The caldera created by a massive volcanic explosion, one of the strongest explosions in earth's history, formed the basin for what is today arguably the most picturesque lake in the world: Lake Atitlán in Guatemala.
Aldous Huxley famously described this lake as, “really, too much of a good thing.” It’s beautiful by day and stunning at sunrise and sunset. With a near-perfect climate, easy access to the United States, a moderate cost of living, and reasonable access to health care, Lake Atitlán and the surrounding villages are a potentially ideal retirement choice.
American Mike Anderson and his wife have just made Atitlán their second home. They are converting an old 45-foot cargo boat into a live-aboard vessel. “If you're going to live on a scenic lake surrounded by 12 distinct indigenous villages, why not live on all of it?” says Anderson. “If the natural attractions of the lake weren't enough to remind me daily that I've made the best possible decision to base myself now in Guatemala, I've met the most interesting people since I've been here, both expats and locals.”
The natural beauty of the region is perhaps the biggest attraction for the expats and retirees who are settling here. The other major draw is the cost of living. Clarke Pool, a retiree living in Barrio Norte of Panajachel, one of the dozen or so villages that surround the shores of Lake Atitlán, figures that he’s living on 40 percent of what it would cost to enjoy a comparable lifestyle in the United States.
Wherever you decide to consider for retirement overseas, you should rent a place to live before investing in a home of your own. In Atitlán, the rental market ranges from tiny, primitive rooms in indigenous houses for 400 quetzals per month (about $50) to luxury vacation rentals costing upwards of $1,500 per week. It’s hard to generalize about such a large and varied area, and each village is very different, offering distinct views and different standards of living. In Santa Cruz La Laguna, you could rent an attractive apartment or house long-term for as little as $250 per month. In San Marcos, a nice three-bedroom house might rent for $500 to $600 per month. In Jaibalito, you’ll find a selection of rustic apartments and houses from as little as $150 per month.
For stunning views, the north and northeast sides of the lake are most popular. However, Panajachel and the villages on the west side offer more amenities and bigger expat communities. You can find inexpensive rentals by reading the notices on bulletin boards in the tourist hangouts in the villages that appeal to you and by asking around. Someone will point you to a good deal. For a more upscale place, you’re probably better off using a real estate agent.
Life on Lake Atitlán is not for everyone. Much of the lake’s shoreline is accessible only by boat. The hills above the lake are equally inaccessible except by foot paths and the occasional bumpy road. Still, for the right person, the sweet, simple, very affordable life this tiny spot offers could equate to bliss.
Anderson and another American retiree, Kini, recently reflected on their move to the lake. “We have found a place far from politicians conspiring against our pensions, insulated from economic and currency crises, removed from everything that we both once believed to be so important,” says Anderson. “Somehow, here in what many would dismiss as a most unlikely spot, he and I both have managed to arrive at that most elusive of all destinations: home.”
Kathleen Peddicord is the founder of the Live and Invest Overseas publishing group. With more than 25 years experience covering this beat, Kathleen reports daily on current opportunities for living, retiring, and investing overseas in her free e-letter. Her book, How To Retire Overseas—Everything You Need To Know To Live Well Abroad For Less, was recently released by Penguin Books.