12 Tips for Living in Lake Atitlan, Guatemala
An expat in Guatemala talks about why expats move to Lake Atitlan - from the eternal springtime weather to the low cost of living to the laid-back lifestyle. He also covers topics such as residency in Guatemala, proximity to quality healthcare, nightlife and schools in the Lake Atitlan area.
Why Expats Move to Lake Atitlan
There are several reasons people relocate to the Lake Atitlan area:
- Low cost of living. Nearly everything is substantially less than what one would pay in the 1st World. That is the necessities: food, housing, transport. If you want 1st World conveniences you will pay a premium... internet, television, foods from home.
- The location. Situated at 5000 feet (1524 m) above sea level, this is not the hot tropical jungle one usually associates with living in Central America. We call it the land of eternal springtime. Bring a sweater. And bring a camera...this is one of the most beautiful places on Earth.
- Lifestyle. You can be retired and as lazy or active as you want (lots of volunteer opportunities). If you have a New Age orientation, the lake area is a vortex for seekers and practitioners of every sort.
Cost of Living in Guatemala
As mentioned, it is low for the basics. If you can be happy on a Mayan diet, rice, beans, tortillas, a bit of chicken or pork, eggs, it will cost almost nothing (because the indigenous are a very poor people). If you have to have Campbell's soup or quality tuna fish, you will pay a premium over the prices back home. If you are not an electricity hog, your daily electric bill will be low. Water is not a typical bill as it depends on your source. Internet is pricey and if poor quality. Rents can be found for very cheap. Best to look at Facebook pages for the villages around the lake for a true sense. You can find rustic to luxury. The real estate agents will get good properties but at a high cost (but still lower than 1st World).
Meeting Expats in Lake Atitlan
Not much in the way of "clubs" but in a short time you will begin meeting the expats. We tend to stand out from the indigenous Mayan population. We meet in pubs, restaurants, on the public transport (boats), and at markets. We stay connected through Facebook. There are MANY NGOs doing all types of good work around the lake. A little research will turn up something in your area of interest.
Schools in Lake Atitlan Area
Don't know much about the schools. No kids. But I know there is a good basic grades school in Panajachel, LIFE School, where many expat kids attend (they take the boat to school). There is a Montessori style school in San Marcos La Laguna, Escuela Caracol. And there church-based schools in nearly every village (Catholic and Evangelical). They all cost money. There is not any real public education available in Guatemala.
Grocery Shopping in Lake Atitlan
Most of the staples are purchased in each villages fresh market. The Mayans are farmers and it is a joy to have access to fresh picked veggies and fruits. Panajachel has the widest selection from "stores". There is a Dispensa Familiar (Walmart owned) which is a decent all-things a basic grocery store would have. Chalo's and Sandra's both carry imported goods so you can always get that back home fix (bring money).
Public Transportation in Lake Atitlan
Getting around in Guatemala is like this (unless you have your own vehicle or want to payfor private transport). You take a famous chicken bus to get to the lake. Very dependable but not always the safest or more comfortable. Recommend private shuttle. In the villages you walk or you take a tuk-tuk for 5Q anywhere in town. They tend to run from dawn to late evening. To get from one village to another, you take a lancha (boat). Learn the fares and carry exact change. Gringos are easy marks for misquoted fares. In the end, they are a bargain at almost any price. They are dependable and mostly safe. They run from dawn to dusk.
It's Always Springtime in Lake Atitlan
The land of eternal springtime. Two seasons: rainy and dry. Rainy starts in April and ends in October. The rains tend to come late afternoon/early evening. The rest of the year is all sunshine. Temps range from a low of 50F (10C) to a rare high of 80F (26C).
Nightlife in the Lake Atitlan Area
This varies by village. Panajachel and San Pedro La Laguna have the most commercial nightlife. Other villages (smaller) have known. I preferred those places where there was none. I don't like the noise. Plus intoxicated gringos attract a criminal element.
Healthcare in Lake Atitlan, Guatemala
Healthcare can be a challenge. There are some well trained doctors in the larger villages but their range of care is limited. There is a good private hospital in Santiago (Hospitalito Atitlan) but depending on what kinds of volunteer doctors are there during your emergency they may not be able to help. The public hospital in Solola I call the pre-morgue. It is a grim place I wouldn’t send an enemy. Best care is Guatemala City. A three hour, $100US, ambulance ride away or an expensive helicopter airlift.
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Recreational Activities in Lake Atitlan
This is rustic living. There is incredible hiking around the lake and up the sides of volcanoes. Swimming in the beautiful lake. Walking to do your shopping. There are no golf courses or tennis clubs.
Visa and Residency
You are allowed to stay in country 90 days before you have to exit country and renew. El Salvador, Honduras, and Nicaragua don't count. So most folks go to Mexico. It is also possible to pay someone to take your passport to the border and get you stamped out and back in. There are people who have lived here for many years doing exactly this. Residency is complex (like almost every country) but if you can qualify as a permanent resident (pensionista) you can obtain citizenship and passport in five years.
Crime in Lake Atitlan
Petty theft (pickpockets and house burglary) is sadly too common. Sexual assault does also happen. Common sense and care can avoid both.
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