PANAJACHEL, Guatemala (AP) – The boat zips across the water starting early in the morning, picking up local villagers and dropping them off at various points around the lake. A few passengers wear traditional Mayan dress in a kaleidoscope of colors, heading to the town of Panajachel in hopes of selling their handmade crafts to tourists.
Located in Guatemala's Western Highlands, Lake Atitlán is a tourist-friendly area rich in the Mayan culture. There are more than 20 Mayan ethnic groups in Guatemala, and the Lake Atitlán area is home to a handful of them, most notably the Tz'utujil and Kaqchikel people.
Each of the towns and villages surrounding the lake is known for something different — for example, textiles, ceramics or holistic therapies. The area is also known for Spanish language schools, with options for students to live with local families.
Panajachel is the main town and where many visitors start their trip. Several other towns and villages surround the lake and are accessible by foot, tuk-tuk or lanchas (public boats) across the lake.
Panajachel, known as Pana for short, is home to several restaurants featuring local and international cuisine, coffee shops, street food vendors and more. The town's main street, Calle Santander, is where visitors can shop for textiles and artisanal pieces handmade by indigenous people from around the lake. During the day, the street is lined with vendors who set up shop, selling bags, wallets, scarves, coffee, jewelry and other items.
Across the lake, the town of San Marcos la Laguna is known for its laid-back vibe and attracts tourists interested in spiritual and holistic therapies, including massage, yoga and meditation. Visitors can sign up for classes of varying lengths at studios and retreats run by expats throughout the town. Vegetarian, vegan and locally produced dining options also abound in San Marcos.
The entire town is walkable, though there are tuk-tuk drivers offering services as well.
San Juan la Laguna, meanwhile, is an up-and-coming town known for women's cooperatives and textiles created using natural dyes. One of the best-known cooperatives is called Lema. Started by Rosalinda Tay, indigenous women in the cooperative use dying and weaving techniques handed down from past generations. The natural dyes are made from various plants grown in the area.
Visitors to the cooperative can learn firsthand how to weave and create the natural dyes during classes or purchase a scarf, bag or other handmade item created by the women.
Just down the road, a community project in San Juan, the Utz'iil Eco-Centro, is being developed as a cultural exchange hub for the community, featuring a hostel, tea room, gardens, music stage and area for artisans. The goal of the project is to share the Mayan traditions of locals who are Tz'utujil as well as to promote environmentally sustainable practices.
Another town along the lake, San Antonio Palopó, draws visitors because of its ceramics. Cooperatives create a variety of intricate pottery pieces in different designs.
Though Spanish is often the second language for many of the indigenous people in the area, visitors can study Spanish at one of the schools in the region that offer one-on-one sessions and the option of a homestay or on-site accommodation.
I spent my mornings taking two hours of Spanish classes each day at a local school in Panajachel for four weeks. My teacher was a young indigenous woman who lived with her family in the nearby village of Santa Catarina Palopó, so I was able to practice the language with her while also learning more about the Mayan culture and way of life.
The lake area offers accommodations for any budget — from the luxurious Casa Palopó in the village of Santa Catarina Palopó that features breathtaking views of the lake and volcanoes, to hostels and funky bed-and-breakfasts in San Marcos catering to yoga and massage enthusiasts.