By Karlie Marrazzo
Ever since my first trip to Central America on a trip to Nicaragua in 2015, Guatemala has been at the top of my list of destinations to visit. The combination of volcanoes, Mayan ruins, Colonial architecture, fabulous food, the promise of no jet lag and fewer tourists than other parts of the world are just a few of the reasons I wanted to visit this captivating country. Other people didn’t see it that way, though. Whenever I was asked where I wanted to go next, and I answered with Guatemala, I was met with blank stares, quizzical looks and sincere expressions of concern. But since when have I ever let people’s opinions stop me from doing something I wanted to do?
From the moment I returned from my first solo trip to Los Angeles in November 2017, I couldn’t stop thinking about Guatemala. I had just taken a huge step in my personal life and development – after traveling with someone else for over 10 years, I had conquered my fear of doing things alone and rocked a badass trip to LA. I was now prepared to do anything, and not let anything hold me back from traveling anywhere I wanted to go. On Boxing Day 2017, three years to the date since I booked my Nicaragua trip, I made my decision and booked one round trip plane ticket to Guatemala.
Despite all of the concern from the sweet women in my office, I wasn’t at all nervous to visit Guatemala. Talk of gang violence, drug trafficking, kidnapping and poverty didn’t faze me much. While I know that those things are very real concerns for the people of Guatemala, I also know that every country has problems alongside it’s perks. I found inspiration and comfort in other female solo travellers, as well as the pure fact that millions of people live, love and work in Guatemala each and every day peacefully. I also believe that shying away from a country due to it’s problems is not the solution to these problems. Visiting it, opening your eyes and those of others to the positives and the beauty of another country and culture makes much more sense to me. As I sat on the floor of the bizarre, round Terminal 3 at LAX en route to Guatemala, attempting to charge my phone in a wall socket that was falling onto the ground, trying to drown out the loud, echoing voices of an American high school sports team all around me, the only thing I was marginally nervous about was spending a week by myself.
I arrived at Guatemala City’s La Aurora airport at 6:30am on a Sunday morning in March. I hadn’t set foot in a new country since 2016, and, as I walked through the airport of country #35, I felt energized. My first destination was San Marcos La Laguna, a small village on the shores of Lake Atitlán, a dazzling volcanic crater lake just over 150km from the airport. Since my flight arrived early in the morning, I booked a private shuttle to take me on the three-hour journey, rather than waiting at the airport for a few hours for the cheaper shared shuttle. The drive through Guatemala’s highlands was relaxed and seemed to go by in the blink of an eye. I looked out the window, absorbing the hand-painted Spanish signs, feeling the curve of the road beneath our tires, and, despite my lack of sleep, experiencing the pure joy of laying eyes on a new place for the first time. Eventually the winding roads began to descend and I caught my first sight of Volcán San Pedro out the right side of the van. I asked Cesar to pull over so I could step out of the van and fully absorb my first glimpses of the truly breathtaking sight before me. Volcán Atitlán and Volcán Tolimán towered over the sapphire blue waters of Lake Atitlán. The astounding power and beauty of this natural tableau brought a tear to my eye as I took a moment to soak it in. I hopped back into the van, more eager than ever to get to San Marcos.
A few minutes later we arrived in Panajachel, a town of 11,000 that serves as a transportation hub and launching point for the smaller towns scattered around the lakeshore. I said goodbye to Cesar and hoisted my backpack and daypack into one of the several lanchas (small motorboats) waiting to whisk locals and tourists alike across the magnificent lake. I gracelessly stumbled into the boat and took a seat in the front, exposed to the already hot 10am sun and the whipping wind, a huge grin plastered on my face for the entire 20-minute journey. While the lancha was mostly transporting tourists that morning, I was nestled in alongside two big sacks of dried corn belonging to a local farmer who wore a cowboy hat and a gentle smile on his weathered face.
I stepped onto the dock in San Marcos and paid the man on the boat 25 quetzales ($4CAD). Before I could shoulder my backpack, two young boys of about 7 and 13 asked me where I was staying, offered to carry my bags and began to trot off ahead of me. The little guy was nearly the same size as my bag and I was afraid he was going to tip over, but he was a strong dude. I have to admit that it was a bit nice to not have to carry luggage after 18 hours of traveling by plane, car and boat.
