San Marcos La Laguna
Without doubt the prettiest of the lakeside villages, San Marcos La Laguna lives a double life. The mostly Maya community occupies the higher ground, while expats and visitors cover a flat jungly patch toward the shoreline with paths snaking through banana, coffee and avocado trees.
Across the lake from Panajachel, on an inlet between the volcanoes of Tolimán and San Pedro, lies Santiago Atitlán, the largest of the lake communities, with a strong indigenous identity. Many atitecos (as its people are known) proudly adhere to a traditional Tz'utujil Maya lifestyle.
Long before the Spanish showed up, the Kaqchiquel town of Sololá held importance due to its location on trade routes between the tierra caliente (hot lands of the Pacific Slope) and tierra fría (the chilly highlands). All the traders still meet here, and Sololá's market is one of the most vivid in the highlands.
Santa Cruz La Laguna
With the typically dual nature of the Atitlán villages, Santa Cruz comprises both a waterfront resort – home of the lake's scuba-diving outfit – and an indigenous Kaqchiquel village, about 600m uphill from the dock. The cobblestoned road up is a route villagers customarily take lugging sacks of avocados or firewood.
San Lucas Tolimán
Further around the lake from San Antonio Palopó, but reached by a different, higher-level road, San Lucas Tolimán is busier and more commercial than most lakeside villages. Set at the foot of the dramatic Volcán Tolimán, it's a coffee-growing town and a transportation point on a route between the Interamericana and the Carretera al Pacífico.
If there's such a thing as an up-and-coming spot on Lago de Atitlán, Tzununá, located 2km east of San Marcos by a paved road, may be it. Despite recent gringo incursions, the 99 per cent Kaqchiquel village ('Hummingbird of the Water') retains a strong indigenous character and a lush natural beauty with year-round rivers springing from forested mountain slopes.
This Kaqchiquel hamlet is only accessible by boat (a 20-minute lancha ride from Panajachel or San Pedro, Q20) or on foot via a ridgeline trail from Santa Cruz La Laguna, 4km to the east (45 minutes). The hike west to San Marcos (6km) is equally picturesque. There are several marvelous places to stay.
San Antonio Palopó
San Antonio Palopó is a remote and captivating hillside village where entire families tend their terraced fields in traditional garb – women in indigo-striped huipiles (long embroidered tunics), dark blue cortes (long skirts) and sparkly headbands, and men in traditional wool skirts. At the top, a gleaming white church forms the center of activity.