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What to Do
Hiking Volcan San Pedro
If you organize it yourself, the cost of hiking Volcan San Pedro from Panajachel should only cost Q200 per person. If you go to 'some' tour companies in Panajachel, they will try and charge you as much as 400Q! In my opinion, this is a ripoff. Here's how you can do it yourself. On the morning you want to hike the volcano, head to the main docks and catch a "lancha directa" or direct boat to San Pedro. It should cost only 20Q each way (but they'll likely make you pay 25Q). Be sure to arrive at the docks no later than 8am (preferably get there by 7am). When you arrive in San Pedro, there will be a tiny info booth right there when you disembark. Here you can get a registered guide for 135Q per person. This package price includes the guide, the entry fee to the park (a 100Q value) and round trip transportation via tuc-tuc to the park entrance. Totally worth it. IMPORTANT NOTE: The last boat back to Pana leaves at 5pm sharp!
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Where to Stay
There aren't a lot of budget options in Panajachel. At the time we were researching places to stay, Hotel El Sol was one of the cheapest, offering dorm beds for Q50 (USD$6.40). Hotel El Sol is a Japanese-owned hotel/hostel with privates and dorm beds. The place is spotless. You get hot water, free wifi, free coffee/tea, and a locker, but no vibe. The other kicker is that Hotel El Sol is kind of a long walk (10 minutes <-- yeah, that's a lot for a small town) from the town center. If you insist on paying for a tuk tuk, then you might as well stay in town. To get there, cross the bridge over into Jucany (pronounced huk-ka-nha). It's another 5-min walk from there.
Mario's Rooms is a hotel (no dorms) just off Calle Santander, right smak in the middle of the touristy part of town across the street from BAM bank. The grounds are nicely landscaped. For Q170 (USD$22), you get two double beds, private bath, hot water, free wifi, and they even throw in a tipico breakfast. The one minus is that the rooms tend to invite sound. When they're playing marimbo music (think xylophone) down the street, it can be like a horrible nightmare.
What to Eat
Coffee Shops / Tea Houses
This small coffee shop and dessert cafe is a welcome breath of fresh air from next door's expat nightmare. It's owned and run by Carrie, a charming laid-back American who "gets" what a coffee shop should be. It's the kind of place where you can chill out, drink a refreshing beverage, catch up on email (<-- it's one of the few places in Pana with free, reliable Wifi), and converse with the cooler crowd of Pana.
In Panajachel, there are a few options for ice-cream. Cheaper options include Pollo Campero (off Calle Principal) and Sombrilandia (off Calle Santander next to El Bistro). Sombrilandia isn't open regularly, so if you happen to pass by, just check in to see if their window is open. They have a decent variety of flavors including zapote, avocado, lime, watermelon, and cantaloupe, and their sombrillas are only 4Q.
Chill, chill spot. It's a great place to go for food, drinks, and live music. For those who know, it is reminiscent of one of the bars from Swingers. It's also the one place in town everyone knows about so it is a good place to meet up. Circus Bar (pronounced Sear-cus) is located on Avenida de Los Arboles just off Calle Principal where Dina's Chocolate is located.
These hippies can make some soup. The Germans who run Tal Vez, located a few doors down from Circus Bar on Avenida de Los Arboles, make a variety of soups and other vegetarian dishes. If you like your meals spicy, try the Ethiopian soup. Say hello to Alice, Robert, and their gaggle of kids for us. They are great!
At this point in our trip, we are craving international food. We have tried the tipico plate and want to eat anything else. Since we are staying at Hotel El Sol, a Japanese-run hostel, we decided to try the food there. The menu includes several appetizers--sashimi, sushi, stick foods--and an impressive selection of entrees. I tried only subuta (Q60), a delicious sweet and sour pork, which comes with rice and miso soup, plenty for one and even two people to share. To get there, it is about a 10-min walk from the center--you have to cross the river--or you can take a 3-min tuk tuk, which will cost you Q5 each. Lunch is from 12-3, and dinner is from 6-8:30 mas o menos. The restaurant is closed on Mondays.
I visited this taco stand twice in one day. I got too full the first time and had to come back to try the other menu items. The main guy and his wife serve Mexican-style tacos and "las gringas," basically a small quesadilla. It's 15 quetzales for 3 tacos or 20 quetzales for 3 gringas. You choose your meat of either chicken, al pastor (pork), beef, or chorizo. Spice up your tacos with lime, onions, cilantro, and one of his potent sauces. You'll need a breath mint afterward, but it is well worth it. The tacos are served out of a small restaurant called Taqueria Picate right next to the bridge crossing over the river.
Outdoor patio cafe where locals dine. Always a good sign. Breakfast is good though a little pricey. The quesadillas were delicious, especially with a splash of chili sauce. Can't say the same about the chicken soup. Nothing special there. Plates are big enough to share, which makes dining here affordable. If you have time, give this place a try. Jasmin's is located at the end of Calle Santander near the public beach next to the Museo Lacustre Atitlan. Their sister cafe, also located on Calle Santander (next door to Gaujimbo's), serves the same menu.
Located on busy Calle Santander, Guajimbos is a must-stop restaurant for anyone staying in Panajachel. Jim, the owner, can often be found playing music for the guests or ringing up your (inexpensive) tab. Guajimbos has great drinks - try their margaritas and of course... a famous Gallo beer. Their Sopa de Patata (pictured) is fantastic as is the fresh guacamole and tortilla chips. It's an open-air deal; great for people watching. The perfect spot for lunch!
