Getting around Lake Atitlán
published sep 20th, 2015
Navigating the towns and cities along the shores of Lake Atitlán would be expensive, time consuming and impractical by land. That’s why residents and tourists in the Atitlán area use lanchas colectivas (collective boat taxis) to get around. Tuk-tuks still make sense within city limits (and in some cases between small, neighboring villages), and hiking is certainly worthwhile for its own sake, but boats are the modus operandi for most people intent on moving between Atitlán’s many unique and visit-worthy towns.
A lancha loaded with people at Lake Atitlán
Each town around Lake Atitlán has a municipal dock. Lanchas generally arrive and depart every twenty minutes or so, heading around the perimeter of the lake on regular clockwise and counterclockwise routes. Captains, ayudantes (captain’s helpers), or other passengers will be happy to let you know which boat to get onto or wait for depending on your destination.
Lanchas are more expensive than micro-buses. That’s because pushing a few thousand pounds of boat that’s sitting with four feet of its hull beneath the water line is a lot of work. Those two stroke motors burn through fuel quick, and captains are intent on making back their gas money and eking out a reasonable living. You can expect to pay a minimum of Q5 between neighboring towns, around Q10 for significant rides like between San Marcos and San Pedro (about 15 minutes), or Q15 for longer stretches. The longest one-way trips are between San Pedro and Panajachel (Q25), and between San Pedro and Santiago (Q25).
You’ll probably notice that locals pay a more modest fare than tourists and travelers. This is not ill-intent on the captain or ayudantes’ end; the accepted rates of transport are simply set differently for locals versus foreigners. Prices are set, more or less, on perceived capacity to pay. You could think of this as a tax bracket system of sorts: those that can pay more are asked to pay more. Lanchas exact a lesser fare from local women than they do from men, too, seeing as many women in Guatemala have less access to an income than do their male counterparts. Asking to pay the local fare as a foreigner would be about as surprising to a captain as asking to pay a woman’s fare as a man.
General route information, Lake Atitlán (thanks, Google Maps)
Lanchas around Lake Atitlán begin running at around 6:30 AM. The last boat leaves from the San Pedro dock heading to Panajachel (west side of the lake to the east side) at around 5:00 PM. The last boat leaves from Panajachel towards San Pedro at around 6:45 PM or 7:00 PM. The San Pedro to Santiago trip is not part of the regular route. You’ll need to seek out the specific dock for Santiago bound boats in San Pedro if Santiago your planned destination.
Remember: If you’re heading to a lesser location (San Juan) or a specific dock (a hotel, hostel or restaurant between towns) you absolutely need to notify the captain! You don’t want to get stuck missing your stop.
If you have the time, take a couple of day-trips to visit each of the major destinations around Lake Atitlán. It’s a great way to experience the area, and the diversity between towns might surprise you. Both the foreign and native community vibes are significantly different from town to town, and even the local dress and language change with each couple of miles traversed around the shores of Atitlán!