Boating Bliss: discover how to easily get around Lake Atitlan by boat

Lake Atitlan, nestled in the highlands of Guatemala, is a breathtaking destination known for its stunning natural beauty and vibrant indigenous culture. One of the best ways to explore this enchanting region is by using lanchas, traditional Guatemalan boats. This mode of transport can be a breathtaking experience once you grasp the system. However, for newcomers to the area, the operation of the lanchas can seem somewhat bewildering. In this guide, we’ll walk you through everything you need to know to get around Lake Atitlan by boat. This guide will equip you with the essentials for seamless navigation.

Discovering Lake Atitlan by boat
Discovering Lake Atitlan by boat

Note, that although you can travel by road to some settlements, some villages are only accessible by boats which are the undoubtedly the most efficient and safest mode of transportation.

Understanding the Lanchas

Lanchas, small motorized boats, are the lifeblood of transportation on Lake Atitlán. Local residents and tourists alike rely on them for getting around. You board at designated spots highlighted on the map below and there will usually be a sign by the jetty to indicate the direction of travel.

Not all villages will feature on the signs so if in doubt, ask the boathands.

Stunning views of Lake Atitlan from the watr
Stunning views of Lake Atitlan from the watr

Main lancha routes

Lake Atitlán is vast, covering an area of about 50 square miles and surrounded by picturesque villages. To get around, you’ll need to know which villages you want to visit and the correct route.

The main routes that you will travel between on Lake Atitlan by boat are;

  • Panajachel to San Juan and San Pedro (Green ferry dock on the map above)
  • Panajachel to San Marcos (Orange ferry dock). You can request a stop at Santa Cruz and San Marcos on this route. Note, the signs in Panajachel do not reference Santa Cruz as this stop is on request.
  • San Pedro to Santiago (Purple marker on the map)
  • Panajachel to Santiago (Green ferry dock)
  • Santiago to Panajachel (Yellow marker on the map)
Women in traditional Guatemalan dress in Santiago
Women in traditional Guatemalan dress in Santiago

Although it may be somewhat perplexing to determine which dock serves which route, there are helpful attendants ready to assist you find the the right boat. The docks in most towns are in the heart of the action so you can easily explore the bustling towns of the lake.

Popular Villages

While we did not explore every lakeside town, San Juan stands out as a must-visit destination. Teeming with activity, San Juan and its neighbor, San Pedro, boast vibrant markets, captivating murals, and breathtaking views. Each village offers a distinct experience, from bustling markets, colourful murals and swaying flags, to serene yoga retreats. Santa Cruz and San Marcos offer a more bohemian atmosphere, while Santiago, is touted as the most traditional.

Santa Cruz shoreline
Views of Lake Atitlan from Santa Cruz

Schedules of lanchas

Lanchas usually operate from early morning until late afternoon. The last lancha seems to be between 5 and 6pm but it is essential to check the schedules as they may vary by day and season.

Venturing around the lake after dark is unadvisable, and private transfers at night can be costly so do not miss the last lancha.

Views of Lake Atitlan from Santiago
Views of Lake Atitlan from Santiago

Timings of lanchas

One of the most confusing aspects of travelling by lancha is the timing of departures. Although they do adhere to a rough schedule, boats depart when there are enough people. This varies between 10 and 15 passengers so if you arrive early in the morning (as we did for our Los Elementos adventure) then you will have to wait until enough people arrive. You can wait in the boat or on the dockside.

If you plan to return from one of the lesser visited towns such as San Marcos or Santa Cruz you must be sure to check the timings so you can be at the dock in plenty of time. It is also possible to flag lanchas down at resorts along the coast but there is no guarantee that they will stop so if you wish to guarantee your lift, you will need to go to one of the main ports highlighted on our map.

Mesmerising views of Lake Atitlan by boat
Mesmerising views of Lake Atitlan by boat

Purchasing Tickets

Tickets for lanchas can be bought directly at the docks or from one of the salespeople wandering the boardwalk. It costs around 30 Quetzal (around £3.00) for a single ticket but is slightly cheaper if you buy a return ticket. A return ticket should be about 50 Quetzal. We paid for singles as we hopped between towns on our tour of the lake.

If you plan to do likewise you will need to depart early in the morning as some boats only operate hourly and you need to allow enough time to hop between towns on the boat.

To give you an idea, we followed this route which we managed comfortably within 6 hours.

Panajachel to San Juan by lancha followed by a short tuk tuk ride to San Pedro. We then hopped on the lancha to Santiago and then returned directly to Panajachel in time for sunset. It is probably best to decide on 2 – 3 villages that you would like to explore and plan accordingly. If you are too ambitious you may struggle to find a return lancha.

Arriving into San Juan by boat
Arriving into San Juan by boat

The boat experience

Once onboard a lancha, they hurtle at speed across the lake tearing up the water and creating waterfalls of spray. As tempting as it may be to peer out of the plastic window coverings only try this if you want to cool down as you are likely to get WET. Furthermore, it can get breezy on the lake so it pays to pack a jumper.

Finally, the smell of fuel may make you nauseous so if you are prone to sea sickness you really should pack some seasickness tablets.

That said, Lake Atitlan truly is one of the most stunning lakes you could hope to visit. Seeing it from different viewpoints around the lake leaves you with memories you will not forget in a rush. How pretty are these scenes?

Where to stay in Panajachel

There are many options for visitors to Panajachel from dormitory rooms to five start luxury. If you wish to stick to a tight budget perhaps a dorm bed at the Selina would appeal. This hotel on the edge of town is home to spacious suites and dormitories with rooms from £16. It has a pool and a range of facilities and is a short walk to the lakefront.

If you wish to splurge however, Hotel Atitlan is a stunning property with panoramic views of the lake and access to a swimming pool. Whatever your budget, you will have plenty of options in this town, the gateway to the lake. Search for your accommodation now.


Navigating Lake Atitlan by boat is not only a practical way to get around but also an opportunity to immerse yourself in the natural and cultural tapestry of Guatemalan culture. Follow these tips for a pain free journey through one of Guatemala’s most captivating destinations. So, grab your life jacket, set your course, and get ready to create indelible memories on Lake Atitlán!



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About Anne

Anne is the founder and editor of Frommilestosmiles. If she isn't travelling, she is thinking of travelling or planning her next trip. She has visited over 90 countries on six continents and sampled everything from backpacking to bank bursting travel. Her mission is to help you enjoy more luxurious travel without the luxury price tag through the use of airline and hotel rewards and other money-saving travel tips

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