Our Temporary Home at Lake Atitlán, Guatemala

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We were in need of stillness. Of quiet, focus, routine.

We found it at Lake Atitlán in Guatemala. Our apartment, near the small village of San Marcos, is built into the mountainside and surrounded by fruit trees and colourful flowers—coffee, banana, papaya, lime, jocote, bougainvillea, angel’s trumpets, and many more I can’t identify.

Pasajcap, San Marcos, Atitlan
Entrance to our apartment
Pasajcap, San Marcos, Atitlan
Our garden
Angel's trumpets, Pasajcap, San Marcos, Atitlan
Angel’s trumpets

Every morning we wake up with the sun and roosters to the expansive lake and its three volcanoes Atitlán, Toliman, and San Pedro.

Our apartment is designed to maximise the view with large windows that slide open to let the outside in: the breeze and birdsong along with scorpions and giant bees. The volcanoes and lake are ever present—when we’re lying in bed, cooking in the kitchen, even when taking a shower. We watch its changing colours and moods.

Apartment at Pasajcap, San Marcos, Atitlan Apartment at Pasajcap, San Marcos, AtitlanA steep walk down the hill brings us to the lake. From the rickety private dock we can jump into the cool water, or flag down a passing lancha to take us to one of the villages.

Simon jumping from dock at Apartment at Pasajcap, San Marcos, Lake Atitlan Lake Atitlan view from PasajcapIt’s quiet here. There are no distractions, not even a shop close by. We’ve hardly gone anywhere—we haven’t hiked a volcano, gone kayaking, or toured the villages. Sometimes the urge to explore fades and we’re content to revel in routine. Simon rarely leaves the apartment, he’s so immersed in his projects. I run, go to yoga classes, write, swim, and experiment with vegan baking.

My morning runs are challenging. I stumble on the rocky trails, gasp for breath up the many hills, my lungs burning at the 1585m altitude. But it’s one of the most beautiful places I’ve run, and I don’t need music or podcasts to entertain me.

I run through Tzununa, a traditional Mayan village. Pigs, fluffy chicks, plump ducks, and scraggly dogs wander the cobbled streets. I pass women in vibrant embroidered blouses carrying baskets of corn to be ground into masa dough, or back with the masa, ready to be made into tortillas, the staple of Guatemalan cuisine. The teenage boys wear jeans and t-shirts, the men broad cowboy hats and machetes. The kids call out “hola” or, the more confident ones, “hello”; the elders a polite “buenos días”. I must look strange to them—there aren’t many runners around here—but they withhold comment.

San Marcos, Lake Atitlan
View on my run outside San Marcos
Road from Pasajcap to San Marcos, Atitlan
The road to San Marcos

Our nearest village is San Marcos La Laguna, a 15 minute walk away along a rough dirt track, the lake on one side, the forest covered mountains brightened with yellow flowers and red coffee beans on the other. There’s no street lighting and traffic is rare, just the occasional three wheeled tuktuk or pick up truck crammed with passengers.

The village’s main plaza consists of three small tiendas, an even smaller health food shop, a simple restaurant I’ve never seen anyone in, a desolate children’s playground, occasional tamales stalls, and a few women sat on the floor selling fruit and vegetables. Next door is a basketball court where we were pleased to see a girl’s team playing.

San Marcos La Laguna main square on a busy day
San Marcos La Laguna main square on a busy day

From the main road a pedestrian track leads towards the dock through a jungly maze of gringo restaurants and guest houses; local women sat on the floor selling banana bread and bracelets. Narrow dirt paths veer off through the avocado and banana trees, and at first we felt like we were intruding in someone’s backyard.

Paths by dock in San Marcos La Laguna, Lake Atitlan
San Marcos’s maze of paths
Vegetable stand, San Marcos La Laguna, Lake Atitlan
Our favourite vegetable stand

San Marcos is known as the spiritual village and signs on noticeboards advertise events like the Spiritual Sexual Shamanic Experience, Conscious Cacao Ecstatic Dance, Astrological Acupuncture, Lucid Dreaming Retreat, and Men’s Sacred Circle, along with the more pedestrian yoga, Reiki, and crystal healing.

