The Magic of San Marcos, Guatemala
January 1, 1970
by Maya Dib
I had never even heard of San Marcos La Laguna. San Marcos found me.
After a few days in Antigua, Guatemala, my partner and I headed towards Panajachel, from where we took a lancha to cross Lake Atitlan. My initial gut feeling was wonderful: I rejoiced at the view of the shiny blue waters and volcanoes peaking all around. Taking in the crisp breeze and dreamy landscape, the lancha driver suddenly parked at a dock and shouted San Marcos! I disembarked and started walking towards, without knowing, what would be the two weeks that were about to change my life.
In the first few seconds, we caught a glimpse of the artistically painted walls sprinkled with colourful flowers, Mayan women in their traditional dresses, the narrow main path – which we ended up all calling Hippie Alley -, holistic centres, the scent of incense in the air, banana and coconut trees, the multiple stray dogs and of course, one cannot omit mentioning the several dreadlocked hippies playing music and making bohemian jewelry. I think I immediately knew I would either fall in love with this village if the people were bona fide, or despise it if they ended up being posers and just in it for the style and trends.
We had two nights booked in a dormitory in Hotel La Paz. Don’t let the hotel part fool you: this is no ordinary hotel. From Hippie Alley, you must walk a couple of minutes on a path leading towards a chunk of jungle vegetation, a tropical paradise of trees, flowers, hiding away a wooden house with a few cabins around it. A beautiful man with long brown hair and peridot green eyes welcomed us warmly and led us to our room. It was almost like a two-storey treehouse on ground with six beds. Uber cozy. Softened lights, Guatemalan textile bedspreads and a friendly kitty greeting us from time to time. Even though we slept far apart, and although the symphony of 200 barking dogs and screeching cats bothered me until I put earplugs in, we slept like babies. La Paz had yoga classes every morning for 40 Quetzales, sacred singing circles and a temazcal – Mayan Sauna – among other courses and treatments. We tried the yoga on our second morning: it took place in the middle of their garden in a quiet corner, on a circular wooden platform. We also went for a few yoga sessions at Hostal del Lago – gorgeous wooden platform with a lake view – and that was also nice. Trying Kundalini and Hatha yoga for the first time was quite the experience. After each yoga class, we ended up feeling energized yet tranquil, as if floating in the air. We couldn’t stop smiling and feeling grateful all day after that. If you can offer yourself this enthralling and sensational moment, go for it.
Now, while we liked the La Paz experience, not having a kitchen was burdensome for us. As a couple of vegan cooking lovers, we decided to move to a dainty and appealing hostel called Circles. The English owner, some friendly Mayan ladies and two volunteers from Quebec welcomed us and showed us to our room. What was originally a four-night stay turned into 12…
New Age Mayan Village
I loved pretty much everything about San Marcos, like the tiny village that it was, making traveling by foot extremely easy. I also enjoyed the countless options of classes that were given, like meditation – including 4-hour cacao ceremonies -, retreats, several types of yoga, Spanish and Mayan language lessons, music, herbal workshops, reiki, metaphysics – check out Las Piramides’ Moon course -, and other holistic practices. On top of that, I relished in the place where we were staying, the people we were with, the fruit and vegetable vendors everywhere, the presence of a small health food store and the breathtaking lake five minutes away. Speaking of which, my partner Gabriel and I often went to Atitlan Lake for jamming, composing and practicing our songs. I also took pleasure in bringing my colouring pencils and drawing or colouring mandalas. Or simply meditating while listening to the peaceful swaying waves. Or, obviously, going for a refreshing dip in the lukewarm water.
When walking in San Marcos La Laguna, whether it was to run errands or just for the sake of walking, one could constantly be fascinated by a myriad of things, people-watch, hear a 5000-year-old Mayan language – which, if I’m not mistaken, is the Kakchiquel language in this region of Central America -, listen to musicians playing guitar, didjeridoo, djembé or singing, marvel at the couple of hippie clothing shops as well as the beauteous and earthly handicraft, earrings, necklaces and gemstone rings. Every two meters, a Mayan woman sitting on the ground with her children is selling produce and baked goods: Hay aguacate! Hay pan de banano! Hay sapote! Hay pan integral! The vibrant colours of the Mayan women’s clothing, the presence of a strange language and the ubiquity of the Mayas made San Marcos a place with obvious and authentic Maya culture, although the numerous bohemian-expats made it a bit hard to fully soak in. But here’s the thing: I felt like these very expats and other travelers had something to teach me. So I listened.
