This Nature Reserve is a little way back up the road towards Solola and down a side road. It is well worth a visit, whether for walking the trails through the forest and watching out for wildlife, or for the canopy ziplines - we didn't try the latter but it looked fun!
Entry fee is 55Quetzals.
The visitors centre is very modern and has a lot of information about the natural history and human presence in the area. Several boards discuss the environmental movement in the locality and the efforts against water pollution. Beyond, there are two trails, one short and one long, depending on how long you want to spend there and how fit you are. The long one probably takes around an hour or so. It's self-guided, but everything is well signposted. Along the way there is a 23 metre (75 ft) high waterfall and three suspension bridges. We saw spider monkeys and agoutis from the viewing platform - I'm not sure if they are truly wild or in a sort of 'safari park' enclosure, but it was still wonderful to see them so close.
There is also a butterfly reserve, and a path leading down to the lake shore.
The hub of gringo life in Pana is Calle Santander. This long straight street links the older part of town with the lake and its whole length is lined with restaurants, bars, shops and handicrafts stalls, all aimed at parting the tourist from his/her money. But if that sounds like the last place you want to go, think again! The crafts are colourful and reasonably priced, especially if you haggle. The restaurants cater to all budgets and the ones we tried ranged from OK to very good. The bars serve excellent cocktails at low prices, and great local beers and rum. And while people may hassle you to buy, or eat, it’s all good natured and a smile and “non gracias” will suffice.
Here and there a glimpse of local life intrudes, especially around the school where, at any time of night or day it seems, children hang out and play basketball, and at the nearby food stalls that attract local families and at weekends young people from Guatemala City, in town to party.
It’s on Calle Santander too that you’ll find some budget accommodation options, the Post Office and shops for essentials such as laundry powder or batteries. We also got a good deal on currency exchange in an art shop here – the one in my photo.
The Posada de Don Rodrigo has its own small museum, displaying Mayan ceramics and other artefacts found on the lake bottom. While the collection isn’t extensive it is attractively displayed and there is plenty of information in both Spanish and English. I learnt quite a lot about the different periods of Mayan history (pre-classic, classic and late classic, as they are known) which stood me in good stead a few days later when we were visiting the ruins at Tikal. There are also some displays about the Lake Atitlàn area in general – its geology, periods of human settlement, the impact of the Spanish conquest and so on.
When I visited I was the only person in there, and I had to ask the man on reception to come and switch the lights on for me! Entry for those staying at the hotel is free, but other visitors have to pay 35 Q (students 20 Q and under 12s free).
I couldn’t see any signs prohibiting photography so I took a few shots, but was sure not to use the flash. My photos show:
1. The top of a large urn from the Classic Period (300-600 AD), from San Pedro
2. A vessel of the later Pre-classic period (600 BC – 300 AD)
3. An incense tripod from the Classic Period, also from San Pedro
Lake Atitlàn is beautiful at any time, but an early morning visit is a must, especially if you are a keen photographer. As the day wears on the wind picks up and the surface of the lake becomes rippled, but for the first few hours after day-break the water is still and the reflections at their best. So grab your camera and head down to the lake before breakfast – you won’t be disappointed.
If you’re lucky there may be a local fisherman out checking his lines, as this one was on our first morning here. Or stroll along to where the small ferry boats dock to add some foreground interest to your shots. A few clouds may wisp the top of the volcanoes but that only makes the photo more atmospheric.
The reserva is a kind of nature park/arboretum. There are lots of plants as you walk through the paths and hanging bridges. There are also a group of spider monkeys who live here and there's a viewing area near the first bridge. A couple of nice waterfalls can also be viewed along the trail. I should state that the path can be a bit strenuous as there are some steep portions. Also, near the base of one waterfall you must walk on some slippery and steep rocks. I slipped and fell and was probably lucky not to sprain my wrist which I instinctively put down to break my fall. Still, it was a nice experience overall. They also have zip lines set up for an additional fee but we opted not to do it.
A short walk away from the visitor's center is a butterfly garden which I'm sure would have lots of butterflies when the flowers are in bloom but alas we only saw three butterflies. Oh, but there was a falcon or hawk living in there that we saw sitting on a wood railing. A bit further down (there are signs directing you) past the butterfly garden is a beach area that is also part of the reserva. Not much of a beach but there is a nice view of the lake and volcanoes. It was actually very peaceful sitting there.
