September 05, 2006
Not Yet Discovered
Reachable by one of the small public boats, San Marcos, is a small village along the edge of Atitlan Lake in the southwest center of Guatemala, which has the ascendant energy of a place that is at the beginning of being discovered.
Take the dirt-and-cobblestone footpaths of an old Eastern European town, narrow and angled with a drainage ditch alongside. Replace all of the surrounding buildings and roads with a highland jungle stuffed with banana leaves above a floor of fallen avocados.
Sprinkle a few handfuls of bungalows, huts and adobes. Add a lazy lakefront with some ladder-wide tilted docks.
Surround with four or five volcanoes capped and sided in thick tropical green, sentinels half-shrouded in low clouds, retired but still vigilant over the waters.
Stir in Indian head massage, reiki and reflexology, silent meditation retreats and tofu curry. Spread thin alternating layers of Mayan and rural Latino culture.
Your dish is San Marcos de Laguna on the northwestern shore of Lago de Atitlan in the Central Highlands of Guatemala. The dish serves as many as choose to partake.
The jungle-like dirt footpaths connect small houses, a handful of restaurants, an outside country store, a holistic center and not much else. More notably, when facing the lake, your view is of the breathtaking volcanoes on the horizon, with small ‘publico botes’ and fishing boats in the near distance.
Paco Real, a quaint restaurant that resembles a community Swiss pub, was a frequent stop during my way. Set along one of San Marco’s muddy jungle paths, the place served food that belongs in some of the top review columns. Owned by French-Swiss Alain and his Mexican wife, it was one of those special finds that made you feel like an establishment alone could result in you either extending your trip – or not.
A couple of days after the Paco Real discovery, we moved into Aaculaax, an eclectic fantasy ecohotel, which was designed and built by a German visionary craftsman from thousands of recycled bottles and wood, with stained-glass detailing and giant glass butterflies doubling as lampshades.
The Bathroom (squint to see the detail, its worth it....)
Managed by 24 year old sexy Alexis, half Columbian, half German, who added to my visual senses, as if there was not enough already. The room was built into the cliff and the shower shared the same cliff stone wall. Around it was a decadent collection of stained glass in nooks and crannies which continued to surprise.
An outside but covered stained glass workshop circles the restaurant’s lower patio. Above the entrance, beautifully carved stone and glass stairs take you to wonder after wonder, discovery after discovery, all of which are deeply buried in tropical banana leafs, avocado and lemon trees and dense forest.
Stone wall holes are so numerous that ‘creatures of the night’ – some not familiar – make their way into your room after dawn through the cracks and window slats.
Our evening ritual would begin at Paco Real after a sweaty hike, kayack or class at the town’s holistic center, set in the middle of lush flora. We’d nestle up to our fireside blaze and small wooden table with its lonely candle and colorful tapestry on its top. Alain’s wifes cooking was so outstanding that it warrants a mention. Among their orgasmic selections included roasted chicken with mole or curry sauce and fresh sautéed string beans freshly brought in from the nearby village of San Pedro.
Sauteed pineapple was a fun treat too
The monsoon showers started anywhere between 7 and 10 pm and continued throughout the night, leaving the jungle dirt paths filled with large muddy puddles and slippery patches of leaves of various sorts. Water shoes, head lamps and gortex become your best friends after a couple of dreary nights of soaked clothing and wrong turns on unlit paths.
Monsoon season or not, power failures are common, and there are no generators or other mechanisms to kick-start electricity within minutes or even hours. Once you make it to your room and dry off, its time to capture or kill the ‘creatures of the night’ before dozing off to sleep and this is often done by candlelight or headlamp.
Moths, mosquitos, black flies and flat but fairly large dense furry spiders line the adobe, uneven stone walls and ceilings. Many find comfort on the lake-facing windows, which give way to the spectacular views of Atitlan’s body of water below.
Once the evening animal and insect sounds subside, you fall into a series of lucid dreams, just long enough to be jarred back to reality by an early morning rooster or the barking banter of dog packs, which were in abundance in every coastal village.
The shower barely trickles and at times, you may be blessed with one to two minutes of luke warm water, a daily challenge, whether it be to cleanse your body or clothes, often muddy and soiled from walking through muddy paths…….the only way to get from place to place.
Hard life? Perhaps, depending on your perspective, yet those who have chosen this Guatemalan village lifestyle would hardly describe their days on San Marcos or any of the neighboring villages around the lake, as hard.
While obstacles prevail, the spirit of the people and tranquility of the peaceful lake community, tucked away in a tropical jungle-like valley, make the journey more than worth it.
Of all the lakeside villages, San Marcos was by far my favorite, even moreso than the beautifully tucked away corner of Santiago. Overshadowed by the cones of the San Pedro, Atitlan and Toliman volcanoes, it is also a precious find, not to mention the eclectic but much busier bohemian San Pedro, where there’s plenty of bongo-bashing and bong-smoking counterculture in evidence.
Encountered women washing clothes on the other side of the lake, close to Santiago (below)
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