Lake Atitlan to Antigua
With just one glimpse of an image of Lake Atitlan I felt a wild assurance that something was drawing me here. Surrounded by three volcanos and numerous villages along the water’s edge, the forests and towns are teeming with an energy sourced from tectonic plates and ancient roots. Sustainable agroforestry, traditional medicines, Mayan heritage and plant-based foods are just a few key components to the magic of Lake Atitlan attracting backpackers, health practitioners, digital nomads and ceremonial seekers.
Arrival to San Marcos La Laguna
Guatemala City to Lake Atitlan can take 2.5 up to 4.5 hours depending on the time of day and mode of transportation, and the cost of getting there can vary.
Many backpackers take the camionetas or chicken busses which are the most cost-effective way of getting across Guatemala. At 33 years old I’ve come to a decision about “getting there” and my inner council and I agree to the least amount of time spent in transit. To foster more grace and ease, I seek direct flights, exit row upgrades and non-public transportation when possible. Costing only 700Q ($90) for a one way, I opted for the private car.
The road to San Marcos was closed for construction during my stay so I had the option of getting dropped off in Panajachel or San Juan and then taking a direct boat to San Marcos. At the docks be prepared to speak some Spanish, it will help you with the price of your boat ride. Contingent on the paleness of your skin and the sureness of your speech, each ride can cost anywhere from 10Q to 25Q ($3.50) per trip.
Where to Stay:
- Las Casas de Suenos– El Nido, Airbnb
Location, Location, Location! Nestled on the edge of a hill above the Cerro Tzankujil Nature Reserve, this magical house is three levels of eco-sensual dwelling.
Home is a place where you feel at ease in your surroundings, with the bare necessities and the authenticity of simplicity. For three nights I felt a new meaning of home, embraced by a peaceful blue dawn over the lake with the wood fire burning at my bed foot’s edge till light’s first wink.
I called a local healer from a flyer posted in town and she met me the following afternoon at my cliffside retreat. We took turns carrying her massage table up the steep, winding path. She brought Doterra essential oils, copal incense and candles to set with my balcony space at my Airbnb. She spoke with a friend in town who then delivered enough wood to my doorstep to keep me warm from the sudden rainstorm.
Arriving and leaving Yoga Forest is an adventure unto itself. A series of narrow trails and steep carved steppingstones are a part of the pilgrimage to this serene forest oasis. I stayed a few nights in a private cabin above timberline, waking up for morning meditation at 7:30AM followed by 90 minutes of gentle yoga. Check the calendar for retreats offering plant medicine, Acro yoga, Kirtan and meditation or just book a stay and drop into the current offerings. If you travel with anything more than a backpack you will find entering Yoga Forest a challenge. Bring a small flashlight or headlamp and take note of the small arrows pointing the way when the path diverges.
3. Eagles Nest
With a focus on community, yoga and movement arts, Eagles Nest is an intentional hosting space for travelers, retreats, events, workshops and summits. I attended the Solstice Festival where I danced, drank non alcoholic elixirs, sat by the fire, ate from the cafe and spoke with others who were living on Lake Atitlan as well as passing through. The three day festival included yoga, meditation, workshops, ecstatic dance and cacao ceremony. I met two women from the U.S who had moved to Guatemala last year and many travelers who also felt an energetic pull to this place from Holland, France, Estonia, Argentina, Spain and Ireland.
The café here has a simple menu with cozy floor cushion seating that invites warm conversation and savored bites. For 50Q ($6.50) I recommend the dish of the day which is a large organic flavorful vegetarian plate. Watch the sunset over the lake and be sure to check out the bulletin board for bodywork, coaching and other offerings.
Where to Eat in San Marcos:
Vegetarian café offering fresh baked breads, breakfast and lunch. I ordered the vegan plate and the veggie sandwich to go so I could use my credit card to meet the minimum spend of 100Q ($13). As far as I could tell, there is just one ATM in San Marcos and it was closed on my arrival. It’s always easiest to arrive with cash but in case you didn’t, come eat for two at Circle.
I discovered that the ATMs in San Marcos are often empty or not working so it’s common to overhear other travelers making plans to take a 20 minute boat ride to San Juan for an easier money withdraw or money exchange. Just make sure you keep aside boat money for getting there!
It’s a place where you come for one thing, the Pad Thai. Beautiful open floor restaurant with cushions and creative lighting attracting all the familiar faces you will see about town.
At breakfast on the upper deck with un-obstructed views of the volcano’s you will change your plans. I foresee this in your future just as it happened in mine! It was here, my last lunch before taking a boat to San Pedro, then a car to Antigua that I slowed it down and bought a new return ticket home. Adding six days to my itinerary I was able to return to San Marcos and spend a few days more catching boats to neighboring towns. Thank you Vida for a phenomenal breakfast that significantly altered the course of my stay.
