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Circumnavigating Lake Atitlán

It seems that the pandemic has brought out the adventurers in us. In July I bought a SUP (stand up paddle) board. In December we hiked Acatenango volcano. In January we hiked Tolimán volcano. And this week we circumnavigated Lake Atitlán: Mark in a canoe and me on my SUP board.

Mark in the canoe south of San Antonio Palopó

I know a few people who have done the circumnavigation, but I’ve only seen one article about someone doing it on a paddle board. Mark circumnavigated in the canoe in 2018 with his son, Kyle. Most people do it in a kayak. Whatever conveyance you use, it is not a trip for novice paddlers. I have been kayaking on Lake Atitlán for 10 years, and have logged hundreds of SUP hours. Mark has been canoeing on the lake for 40 years. We know the wind and weather patterns, and we understand how quickly the weather can change. If you don’t know the lake well or if you’re a novice paddler, do not try to circumnavigate the lake on your own!

Paddling from San Lucas Toliman to Cerro de Oro

Conventional wisdom is to paddle in the morning and generally be off the water by 11am. The afternoon wind, called the Xocomil, can be brutal. The sun can be brutal. And our rainy season started early this year, so we wanted to be done paddling for the day before the thunderstorms hit. Normally at this time of year, you don’t have to worry about the Norte: the wind that can come roaring in from the north at any time of day or night. The important word in the preceding sentence is “normally.”

Break time on the beach at Cerro de Oro

We started our trip in Jucanyá (Panajachel) and went clockwise around the lake. We knew where we wanted to stop the for the first two nights, but left the rest open as we didn’t know how far we would get each day. Our first morning took us past Santa Catarina Palopó and San Antonio Palopó. It was an easy paddle and we set up camp by 11am to get out of the sun and wind. The Xocomil showed up right on time, around 11:30, and we were happy to be out of the wind. The rain threatened all afternoon, but didn’t start until 9pm when we were snug in our tent.

Morning paddle past Santiago Atitlan

The second day was another easy paddle past San Lucas Tolimán and the village of Cerro de Oro, which is named for the small volcano the village surrounds. Many visitors to Lake Atitlán don’t even know that Cerro de Oro exists, as it has no tourism. This side of the lake, the south side, is dotted with vacation homes, many belonging to families from Guatemala City. We stopped early at the vacation rental I manage at the foot of Tolimán volcano to rest for the remainder of the day.

We were on the water by 6am, helped along by a gentle breeze. We planned for day three to be longer, taking us past Santiago Atitlán and to the back of Santiago bay, then back out toward San Pedro. In the back of the bay we stopped for a visit with Jim and Nancy at Finca Xetuc. As we prepared to leave at 10am, we looked out to see the Norte blowing straight into the bay. Leaving was not going to be easy, but chances were good that the Xocomil would start blowing and help push us out of the bay.

The Norte blowing into the bay beached us for several hours

We didn’t get far. While I could muscle through the wind sitting down on the paddle board, the 14-foot canoe doesn’t cooperate when you try to steer straight into the wind. We pulled out onto a beach and waited. And waited. And waited. Three hours later, it looked like the wind was starting to shift, so we tried again. We paddled for an hour, traveling only 2km, before pulling up to another beach and waiting some more. After another hour it looked like the wind might be shifting, so we tried again. We realized we wouldn’t get far and stopped at a dock to tie the paddle board to the canoe so I could help paddle the canoe.

By this time it was clear that the wind wasn’t going to shift and we wanted to get off the water before dark. We thought about camping, but instead pushed hard to get to the Hotel Bambú at around 6pm. It was the hardest day I’ve ever spent on the water, and I was grateful for a real bed and a hot shower.

Sunrise as we left Santiago Atitlan

The next morning we were on the water by 5:30am and heading toward San Pedro. We planned to have breakfast near the dock in San Pedro, where we could see the canoe and board, then spend a couple more hours paddling. The weather was lovely and calm as we paddled past San Pedro volcano.

Break time on a beach at the foot of San Pedro volcano

After breakfast and a stop for supplies at Salud Para Vida, we set off again in calm water. After only 10 minutes, we could see the whitecaps from the Norte moving our direction. Uh oh. Another day of Norte. The wind got strong quickly and we pulled out near San Pablo to see if the Xocomil might help us out this time.

After about 1.5 hours we could see that the wind was starting to shift. We again tied the board to the canoe so we could both paddle the canoe. The swells were pretty big and we were careful to keep the canoe pointed into the swells. If we’d been broadsided, the canoe could easily have tipped over.

The Norte beached us again, this time near San Pablo

As we started rounding the point toward San Marcos, the wind shifted fast. By the time we pulled up onto the beach at Meson del Xocolatl at 1pm, the Xocomil was blowing hard. We pulled the canoe and board up onto their private lawn and watched the wind ripple the water from our tiny lakeview cabin. Though not as hard as the previous day, the day’s paddling took a lot of energy. In spite of the most uncomfortable bed I’ve ever paid to sleep in, we were both asleep by 7pm.

The view from our tiny cabin in San Marcos

The final day was again calm. We were up at 4am, pulling the canoe down to the water in the dark, and we were on the water by 5:15am. A beautiful sunrise set the tone for the morning as we paddled past Tzununá, Jaibalito, and Santa Cruz toward Pana.

Sunrise as we left San Marcos on the final leg of our journey

As we neared the dock in Jucanyá, a traditional Mayan fire ceremony was taking place at the ceremonial site on the beach, complete with marimba. I don’t know what the ceremony was for, but it felt like a homecoming. Our journey was complete at 8:30am.

A fire ceremony at the ceremonial site on the Jucanyá beach

All told, we spent 19 hours paddling a distance of 64 km (about 40 miles) in five days. Difficult as it was at times, it was an amazing adventure.

The trip was not the most physically demanding we’ve done recently: hiking Toliman volcano was physically more challenging. However, the uncertainties of the wind and the time required to circumnavigate made this trip mentally and emotionally more challenging. Even so, I expect we’ll do it again.

If you’re considering circumnavigating Lake Atitlán, I recommend a guided kayak excursion with Lee Beal at Los Elementos Adventure Center in Santa Cruz.

For more information about SUP on Lake Atitlán, I recommend Marshall at SUP Atitlan in Santa Cruz. While they don’t have a circumnavigation tour, experienced paddlers can enjoy their sunrise paddle to Santiago.

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  1. Great article! Valuable info for those of us who live here and those visiting. Love your sharing of all the beauty of the lake and her power! If you’re not experienced, go with a guide! A wonderful, inviting, and fun sharing – I felt like I was almost there with you. 🙂

    1. Thank you so much for your comment. Yes, the lake is so beautiful and powerful–not to be underestimated.

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