There are plenty of hotels and restaurants in Panajachel, Guatemala, on the shores of Lake Atitlan, but this village is a tad run down, slightly overpriced and very touristy. (We think some of the pristine beauty of the lake was destroyed when the Hotel Barcelo del Lago built a wooden platform along the beach. It can turn into a noisy playground at times.)
Located 68 mi/109 km west of Guatemala City, Panajachel used to have a reputation as a haven for New Age seekers and pot-smoking global drifters; although that's still true to some extent, the demographic is a bit more varied now, as many wealthy U.S. citizens and Guatemalans have bought homes there. However, the market is a great place to pick up some handicrafts, especially if you can't make it to Chichicastenango for market day.
An especially good time to visit the town is the first week of October, when Panajachel honors its patron saint, St. Francis, with special festivities.
Santiago Atitlan is a great day trip, especially for the boat trip across the lake. The town is the home of the Tuztuil, who maintain their Maya religious practices and are renowned artisans. Just before Easter, they celebrate a god called Maximon, whose effigy is paraded through the streets, doused in rum and given a lit cigar and a fedora for his head. Maximon is said to represent the life force, and he's definitely the life of the party.
Jaibalito also makes a good day trip from Panajachel (it's a 20-minute boat ride). Kick back and spend a night at the beautiful La Casa del Mundo hotel. The restaurant, which is also open to nonguests (as are most hotel restaurants in the country), serves delicious food. The hotel grounds offer an excellent, safe opportunity for lake swimming.
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