Guatemala City can be reached via direct flights from several North American cities, and inexpensive shuttles depart frequently from its airport to Panajachel (the trip takes about four hours). To arrange for pickup at the airport, try www.transportguatemala.com/sta.htm.
Crime against tourists is not unknown in Guatemala, but most visitors enjoy uneventful stays. The U.S. State Department suggests certain cautions (e.g., “Avoid gatherings of agitated people”) but no longer includes the country on its travel-warnings list.
In San Pedro, visitors can rent kayaks and paddle to San Marcos for lunch, or hire a guide for a hike to the top of an inactive volcano with memorable views. Boats depart regularly for Santiago Atitlán, a lively Mayan town with a Friday market and an obscure cult built around a cigar-smoking saint named Maximón.
San Marcos has a surfeit of activities for those in pursuit of a healthy lifestyle, from hour-long hot-stone massages to month-long classes in tarot reading. All are easy to find just by wandering the pathways.
Also recommended are one-on-one Spanish lessons: In both villages you often hear conjugating going on behind bamboo fences. San Pedro has several schools, among them the Flor del Maiz (www.flordmaiz.com) and the Atitlán Spanish School (www.geocities.com/ atitlanschool). In San Marcos, if you put the word out that you’re looking for a tutor, one will find you quickly.
In the smaller villages, hotel rooms can be had for under $10 a night, and very few cost more than $50. Of course, accommodations at these prices tend toward the simple and rustic. You might consider bringing a clip-on book light or a 75-watt bulb.
ZooLa (email@example.com) has eight small, sparely furnished rooms for just a few dollars a night (half have private baths), and two common-area thatched-roof pavilions.
Posada Schumann, in San Marcos (www.posadaschumann.com), just up the shore from the boat landing, features a dozen comfortable stone cabins. For about $25, you can get an attractive room, continental breakfast, and the use of kayaks and a sauna.
Staying at Hotel Aaculaax (www.aaculaax.com) is like living in a vast artwork. It has six rooms, including two suites, all with private baths. In recent years, it has morphed from a budget hotel into a somewhat fancier establishment; suites now command $66 a night. The three-story Mirador suite is almost constantly booked; reserving ahead is essential.
One of the most popular hangouts in San Pedro is D’Noz, with a spacious restaurant and terrace overlooking the dock, a jukebox with hundreds of selections, free movies each evening, and a top-floor Internet café. Meals include quiche, salads, and curries; the fresh juices are especially good.
In San Marcos, the Moonfish Cafe serves organic foods, including superb whole-grain pancakes with fresh melon and local honey.
Also in San Marcos, Las Pirámides serves wonderfully prepared vegetarian food inside a small, pleasant restaurant and at outdoor tables under banana, palm, and evergreen trees.