The main drag in Pana is Calle Santander. It runs approximately 800 meters from the top at the intersection with Calle Principal (Calle Real) to the bottom at the lake. It is on this street that one will find many shops selling indigenous crafts, travel agencies offering tours throughout the country, lots of restaurants, food carts, and lodging options. It's one of the main areas where everything happens in Pana. The others would be at the market or on Avenida Los Arboles where there are a few night clubs.
Calle Santander is a great place to take an evening stroll before dinner to see what things you might have missed at the huge market in Chichicantenango or to watch a futbol match at the rural elementary school. If you come to Pana, you will spend time on Calle Santander.
Pana is situated on Lake Atitlan directly opposite three large volcanoes. They are Volcan San Pedro is to the right while Volcan Toliman and Volcan Atitlan are to the left as you look across the lake. Depending on the haze it is sometimes difficult to tell that you're looking at two volcanoes when viewing Toliman and Atitlan as Atitlan is almost directly behind Toliman and both are nearly the same height (Atitlan: 11, 604 ft, Toliman: 10,361 ft). Because of the micro-climate of the area, clouds are often seen floating in front of the volcanoes and can often obscure them completely especially in during the rainy season (June-November). Best viewing time with minimal clouds is in the morning before rain systems move in during the afternoon.
These photos do not do justice to the view. The first time I saw Lake Atitlan and the three volcanoes with my own eyes I was truly amazed at how beautiful it is.
There are not that many things to do in town ... shopping is one of those, Pana is usually cheaper than Antigua but could be more expensive than other towns. There are also plenty of bars and restaurants, travel agencies ... and you have the lake! One of the best lakes I've seen!!
Take a drive through the hills about Panajachel for spectacular scenery. The view of the lake from here is awe inspiring. There are many stopping points along the way where you can take pictures. Often police were stationed here in response to robberies. On our drive we stopped often and felt very safe.
We discovered this wonderful art shop about a block off of the main drag. It is run by a German national and is not a tourist trap. The art work on display was quite extraordinary and very expensive.
The floral gardens of the Hotel Atitlan are magnificient. You will see a number of "knot" gardens between the hotel buildings. Also take a look at the parrots and other tropical birds in cages around the gardens. On the lakeside of the hotel you will find more "English" gardens with winding paths and more random mixes of floral species.
Calle Santander is the main street, lined with restaurants, street vendors, hotels and travel agencies. But don't forget to explore Calle Principal also. Walk up the hill a few blocks and look to your left and you'll see the main catholic church in town. Another block or two from there, you'll see the city market.
From the intersection of Calle Santander and Calle Principal, you'll see another street called Avenida de los Arboles where you'll find some more restaurants and nightspots. Panajachel isn't too big, so you can easily explore the whole town in an afternoon.
When I was there in late February/early March, the beach wasn't a main attraction. Actually, the weather was plenty warm enough and I did see a few people swimming and even bathing in the lake. The beach here in 'Pana' is pretty rocky and not ideal for sunbathing. However, it's still great to go down by the water and enjoy the views of the lake and the surrounding volcanoes. There is a nice little promenade that runs along the beachfront here (just below Calle de la Playa) and is often patrolled by police at night.
Now this is why I came here!! You definitely will want to explore the lake a bit. For around $10 (USD), you can take a tour of three or four of the lakeside villages. The tour will basically include the transportation to and from and you'll be given an hour or two to explore each village. Alternatively, you can just walk down to the beach and ask someone how much it is to get to a specific village. Be sure to ask when the last returning boat leaves or you might get stranded for the night. My advice is to try and schedule your boat rides earlier in the day because it's fairly common for the 'Xocomil' (a wind from the southeast) to kick up in the afternoon and make the water very choppy and a boat ride can be a bit uncomfortable at this time of day.
You can also rent a canoe and check out the lake for yourself, but again, beware of choppy conditions. The views of the volcanoes might be a bit hazy. When I was there, there was a lot of burning going on throughout the country for agricultural purposes. Smoke from fields that were buring as far away as the Pacific coast can sometimes drift all the way across the country and affect visibility on the lake.
The thing to do there is to hire a boat and go around the lake with frequent stops at the villages. Find somebody to share the cost with and bargain hard before you embark. Once the ride and stops negociated immerse yourself in the beauty of Nature. This sounds easy but the business impulses of the locals are not to be ignored. Eventually, you will have to buy something. My trophey was a musical instrument.