Lago de Atitlán is a stunning lake that fills an extinct volcano caldera which was left behind after an enormous eruption some 84,000 years ago. Today it is one of Guatemala’s top travel destinations and it was also listed as one of the top places to retire in 2015. But what makes this such a desirable locale to set up a post 9-5 lifestyle? Of course the proximity to Canada, friendly local people and natural beauty play a huge part in its ranking, but most retirement-ready Canadians are looking for a place where their dollar can stretch and the climate is warm. Welcome to Lake Atitlan, a truly idyllic late-life utopia.
In this article, we’ll assume that you’ve done a bit of research and you’ve figured out that Lake Atitlan is a viable option for you to live in for part of, or the entire year. We’ll walk you through the basic costs of living so that you can have a good idea of your finances before you arrive.
When you first arrive, you may have to stay in a hotel or a hostel for a few nights while you look for an apartment. There are seemingly endless options for accommodations in towns like Panajachel and San Pedro, but even the smaller villages like Santa Cruz and San Juan also have some great places to stay. We stayed in and can recommend Uxlabil Eco Lodge in San Juan, and Isla Verde in Santa Cruz. Most places can be reserved online through booking agencies or through their own websites. You can also call some of them to reserve over the phone.
$500 – $750 / Month
Apartments, casas and casitas around the lake vary in price from around $300 CAD / month for a small, locally owned studio, to $3000 / month for stunning lakefront estates. If you’re looking for a midrange option with a separate bedroom, nice-sized kitchen and comfortable living space, expect to pay between $500 – $750 CAD / month. These prices may not be as low as you had hoped, but keep in mind that this price range will afford you a million dollar view of the lake and the nearby volcanos.
We recommend checking out Century 21 and Atitlan Solutions if you’d like to book your apartment before arriving. Generally you should have no problem finding a place once you arrive, unless you’re coming around Christmas or Easter high-seasons.
$250 – $500 / Month
The grocery stores and markets in Panajachel, the lakes major town, have plenty of western options and ingredients, so you don’t have to worry about being too deprived of your comfort foods. The price of imported goods is pretty high (comparable to the costs in Canada), but the cost of produce, meat and local ingredients is very cheap. For two people surviving very comfortably on an omnivorous diet of local and foreign food can expect to spend around $500 / month on groceries. This is including high quality cheeses, western pastas, high quality meats and fresh local produce. If you’re not a big food spender, you can probably get by on around $300 and if you’re a vegetarian couple, you will probably live on around $250 / month.
To give you a better idea of the cost of groceries, we’ve provided a brief shopping list with prices:
- Bananas – 1.35Q ($0.22) / lb
- Melon – 14Q ($2.33)
- Papaya – 11Q ($1.83)
- 4 Corn On Cob – 8.4Q ($1.40)
- Local Coffee – 19Q / 460gms ($3.16)
- Imported Balsamic Vinager – 32Q / 250 mL ($5.33)
- Mayo – 9.75Q ($1.62)
- Eggs – 14.80Q / Dozen ($2.46)
- Chips – 10.50Q / bag ($1.75)
- Fish Fillets – 3 for 35Q ($5.83)
- Local Chocolate – 21.75Q / 90 gms ($3.62)
- Imported Johnsonville Sausages – 50Q / 6 pack ($8.33)
- Boneless Chicken Breast – 12Q / Breast ($2)
- Imported Gato Negro Merlot – 41.75Q ($6.95)
Compared to the cost of booze in Canada, Guatemala is very affordable. Most restaurants and bars around the lake serve up ice-cold beer for about 10 Quetzal ($1.75). If you buy beer in the grocery store or local markets, you can easily get them for half of that. Imported wines vary from around 45 Quetzal ($7) to 120Q ($20) / bottle. There are some very cheap Central American spirits on offer, but your favourite rum or vodka will probably cost you about 20% less than it would in Canada.
Around $1 – $4 / Ride
To get around the lake, you will be boarding one of the dozen or so boats that pass by the docks every 15 minutes. There are docks all over the lake, so you’re never really more than a 5 minute walk from the nearest pick up point and the rides vary from 5 Quetzal for nearby stops ($0.90) to 25 Quetzal ($4) to cross the entire lake. There are also tuk-tuks and taxis in the major towns like San Marcos, San Pedro and Panajachel and they will usually cost around 5 Quetzal / person ($0.90) for fares inside town, and 10 Quetzal per person ($1.80) for rides to nearby villages or suburbs.
Cost Of Main Boat Rides:
Panajachel to Santa Cruz – 10Q ($1.67)
Panajachel to San Marcos – 15Q ($2.50)
Panajachel to San Pedro – 25Q ($4)
San Pedro to San Marcos – 10Q ($1.67)
San Pedro to Santa Cruz – 15Q ($2.50)
If you’re going to be living for an extended period of time outside of Canada, you may have to purchase expat insurance to cover you for your absence. If you’re only planning on leaving the country for a couple of months or so, consider checking out World Nomads for comprehensive and trustworthy travel insurance that will cover you for almost everything while you’re living in Guatemala. You can apply online and they have a great service team. Prices vary depending on your nationality but an Albertan travelling to Guatemala for 2 months, will probably pay around $270 for full coverage.
Meals out in restaurants will cost you around $5 – $10 / plate, while a beer at the bar will be between 10Q – 20Q ($1.67 – $3.34). If you’re into scuba diving, the Iguana Hostel is the only place on the lake with a dive shop and a regular 1 tank fun dive will cost you around $40 CAD. There are also lots of beautiful hikes to take around the lake and up the surrounding volcanos. Most of these cost between $30 – $100 / day. There are also Spanish lessons for between $5 and $10 / hour, and Kayaks are available for rent for around $5 / hour, though many hotels offer them for free. There are also plenty of opportunities to volunteer to help out the local communities. Consider offering up some of your time to teach English or a special skill to the youths and less fortunate villagers around the lake, it’s rewarding and it gets you closer to the local communities.
For a comfortable lifestyle on Lake Atitlan, living in a nice 1 or 2 bedroom flat, eating out at restaurants once a week, enjoying beer and wine every day and indulging on foreign and local groceries, a couple can expect to pay around $1500 / month. Of course, if you’d like to live on a real tight budget, you could probably get this down to just $800 / month, but you’re here to enjoy the place, so we recommend that you don’t scrimp too much! Lake Atitlan is a delightfully affordable place to travel, and there is even better value for money if you choose to live here.