San Pedro Guatemala is a very difficult place to get to but it is worth every minute of the trip. We rented an SUV in Guatemala City. The trip including a lunch stop was about 3 1/2 hours. Upon arrival, I felt like I had been teleported to an alternative universe due to the contrast between the surrounding area and the town itself.
The town is an isolated spot nested in the Mountains on Lake Atitilan. The roads into San Pedro are steep, narrow, and dangerous. The last hour of the drive took us through mountainous 45 degree roads dotted with foot deep potholes. We saw quite a few “Chicken Buses” navigating the roads and it appeared they were close to tipping over on some of the very steep roads. Livestock on the roads is common. To avoid driving to and from San Pedro many people travel to Panajachal on the opposite side of the Lake and catch a taxi or bus from there.
Guatemala City is a large, loud, busy, city with people willing to kill each other on the highways to gain an extra 5 seconds of time. From there, we drove into the hilly and then mountainous rural areas where the average family struggles to make ends meet. San Pedro is unlike anywhere we have been in Guatemala. It has a mixture of the following residents and visitors:
- International travelers from every continent in the world, many with backpacks and a high percentage of 20 to 30 year olds
- Ex-Patriots and hippy types who had moved to San Pedro often on a temporary basis but never left
- Retirees from around the world who love the perfect climate and breath-taking scenery and decided to live there
- Local Guatemalan citizens, many who have become more westernized due to growing up with international travelers and working in the tourism industry. Many speak english.
- Guatemalan citizens that are like the citizens in any other rural area of Guatemala
San Pedro is located on a volcanic lake which is 1100 feet deep but the elevation at the surface of the lake is over a mile high in elevation. The temperature tends to dip no lower than 50 degrees at night and no higher than about 80 degrees in the day year round. We wore shorts, t-shirts and sandals most of the time. The scenery, as you will see in our photos is incredible.
What to do in San Pedro
The downtown area near the lake (where the fun crowd hangs out) is a cobweb of alleys, narrow streets and walking paths. Many of the streets are too narrow for an automobile so don’t bring one if you can help it. Most people get around on Tuk Tuks, motorized 3 wheelers that transport locals and tourists for a small fee. Ask upfront for the fee before going for your ride. Fifty cents is a good average for a trip across town.
Everything in San Pedro can be reached by walking or taking a Tuk Tuk ride (pronounced toook toook). There is an overabundance of restaurants and bars. These tend to be very laid back tiki hut type places and just about all are open to the breezes. I don’t think anywhere has climate control. It’s just not needed since the year round climate keeps the temperature between 50 degrees at night and about 80 degrees in the day.
The prices are very cheap. You can drink beers and cocktails for 15Q to 20Q which is equivalent to about $2 to $3 US. for lunch and dinner, you rarely need to spend more than 70Q or about $10 US for a meal and good meals can be purchased for much less if you are on a budget or avoid the tourist places.
Is is easy to meet people. Most of the tourists are the adventuresome type and will strike up a conversation quickly if they can speak your language. The folks shown above are from left to right, New Zealand, Australia, Holland and Stephanie (my BW) from South Carolina USA!
Most of the meals are prepared using fresh locally grown food. Stephanies meal shown above consisted of the local staples, rice and beans, plantains, corn meal pancake, fruit and a corn tamale.
San Pedro is right on Lake Atitilan. There are towns surrounding the lake and you can take your pick of towns to visit by ferry. The ferry (shown above) is cheap. Each town is a little different. Panajachal is the largest town and has it’s own personality. It is a little louder and more touristy than San Pedro. It is also much easier to get to by bus or by car so it naturally has more tourists.
The photo shown above was taken from the terrace of our house that we rented. it shows the ferry dock the departure point for trips to some smaller towns near San Pedro. A second dock is used for ferries that go to Panajachal and other small towns on the other side of the lake. A good day trip is to take the ferry and visit the various towns.
You can find some bargains in San Pedro. The quetzal, (pronounced Cah-zal-is) the currency of Guatemala and exchanges with the US dollar at about 7 or 7.5 to 1. There are various exchange places in San Pedro. Know what the exchange rate is before you walk in because some will take advantage of you if they think you are a naïve tourist. Regardless, the dollar is very strong and you can get great deals due to the currency exchange.
There are local shops all over the place but you will never see a price tag. Basically the merchant will size you up and make you an offer on what ever you are interested in. We found that the initial offer can be more than twice what they are willing to take. For example if a merchant quoted you 70Q (about $7) you might want to offer about 25Q and later settle on 30Q to 35Q. Of course, vendors can differ but the point is that the first price is probably way over what they expect to get or what they need to get to make a good profit. This is particularly true if you dress and act like a stupid tourist so at least try to act like you’ve been here before.
We particularly liked the handmade shoes we found at a store on a main street. The soles are made out of tire rubber and they were sewing them together in the back of the store. We could not get them below about $60US for a pair of shoes but they appeared very well made and I have seen nothing like them.
There is a market everyday of the week in San Pedro. They sell just about anything you can think of. if you lived here, you could eat fresh vegetables grown nearby every month of the year. I can see why this is such a popular retirement area.
How to Get to San Pedro Guatemala
There are basically 3 ways to get to San Pedro from Guatemala City.
- Rent an SUV or a truck and drive – I have driven all over the world and tend to like driving overseas even though most travel professionals warn against it. However, I do not recommend driving to San Pedro. Getting out of Guatemala City is very complicated and don’t even think about it if you don’t have a GPS with the latest Guatemalan maps. The GPS often notifies you late when to turn. If you make a wrong turn, you may end up on a street that turns into a dead-end parking lot in an unsafe area. The final 1 hour stretch of drive leading up the mountain and down the mountain to San Pedro is strewn with potholes, small landslides are common, crazed chicken bus drivers can come around curves on the wrong side of the road, and live stock can be in the road etc etc you get the picture. Don’t even consider driving at night. You may never be heard from again. There is some beautiful scenery along the way however so it is not .
2. Catch a taxi or shuttle to Panajachal and a ferry to San Pedro – The next time we go to San Pedro, this will probably be what we will do. There are many shuttles available to Antigua. A sensible trip would be to take a shuttle to Antigua and then a taxi from there to PanaJachal and then a ferry to San Pedro. If you are willing to pay more, you could take the taxi or hire a private driver for a direct drive to San Pedro.
3. Ride the infamous Chicken Bus – This will by far be the cheapest mode of transportation so consider it if you are on a very low budget trip. Be ready for extremely crowed buses and stops all along the way. Take your camera as this could be some of the best photographs of the trip.
Stephanie and I like San Pedro and plan to go back perhaps in the summer months to cool off from the steamy Charleston South Carolina temperatures and humidity. There are many Spanish schools so we have also talked about taking an immersion Spanish class. We saw signs for at least 20 of these throughout San Pedro
If you want to find a deal, check out AirBNB. We found a fabulous 2 bedroom place with 3 levels overlooking the mountains and the lake for about $75 per night. There are also quite a few guest houses and hostels if you are on a budget. We met some folks who were staying at Pinocchio and we had drinks here one afternoon. Prices can be from $13 on up per night depending on what you want. The point is, this is a backpackers paradise and you can eat and sleep well for dirt cheap.
The last 3 photos are from our roof top terrace.