Panajachel is a town in the southwestern highlands of Guatemala, some 70 miles northwest of Antigua. Nicknamed Gringotenango, Panajachel is located on the northeastern shores of Lake Atitlán, bordered by three volcanoes that descend into the lake. Its prime location as a gateway to the lake for travelers coming from Antigua and Guatemala City has made Panajachel one of the most popular destinations in all of Guatemala. As there are many traditional villages around the lake whose Maya culture is still very well-preserved, Panajachel is also a base for tourists looking to cross the lake or drive along the shores to explore these intriguing indigenous communities. Packed with hotels, restaurants, bars, clubs, and lively market stands amidst a vast crater lake, volcanic landscapes and reserves, and beautiful beach stretches, Panajachel has become the quintessential eco-tourist resort town.
Panajachel was founded by the Spanish after they conquered Guatemala in the 16th century. Lake Atitlán was the scene of one of the Spanish-Mayan battles. After the conquest, the Spanish decided to use the town as a center for converting the indigenous Mayans to the Roman Catholic faith.
In more recent history, the lake was the scene of a number of atrocities arising out of the Guatemalan civil war, which lasted for several decades in the late 20th century. During that period, the civil war all but eliminated tourism in Panajachel, which had been thriving in the 1960s due to the throngs of visiting hippies. During the civil war, many agricultural crops and infrastructure, which the indigenous people relied on for subsistence, were destroyed by the government. Many of the Mayans around Atitlán disappeared or were executed. In 1990, a protest against the government that took place near Panajachel resulted in the death of a dozen civilians. A memorial was subsequently built to commemorate this massacre.
In 2005, Hurricane Stan tore through Guatemala and caused substantial damage to the villages and towns around Lake Atitlán, including Panajachel. Following the hurricane, a massive landslide wiped out hundreds of homes in Panajachel. Fortunately, the town has since rebuilt and recovered from this natural catastrophe.
Obviously, the biggest attraction of Panajachel is Lake Atitlán. Water sports like sailing, surfing, swimming, fishing, snorkeling, and lake tours are always popular.
But there are also natural reserves of jungle forests and lush flora around the lake. The Reserva Natural Atitlán, for example, is a habitat for exotic flowers, unique butterflies, and wild spider monkeys. The reserve is located in the San Buenaventura Valley and has some walking trails and suspension bridges that crisscross through the park’s beaches, forests, and waterfalls. There are also campsites at the Reserva Natural Atitlán for the eager outdoorsmen.
Panajachel is home as well to a handful of quality museums. The Museo Lacustre de Atitlán showcases the region’s history dating back to precolonial times and houses a well-organized collection of rare archaeological artifacts recovered from the Lake’s bed. The Centro Cultural Los Encuentros is another cultural center dedicated to showcasing the heritage of the indigenous Mayan culture and features a medical plant garden as well as an art gallery exhibiting the works of indigenous artists. Interestingly, the center offers to assist visitors interested in seeking personal encounters with indigenous shamans, weavers, and painters in their village settings.
The San Francisco Assis church of Panajachel is another worthwhile site. This church was the original 16th century Roman Catholic church set up by the Spanish and used to convert the indigenous people. It is considered a gem – one of the rare examples of colonial style architecture in Guatemala, esteemed for its stone-faced and stepped-up façade.
The Calle Santander open-air market is the best place to purchase souvenirs, handicrafts, and antiques. Both sides of the street at this market are lined with stalls and stands. Not all the goods sold at Calle Santander, however, are of good quality.
The nightlife in Panajachel is the best around Lake Atitlán. Most of the lively bars and discos in town are located around Avenida de los Arboles and Calle Principal.