My first introduction to San Marcos was not great. I was tired and hungry, having not had lunch (read: Alice was hangry). As I left the boat dock, a bunch of small boys came up to me, all asking me where I wanted to go and trying to show me the way. I was very suspicious that they just wanted to get money out of tourists when I could find my way perfectly well by myself, and when I was directed down a narrow path that was not signposted to the hostel I had booked, I was even more suspicious. I said I didn’t need help and kept walking, eventually passing an English girl who told me she had just walked past the place I was trying to get to – La Paz.
I arrived at La Paz and it looked lovely. A narrow path through a garden filled with trees led to a small reception area, where a few people relaxed on comfy sofas, chatting and using their phones – presumably using wifi. I was pretty happy. Then everything started to go wrong….. The girl at reception had no knowledge of my booking, and La Paz was fully booked. I showed her my email confirmation, which said (in Spanish) “great! We look forward to seeing you on the 11th!” (It was the 11th).
She phoned the owner, the guy who had emailed me, who was very rude to me on the phone, saying that it was because they had had several guests called Alice in the past few weeks, as if that was an excuse! I said that was no excuse and that it was very bad of the hotel that they had lost my booking, to which he responded that it was my problem, not his. Eventually I put the phone down – what was the point?!
The girl at reception was more helpful and suggested I go to the hostel next door. But that was also fully booked. Now I was tired, I was hungry, I was carrying my rucksack and I really didn’t want to walk all around town trying hundreds of other places. So I went back down to the boat dock, where I had walked past what seemed like quite a big hotel – Posada Schumann. And, fantastic news, they had a room! Okay, it was double what I had planned on paying, but it was huge and was right beside the lake with a fantastic view. I didn’t want to walk any further so took the room and despite the extra cost was very, very happy!
I began to relax, watched the sun begin to set over the lake, then headed out before it got dark to explore a little. San Marcos is mainly a warren of narrow, pedestrian streets, with one main path heading up from the boat dock, lined with little restaurants, and during the day filled with Maya people selling jewellery, fruit, woven fabric. At the top of the path is a road that runs along to the next villages, and then there are a few more streets above the road. I spent most of my time within the pedestrian streets between the road and the lake.
At night, San Marcos was a cacophony of chilled out music playing from the different bars and restaurants, people chatting quietly and dogs barking. I found my way to Restaurante Fe, a large open air restaurant lit by candlelight, where I had a fantastic fish dish – dorado – for dinner, together with a glass of wine, while I read my book, and then walked home to bed.
It really was a hippie village, as I soon noticed wandering around in the light the next day – more white people with dreadlocks than I had ever seen before, and the occasional smell of weed. I overheard one guy trying to sell some drugs in very bad, hesitant Spanish: “tengo…. Ermmm tengo… Weed?” And then one night in Restaurante Fe a very hippie-looking couple came in, interested in the tray of cookies and other baked goods. I can only assume that they thought there were drugs in the cookies as they asked time and time again “what’s in the cookies?” The owner of the restaurant responded “Coconut and chocolate“.
“Ahhh okay, but what else is in the cookies?” “errm flour? Salt?”
“What’s in the cookies?!” Eventually they seemed to accept that the cookies really were just coconut and chocolate and moved on their way.
None of that gave the village in any way a druggie, threatening atmosphere, but more just a very laid-back, friendly, relaxed atmosphere. Everyone was friendly and helpful, from the expats to the locals to the other tourists. Although I imagine a lot of them would have termed themselves “travellers” rather than tourists!!!
Even the kids, that I had at first thought were just out to get money, seemed really friendly and helpful. Despite not giving them any money, when I had to find a new place to stay, one of the boys gave me lots of suggestions and directions to different places, and from then on always said hello when he saw me in the streets. All the local people there seemed to be Maya, the girls in these beautifully brightly coloured long skirts, topped with normal t-shirts and even leather jackets. Something I noticed about all the Guatemalans I met or just saw by the side of the road – they all seemed just really happy. I know that is such a cliched thing to say but that’s the impression I got – not only was pretty much everyone very friendly and helpful to me, even when they weren’t interacting with tourists I watched work colleagues joke and laugh together, boys teasingly pushing each other around, babies crawling on the ground giggling and their older sisters laughing with them. It put a huge smile on my face.
