The Central American country of Guatemala is definitely one of the The World’s Cheapest Destinations and since the backpackers have kept coming even when moneyed tourists have gotten spooked, the chilled-out gathering spot of Lake Atitlan is still a magnet for budget travelers. The top nationality in San Pedro when I was there this week was Israeli, which kind of says it all.
Unlike Antigua, which has gotten more upscale every year because of so many retirees and wealthy Guatemalans buying property, Atitlan still feels like it belongs to the Mayans. Sure, there are a few places you can splash out here and there if you’re into that and a few mansions dotted around the lake, but for the most part development is slow and steady rather than breakneck. Thankfully.
The best part, besides the stunning beauty, is that you really feel like you’re in Guatemala when you’re here. This lovely woman who talked me into buying something else because she didn’t have change isn’t just wearing this pretty outfit because it’s her work uniform. That’s what most every woman she knows is wearing too–but with a more elaborate skirt. The streets may be drab and devoid of aesthetics, but then four women dressed like this walk down the street and the place is alive with color.
Here’s what you’ll probably spend while you’re in Lake Atitlan, with the main differences being lodging prices (some villages are more competitive than others) and whether you’ll spend more on international food or not.
Accommodation Prices on Lake Atitlan
As in most spots, you can spend a lot for luxury, but most of the lodging here is priced for those on a budget. If you book ahead on a site like HostelWorld you’ll find slim pickings: most of these places are guesthouses with no website or Facebook page. You’ll get a better deal by showing up and looking around. My room started at more than $20 when the guy showed it to me and ended up at less than $12 With the view you see at the top, hot water, fast WiFi.
Dorm beds: $5 to $8 per person
Double rooms: $9 to $30 for two covers most of them, some shared bath, some private.
Mid-range nice hotel: $35 to $100 double (I stayed at Casa del Mundo with my family when I was here last and that goes for $75 a night plus $10 each for dinner.)
You’ll find lots of listings on AirBnB, where a place for two ranges from $20 to $429 per night, with most in the $25 to $60 range (often that’s a whole house).
Food & Drink Prices
The local indigenous people don’t eat outside the home much, so what you find for “local food” is mostly what’s sold on the street. It’s quite cheap, often to the point where $1 will fill you up. Restaurants are geared to tourists mostly.
Sandwiches, burritos, and burgers: $2 – $3.50
Main dishes at backpacker restaurants: $3 – $7
Steak dinner with a beer, lakeside restaurant: $6
Beer in a store: from 60 cents for a 16-ounce Brahma to nearly $2 for a Moza black bock.
Beer in a bar or restaurant: $1 (happy hour) – $2.50 small, $2.50 – $4 liter
Coffee: 75 cents – $2
Cocktails: $1.30 – $5
Juice and smoothies: 60 cents (on the street) – $2
This is a tough one to generalize because there are chicken buses and shuttles, ferries and private boats, pickup trucks that pick up people and noisy tuk-tuks. Ask the locals for what it should cost and then be prepared to bargain to that level. The public ferry on the lake is 10 quetzales for locals, but you’ll almost surely be charged 25 ($3) unless you have no luggage and are fluent in Spanish.
To get to Panajachel or San Pedro, you’ll take a shuttle from the airport ($25) or from Atitlan ($15) and it can be more in the opposite direction. That’s a van packed with tourists. I was quoted a private taxi price from the airport to the lake for $60 after he came down twice when I didn’t express any interest. For a family or even a couple, that’s a deal.
The best bet is to pick your village and then use your feet to get around after that. Take the ferry to the next one and do it again if you’re staying a while.
Then when you’re ready to go, you can get a bus from this area to almost anywhere in Guatemala that’s worth visiting or one to San Cristobal de las Casas (Mexico), Copan (Honduras), or San Salvador (El Salvador).
Other Atitlan Prices
Local cell phone service is dirt cheap. For less than $10 on a SIM card you get 100 minutes to the USA or locally, 700 mb of data, unlimited Facebook, 100 texts, and unlimited calls to anyone else on Claro.
In Panajachel and San Pedro, every place has free Wi-Fi and it’s usually decent. Internet cafes are $1 an hour or less.
Facials and massages run around $20 to $30.
Guides are generally $5 – $15 per person for the entire day for hiking trips into the mountains, depending on group size, English proficiency, and difficulty.
Naturally, you spend even less when living in a place like this instead of passing through. Learn more about that in A Better Life for Half the Price.