The busiest and most built-up lakeside settlement, Panajachel (‘Pana’ to pretty much the entire country) has developed haphazardly and, some say, in a less than beautiful way.
Several different cultures mingle on Panajachel’s dusty streets. Ladinos and gringos control the tourist industry. The Kaqchiquel and Tz’utujil Maya from surrounding villages come to sell their handicrafts to tourists. Tour groups descend on the town by bus for a few hours or overnight.
Panajachel’s excellent transportation connections and thumping nightlife make it a favorite destination for weekending Guatemalans. During the week, things quieten down, though the main street, Calle Santander, remains the same – internet café after handicrafts store after restaurant after travel agent. But you need only go down to the lakeshore to understand why Pana attracts so many visitors.
Lago de Atitlán is one of the world’s most spectacular locales. Diamond splatters dance across the water, fertile hills dot the landscape, and over everything loom the volcanoes, permeating the entire area with a mysterious beauty. It never looks the same twice.
Lago de Atitlán is often placid and beautiful early in the day, which is the best time for swimming – though Pana’s shores aren’t the cleanest. (Note that since the lake is a volcanic crater filled with water, the lake bed often drops off sharply very near the shore.) By noon the Xocomil, a southeasterly wind, may have risen to ruffle the water’s surface, sometimes violently, making it a tough crossing for the small boats plying between the lakeside villages. This is particularly true between November and February, a time known as the windy season in these parts. It’s always good to get your traveling done in the morning, when weather conditions are better and there is more traffic.