Anyway – that was a little digression. So what is there to do in San Marcos? Well, lots and lots, or nothing at all.
I chose San Marcos out of all the villages that surround Lake Atitlan because of its yoga classes, and I wasn’t disappointed. In the two days I was there, I went to two classes at the Hostal del Lago. This hostel has one of the most beautiful yoga studios imaginable, open air and built on stilts overlooking the lake. Both classes I went to were great, one with an English teacher and just one other person in the class and the other with an American teacher – so there were no language issues! You can also do yoga teacher training courses at San Marcos, longer yoga retreats, or just attend classes on an adhoc basis as I did. There are several other places that also do yoga classes such as the La Paz hostel.
You can eat – there are numerous small cafes and restaurants, both run by local people and expats. I enjoyed Restaurante Fe for dinner, run by a British guy and his Guatemalan wife, and Gypsy for lunch – run by Guatemalans. Gypsy did fantastic juices and smoothies and really cheap lunches. I had their vegetarian chilli which was delicious. Its also right next door to a shop where I bought some brilliant yoga leggings. I love them and basically wore them non-stop for the next few days!
You can explore the Cerro Tzankujil. This nature reserve is located only about 200m along the lakeside from the centre of town, and you’re meant to have to pay 15 quetzals to enter, but nobody was at the entrance when I arrived so I walked right in. I climbed up steps hewn out of the rock, which wound a path along the hillside, the waves rolling in below. I made my way along to a “trampoline” – a wooden platform built out of the hillside from where you can jump into the lake about 7 feet below. It was really, really high! I may have given it a go had there been other people jumping but as it was I was certainly too afraid and instead found a quiet spot in the shade to sit and read my book! There is more hiking that you can do within the reserve area and of course you can swim – it would be a lovely place to spend a whole day.
I tried swimming in the lake twice, but both times made the mistake of allowing it to get too late in the day. At Lake Atitlan, it is very warm and sunny in the mornings and midday, but throughout the afternoon the winds increase and clouds begin to build up, so that the lake gets really wavy and it’s not that pleasant to swim! My problem was that I had two mornings in San Marcos and I went running first thing in one, and to yoga in the other! But you can swim in the lake from San Marcos, both from the beach area by Posada del Schumann and from the rocks or the “trampoline” in the national park area!
There are loads more things you can do around Lake Atitlan – you could take a public ferry to visit any of the other little villages, you could trek to the top of the volcano, you could go on any one of numerous hikes – although due to the security situation and “incidents” involving tourists being robbed, you are recommended to go hiking only with local guides. I was very content just to be very relaxed and passed the time enjoying the laid-back atmosphere, the sun, and reading my book.
Need to know: although you can turn up without booking you will have more choice for your budget if you do book beforehand – or perhaps if you are more prepared than me to trudge around different places until you find the perfect one, with vacancies! Posada del Schumann was one of the more expensive, but still only about £30 a night and the rooms were large, with a safe, and with great views over the lake.
You get to San Marcos by getting a public boat from Panajachel, which will probably cost around 25 quetzals (£2.50). The driver will call out the name of the stop when you get there, but it’s also a good idea to make sure he knows where you want to go as invariably another passenger will overhear and the driver or at least the passenger will be very helpful at telling you when you need to get off.
On arrival at San Marcos, brightly coloured signposts point the way to all the various hotels and hostels, and helpful young boys will gladly show you where to go!
There are no ATMs in San Marcos so make sure you have enough cash before you get on the boat. However, if you do get stuck (as I did due to having to pay double what I’d planned for accommodation), Restaurante Fe has an app where you can pay by card and get cashback (for a small fee).