We were elated when we finally found a street vendor we could trust. Cristina's is always packed with locals and the occasional expat. She serves crispy chicken or beef tacos, tamales, sugar-coated fried plaintains, and atol. Her corn atol is incredible. She's out every day from 6pm until late. Look for her at the intersection of Calle Santander and Calle Principal.
You can find this street vendor near the intersection of Calle Santander and Calle Principal. At first glance, this place looks like the best food available at the carnival--four different types of meats piled into a hotdog bun smothered with four types of sauces. But upon eating it, you realize that it's just a hotdog bun with meat covered in sauce. Nothing special about this place. Wouldn't eat there again.
Where to Party
Carlos plays just about every night of the week. He is a local artist who is often seen performing with his son. Look for this dynamic father-son pair at Gaujimbo's or Circus Bar. (The food is better at Circus Bar.)
Where to Shop
Arts & Handicrafts
Twice a week, the fire station parking lot is transferred into a market place where Mayan women from the surrounding villages come to sell their huipiles, cortes, and fajas. Once you take off your shoes, the ladies will permit you to walk on the tarp to handle and choose your favorite textiles and traje. This is Pana's best keep secret. The market is open from 8am to about 3-4pm every Tuesday and Friday and is located at the fire station on Calle Principal near the bus stop.
Thursday tends to be the first good day of the week because that's when new shipments of food come in. Avoid Monday and Tuesday if possible. As is true with many Latin markets, you can get anything here. Prices for fruits and vegetables are shockingly low. If you don't want to pick up parasites or a bacterial infection, treat the food with a bacticide (i.e., Sanavida, BacDyn Plus) first. You can get this at any of the grocery stores in town. The market is located just past the church on Calle Principal.
Rates depend on distance and whether they think they can get away with charging you more. Though the going rate quoted on signs near the dock area is Q25 (USD$3.20) for popular San Marcos and San Pedro, the actual rate is Q20 for San Pedro and Q15 for San Marcos. Santa Cruz, which is one or two villages over from Pana, where Hostel La Iguana Perdida is located, costs Q10. The locals and indigenous--we are all about the three-tiered system here--pay slightly less, but don't think you're going to get it for that. To avoid having to negotiate a fixed rate, just hand the captain the exact change when you get off and walk away. No point negotiating with someone who is trying to rip you off. Another tactic that seems to work well is mentioning INGUAT, which seems to instill fear in them....
There are two direct chicken buses (that I know for sure) that leave in the morning from Panajachel to Guatemala City. They depart at 5am and 7am and cost Q30. You can catch these buses at the bus stop just down the street from the Pollo Campero. It takes 2.5 to 3 hours depending on the aggressiveness of your driver and traffic. I only know the morning routes. Will update if I find out others.
IMPORTANT NOTE: Tell the driver where you want to go... like a particular bus company office or whatever. He may let you off earlier than the ultimate 'Treboli' section of town.
The only direct (chicken) bus to Antigua leaves at 11am. If you miss it, no worries. You can still get to Antigua via this route --> Solola > Los Encuentros > Chimaltenango > Antigua. When it's time to change buses, just yell your destination and someone will lead you to the right bus. Big bags go on top of the roof. The ride can be maddening at times, so hold on tight! Expect to pay something like Q25 for the entire trip.
I lived in Pana for a few months. This is the travel agent the gringos use because they do it right. Use them for booking (non-chicken bus) transportation from Pana to anywhere in Guatemala and beyond. Their vans are clean and comfortable, they pick you up from your hotel, and their price is lower than the other places in town. Friends of mine in Panajachel claim that they are the only company in Pana that won't leave you behind. If something goes wrong (which happens often... it's Guatemala), they will make it right by sending a private car or whatever has to happen to make sure your itinerary isn't spoiled.
Tuks tuks are a popular form of transpo in Pana. The going rate seems to be Q5 (USD$0.65) PP. It doesn't matter how many people you squeeze into a tuk tuk. The rate is quoted per person, so don't bother negotiating, or don't expect to save much by negotiating. If you by chance get a greedy tuk tuk driver who wants to charge you Q10, just get out, walk around to the back of the tuk tuk, write down the license plate number, and say to your driver, "I can pay the 10 quetzales but then I'll have to the tell the tourist board." That should jolt the driver into charging you the right price.
Hop a pick-up truck anywhere between Solola and Santa Catarina, the two cities on either side of Pana, for about Q2-3. Prices are quoted for transpo to/from Pana, not Solola to Santa Catarina. This is the main transpo for the indigenous people and a lot more intimate and fun than taking a tuk tuk.
What to Avoid
An interview with an expat here revealed a few important things about these nasty anthropods. First, Guatemalan scorpions don't kill, and, two, the sting can be quite painful. They can be as small as your fingernail or as large as your hand. I would advise shaking your sheets before getting into bed and checking your clothes and shoes before putting them on. Hope you don't see any on your trip to Pana!
Apparently the bacteria and parasites in this part of the world are a real problem. The produce you buy from the local market has been watered and washed in non-potable water and will get you sick. To avoid this, you have to disinfect everything by soaking it a disinfectant for 20 minutes or more. You can find this disinfectant at the Dispensa Familiar or any other grocery store in town. Squirt it into a bucket with some tap water and fully submerge your produce. Make sure your items are fully submerged! Floating is not disinfecting! You will need to do this for everything leafy or that you don't have to peel to eat.
There are a few places in Panajachel that offer WiFi: La Parada (coffee shop near the intersection of Calle Principal and Calle Santander); Circus Bar (restaurant and bar just off Calle Principal); La Palapa (hostel, restaurant and bar located on Calle Principal); and La Terraza (restaurant with first floor coffee shop located on Calle Santander).