This page contains affiliate links. Please read our disclosure for more info.
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.
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.
A 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.
It’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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
We 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.
Thanks so much for the information and your quick response. Very much appreciated!
Is it a busy road …safe to walk or just rough ? How much are tuktuks .
No, there is hardly any traffic, just an occasional tuktuk which cost 10Q ($1.30). You just need decent shoes as it’s a rocky path.
Great blog! Thank you for all the wonderful information. My husband and I are thinking of travelling for 2 months to Guatemala next Jan- Feb 2017. We were hoping to stay in Pasajcap for about one month and also take Spanish lessons there. Is walking doable to the Spanish school in San Marcus from there each day or is there a closer/ better option (other than staying elsewhere.). What have you heard about the school? What other places would you recommend visiting for the other month? I have read mixed safety opinions . If we took reasonable safety precautions what places would you consider safe to travel to ?
Thanks so much !
There is nothing between Pasajcap and the centre of San Marcos, so the Spanish school there would be nearest. It takes 15-20 minutes on a pretty rough road, but you could always get a tuktuk if you got tired of the walk.
We didn’t travel anywhere else in Guatemala except Antigua, but that’s definitely worth visiting.
Just a quick one. I’m a seasoned traveler and I am planning to visit Guatemala Jan/Feb/March of next year. I have been keying in on San Marcus. My plan is flexible, but for now I want the first month or two at someplace with ambiance to just relax—lay back for a while and enjoy. The last month I’ll bum around where ever the road (and fellow traveler’s tips) take me, which is my usual mode of travel.
I have never booked ahead, and am leery to do so for an extended stay. I like to come into a town and find a place on my own so I can see what I am going to get. I am fascinated by what you found and would be interested in booking the same based on your recommendation.
I also have a concern of finding places which are scattered around the lake with only boat travel to them. My Spanish is rusty but I can get by.
However, my question is: “would I be better booking ahead this time?” San Marcos appears to be a popular destination. Calender’s fill spotty with week long travelers and the difference between being on the water near the water is monumental. For this trip, I am adamant about having a decent view from my habitation (patio or balcony included) . I have found this is the paramount difference for an extended stay between having a good winter and a great winter and am willing to go the distance for it.
Any information to help me make the decision would be appreciated.
If you’d like to stay at Pasajcap (which we loved) then you’ll need to book in advance as it’s very popular. If not then I’m sure you’ll find somewhere once you arrive. We have some tips on finding a place in this post: http://www.neverendingvoyage.com/guide-living-san-marcos-la-laguna-lake-atitlan/ Good luck!
Nice, thorough post. You’ve really captured the essence of the place. We have now stayed at Pasaj-Cap five times and fully intend to keep coming back. The place just gets in your blood. But we do find ourselves doing less and less every time we visit – apparently reading, writing, relaxing and going for the occasional swim or walk is enough to keep us occupied (along with the views, of course).
We are in Bali now (which has also been amazing so far) and have started using your Trail Wallet app. Works really well, except for Laynni asking me what we spent on everything all the time. Sometimes a little obliviousness can go a long way when it comes to spending money. But a very handy tool, nonetheless.
Anyway, hope the travels are going well, maybe we’ll cross paths again sometime down the road.
Thank you Dean and it’s lovely to hear from you. I wouldn’t be surprised if we ended up back at Pasajcap at some point.
And thanks for giving Trail Wallet a try! Enjoy Bali!
Guatemala is the one destination on the rough itinerary for my upcoming RTW trip that I am still a bit wary about. I know that I absolutely have to visit, it’s been at the top of my list for a while as it seems the perfect combination of awesome history and beautiful natural landscape which is perfect for me. But still a little bit worried about safety as a solo female traveller.
I think you’ll be fine, especially on the usual tourist route and if you take shuttle buses. We didn’t feel unsafe at all and there were plenty of solo female travellers around.