With eco hotels and meditation centres, the lakeside town of San Marcos La Laguna, in Guatemala, is turning into an alternative spa retreat - with stunning surroundings as an added bonus
Lake Atitlan is Central America’s deepest lake and it’s a spiritual place. Travellers flock from all over the world to experience some of the Mayan religious practices, but also for the calming ambiance that envelops the waterside towns. People say that the lake itself is like a temple and claim that the reflection of the Holy Trinity and the apostles in the three volcanoes and 13 towns around the lake is no coincidence.
Whether or not the lake itself is a religious place, there is a certain spiritual refreshment in the incredible views. The calm, glassy water in the morning, with the three huge volcanoes reflected in its surface, is such an amazing sight to wake up to. It is for this reason that the lake is seen as a bit of an alternative spa retreat, where you can relax in the sun, get pampered and enjoy lake living.
The town of San Marcos La Laguna sits on the northwest shore of the lake between San Pablo and Tzununá. It has grown significantly in the past few years, attracting lots of travellers on spiritual journeys and also tourists who want to get a good massage and relax on the peaceful shores. The main dock for the town is tiny, poking out from between tall green rushes. Here, there aren’t the hordes of Mayan women trying to sell you things as soon as you get off the boat that there are in other towns across the lake. Instead there are a couple of stalls by the dock manned by westerners who make their own jewellery and barely bat an eyelid as you go past.
The chilled-out atmosphere is tangible as soon as you set off up the main cobbled street. It looks more like an alley but it takes you through the gringo area of the town up to the main street. The Mayans live above the main street, which cuts the town in half. Leading off this cobbled avenue are small paths going to the many hotels and spas, as well as the more serious retreats.
If you are on a spiritual pursuit, you can visit Las Pirámides meditation centre. They run all sorts of day courses, from meditation to tarot readings. They are especially concentrated on yoga and run sessions bright and early at 7am. The centre focuses on spiritual cleansing, so on Sundays you can have a steam in a traditional Mayan sauna to which they add medicinal plants from the herb garden. Mayan warriors used to cleanse themselves this way before going to play on the ceremonial ball courts, but exercise after a steam is certainly not obligatory.
If you are keen, they run a month-long course called the moon course. This consists of lots of meditation and yoga but it also encompasses metaphysics, lucid dreams, astral projection and a final week of complete silence and contemplation.
For those who don’t have the stamina for intense spirituality, you can dip in and out as you like. Most of the hotels on the island have a masseur attached and an hour-long Swedish massage shouldn’t cost more than 150 quetzals (about £15) – a real bargain compared to prices in the UK. Other treatments on offer are reflexology and shiatsu. There are many students looking for guinea pigs and you can get loads of treatments ridiculously cheaply. The Mayan saunas are not to be missed – the one at Las Pirámides is by no means the only one.
San Marcos is also one of the best places to swim by the lake. You can hike up the cliffs over which there are several ledges where you can dive into crystal-clear water. That’s if you dare - it’s pretty high up. If you prefer to play it safe, the tiny local beach is idyllic, as long as it isn’t the Mayan women’s washing day.
The hippie atmosphere of the island also extends to the food you can find. Cuisine at Las Pirámides is strictly vegetarian but very tasty, if a bit basic. Other restaurants offer vegetarian sushi alongside other treats like Guatemalan burritos and lentil soups. The local Mayan women also sell zesty fruit breads, which are sublime, gobbled up on the beach after a round of local tamales wrapped in banana leaves.
The only thing that isn’t so relaxing about the island is the noise. There are several evangelical churches so eager to recruit as many as possible that they conduct over-zealous praise announcements several times a day. There is also a local school bang slap in the middle of the gringo area, which rules out sleeping in. But the Lake is at its finest early in the morning, with just a scattering of fishermen out on the water. Some mornings you can see the steam rising off the water as the day heats up. With sights like that, it’s hard not to be relaxed.
Where to stay
Hotel Aaculaax: an eco hotel that sits in the hills of San Marcos. They have a private beach right in front of the hotel and a variety of treatments and workshops.
Hotel La Paz: the first hotel in San Marcos, La Paz concentrates on an holistic atmosphere above all else. They have stunning gardens, which you can enjoy from your hammock, and the vegetarian restaurant comes highly recommended.
Hotel Jinava: another gorgeous little hotel with suites in small huts right next to the water. They have a terrace overlooking the water and a Mayan sauna right next to the beach.
Posada Schumann: this small hotel sits among avocado, jocote, banana and coffee trees on the hillsides of San Marcos. The rooms are positioned especially for the best views of the lake and the surrounding volcanoes and are designed to make you feel calm and relaxed in the untouched surroundings.
You can get to San Marcos on the daily ferries from Panajachel or rent a taxi boat for around 40 quetzals per person. The main point of arrival at Lake Atitlan is Panajachel.