Our next stop on Lago de Atitlan was San Marcos la Laguna, a town I had heard mentioned often during my travels in the region. San Marcos is a small Mayan town on the banks of the spiritual lake that has also become a remote haven for hippies.
Whatever you’re imagining, up the intensity two fold and you may have an accurate picture of San Marcos. Yoga hostels, meditation retreats, crystal healers, energy alignment, homemade kombucha, aquaculture, acupuncture, natural medicine, superfoods, mushroom growing workshops, sound healing, cacao ceremonies, astrologists, star children of all makes and sizes: you can find it all there.
When we stepped off the rickety motor boat that carried us across the massive crater lake it felt as if we were stepping into a different world. The entrance of the town is a small dirt path weaving out of sight through arched trees and floral bushes. Independent artists lined the path, selling crystal necklaces and hemp bracelets. Posters and flyers for drum circles and sound healing were plastered over the walls of juice shops and clothing boutiques. Dreadlocked, barefoot people of all colors and ages walked past in flowing skirts and pants and scarves.
It happened to be my 25th birthday (!!!!), so we splurged on a private hotel room for the night. We searched out a hotel called Lush, a sprawling, beautiful affair complete with recycled material murals and expansive gardens. We lucked into one of their budget rooms and only paid $20 for the night!
Then we set off to explore the town. The main dirt path weaved through San Marcos, connecting hostels and yoga retreats and natural remedy shops. There is still a Mayan community in San Marcos, but it exists across a small bridge and river, almost entirely separate from the expat hippie village we were seeing.
The Yoga Forest
On the advice of an old friend who had spent time in San Marcos, we searched out the Yoga Forest. It was indicated on the tourist map we received, but only with a number and an arrow pointing off the map. We trekked out to the edge of town where the arrow pointed and were amused to find hand painted signs and tree trunks pointing us toward the Yoga Forest.
We trudged through the woods, every moment expecting to come upon some sort of yoga sanctuary. Yet the path kept going, curling past the last houses of the town into the trees. Fifteen minutes later we were beginning to doubt our decision. We had not been intending to take a hike. Where was this place?
Finally we came across it: a large wooden gate with a hand painted Yoga Forest sign. We hesitated. Could we simply enter? Was it a private resort? The sign indicated public yoga classes but we had missed that day’s class by several hours.
Luckily, after a few minutes of debating our options a sun-kissed flower child approached from inside. He left through the gate and encouraged us to enter. Inside, we continued down the path, passing a few yurts before climbing a steep wooden staircase up the cliff in front of us. At the top we found a gorgeous open wooden structure where a handful of people were drinking tea and lounging on floor cushions.
They explained that the place was a self-sustained farm and yoga retreat. Large groups or businesses would come and stay for days or weeks, eating food fresh from the farm and studying yoga with one of the resident teachers.
One of the leaders took us on a tour of the farm. She showed us their aquaculture terraces and duck ponds and explained their plans for sustainable tilapia farming. Despite my general distaste for blatant Western transformation of traditional spaces, I couldn’t help but admire the ethics and sustainability of this organization.
We chatted some more, sipped some of their signature kombucha, and then headed back down the hill. It was an interesting glimpse of the ethos and lifestyle of expats in San Marcos.
On the recommendation of the Yoga Forest people, we had lunch at a vegan, nutrient- rich restaurant named Medicine Foods. I was still feeling under the weather from last week’s food poisoning, so we ordered some tummy-calming juices. It was all delicious and relaxing and wonderful.
A Birthday Dinner in San Marcos la Laguna
After a few more hours spent exploring and shopping, we returned to Lush for a well-deserved break. We decided to eat my birthday dinner at the hotel, which had a restaurant known for gourmet seasonal meals. When we sat down to dinner, we were thrilled to find that there was live music for the evening.
The musicians were a sight. They were a man and a woman, barefoot, dreadlocked, outfitted in flowy scarves and bangles, shimmering marks traced in glitter on their faces. She stood just over five feet, strumming a guitar and singing in a beautifully haunting voice. He sat besides her playing a lilting flute line that lifted the guitarist from standard singer songwriter to a startling beautiful set. We watched in awe as they played, too impressed by their sounds to think twice about their appearance.
It was interesting to watch their interaction with the audience as well. They were clearly long-term locals here, and friends and fans from San Marcos had come out to watch them play. We sat quietly eating our incredible local vegetarian meal, observing this strange expat community of far-flung flower children gathered around a mystical lake in Central America.
Jumping in Lago de Atitlan
We attended one lovely yoga class the next morning before taking a hike into the local nature reserve. The reserve featured a long path along the edge of the lake and one massive platform leap into the water. The leap was heart-stopping and I only managed to do it once…but do it I did. The water was crisp and refreshing. It was moving to be submerged in the lake that formed the basis of all these little communities.
Afterwards we hopped on a boat to move onward. The next day we were starting a week of Spanish classes in San Pedro la Laguna, a larger lakeside town. Although I thoroughly enjoyed our day there, I was glad wave goodbye to San Marcos by the time we left. It was nice to have a day of English language, clean vegetarian food, and yoga, but I was in Guatemala to experience Guatemala, not a modern-day outpost of Woodstock.
Bonus Track: A Local Festival in San Marcos la Laguna
We weren’t quite done with San Marcos yet. A few days later, we found out that there was an annual festival happening in the village. We caught a boat back over for the evening and were amazed to see the hippie village transformed.
The alleys and squares were packed with Mayans coming together to celebrate their village. There were hundreds of vendors selling local delicacies and goods. Traditional Mayan bands (complete with three-person marimbas) roared out of speakers on the center stage.
We were surprised and excited to stumble into a crowd of people in the courtyard of a building. They were gathered around the edges, watching a traditional dance unfolding in the center. The dancers were dressed in garish colors and sporting large masks. The dance was slow and fascinating, with a constantly rotating cast of characters.
The whole event was an excellent insight into local culture. We were glad to find that San Marcos hasn’t been completely overrun by hippies!