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-Guatemala-Emily-Hinchcliff

Panajachel-Guatemala-Emily-Hinchcliff

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.

Panajachel-Guatemala-Emily-Hinchcliff

Panajachel-Guatemala-Emily-Hinchcliff

Panajachel-Guatemala-Emily-Hinchcliff

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.

Panajachel-Guatemala-Emily-Hinchcliff

Panajachel-Guatemala-Emily-Hinchcliff

Panajachel-Guatemala-Emily-Hinchcliff

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.

Panajachel-Guatemala-Emily-Hinchcliff

Panajachel-Guatemala-Emily-Hinchcliff

Panajachel-Guatemala-Emily-Hinchcliff

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.

Panajachel-Guatemala-Emily-Hinchcliff

Panajachel-Guatemala-Emily-Hinchcliff

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.

READ  Finding A Little Nantucket in St Kitts

Lake-Atitlan-Guatemala-Emily-Hinchcliff

SHARE
Emily Hinchcliff resides in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, but endlessly daydreams about faraway places. She inherited the travel photography bug years ago from an equally adventurous mother, who shares her passion in seeing the world and capturing the beauty of its people and cultures. Emily spent a total of one year on a solo journey with her camera in tow throughout Southeast Asia, India, and Nepal. Her current job allows for shorter adventures a bit closer to home, such as an annual hop down to Guatemala. You can follow along with Emily’s travels on Instagram and Twitter @el_fotomat. She can be reached directly at ehinchcliff@gmail.com.

16 COMMENTS

    • That really means so much, Greg. I wanted nothing more than to give a true feeling of what the area is like, so I’m thrilled to hear you think so. Thank you!!

  1. A place that I’ve always wanted to go to! My dad visited there in the 70s and has been dreaming about going back ever since. These photos really bring the landscapes and culture to life. Thanks for sharing!

    • Wow, I’d love to hear how it has (and hasn’t) changed since the 70s. It’s funny how some things remain exactly the same. Thanks so much for your comment, Arielle. I hope you make it down there. 🙂

  2. Beautiful photos! I have been to a few other Latin American countries and can’t wait to add Guatemala to the list, thanks for sharing your experience and tips!

    • Thanks so much, Brooke! I’d love to check out some other Latin American countries as I’ve heard and seen so many great things. I think you’ll really enjoy Guatemala once you make it there! 🙂

    • Thanks so much for checking out the piece, Aman. I’m so glad to hear it took you somewhere. If you have the opportunity to visit, go for it! 🙂

    • Thanks so much for your comment! I’d love to offer some ideas and pointers. Feel free to contact me at ehinchcliff@gmail.com. And in the meantime, you can see more photos and videos on Instagram (click on my name here in the comments) from my trip back down to Guatemala last month.

      Best,
      Emily

  3. I have visited Panajachel and Santiago several times and you have captured them very well in your words and images. They were weekend R & R venues for our mission house building group at and around Antigua for The God’s Child Project. I have many memories and photos of that area and I love how you portrayed them. Thank You.

LEAVE A REPLY

Please enter your comment!
Please enter your name here