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Lake Atitlan Guatemala: Enjoy the Small Town Retirement Lifestyle

The tranquil setting of Lake Atitlan, Guatemala, has lured many expats to its shores with the tantalizing combination of a low cost of living, colorful local culture and the laid-back lifestyle that so many of us crave.

Lake Atitlan

J.s. Barrie

Considered by many to be the most picturesque lake in the world, the icy blue basin that is now Lake Atitlan was the product of one of the strongest volcanic eruptions in the planet’s history.

Nestled in the Guatemalan highlands, against a majestic backdrop of three volcanoes, Lake Atitlan can offer expats a taste of authentic Guatemalan life, without the tourist traps that can now be found scattered throughout Central America.

Why Lake Atitlan?

The initial reason that many expats are flocking to Lake Atitlan is simple, serenity and scenic beauty. A little slice of heaven, the 50 square mile lake, mist filled rain forests, and mountainous trails are all the convincing many expats need before deciding to make Lake Atitlan their new home.

Ideal weather

But if they come for the scenic beauty, it’s the year round spring-like climate that often seals the deal.

Positioned 15° above the equator and 1560 meters (5100 feet) above sea level, the climate in Lake Atitlan is never too hot and never too cold. And even during the rainy season, the sun shines almost every day.

Lake Atitlan

Cynthia Lawson

Close to home

Although many expats are dying to get away from the bustle of North American life, it doesn’t necessarily mean that they want to leave it behind all together.

Many expats plan to fly back and forth to visit friends and family, and for Americans, Central America and Lake Atitlan in particular can be the perfect solution.  You can live the small mountain town life without having to be completely cut off from the world.

It’s a two and a half hour drive from Lake Atitlan to the colonial town of Antigua and to Guatemala City where international flights arrive on a regular basis.

Low cost of living

There is nothing quite like living in a tropical paradise without having to shell out obscene amounts of money to do so.

The cost of living in Lake Atitlan, like many areas in Central America, is quite moderate and allows expats to enjoy Guatemalan life to the fullest while on a budget.

And depending on what you want to spend and the lifestyle you want to live, Lake Atitlan has plenty of options.

It’s possible to rent a small room in a simplistic indigenous house for as low as $50 a month, and at the opposite end of the spectrum, a luxury vacation rental can cost upwards of $1,500 a week.

But each Lake Atitlan village offers expats a different standard of living and because of this, prices will vary drastically. So before you make a final decision, be sure to shop around.

Villages and local culture

Lake Atitlan is surrounded by twelve indigenous villages, each one unique in its own way. When selecting a village to call home, consider what is most important to you.

If having a stunning view is a top priority, the North and Northeast side of the lake are the most popular, but if you want to be close to as many North American amenities as possible, villages to the West side like Panajachel will most likely be the place for you.

Living side by side, both the local and expat communities are open and friendly and you can expect to make many new and interesting friends as you sink into Lake Atitlan life.

The locals, including the Kakquichel Maya and the Tz’utujil, still dress in traditional colorful garb and if you choose to settle down in Lake Atitlan, you will get to experience Mayan culture on a daily basis.

Visit the market

Make weekly trips to the colorful Solola market near the village of Panajachel for an authentic taste of Mayan culture.

Tuesday and Fridays are market days and you will be able to fill your shopping bags with all the fresh produce, fish, handmade clothing, thread, and fabric you can carry.

The Solola market is not aimed at tourists so you won’t find tourist aimed souvenirs at this market.

And on your way back from the Solola market, why not see what your fellow expats have for sale. Embracing the small town life, many expats sell things like organic chocolate, jewelry and stained glass to make a little extra income. Before you know it, you may find your home decorated with the handmade ceramics, woven crafts, and freshly cut orchids that you pick up each day.

Experience a new way of living

If you do decide to purchase or rent property in Lake Atitlan, get ready to slow down and live the small mountain town life.

In all likelihood you will spend your days enjoying the exotic wildlife, cooking meals made with fresh local ingredients, keeping active by hiking the trails, swimming or practicing yoga, and watching the sunset over the crystal lake.

Time tends to slow down in Lake Atitlan so don’t be surprised if a lot of the big city stresses you bring with you eventually start to melt away.

Lake Atitlan

Luis Guillermo Pineda Rodas

But it’s not for everyone

While days filled with breathtaking scenery, perfect weather, and a low cost of living might seem too good to be true for some expats, others may find that Lake Atitlan life is not for them.

Because Lake Atitlan is in the highlands, two and a half hours from the larger Guatemalan cities, some expats feel too secluded.

If you need to be close to large city amenities and don’t necessarily crave small town living, the villages of Lake Atitlan may not be for you.

Also, Lake Atitlan has not yet been cultivated for tourists like many other spots in Central America and because of this, not all areas are easily accessible.

Much of the lake’s shoreline can only be reached by boat and residents have to rely on the winding footpaths and undeveloped roads to move through the hills.

Trouble in paradise

For decades Lake Atitlan has been renowned for its stunning beauty, but unfortunately in recent years it has been facing some environmental issues that have resulted in many expats moving on to look elsewhere.

In 2009, the clear waters of the lake became brown and murky as a result of an abundance of cyanobacteria that was feeding on the high levels of phosphorous found in the water.

A problem fifty years in the making, the cyanobacteria began to multiply when the Guatemalan government brought black bass into the lake and unknowingly tampered with the ecosystem. The bass ate the organisms that ate the bacteria and the bacteria inevitably increased.

Realizing that something needed to be done in order to keep expats and tourists from abandoning the lake, the government began to work on a $350 million dollar plan to clean up the lake.

Then in 2010, Lake Atitlan experienced a record amount of rain that raised the water level by three meters in a matter of days. Over the next few years, Lake Atitlan raised by an astounding seventeen meters and sadly many home and farms were flooded as a result.

Fortunately today, in 2013, the cyanobacteria have receded and Lake Atitlan is blue once more. And while the water levels are continuing to rise (although at a slower pace), the beauty and serenity of Lake Atitlan continues to attract expats.

Experience Lake Atitlan

So make a trip down to Lake Atitlan and experience it for yourself. Rent before you buy and hop around between the villages to get a good sense of what each has to offer you.

Stroll the mountain paths, visit the local markets, stretch out in a hammock and watch the sunset out over the smooth body of water as you determine if Lake Atitlan life is the life for you.


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3 thoughts on “Lake Atitlan Guatemala: Enjoy the Small Town Retirement Lifestyle

  1. 1

    The Black Bass were actually introduced by PanAmerican airlines when they were trying to cultivate the lake for tourism. Nice post otherwise.

    • 2

      Dennis, you are right! Guatemala was seeking ways to increase tourism and boost the local economy, so, as suggested by Pan American World Airways, the nation should stock lake with a fish prized by anglers would be a way to do just that. So, a non-native species, the black bass, was introduced into the lake in 1958.

      Sadly, the bass quickly took over the lake and caused the elimination of more than two-thirds of the native fish species in the lake and contributed to the extinction of the Atitlan Grebe, a rare bird that lived only around the Lago de Atitlán region.

  2. chris grozelle

    looking for a place to live after retirement

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