Travel Stories » ,

The Hippie Village Of San Marcos at Lake Atitlan

It takes time to get to know water.

Every beach, river and lake has its own character and the nature of it is often as profound as the waters are deep. Lake Atitlan in Guatemela has its own special story; once a volcano in its own right it erupted in a mountain of fire, smoke and ash, turning the skies black before collapsing in on itself. Over the years the remaining crater filled up with rainwater to make it one of the largest lakes in Latin America. Periphery channels of lava escaped to the sides and surged up as volcanoes in their own right, reflected in the surface on a still day.

At San Marcos I spent the days watching the games of light being played out on the surface of the waters. The drifting dance of clouds released a shower of diamonds of light, skipping across the waves like a swarm of photons. Another bank of cloud would then sweep a somber complexion across the water and a mist would rise from the far banks like a memory.

All the while the dominant volcano of San Pedro reigned the view, crowned in clouds and making all the villages dotted around the shores seem smaller than ever. Motor boats ferried people across the lake and fishermen paddled their kayaks to the secret places where they’d left their nets; spinning their oar from one hand to the other they effused a grace and harmony with the lake that came only with a lifetime love affair with the water. As they passed by they’d wave to me and I’d see how successful their day had been. I often wondered what would happen I they dropped their oar – they never carried a spare.

And after about two weeks of going every day to sit on an outstretched rock, play some guitar and meditate until the sunset, I began to hear the voice of Lake Atilan. The words arrived with every wave like forgotten prophets and the mood varied with the caprices of the wind. There were days when the lake was angry, punishing the rocks with resounding slaps and the water seemed dark and ominous. Other days it seemed like peace had finally come to Earth, the water undulating in tender swells of blue and green, the lake a stage for the last dance of light as the sun drew closer to the master of the lake the volcano of San Pedro.

As I was contemplating this a young woman came running past me and hurled herself off the rocks with a piercing scream… and landed safely below with a loud splash in a deep place. It seemed a long way down and without any health insurance I dreaded to think what might happen if I slipped.

“You’re just a typical soft Pommy!” A guy from New Zealand smiled at me before hurling himself off without a trace of fear. I made up my mind to jump the next day but it was never to be.

I’d arrived two weeks before to find that all the guest houses in San Marcos were all out of my price range. I was about to return to the cheaper village of San Pedro when I bumped into a German resident who suggested I ask at a local Italian restaurant if they needed some help.

Manuela, the owner, agreed and I was given a little room and all the food I could scrounge from the kitchen in exchange for waiting the tables in the evening. Manuela had first come to the lake at the age of 23 with the intention to travel onto Brasil. 17 years and three children later, she was still here.

Over the years she had been baking bread and pizza to get by, recently opening the restaurant after the Guatemalan civil war came to an end and tourism began to pour in. To start with she just had two tables in her front garden and on busy nights the guests would eat in her own house. Slowly she expanded until she’s built an entire new building for the kitchen and a tasteful garden with hammocks and stone patios.

Each of her children had a separate father and she received little or no help from any of them.

“But in a way, I don’t mind,” she shrugged, “At least there’s no conflict and I can raise the children how I like.”

Hers was one of five foreign owned restaurants and guest houses in the area. The entire zone from the shore up to the road was all owned and fenced up. In the past couple of years San Marcos has been developing into a kind of Dharma refuge with centres for meditation and therapies cashing in on the renewed interest in the New Age. Everywhere there were posters advertising silent retreats, astrological readings and water rebirthing. The result was that many people walked around looking very pious and spiritual, having intense conversations about ‘energy’. I’m sure the guy from New Zealand would have told them to jump off a rock.

Since a flood in the 60’s that washed away many homes, the village of San Marcos is now situated up the hill, a gruelling climb from where the tourists chanted Om and made Tai Chi. I took a stroll up to the village one day in search of a shop were I might buy a pair of socks. Unable to find any kind of shop open I stopped at the gate of someone’s courtyard to ask. The family came to the fence and exchanged furtive looks.

“Well, you don’t want to buy new socks, do you? Because maybe we have an old pair that we could sell you…”

The days flew by easily and I learnt how to make cappuccinos, tira misu and salsa, serving the customers in English, Spanish and sometimes a bit of Hebrew. It was fun to sit on the other side of the fence and watch backpackers scour the menu for the biggest plate of food at the cheapest price. It was easy work apart from the huge, helicopter bugs of the insect world who liked to dive bomb me as I carried a tray full of wine glasses and desserts. More than once I had to retreat to the kitchen to hide until they went away.

More often than not though I had trouble sleeping at night as some mysterious animal clambered around on the roof. I often woke to the sounds of hissing and sniffling and for a few seconds it felt like I was being hunted. In the morning I could laugh it all away but in the darkness I was too timid to venture out of my room.

And then on the day before I planned to make the big jump from the rock, Manuela took me to the side and, with an awkward smile, suggested that perhaps things weren’t working out. There didn’t seem like much point in arguing the toss but I never really found out why I lost the job. Perhaps I was eating too many of the cakes.

I took it as a nudge from the angels to be on my way and the next morning I was down at the wharf to jump on the next motor boat. Lake Atilan was I a good mood and I let my hand stroke the water as we skimmed along. After Two weeks of Tira Misu and afternoon meditation I was strong enough to get back on the road.