Some of my most favorite memories in Guatemala happened at Lago Atitlan. The lake is about 2.5 hours away by shuttle from Antigua and can be a very windy route if you’re not used to curvy highways. (To combat the windy roads, I’d drink a glass of wine and pop a melatonin before hopping on the shuttle van.) Depending on where you go, you can get a completely different experience. Many of my yoga mentors and friends insisted that I go to San Marcos because its reputation of being the hippie gringo town. Panajachel is considered to be the main tourist town, and San Pedro is considered the backpacker central.
Be Prepared for Quirkiness
For a more enriching experience, I would definitely recommend staying with locals and booking an airbnb. In Panajachel, I stayed with an older European couple who had a quaint private room in their garden, an art gallery, and a meditation room with yoga classes. I spent the afternoon in the art gallery poring through tons of artwork with the owner. Hanging out with the gallery owner was like being with a long lost eccentric uncle I never knew I had in my family. He was so kind and so nutty.
Once he found out I was from Montreal, he insisted that we converse in French and flip back to Spanish and if all else failed we’d talk in English. It gave my brain a real workout! He and his wife’s art collection spanned almost 40 years since they moved to Panajachel. I could tell him a certain style or artistic influence and he was able to pull something from his gallery. He also had random drawers and trunks and he basically told me I could dig in and explore. I’ve never been in such a relaxed art gallery environment before. I felt like a kid spending an afternoon exploring through old indigenous art work, sculptures and masks.
The best part about our conversation was the way he ended it. He looked up at me and said, “My dear! You better go take a shower! It runs on volcano water and you only have about 30 minutes left to enjoy the warm water. Also, don’t be surprised if your skin is soft because of the sulfur from the volcano water.” So I basically ended my adventure in the art gallery running out onto the lawn ripping my clothes off and hopping into the outdoor volcano water shower.
Be Prepared for Mystical and Magical Healing
I know this is going to sound kooky and bizarre, but I swear the lake does have mystical powers. There’s a cleansing feeling that you get from being at the lake especially if you opt to stay in a cabin high up in the mountains in a more isolated area. It’s just you, the gardens, the views of the volcanos, and the lake. Maybe it’s all the healthy foods you eat at all the vegan restaurants in San Marcos or maybe it’s all the high altitude hiking you do to get to your cabin in the middle of nowhere, but somehow you feel cleaner and purer. Just be prepared to have weird visions, crazy dreams or mystical healing.
One afternoon, I booked a massage in San Marcos. I told the therapist that I have a recurring problem with my left shoulder. It’s a place where I carry a lot of stress and tightness. She did a fantastic job clearing out the tension in my shoulder and the surrounding areas in my back and neck.
Afterwards, I asked her why do I have this recurring problem in my shoulder even though I no longer have the stress of my old job and old life in the United States. She looked at me and said, “Even though you are miles away from the States, you’ve been conditioned to carry those problems with you. Maybe you still have something to prove? Maybe you still have unresolved emotions that you took with you to Guatemala?” All of a sudden I just completely lost it and started crying hysterically. It’s like this woman saw right through me and uncovered emotions I stuffed for months. After leaving the session, I must have looked like a crazy woman. I was so emotional- I was just this crazy tourist tearing up in the middle of a festival. Later that evening, I had the most bizarre dreams.
This wasn’t the only time I had an encounter like this at the lake. Sometimes I’d be deep in conversation with someone, and all of a sudden things would get emotional and crying would happen. The more times I went to the lake, the more accustomed I got to this emotional unraveling happening to people.
Other Ways to Be Prepared for the Lake aka the Practical Stuff
– Pack light especially if you are not staying in Panajachel. Most shuttle buses from Antigua/ Guatemala City will end up dropping you off in Pana. If you are staying in another town around the lake, you will most likely have to take a water taxi, tuk tuk, and/or hike up a mountain to get to your final destination.
– Don’t forget food, booze, and cash. If you didn’t pack groceries, alcohol, or cash, you may also want to do before you leave Panajachel and go on a water taxi. Depending on how remote your accommodations are, you may not have access to groceries if you plan to make your own food or if you need cash for the water taxi or tuk tuk.
– Bring earplugs if you stay in the center of town in San Marcos. If you stay in a more isolated area this will not be a problem, but if you are in the main part of San Marcos, be aware of the incessant barking of abandoned dogs that will happen all night long.
– Be aware of the water taxi schedule. If you goof around in Panajachel too long, you run the risk of riding a water taxi late in the afternoon/early evening. The waters in the lake get really, really rough and it can get really dangerous riding the water taxi at night. Also, during rainy season, be aware of when the storms are happening. This is also another non-ideal time to be riding on the lake.
– If you are a tourist riding a water taxi, be prepared. Someone will try to hustle you. I got tired of politely asking how much the rides were. So I was always prepared to hand them the exact change and run off quickly.