It was sensory overload the first time my bus came to a stop in Panajachel, Guatemala, a small town with a backpacker vibe less than three hours from the capital of Guatemala City. Colors burst from every direction; shops and stalls seemed to explode with bright, patterned textiles, backpacks, and handmade jewelry. Travel agencies, restaurants, bars, and street food vendors lined the main road, and tuk-tuks, small tourist buses, bicycles, and motorbikes vied for space on the street.
Panajachel is the main tourist hub on the shores of Lake Atitlán, the vast body of water that is the heart of the Guatemalan highlands. It is also the jumping-off point for the other villages that dot its circumference, each one unique with its own flavors and offerings. Small turquoise and white ferry boats, or “lanchas,” crisscross the water throughout the day, shuttling locals and visitors between the various communities. Of those, San Pedro La Laguna is particularly popular for backpackers looking for a relaxed party scene, or for those who want to hunker down and study Spanish. Those yearning for a more spiritual yoga feel tend to retreat to San Marcos La Laguna. Nearby, San Juan La Laguna is quite small and not yet an avid stop on the tourist trail, perhaps drawing some travelers for that reason alone.
One of the largest of the villages is Santiago Atitlán; that’s where I found my own piece of paradise. Santiago has a strong indigenous identity, with many of its Tz’utujil Maya inhabitants still walking the streets in traditional clothing. Women tend to wear hand-embroidered huipiles with images of birds or flowers tucked into a long skirt, and headdresses made of a long strip of thick fabric wrapped around and around itself, forming a sort of halo around their heads. Men typically wear striped pants that fall to mid-calf and cowboy hats atop their heads.
As Santiago is home to a large number of artisans, the main street is lined with shops selling many locally-made paintings, textiles, embroideries, and handicrafts. The market in the center of town boasts a wide selection of fresh fruits and vegetables and colorful trinkets. Around the Easter holiday, you can even find chicks in multiple colors! A venture off into the quiet side streets offers more brightly painted facades, tuk tuks zipping by, and children laughing and playing.
There’s a lot to do in Santiago: you can wander among the old architecture and explore the churches in town, or ask a local to take you to see Maximón, one of Guatemala’s most famous Mayan folk saints that moves to a different home each year. My favorite activity is simply relaxing on the dock by the lake with a good book, watching the fishermen float by on their small, wooden boats. The sun puts on a stunning show every night as it sets behind the volcanoes; I always marvel at it before retreating to my room at my favorite guesthouse, the scent of night-blooming jasmine floating through the evening air.
It’s the smell and the sights, the friendly, relaxed people, the pleasant climate year-round, and the gorgeous views of the lake that keep me coming back to Santiago year after year.