Guatemala has a long cacao tradition and there are quite a few places for observing the process from raw bean to chocolate bar. The cacao can be prepared both raw or roasted and then ground into a fine paste or powder to be prepared in solid blocks, bars and drinks. Ceremonial cacao is traditionally attuned to the energies of the day according to the Mayan calendar, offering an intentional medicine as a deeper connection to the earth. Vibrationally the cacao is said to be resonate to the heart and it is brought into ceremony for inspiring closeness to Mother Earth. Here at Chocolate Diego’s I was able to grind the cacao using a stone cylinder as well as taste the various stages in the making of cacao.
Other towns on Lake Atitlan:
1. San Juan La Laguna
Arriving in San Juan was a surprise. The colorful umbrellas lining the street to the docks add a special welcome. The shopping here is good and the ATM’s are dependable. Due to the road closure in San Marcos, the easiest way in to town is by boat through San Juan La Laguna.
San Juan is also very popular for hiking La Nariz el Indio (Indian Nose) a relatively easy hike to a platform offering sunrise views of the Lake. It is advised to go with a guide due to safety and the land regulations, a small fee for accessing the trail.
Come here for the PCR test but stay for the shopping! After hearing mixed reviews on Panajachel, I was pleasantly surprised to find an abundance of lovely cafes offering soups, green smoothies, fresh baked breads and pastries. I took a boat with a friend to Panajachel for PCR tests only to discover that I didn’t need one and could instead take a rapid antigen test in 25 minutes at the airport. So instead, I exchanged money and shopped.
A few streets off the main road from the docks are about a dozen textile vendors in a quiet enclave. Containing woven textiles in the draping’s of pillowcases, tapestries, handbags, belts, jackets and traditional clothing, the goods here are very good. I lost track of time and space and couldn’t even tell you where I was, so I found an incredible blog post on all things Guatemala textile shopping that you can check out here.
My eyes had been window shopping for nearly 8 days before I made my first purchase. I spotted a tan leather bucket bag with woven indigo’s and greens and that was the moment I took a deep breath and said to myself, “Where’s the ATM.”
I purchased several items from a shop that supported the Kakchikel women weavers. Maintaining traditional weaving and jaspe techniques passed down from Mayan ancestry, purchases here support an independent income for the weavers and their families.
The quality from vendor to vendor can vary yet I was happy to find sturdy zippers and strong woven pieces that were made to last. I purchased several pillowcases, a poncho, zippered pouches, brightly braided hair pieces and miniature paintings of the volcanos on the lake.
Formed by the eruption of lava, Lake Atitlan is a vertex for experiential sacred connectedness. Curative spaces like Gaia Dance Temple, Eagles Nest and Yoga Forest offer space for dwelling, learning, dancing, eating and communing. Take a tuktuk from the docks for 15Q and then walk the short path through the forest to enter Gaia Dance Temple. I participated in a fire ceremony here honoring the ancestors and the elements. “Earth is my body. Water is my Blood. Air is my breath. Fire is my spirit.”
4. Santa Cruz La Laguna
I felt super lucky to have found accommodations in Santa Cruz at Arbol Sagrado (Sacred Tree) for Christmas day and the day after. These waterfront cottages are fourteen months new and luxurious. Offering private Jacuzzis, a temazcal sauna, infinity pool, soft linens, a fully equipped kitchen, kayaks and private dock, I assure you this place is a dazzling gem on the water with everything you need to relax and enjoy. You can ask your boat captain to dock at the colorful platform, pointing it out just before the Santa Cruz La Laguna docks or take the lakefront path, an easy 10 minutes’ walk from the main docks.
One of the many gifts of this place is a private temazcal on the property. Temazcal comes from the Nahuatl language and translates as “house of heat.” The sauna is typically a round, domed structure constructed of wood, cement, and volcanic stone. In a temazcal ceremony, fragrant herbs are bundled in the center of the circle while the Shaman pays homage to the four directions and elements. Traditionally Mayans used the temazcal to treat illness, aid in childbirth, purification and recovery after battle or sports. Paired with an evening dip in the lake, the temazcal was wonderfully therapeutic.
Surviving several natural disasters including floods, volcanic eruptions and earthquakes, authorities eventually ordered the relocation of the capitol from Santiago de los Caballeros de Guatemala (modern day Antigua) to Guatemala City. Antigua de Guatemala has endured centuries as a historical landmark in political, economic, religious and cultural preservations.
This small city carries an intimate sensibility that’s reminiscent of enamorarse, falling in love. Meant to be savored in long walks on cobblestone and casual sittings in courtyards, Antigua stands as an aged edifice marked by love and loss.
Renowned Spanish Colonial structures are an integral part of the city’s charm offering UNESCO World Heritage sites, monasteries and monuments. You will find an abundance of textile shops, plazas, fountains, coffee shops, restaurants and accommodations as you peruse the city’s grid.
