzankujil Nature Reserve
Non-locals can enter Cerro Tzankujil Nature Reserve for 15Q ($2 USD).
If you’re staying in San Marcos, it’s an easy walk to the reserve. To visit the reserve from another Lake Atitlan town, take a water taxi to San Marcos. When you arrive, walk up the path towards the village and take your first left. You’ll walk through a narrow pathway past a few small hotels. After just a few minutes of walking, you’ll see a small dock and the entrance to the park.
Keep in mind that the reserve closes at 4 pm each day, so you may want to arrive early.
Essential Travel Resources
Have a trip coming up soon? There are a lot of travel companies out there, but some are better than others. After traveling to dozens of countries and living abroad on several continents, here are some of my favorite websites and resources for planning unforgettable trips.