Lake Atitlán, Guatemala

Sunsets on the lake, smoking volcanoes, glamping tents, and new friends from around the world drinking free beer at nightly family-style dinners.

It felt like this magic would last forever. Unfortunately, all these good things come to an end when a mystery travel illness gets involved.

Before I get ahead of myself, here’s a recap of the highs and lows I experienced while visiting Lake Atitlán in Guatemala!


The shuttle ride from Antigua to Panajachel, Guatemala was the ultimate test of my motion sickness limits, but thankfully, my extroverted personality helped keep me occupied. I spent the four-hour drive chatting with a British woman near me, who taught French, had au paired in France, and was also obsessed with tracking travel experiences on her Been app.

But once I made it to Pana, I was off on my own! I found the water taxi and proudly asked for the Free Cerveza dock.

Staying at Free Cerveza was an experience I knew would be a highlight of the trip, and I was totally right. This hostel was even one of the things that sparked my interest in visiting this region, to begin with!

Free Cerveza is a self-proclaimed glamping hostel that felt a lot to me like an adult summer camp. Think of free stand-up paddleboards and yoga classes, tents and casitas instead of typical dorms, an outdoor common space that doubles as a full restaurant and bar. Plus, those two magic words: free beer!

As the hostel name suggests, each evening during the two hours before dinner, anyone who signed up to eat also receives unlimited free beer. At 5 PM sharp each evening, the hostel volunteers rang a bell and screamed “FREE BEEEEER!” It was always the most important announcement of the day.

Sounds like a party, right? As soon as I checked in, I received a free beer, unpacked my things, and took some time to relax in a hammock. During dinner, I met lots of fun Irish, Dutch, and German people, and we all went to Panajachel that evening with the hostel volunteers.

The volunteers working at Free Cerveza had organized a night out for us, as well as water taxis from and back to the hostel’s dock. I had a great time out, made it back by 1 AM, and rested up for the next day!


Unfortunately, I learned that my Irish tentmate Rhyannon was not so lucky, as she missed the water taxi back to the hostel and didn’t make it back until the next morning… This is your reminder to stay alert and never miss your transport while solo traveling, people!!

I took Monday as a chill day. I drank a green smoothie, read my book in a hammock, and tanned out on the dock. I genuinely just stayed at the hostel all day – and had a great time while doing it! Free Cerveza may not have been a five-star all-inclusive resort, but it felt just like it to me and my fellow backpackers!

That night, I joined the group for free beer, trivia (my team definitely lost), dinner, and card games before heading to bed. I also responded to an intriguing offer to join in on a yacht party the next day…


I finally took advantage of the many free activities at my hostel on Tuesday morning by participating in a yoga class. Then, I ate breakfast and rested up a bit before an afternoon of drinking and partying. It’s all about balance, y’all!!

I left with Rhyannon to take a water taxi to San Pedro, a different town on Lake Atitlán. We explored the area a bit and I tried to withdraw some cash at an ATM with my one last credit card (it didn’t work). We also met up with Yoni, an Israeli-American solo backpacker I met through my Acatenango trek group.

The night before, Yoni had invited us to join him for a yacht party some friends had invited him to. You know I couldn’t say no to that! At the last minute, he warned me that this was actually an Israeli party and I might stick out a bit, but it was too late to back down by then.

And that’s how I ended up at an Israeli boat party in the middle of a lake in rural Guatemala. Sounds strange, especially because I couldn’t communicate with anyone, but I still had a fantastic time!

Rhyannon and I grabbed some shwarma in town after the party, since apparently Israeli tourism is huge in this town and there was Israeli food all over. We grabbed the last water taxi back to Free Cerveza and headed to dinner and beer, which is always the best part of the day.

I sat down with a random group at dinner with the amazing pick-up line, “OMG I hear that y’all speak English – me too!” They ended up being from the U.K., Israel, the U.S., South Africa, and Ireland. After dinner and games, the common area turned into an impromptu international dance floor. Such a dream!


Even after a night of sleep, I was exhausted on Wednesday morning. I did my best to recover with a breakfast burrito and some chill time reading my book. I also did a couple of video calls, as I realized that day that my visa to France was going to be delayed. Yikes.

The main event for the day was a Guatemalan cooking class, led by one of the chefs at the hostel’s restaurant. She definitely did most of the work and even laughed at some of our attempts, but it was a fun experience nonetheless. We learned how to make Guatemalan tamales, which were delicious!

Then, I headed over to Panajachel to explore. I found an ATM and finally got out enough cash to pay my tab (yay!). I also explored the various street markets and met a group of Canadian guys while heading back to Free Cerveza.

I had planned to explore Santa Cruz, the town where my hostel was, as well, but I was still tired and didn’t feel great. I genuinely couldn’t tell if I was nauseated from the craziness of the day before, the heat and humidity, motion sickness from the boat rides, or an actual illness I was contracting.

Honestly, it may have been a mix of all of these… But I quickly learned that I was, in fact, sick with something worse than a slight hangover.

I took a nap before dinner, but still didn’t feel good enough for free beer, most of my food, or much socializing at all. I headed to bed early, and that began a night of going to the bathroom every half hour or so.


I will never know if this mystery illness was caused by something I ate, a virus I got from staying in shared rooms everywhere, or accidentally brushing my teeth with unfiltered water pumped directly from the dirty lake (whoops). Even once I returned home, saw a doctor, and had tests done, I did not receive a decisive diagnosis.

What I do know is that after this experience, I will be far more careful not to get sick when traveling in the future. I’m so grateful that my mom made me pack an extensive variety of medications – the Tums, Advil, Tylenol, Imodium, and electrolyte powder all ended up being a huge help as I worked to get my body feeling better.

So on Thursday, I definitely did not make it to the morning yoga class as I had promised my friends. I spent the entire day in bed with a fever. My super sweet Austrian tentmate got me lots of water, but it was useless trying to consume much of anything else.


Unfortunately, I still didn’t feel much better on Friday, and I had a nauseating 4-hour shuttle bus drive back to Guatemala City ahead of me… Lovely. I still hadn’t gone more than an hour at once without a bathroom run, so I knew this would be interesting.

The hostel owner gave me a Powerade, a banana, and some ibuprofen when I checked out, and then I was on my way. I took the water taxi to Pana with one of the hostel volunteers, who ended up being on my same shuttle.

That shuttle ride was as miserable as expected, but I did in fact make it to my hotel in Guatemala City eventually. I rested all evening, drank tons of water, and somehow made it to the airport in a sketchy unmarked taxi the next morning.

Lessons Learned

My first few days staying at Free Cerveza at Lake Atitlán, Guatemala were absolutely incredible. I loved my little solo vacation and made so many friends along the way!

While I don’t know for sure what caused my mystery illness, I have vowed to never again brush my teeth with tap water pumped directly from a dirty lake.

Would I visit Lake Atitlán again despite this horrible experience at the end? Absolutely! I highly recommend it as a peaceful vacation spot, I would just also recommend that you’re careful with what you are consuming, especially when it comes to non-purified water.

2 responses to “Lake Atitlán, Guatemala”

  1. […] Mexico City, Oaxaca, Antigua, Acatenango, and Lake Atitlán, I headed on to Caye Caulker, Belize. The beginning of the […]


  2. Just gorgeous pictures! Thanks for sharing, I enjoyed the read. You may also enjoy my site about plants. Have a marvelous day!


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