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Santa Catarina Palopo & San Antonio Palopo

These two Kaquichel Maya towns on the northeastern shore of the lake are connected to Panajachel by a well-paved road, and are also accessible by regular water taxi service. Santa Catarina Palopó is particularly well known for its distinctive huipil of dark blues and greens with intricate embroidery. San Antonio Palopó is where the paved road ends and a dirt road continues around the lake. Both towns have tight streets packed with homes and businesses that rise from the lake shore, as well as churches in their town centers. The brilliantly whitewashed church in San Antonio Palopó is especially pretty, with an enviable perch and fantastic view over Lake Atitlán. San Antonio Palopó is often a featured stop in the organized lake tours sold out of Panajachel.

Although the walk isn't particularly picturesque, and you have to be careful of passing traffic, you can walk from Panajachel to San Antonio. There are some great views from the side of the road as you arrive in San Antonio Palopó. Whether you're walking or driving, be sure to stop here. It takes between 2 and 2 1/2 hours to walk one-way. You could walk there and back, or simply walk one-way and grab a taxi or hitchhike back. Hitchhiking between San Antonio Palopó and Panajachel during the day is relatively safe, but avoid doing so at night or at any other places around the lake.

The Northwest Shore of Lake Atitlan

Many of the boats leaving Panajachel for San Pedro La Laguna make a series of stops at a handful of small villages and isolated hotels that line the northwestern shore of Lake Atitlán.

San Marcos La Laguna and Santa Cruz La Laguna are two small communities on the northwestern shores of Lake Atitlán. Both are set on high hillsides above the lakeshore. However, each has a selection of small hotels spread along the water's edge. I particularly like San Marcos, which features a delightful warren of narrow stone and dirt paths winding through thick gardens and forest.

For some reason, these two towns have developed as hot spots for yoga retreats and holistic getaways, with several hotels in each town catering to this niche. The most serious and long-standing yoga retreat and meditation centers in the area are Las Pirámides (tel. 502/5205-7151; www.laspiramidesdelka.com), which was inaugurated on the summer solstice more than 15 years ago and continues to offer a full range of retreats, classes, and treatments, and Villa Sumaya , a somewhat newer option giving them a run for their money.

One of the smallest towns along the lakeshore, Jaibalito is home to the hotel La Casa del Mundo.

Solola

Sololá sits at a strategic point between Lake Atitlán and the Pan-American Highway. Even before the highways were built and the Spanish arrived, Sololá was a major trading post connecting various coastal, lake, and highland communities. To this day, Sololá's Tuesday and Friday markets are some of the largest in the highlands. The markets are anything but the typical tourist haunt, and are primarily for buying and selling among the various highland communities. However, you can find excellent textile products and some arts and crafts here. Sololá is one of the few towns where the men still wear the elaborate traditional garb, with shirts featuring intricate embroidery over multicolored cloth; the cut of the shirt looks like something out of the American Old West.

Sololá is located on a well-paved road 8km (5 miles) from Panajachel. A taxi from Panajachel should cost around Q30 to Q45 ($4-$6/£2-£3). You can also hitch a ride here on any number of buses plying the route between Panajachel and Los Encuentros.

Iximche & Tecpan

When Iximché was founded in 1465, the Kaqchiquel were at war with the Ki'ché, and the town's location, atop a long narrow plateau with steep ravines on either side, was chosen for its natural defenses. Today, the ruins at Iximché are made up of four large plazas that demark distinct religious and residential areas. There's one particularly well-maintained ball court and several large temple structures. At one end of the site there's a mound that remains an active site of Maya worship, and it's quite common to see locals lighting candles and incense and making offerings.

When the conquistador Pedro de Alvarado founded the first capital of Guatemala in 1524, he placed it next to Iximché, a Kaqchiquel capital city, near the present-day town of Tecpán. However, Kaqchiquel unrest and uprisings soon forced Alvarado to move the Spanish capital to the site of present-day Ciudad Vieja.

While nowhere near as spectacular as Tikal or Copán, Iximché is very well preserved, and a visit here is definitely worthwhile for anyone interested in ancient Maya culture and architecture.

The archaeological site is open daily from 8am until 5pm. Admission is Q30 ($4/£2). Tecpán is located just off the Pan-American Highway about halfway between Los Encuentros and Chimaltenango. From Tecpán it's just 5km (3 miles) along a well-paved road to the ruins. The best way to visit the site is as part of a guided tour. All of the agencies in Panajachel offer guided tours to Iximché and Tecpán. Rates run around Q150 to Q300 ($20-$40/£10-£20) for a half-day tour including transportation and a light lunch.

Note: This information was accurate when it was published, but can change without notice. Please be sure to confirm all rates and details directly with the companies in question before planning your trip.