The Mayan community live up the hill from the plaza, in part of the village that’s hidden at first glance by the vegetation and steep incline. Their first language isn’t Spanish but Kaqchikel, one of three indigenous languages spoken at Lake Atitlán. The women wear traditional dress—colourful patterned blouses, long woven skirts, and a wide belt where they tuck away their mobile phones.

Mayan women on the walk into San Marcos, Lake Atitlan
Mayan women on the walk into San Marcos

The locals are friendly and helpful, but there’s a slight reserve, a sense of separateness: they don’t eat in the same restaurants as we do, speak a language we don’t understand, live a life that seems so different from ours.

And, in all honesty, breaking through the cultural barrier isn’t something we’re here to do. After months of travel staying with friends and family, we’re in hibernation mode, happy to retreat into ourselves, rest, and work towards our goals.

We couldn’t have asked for a more beautiful place for it.

San Marcos, Lake Atilan at sunrise View from Pasajcap, San Marcos, Lake Atitlan Lake Atitlan, GuatemalaWe rented an apartment at Pasajcap which is both the name of the apartment complex and the area between the villages of San Marcos and Tzununa. It’s a beautiful, tranquil place with well-equipped, spacious studio apartments and cottages. The views are stunning, and it’s well run by owner Pierre and his team. We paid $700 a month in the high season; cottages are cheaper. We’ve been here for six weeks, and as our apartment is booked up, are moving to a new house for our final month.

I’ve also written about the costs and practicalities of living in San Marcos

46 Comments

  1. The perfect place to unwind! Gorgeous photo’s… couldn’t ask for a better view. Definitely adding to my (ever growing) list.

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  2. Welcome to the Lake. We live just across the lake from San Marcos in Panajachel. My wife teaches school and my kids attend school here. If you are still in the area and interested in a meetup, please let me know. Love the blog!

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  3. I spent Christmas at Lake Atitlan in San Pedro 2 years ago. We also visited San Marcos and San Juan during our stay. I miss that peaceful lake and its villages and hope to return one day. Your post takes me right back there, thanks :)

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  4. How gorgeous. I could certainly get some writing done in that place! Although, during the four cold, gray months of winter in Munich, Germany, I also get a lot of writing done huddled under a blanket on the couch :D Wish you all the best! Happy travels :)

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  5. Hello, so glad I surfed into your site. I love what you have done here. I admire your ability to travel light, it would be a challenge for me. I see why it is a good idea to do that from an airport perspective, though.

    My daughter, Katie Lee, is in San Marcos La Laguna, too. She has done some baking for Restaurant Fe, if you are familiar with it. The pictures above have given me a good perspective on the little town.

    Hope you have fun for the next month while you are there. I look forward to reading more of your travels. Your site has great information for the traveler on a budget.

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  6. Oh wow. I visited Guatemala last year and loved it. It’s definitely on my list for a longer stay. It looks beautiful :)

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  7. Looks like heaven! I was just telling Zab earlier today that we have to stay there at some point. I’m really interested to see your post soon about the overall costs and practicalities of San Marcos.

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  8. This place is so gorgeous, with all the green…everywhere!
    It’s almost depressing me that I’m not there :D
    Have fun!

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    • It is a wonderfully colourful place. We arrived just after the rainy season so everything was lush and green. It’s beginning to dry out a little now but still lovely.

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  9. Wow! Lake Atitlan looks like something out of a dream! Even with the slightly dodgy internet at times, it’s not hard to see how you’d find the area both inspiring and restorative. We’re looking to take our first trip to Latin America in 2015 starting with Mexico, but I suspect a trip to Guatemala is not far into our future. Whenever we do visit, we’ll have to make sure we spend some time here!

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