A handful of tins held still-fresh flowers against the little makeshift houses. Some of the colorful, stacked mausoleums boasted new, glossy coats of paint. But now, as the sun dipped lower, the graveyard was empty except for swallows passing overhead, called by the approaching evening to the watery grasses beyond.
I walked past the dusty memorials, an above-ground maze set against the backdrop of the Sierra Madre mountain range, and down the sloping path that bordered it.
Then there she was: the tremendous Lake Atitlán, always there but ever in a different state — often peaceful, often vengeful and sometimes, at sunset, impassioned.
I was on the edges of Panajachel, one of the many towns lucky enough to perch along Lago de Atitlán, a translucent crater lake surrounded by hills and volcanos in Guatemala’s highlands.
The shores of the town, now a center for tourist trade, offer rows of lakeside restaurants, built predominantly for white faces and heavier wallets, jutting out over the cerulean water. A short boat ride away, magnificent castle-like resorts built into the cliffs are stocked with every luxury.
But the real beauty of Pana, as its called locally, is that the best its star attraction is free to anyone craving it — the wealthy tourist, the poorer local, even the dead, who are graciously permitted to continue in the afterlife atop the dirt, in sight of perhaps one of the world’s most enchanting views.
Kayak (for about $3/hour) in the clear stillness of the mornings, when Atílan is sleepy and agreeable, her ripples gathering like a silk curtains in a breeze whenever a boat passes. Each morning, two minutes after the nose of my kayak sliced through that buttery veneer, I found myself surrounded by the lake’s depths, and the mountains beyond, and an overwhelming feeling of smallness. From the shore, accompanied by a coffee and a pastry from one of the local bakeries, the experience is less inclusive, but good for the soul, all the same.
Venture into her in the afternoons, usually overcast, and feel her thrilling playfulness, her startling wrath, depending on her mood.
And in the evenings, when often she’s feeling best of all, buy a beer from any of the cheap stands lining the shore and walk out to one of the many docks to sit at its farthest point, awaiting that magical waltz when the sun and moon meet in the sky and the deep, blue, watery dance floor blushes along with them.
Or head for the cemetery, a 20-minute stroll away from the center, through neighborhoods and alleys where spontaneous soccer games are played and life is really lived. There, perhaps, you’ll find a private moment alone with the trio; the moon hanging in the stark blue sky, holding onto the day, the sun melting into the depth of clouds at its opposite, sinking into night, each dance partner getting lost in the other. The sparrows, convening in the grasses, provide the soundtrack. And Atitlán plays the gracious host, reflecting it all until the moon reluctantly takes over, bidding her partner adieu until their brief moments together the next day.
Then, after, it’s only her sound you’ll hear, sloshing agains the pebbly shore, her pulse beating through the dark.
There is of course, plenty more to enjoy in Pana, a town where you can make fast friends at street carts, buy one-of-a-kind handicrafts on the main drag, eat your way through the bustling market, make a number of enticing day trips and drink third-wave cocktails at a bar that is operating in a cultural vacuum. But it’s hard not to get lost in the lake, and if you’re drawn to stay longer, it’s probably via her call.
Here’s what else I love about this captivating mountain town:
The street food:
Pana is small, so its street food scene is somewhat small, but even if you set your sights on only the main drag (Calle Santander), you can still eat well and diversely (and cheaply). Look for stands selling Guatemalan fried chicken (which is pretty similar to the American version, usually arriving with fries), chuchitos (small tamales topped with avocado, salsas and tart cheese), churrascos (steaks and chicken grilled on open flame and served with grilled green onions, potatoes, beans and tortillas, typically), garnachas (mini tortillas topped with beans, meat, cheese and pickled vegetables), hamburguesas (sometimes served with a fried egg and herby mayo on top), tacos and even fresh pies in fruit, cheese and chocolate varieties. Most tianguis, or street carts, don’t open shop until 7:30 or 8 at night, but there are a handful that operate during the day, selling traditional egg and bean breakfasts, elotes (grilled street corn) and helados (ice cream and frozen chocolate-covered fruits), among other things.
Start by strolling down Calle Santander; as usual with street carts, it’s best to choose those that are busiest.
If you’re looking to get out on the lake, you won’t have to try hard. Men working the transfer boats, or lanchas, walk around asking tourists if they want to go to any of the other towns on Atitlán, and there are only a couple visible places to rent kayaks. A public boat to any of the other towns (and there are many) should be no more than 25 quetzals (or just over $3 USD) and an hour of kayaking should cost about the same. If you’re heading to another town (or the gorgeous La Casa del Mundo for a meal), make sure to inquire at what time the last boat returns; it varies by location. Additionally, there are boats that simply cruise along the coast with drinks available aboard.
There are also a number of food and drink stands along the lake path in Pana, as you walk from Calle Santander before you arrive at the slate of touristy restaurants. Some have little tables and plastic stools to sit with a lake view while enjoying your ceviches and picositas (beers with spices and pickled shrimp). Or take a beer to go from any stand and walk with it to the first empty dock you see.
