Situated on stunning Lake Atitlán is the popular town of Panajachel, one of Guatemala’s most visited destinations. Fifteen years ago we wafted about the town, hung out at restaurants and bars, visited neighbouring San Marcos, swam in the lake and lapped up the chilled vibes.
On a good day, Lake Atitlán shimmers beneath an impossibly blue sky, reflecting the stunning volcanoes that frame it so perfectly. It truly is a marvel to see, and it’s no wonder that it has the title of one of the world’s most beautiful lakes.
Sadly, on our latest visit, the weather gods showed us their spiteful side repeatedly with displays of lightning, rain and gusty wind.
All was looking a tad unattractive, and coupled with the fact the town has become incredibly commercialised and completely saturated with vendors selling colourful tourist tat, we were questioning if two nights in Panajachel was two nights too long.
It was time to look for the positives.
Calle Santander is the main touristic strip of Panajachel, a precinct that has everything the visiting gringo requires. A smattering of local eateries amongst many international ones, tour agencies, a pharmacy or two, many cafes and a crap load of vendors selling the aforementioned tourist tat. It’s all the same stuff and there’s actually waaaay too much of it.
Keep following the colourful trail of handicrafts and you eventually see the lakefront. Wade past some clothes stands and you’re greeted with views of Lake Atitlán and what makes this place so incredibly magical.
For more of a local market scene, I could only suggest walking in the opposite direction of the tourist strip to sniff out where the real Panajachel is.
Mercado Municipal, or El Mercado, is a buzzing precinct of fresh produce, butchers, household goods, fresh flowers, seafood and food stands. This is where you get a taste of how daily market life operates in this town, and if you want to do some self catering, look nowhere else.
There are two places in Panajachel worth looking up if you’re a caffeine addict. Find Crossroads Café tucked down the side streets a couple of blocks down from the market. This tiny joint is pretty much all about the Guatemalan coffee, but there is some tea, including rooibos, and good old hot chocolate. While you’re there, try one of their cakes, pies or cookies.
For the best coffee in Panajachel, head down Calle Santander, pull up a stool at Korean-run Café Loco and enjoy some expertly and meticulously made coffee. Espresso, clever, siphon, hot or cold drip are all up for grabs.
Boozing in this town is well looked after, and the bulk of the venues are, you guessed it, along Calle Santander. One of my very vivid memories of Panajachel fifteen years ago was sitting in dappled sunshine overlooking the lake and its majestic volcanoes. Where? The Sunset Bar, of course. Our more recent visit involved a very hurried couple of pricey beers as the weather closed in, churning the lake and driving us out with gusty sheets of rain.
No sunset for us, I’m afraid.
For somewhere much dryer, should the weather gods dump on your fun, step on up to Café Moka and score one of the coveted tables by the railing for perfect people watching. This lively-yet-chilled terrace bar not only keeps you lubed with drinks, but they also put on sandwiches, pizza and other snacks.
If you’re the stars-and-stripes kind and feeling a tad homesick, drop into Pana Rock and feel right at home. OK, that was a very generalised statement, but Pana Rock is trying its hardest to recreate some kind of diner-meets-bar set-up. Live bands, buckets of beer, swilling locals and gringos – what more do you need?
The street food scene isn’t overly active in Panajachel, but there is a fair bit going on between Calle Santander and the market. You just need to look.
One block before the market is a small kerbside stand where you can chow from a solo vinyl-covered table as traffic whizzes behind you. Give the chicken or beef with frijoles & tortilla a go, cooked to order on a portable char-grill. It’s only Q15 and it’s really good.
At the top of Calle Santander, in front of the pharmacy, is a daytime street vendor that draws the locals like none other. This lady and her hard-working helper churn out Guatemalan-style sandwiches, tostadas and tacos unlike their Mexican cousins. The tacos here are filled, folded, deep-fried and topped with flavour-packed goodness. At 8 quetzals a plate, it’s a bargain.
For some nighttime street food fun, try to find Humo en tus Ojos, a food cart who’s name translates to Smoke in your Eyes. Why so much smoke? Well, it’s all of that meaty goodness that’s sizzling on the grill. Take your pick and await the meat sweats.
Chicken, frijoles & tortilla
Guatemalan tacos – perfect street food snackage
Humo En Tus Ojos
If a restaurant is more your thing, then try these on for size, or simply stroll the streets and see what comes your way.
There’s a small piece of Venezuela on Calle Santander called Arepa Soul and aside from a few breakfast offerings, they have a handful of arepas definitely with looking at. Let’s just say the pelua (30) is one fine specimen of shredded meat and mountain of grated cheese.
For a touch of Southern and Tex-Mex food, mosey over to Mr Jon’s for their 6-9pm all you can eat tacos for Q55. Or go for biscuits & gravy, burgers, sandwiches and one of their US craft beers.
Restaurante Hana is one to visit for Japanese food in the beautiful courtyard of historic Casa Cakchiquel. Sit amongst hanging plants and old photos of Panajachel as you tuck into sushi, sashimi, and classics like gyoza (65) and katsu don (65).
Bacon madness burger Q50 – Mr Jon’s
Next stop, Copán, Honduras . . .
Shuttles run from Antigua to Panajachel a few times a day and can be booked in any travel agency. Cost per person is Q80 and it takes 2 hrs. Return times to Antigua are either 9am or 4pm.