Leaving the comfort zone
As a musician whose dream is to sing and perform on stage, I have always been very self-conscious, horribly judgemental towards myself, exaggeratingly shy and stuck in terrible negative self-talk. I knew it was ridiculous and detrimental for me to be worrying about what others thought and whether or not I was going to fail. So Gabriel and I went to Hostal Del Lago for open mic night. We played four songs that we were practicing for several weeks. I was terrified, yet at ease. Because I knew the room was filled with loving people. And because it felt like the right moment to break this fear I had all my life. While Gabriel played guitar and I sang, I quickly scanned the audience and saw other travelers with smiley faces. Kind faces. Hoping for the best, I went for it, feeling as if I was laying my heart on the floor for everyone to see. But to my surprise, after each song, the audience’s reaction was overwhelming: they clapped and cheered with awe. I even saw a girl cry during an emotional cover of Veinte Años – one of my favourite songs in the world. This gave me motivation and courage. I knew I shouldn’t rely on people agreeing with me, but I couldn’t help but take it in and carry it with me.
Jammin’ at Circles Hostel
The next pilar moment was during one of the many evenings spent with the Circles gang. Being a hostel with only 10 people, we grew quite close. Three of them were some of the most beautiful and inspiring musicians I’ve met in a while, both to the ear and the soul. One of the quebecer volunteers was the sweetest girl, she and I had many good laughs together. There was also a Belgian girl who wasn’t staying at the hostel, but nevertheless was our friend and came by for some music, laughter and good conversations. Each one of them were unbelievably kindhearted and glowing with gust for life. Only once in a blue moon do I meet people who are as spiritually awakened as that and who’ve learnt to love themselves as they are, hence are happy to treat others with the same love and compassion they have towards themselves. Pretty much every day, whether it was during the day or the evening, we would all sit around the table and share stories, jams and inspiration. We had a perfect “movie” moment near the end too: a homemade burrito bowl dinner, a chocolate fondue with fruit, as well as ginger infusion tea, all at our usual table with loud chuckles and harmonies. This is one of those moments I will cherish forever. Although I knew these people only for a few days, I felt, in my heart, that we were all kindred spirits. You know how they say you should only surround yourself with people that make you feel 100% good? Well, this was one of the first times in my life I felt this was happening. So when they all asked me to sing something, after a lot of hesitation and excuses, I did it. And they showered me with so much support that tears rolled down my cheeks. I was so incredibly moved by their genuine and unfathomable love. I just could not believe it.
The entire gang
One day, we all went to the San Marcos Harvest Festival. It was very small and cost 30 Quetzales, so we were wondering if it was worth it. But we went in, attracted by the live music, few artsy stalls, as well as seemingly good vibes and company. If you are in San Marcos during this annual festival, definitely go. We came back for the evening concert. It was dark, there were many more people, fireworks, a fire-hoop dancing girl and a Guatemalan Latin-prog band playing. Everyone was dancing, some in a transe-y manner, some jumping and throwing themselves everywhere, some contact-dancing, some just moving to the rhythm with a partner. I was dancing, sure. But I wasn’t letting loose. I was even totally aware of every move I was making. I was very reserved because again, I was afraid of what others would think of me. It took me about five minutes to realize everyone else was dancing, devil-may-care. So within a second, I became possessed by my own self, as though in a frenzy. I suddenly started throwing my arms everywhere, moving my legs agitatedly and shaking my head with the music. I knew I looked like an octopus in exorcism, but for some reason, I didn’t care. I had rarely felt so free. I smiled to Gabriel. I smiled to my friends. I even smiled to the musicians performing. I smiled to the strangers around me. Or should I say, to all the brothers and sisters I never knew I had.
Together at Harvest Festival Harvest Festival
And then, I knew I had finally begun assimilating this lesson I was striving to learn my whole life: no one cares what you are doing. If they are negative towards you, it is themselves they are being negative towards. Deep within, everyone is delighted to see others thrive, succeed or simply emit joie de vivre. Once you understand that judgement comes from self-judgement, you are free as a bird. I know it is easier said than done – believe me, I’m one to know. But for me, the key to absorbing this lesson was surrounding myself with people who brought out my greatest version and wrapped me with love – and only love. Heck, I even had several months’ worth of horrific hormonal acne start to magically disappear… Coincidence?
You should know that we had no water at all during these two weeks. We re-learnt how to flush the toilet, do the dishes, cook, wash our hands and brush our teeth with large water tanks – which, by the way, were not always available. Yes, it was indeed frustrating. But, as opposed to a couple we saw leave San Marcos a day after they arrived because of the water-shortage, we had too good a feeling to leave it behind just to see water faucets work again. I actually learnt a lot because of this, and appreciate easy access to water at a whole new level now. Oh, and I forgot to mention there wasn’t wifi in our room and that the wifi only worked half the time in the rest of the hostel.
So, with all of this in mind, you can imagine how something like a water-shortage and no wifi was hardly excruciating. It puts things in perspective, doesn’t it? After two weeks of friendship and drum circles, we left San Marcos La Laguna like ninjas in the dark at 5 o’clock in the morning for our next adventure in Mexico. I could’ve easily been sad leaving it. But instead, I blissfully parted with gratitude and mindfulness. It was our last lancha ride on Lago de Atitlan, and we hugged each other in the ice cold morning air, gently watching the sun rise between two volcano peaks.