A 20-minute walk from the center or so, the cemetery is interesting on its own because of the unique burial style in Guatemala — above ground, in colorful, house-like boxes — and because of the lush mountain backdrop. But just beyond the cemetery is an excellent, quiet place to watch the sunset, with a great view of the show on a good night.
Find the town cemetery here.
It’s by far the best coffee in town, but the real draw of this small cafe just beyond the tourist section is the owner Mike, an American ex-pat who might be the friendliest person on the planet. It doesn’t open until 9, so it’s not the locale for early-morning java, and there’s no WiFi, so it’s not a great work location either, but because of the unofficial phones-down policy, Crossroads is a fantastic place to meet people — locals and travelers and Mike, of course, who will make you feel, almost instantly, at home. Conversation is likely to range from the humorous to the deep. There are no breakfast foods, but always a variety of sweet treats baked regularly by Mike’s wife. It’s impossible to go only once.
Find Crossroads Cafe here.
Like many markets in Central America, the main mercado in Pana is an excellent place to pick up fresh produce, juicy cut fruits to snack on or lunch — soups, fried chicken, vegetables and rice and more — from one of the many stalls in the center. Sundays are the big day, with extended vendor stations, but it’s a glorious experience to walk through anytime.
Find the market here.
At first glance, most of the lakeside restaurants seem tailored for tourists, but if you know where to go, there are a handful of locally-aimed spots where the prices are better and the atmosphere is, too. Sit on the water at Marea Pana and don’t neglect to get the marinated octopus with saltines. The perfect accompaniment to cold beer.
Find Marea Pana here.
During my time in Pana, Asawako on the side of the Dos Mundos hotel became my go-to office because of its decent WiFi, good coffee and pastries, it’s breezy, open-air feel and the fact that there is a bar also, stocking Campari, my favorite. So if you’re in a similar situation, and often work into the evenings, switching from coffee to cocktails is seamless! And if you’re not, just visit for one of both; the aura is always calm and charming.
Find Cafe Asawako here.
Simoneta Mixology Cantina:
This place sticks out in Pana like a sore thumb, but that’s intentional: what the bartenders are doing here is in a prism; there’s really no culture for serious craft cocktailing in the country, but at this tiny Guatemalan-owned, Guatemalan-run gem, they make their own bitters and syrups using local ingredients like passionfruit and eucalyptus. There’s no menu here, just tell them what spirits you like and what you’re in the mood for — smooth, citrusy, bitter, sweet, spicy — and they’ll whip something up. Stay long enough and you might end up signing the wall or ceiling, which are both covered in customer-originated graffiti.
Find Simoneta Mixology here.
The pizza here is only average, but the huge empanadas are fantastic. They only have one beer, and it’s the Guatemala staple, Gallo.
Find Pizzeria Florencia here.
The coffee isn’t as good as some you’ll find in the city, but Te Quiero is the only true coffee shop that opens before 9 a.m. Wild, I know. There is WiFi here, as well as a modest menu of snacks, pastries and breakfasts. There are two locations.
Find Té Quiero here.
Tucked off the main street just before the waterfront, this little cafe and restaurant is ideal for a tranquil breakfast or lunch, or a fancy coffee or hot drink (golden mylk anyone?) in a jungle-like courtyard. There’s no WiFi.
Find Deli Jasmin here.
This small local bakery makes an incredible cheesecake, which is different from the American version and many you’ll find in town, as well as many other sweet treats. Drip coffee is available as well.
Find Pasteleria Maikcela here.
Panajachel, and Guatemala in general are blessed with a fairly diverse food scene, including cuisines from various countries in Central and South America. The pupusas — thick rounds of masa stuffed with cheese and other ingredients — are well worth stopping for a cheap meal, El Salvador style. Try the loroco flower version — the buds have a similar consistency to asparagus — or the chicharron.
Find Rinconconcito here.
One of the few good Japanese restaurants in the area, this eatery — the nicest in town — offers a change of pace with sushi, ramen, rice and noodle bowls and tempura on the menu.
Find Restaurante Hana here.
This little shop at the convergence of Calle Santander and Calle Principal sells sweet treats — like ginger, caramel and coffee truffles and hot chocolate with Mayan chilies — in a museum-like environment, showing off the history of the craft.
Find Dina’s Chocolates here.
It’s popular with tourists, probably because of the price tag, but locals love this pizza bar and music venue, too, as a special treat. The pizza, with toppings like proscuitto, arugula and anchovies, is some of the best you’ll find in the area. And the live music — usually Bossa nova or singer-songwriter style — is always quality.
Find Circus Bar here.
The carnitas and chicharron stand:
This nameless stand on Calle Principal just past the major split sells killer carnitas chunks, crispy, meaty chicharron with freshly griddled tortillas and all the fixings …there’s only one table, but you can take your bag to go or simply stand around, snacking.
Find the stand here.