Lago de Atitlan, located a couple of hours from Antigua, can be easily reached by local buses although a change is needed at either Los Encuentros or Chimaltenango. It is also a lot cheaper to get there by bus then by shuttle.
The lake itself is dominated by 2 large volcanos on the southern side, San Pedro and Toliman and 7 main towns around the lake. Panajachel being the largest offers a good base for seeing the other towns, which are easily reached by water taxi.
We spent 2 nights in Panajachel to see both the town itself which has an extensive arts and crafts market and to visit San Pedro de la Laguna and Santiago Atitlan.
In each town you visit you are greeted with various markets, each selling something slightly different to the last. Various Mayan communities with different traditional clothing still worn today by both women and men can also be seen throughout the towns, bringing bursts of colour to the mountainous surroundings.
The main transport system around the towns is done by tuk-tuks which are inexpensive and will take you anywhere around town for about 5 quetzales, the plus side being they squeeze anywhere!
We noticed that as younger drivers are taking over the tuk-tuk business each vehicle seems to have received a face-lift from their new owners; from paint work and extra side exhausts, to fake flames along the side and flashing LED lights at night. They really are an amusing sight in the backdrop of the Mayan world.
During our day trip of the lake we found that each town had a particular characteristic to it. The main town Panajachel seemed more of a bustling hub with its crafts market, a surprisingly extensive range of imported products in the supermarkets, and central links back into Guatemala.
Santiago Atitlan although smaller in size and seemingly carved into the volcano with its extremely steep roads also offered large markets but with more of an authentic feel to it, in part helped by seeing so many Mayan people in colourful traditional clothing.
Whereas San Pedro, although pretty, seemed to be taken over by American ex-pats, so much so that the whole side-walk felt something like Placencia but without the coastline. To us the whole area felt disconnected to the Mayan side of town and although pretty we felt it did not really belong in the town.
During our crossing from Panajachel to Santiago Atitlan we learned from a local that all the towns in the lake had suffered serious damages along their beachfront caused by increased rainfall during the last 2 years.
So much so that we found former docks and buildings submerged underwater in all 3 towns. However, the frightening part is that authorities reckon that the water levels will continue to rise over the course of the next 10 years, to the point of taking out all the lower level buildings, forcing people to re-locate further up.
It is a sad thought to think that in a decade up to half of these lower level villages and towns could be lost to the lake. And even sadder to know that they are not receiving aid to help them re-locate.
Unfortunately, when in Central America you are never far from a poverty related story that reminds you just how hard life still can be on this beautiful side of the world.