Hikers seek refuge in Antigua for the 3-day hike to El Fuego, the volcano at the edge of the city. Had I not been on the move as much I would have made it a priority to hike the volcano. I met another traveler from San Francisco who went with a guided group, hiked for 2 days and camped adjacent to an erupting volcano. Her photos, (permission granted) were spectacular!
Where to stay in Antigua:
I booked this stay here for the bathtub and the gorgeous warmth of the interior and exterior property. For years I have stayed in hostels and Airbnb’s thus my stay at el Convento felt like a gift. Serenity and luxury are accessible with rooms under $200. I upgraded to the Junior Suite during the holidays at around $230 per night.
Refined, antiquated hotel with an outdoor pool, piano bar, restaurant, yoga studio, art gallery and rooftop terrace. Stroll in to this magical place to view the art, enjoy a bite to eat, a coffee or a relaxing sit on the rooftop terrace. The hotel is luxury at a very affordable rate and I had initially booked my stay here before booking at El Convento. The rooms are fabulous but the difference was about $40 per night, and I chose the savings for two words: Guatemalan textiles. #shopping
Modern, light and airy, this sophisticated hotel is located just two blocks from the Convent Santa Clara ruins. Affordable and minimal, Good Hotel is a great option for solo travelers.
Where to eat and drink in Antigua:
1. Once Once
If you’re not already vegan, vegetarian or gluten free, you will want to be! Healthful and fresh food options are abundant in Antigua. Just around the corner from El Convento, Once Once is set in a quiet courtyard offering Asian, Mexican and Italian fusion vegan cuisine. Order several small plates and save room for the Coconut Cream Brule.
2. La Bruja
Located in a beautiful outdoor space with shops, cafes and a Viking bar, La Bruja was a delight to find after wandering in through a cacao shop. I ordered the portobello taco plate and sat perfectly content in the shaded floral courtyard.
Organic farm to table restaurant located just outside the cobble stone city grid of Antigua. The ingredients are freshly harvested on site and a mandarin just might fall on your plate from the tree above. This co-op offers an extensive breakfast, lunch and dinner menu as well as artisanal honeys, cosmetics, herbs, spices and local hand made goods. For an additional 30Q ($3.80) visit the mariposa garden to see the transitioning stages from cocoon to first flight of the monarch and zebra butterfly.
Amazing menu with SO many options, come here for breakfast or lunch, smoothies and fruit bowls. Curries, stir-fry’s and taco plates make up the flavors on the menu and everything tasted fresh and savory.
The upstairs terrace sits modestly against the ruins of yet another parish. The pizza and salads here are tasty and the drinks are made with fresh juices and herbs. I had a watermelon salad with the artichoke and garlic pizza.
Craft beers and volcano views, enough said. Come here for the rooftop patio and cerveza artisanal. If you’re lucky, you can sip beer while watching the volcano erupt.
Speakeasy Cocteleria situated inside the door of a red phone booth. Come and enjoy unique cocktails in a cozy setting.
Things to do in Antigua:
1. Santa Clara Convento Ruins
Maintained grounds and monastery ruins, El Convento Santa Clara survived two earthquakes before it was left in ruins in 1984. For 40Q ($5) you can enjoy the quiet grounds and take lovely photographs of the stone arches. A coming of age Quinceanera princess was having a photoshoot taken on the grounds and I asked her if I could take her picture.
2. Church of Candelaria Ruins
Just a few blocks from my hotel was the original face of the Candelaria parish. The Spanish baroque structure has been integrated into modern living, now adjacent to a basketball court. The plague on the building marks its insurrection in 1548 and due to catastrophic damage, the Church was eventually abandoned. According to the New York Times, the earthquake in Guatemala that took place on Sept 3, 1874 was the most devastating recorded in the world that year.
3. Santa Catalina Arch
The most distinguished landmark in Antigua, this 17th century arch was originally connected to the Santa Catalina convent, allowing the nuns to pass from one building to another without going on the street. There are several high end textile stores on this street with beautiful adornments of cloth and housewares, but I recommend walking to Nim Po’t for the best shopping.
Central America evokes an ancient whisper, carried by the smoke of a ceremonial fire, the purification of a temazcal and the bitter sustenance of the sacred cacao.
My twelve days in Guatemala filled me with a familiar wanderlust met with an unexpended shedding of direction.
Traveling is my favorite medicine. Traveling invites us into the spaces of separation, transitioning and experiencing. Traveling exposes our individual fibers; we are both the thread and the divine weavers on the loom of a shared human experience.
I feel both an undoing and an intricate braiding of self discovery as I enter into this post trip protected place la selva subterranea, an initiation into the renewal of the wild feminine spirit.