This is part of a new series we’ll be posting on Fridays.
Isla Verde is located on Santa Cruz La Laguna, a community of Lake Atitlán in Guatemala. This remote hotel is reachable only by boat, and is accessible from the main town and port of Panajachel. We found this place at random, hearing only that Atitlán was a can’t-miss destination during our time in Guatemala. Not knowing much about the lake or about the accommodations there, we spent five minutes searching Hostelworld and Hotels.com before picking Isla Verde (the price was right and the pictures were nice). Little did we know this would be our favorite stop on our two month trip.
Lake Atitlán is in northern Guatemala, situated in the Sierra Madre mountain range and surrounded by three volcanoes- Volcán San Pedro, Volcán Atitlán, and Volcán Tolimán. The subtropical climate is ideal for vacationing, with comfortably warm days and cool nights. It’s the deepest lake in Central America, with a depth of about 1,120 ft (340 meters). Decidedly, it’s one of the most beautiful lakes we’ve ever seen, and we weren’t alone in our enchantment- Brave New World author Aldous Huxley wrote that Atitlán “is [Lake] Como with additional embellishments of several immense volcanoes.”
Isla Verde has blossomed with a recent change of ownership. Upon arrival at the dock, we noticed a charming lakefront restaurant (Slow Food Cafe) to our left, a sunbathing dock to our right, and in between, a series of huts winding up the mountain, blending naturally into the lush scenery. We were instantly giddy. With help off the boat from our lancha driver, we stepped onto Isla Verde’s grounds, and didn’t leave until our sad goodbye three days later. Those three days were blissful.
Isla Verde is an eco-friendly hotel, incorporating many green elements in an effort to minimize their effect on the delicate Guatemalan environment. The hotel grounds are surrounded by many species of native plants and foliage; the huts and other shelter are made from natural and reclaimed materials using eco-friendly building practices; hot water and electricity is solar powered; yoga is practiced each morning in their private studio; the food at the Slow Food Cafe is local, organic and GMO free. They stress that these eco-friendly, green practices can still create a luxury, comfort and cleanliness- and they’ll teach you to enjoy a slow lifestyle.
Of course, the staff warns you upon arrival that the warm water in your shower will take a few seconds to release, that the bugs love your bedroom huts so to keep your doors shut, that their pipes can’t handle paper, and that you shouldn’t drink the water from the tap. But… if you’ve made it all the way there, you probably already know these things- it’s Guatemala, after all.
During the day, breakfast, lunch, drinks and snacks are offered a la carte, and can be enjoyed on the dock or at the lakefront cafe. For fresh, real food (which can be tough to find in Guatemala), the menu is priced very modestly. One of the most charming aspects of our stay at Isla Verde was the community dinners, hosted by Slow Food Cafe each night. They ask that you reserve a seat at dinner before 4pm, and most guests at the hotel attend this delicious three course meal, making it a great way to meet new people. During our stay, there were guests from New York, Sweden, Guatemala City, and London. The best part? The total bill was about 200Q (or about $14 per person). For a well-rounded, organic meal, you really can’t beat it.
The hotel grounds are laid out in such a way that you’re forced to relax (except for the steep staircases you’ll need to climb to get to your hut!) The kitchen doesn’t open until around 9am, so you can sleep in guilt-free . The laid-back staff is always smiling, asking how they can help improve your stay. The breeze off the lake is calm and refreshing. And with breathtaking views all around, you can’t help but marvel at the beauty of our world.
Whether you’re there to catch some rays, get in a workout, explore or relax, Isla Verde offer services to accommodate your stay. In the mornings, a yoga instructor offers group classes or private sessions in their on-site studio. The surrounding mountains and volcano terrain offer excellent hiking or trail running. The lake, while sometimes not fit for swimming, is great for kayaking, paddle-boarding and rowing. The sunbathing dock has lots of chairs and oversized pillows for you to rest in the sun, and the lobby area has a library filled with books that are free for guests to take. And if you’re craving some excitement or a change of scenery, Panajachel is packed with live music, restaurants, bars and markets. If you don’t want to go far, the bar at nearby La Iguana Perdida is known to get rowdy on weekend nights. La Iguana Perdida is also home to ATI Divers, the only PADI scuba diving operation on the lake, where you can take courses and explore the volcanic rock formations and freshwater aquatic life.
“Lake Como, it seems to me, touches on the limit of permissibly picturesque, but Atitlán is Como with additional embellishments of several immense volcanoes. It really is too much of a good thing.” -Aldous Huxley
There’s also some mystery about the place. Lake Atitlán is currently rising. Depending on who we asked, we heard that the lake had risen 5-17 feet in the past decade. Whether or not it will continue to rise or go back down is a big question mark. The locals believe it’s part of a Mayan legend, but Westerners say it’s due to rainfall, regional earthquakes, and volcanic activity. It’s said that the lake rises and falls every 50-70 years. Many of the houses on the coastline have been abandoned because they are under water. Even the Slow Food Cafe’s lakefront dock is dangerously close to the water line, and the sunbathing dock was built after Isla Verde’s lower gardens were flooded. There are several other myths and Mayan legends that have been passed along by locals. This site accurately describes a few.
TIPS FOR YOUR STAY
Isla Verde has three types of accommodation- suites, cabins with private bathrooms, and cabins with shared bathrooms. The suites are ideal for families and groups, and can sleep up to six people. The independent cabins all offer orthopedic mattresses and a lake view. Rates range from $43 to $79 per night, USD, and you can make reservations by email or online, here.
From Panajachel, you’ll have to take a lancha (small motor boat) to Santa Cruz La Laguna. There’s a dock called Embarcadero in town. It will cost 15 quetzales to get from Panajachel to Santa Cruz, but you can pay 5Q extra to get directly to the dock at Isla Verde, instead of having to walk to the hotel from the main dock.
There’s another local myth about the strong winds that make the lake pick up late in the afternoon. Legend says that a serpent monster lives in the bottom of the lake, and as its anger builds, the lake becomes choppy. Whether it’s wind or monster, our advice is to stay off the lake during these hours. It’s best to take a lancha early in the morning, while the water is still calm.
Most of the hotel staff members at Isla Verde speak English, but it’s best to know some Spanish when you arrive Panajachel. It will help you get around and will ensure you’re not overpaying for food, a lancha or tuc-tuc ride. In the surrounding towns, the locals’ native languages are Kaqchikel, K’iche’ and Tz’utujil, so Spanish is their second or third language. Because of this, their Spanish is often slow and deliberate, making it quite easy to understand.
While the weather is ideal almost year-round, the clearest days are from December through the end of February. Atitlán’s dry season runs from November through April.
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