A sleepy town known for yoga and the healing arts…
Two weeks after quitting a high-stress job in Boston, I’m standing on the shores of Lake Atitlán in southwestern Guatemala. I can see why writer Aldous Huxley called Atitlán, the most beautiful lake in the world. Twelve miles across at its widest point, the lake’s glassy surface reflects the shifting light, clouds, and the blue cones of the surrounding volcanos.
Although the lake has long attracted foreign visitors, the towns and villages around Atitlán largely conserve their traditional Mayan culture. Women in handwoven huipils brush shoulders with hippies and backpackers in the narrow, cobblestoned streets.
My plan is to travel from here to San Marcos de la Laguna. A sleepy town known for yoga and the healing arts, San Marcos sounds like the ideal spot to begin my new life as a writer.
Shuttle boats depart regularly from the public docks at Panajachel, the lake’s largest and most accessible town located 30 miles west of Antigua.
Much to my amusement, I end up sharing a boat with four drunk teenage boys from the nearby city of Chichicastenango. Our skipper tries to impress them by gunning the engine, churning the lake’s placid surface. My companions giggle and curse as we bump across the waves, sending empty beer cans skittering across the deck. To my relief, the boys do not get off at San Marcos, but continue on to San Pedro, which is better known for its party scene.
At the dock in San Marcos, I’m met by a group of children who offer to show me to my hotel for a tip. I follow them down the narrow footpath, lined with colorful murals, which serves as San Marco’s main thoroughfare. Five minutes later we arrive at Hostel del Lago, my home for the next ten days.
Hostel del Lago
Hostel del Lago looks like a cross between a summer camp and a spa. The first thing notice is the “Health Peak,” a blue and glass chalet where guests can book massage, reiki or reflexology treatments.
My room in the turquoise bungalow next door is basic but clean, with gingham curtains and heavy furniture carved with Mayan designs. I don’t plan on spending much time there. I’d rather lounge on the communal lakeside terrace. The colorful, mismatched furniture and rough-hewn staircases, leading up to tree-level balconies, give the place a Swiss Family Robinson feel.
I lean back in an adirondack chair, sipping the local kombucha, and my stress slips away like the clouds across the volcanos.
Besides Kombucha, the restaurant/bar serves alcohol, local coffee, cacao and food prepared by local Mayan chefs. The menu includes hamburgers, Thai curry and salads, in addition to traditional Guatemalan beans and rice. I especially enjoy the freshly toasted corn tortillas, thicker and chewier than the Mexican variety commonly served in the US.
The hostel hosts events almost every night—concerts, movies, karaoke—which bring in the local expat crowd. The atmosphere, at least during my stay, is friendly but low key. The highlight of Karaoke night is a staff member’s six year-old singing Taylor Swift’s “Shake it off.”
The Yoga Platform
The best reason to stay at Hostel del Lago is the Yoga Platform. Cantilevered over the water, multi-colored flags fluttering in the wind, the open platform looks as though it’s about to set sail across the lake at any moment. Lifting into a Warrior III pose, you have the sensation of flying over the water. Classes are offered daily at 7:30 and 9:00 a.m.
The first class, billed as advanced, is sparsely attended. Most days it’s just me, one other guest, the teacher’s boyfriend, and her faithful labrador, who gazes longingly over the gate as we practice. Michelle, an Australian expat, takes us through a vigorous but playful vinyasa, with opportunities for advanced arm balances.
The 9 a.m. class is better attended. Sarah’s fluid, Hatha style is accessible to any level. On Tuesdays I attend Osnat’s Ashtanga Inspired Vinyasa. Her teaching is also on par with the level 2/3 classes I take in Boston.
San Pedro Volcano
After a few days indulging in lakeside languor, I’m ready to get out and explore. Although Lake Atitlán is generally safe for tourists, as a woman traveling alone I still have some trepidation about hiking on my own. I’m unable to find any group excursions from San Marcos, so I book through an agency in town.
My guide, Toño, is a native of San Pedro who speaks Tz’utujil and Kaqchikel Mayan in addition to Spanish and English. As we climb through the cornfields and coffee plantations, he tells me about his childhood playing and gathering firewood on the volcano’s slopes. Now, as a guide, he climbs up and down as many as five times a day.
I like to think I’m in better shape than the average tourist, but the higher we climb, the more often I stop to catch my breath. The lake itself is already over 1,500 feet above sea level, and to reach the summit we must ascend another 4,500 feet. About an hour into the hike, the vegetation changes. The trees drip with moss and vines. Spiky red bromeliads sprout from every rock and crevice.
According to Toño, the hike usually takes between three and five hours. After just under three hours we emerge from the jungle onto a rocky ledge overlooking the lake. Toño says we are lucky to have a clear view. Even as we watch, sheets of mist begin to slide across the lake. Over the next thirty minutes, the mist rises and expands until we are in the heart of a dense, wet cloud.
Back in San Marcos, I treat myself to an acupressure massage at East West Center Atitlán. With a few small, deft manipulations, the practitioner releases tension I didn’t even know I carried.
Although I wish I never had to leave, I know I will return from Lake Atitlán reenergized to face the next chapter in my life.
**All photos taken by author