San Marcos La Laguna is a village of 3000 people that crawls up the hillside from the shore. Of all the towns scattered around the lake, San Marcos is known for it’s deep spirituality and attracts people from all over the world who are drawn to yoga, meditation and those who are looking to simply unplug from the world and connect with themselves. The lower part of town is almost solely occupied by tourists and has two parallel pedestrian paths running north/south towards the centre of town; there are no vehicles allowed in this part of town. I followed my mini sherpas up the main path and then veered left onto a narrow dirt path, gently winding to the grounds of my home for the next three nights, Eco Hotel La Paz. Another dirt path wound it’s way through lush vegetation on the grounds of La Paz, passing by small buildings housing private and shared rooms and leading to the main restaurant/hangout area in the centre of the property. My room wasn’t yet ready when I arrived, so I had a late breakfast in the restaurant, which serves homemade vegetarian meals made to order. As per usual my eyes turned out to be bigger than my stomach, and the veggie burrito plus chips and guacamole that I ordered turned out to be more than enough. Damn, that guac was worth it, though. My room still wasn’t ready after I was done eating, so I strolled down to the lakeshore to see if there was anywhere I could lay out. Aside from the main, working dock, I discovered two smaller docks to the right of it; the perfect spot for relaxation.
I schlepped back to my room, changed into my bikini, slathered myself in sunscreen (working extra hard to get that awkward spot right in the middle of my back) and excitedly made the walk back to the water. The shore is quite narrow and littered with rocks and some garbage, so the small piers are the ideal place to spend some time relaxing and soaking up the sun. I climbed the few steps to the first one, threw down my stained hotel room towel, and exhaled. It was noon and the sun was beating down hard from it’s perch in the azure sky. The water lapped against the pier, almost lulling me to sleep, at times gently splashing up onto me. Winter was still in full force back home in Edmonton, solidly in it’s sixth month (yes, you read that right) with temperatures at -10C, so it felt absolutely incredible to be absorbing the sun’s hot rays once again, completely reenergizing me. I gazed across the lake at the three volcanic peaks towering above, reflecting on the journey that brought me to that spot. Although I had traveled 34 countries prior, I had never done such a big trip by myself. I got myself there, every step of the way done on my own, every idea and plan put into action by myself, every dollar earned and spent my own. There I was, little old Karlie, sitting on a spectacular lakeshore in Guatemala, doing things I never thought I would do and succeeding. I was damn proud of myself, and it was only the first day of a trip that would turn out to be incredible. I proved to myself that I could do it, that I could plan and execute anything that I put my mind to.
The warmth of the sun, the sound of the lapping waves and the fatigue from traveling caught up to me, so I returned to my room to attempt a nap. The screaming tropical birds outside my window had other ideas, but I managed to rest for a while. I headed out for an early dinner, hoping to find a place with a great sunset view over the lake. I went towards the main part of town in search of a restaurant I found online, but once I got onto the smaller roads I felt less comfortable and confident, unsure that I would find my way back after dark, and turned around, opting to eat on the main pathway that I was already familiar with. I ended up at Restaurant Fé, a laid back joint run by a friendly British man. I nearly devoured my tasty tacos (two fish, two chorizo) and guacamole in a crispy taco bowl (sensing a theme yet?) while eavesdropping on the couple at the table next to me who were discussing love of self, relationships and the meaning of life (“You’ll never have upswings if you don’t have downswings”). As tempted as I was to join their table, I walked down to the pier to catch my first Lake Atitlán sunset. Heart full after a wonderful day, I tucked myself in to bed at 8:30pm with a smile on my face. I had a mostly peaceful and long sleep, interrupted sometime in the middle of the night by a pack of wild dogs incessantly barking for 20 minutes, 30 minutes, an hour. I don’t know who or where they were or what they were barking about, but imagined a West Side Story-like brawl happening on the small backstreets of San Marcos amongst the stray dog population.
One of the things that drew me to La Paz was the free daily yoga classes. After being in bed for 12 hours, I had no problem waking up early and having a simple breakfast of pancakes and banana before class. The class was held at the back of the property, in a low wooden gazebo with a thatched roof. There was one small candle in the centre of the space, surrounded by crystals, sprigs of lavender and pink flowers. There were four other people in the class – two other Canadian women, and a married couple from the U.S. The teacher, a sinewy woman with prominent ribs and collarbone and a shock of curly brown hair, asked us to introduce ourselves and state our intentions for the class. I told the class I wanted to calm my thoughts, focus and find inner peace, something that I had been and still am working towards in my daily life. The class concentrated on sun salutations, deep twists and steady movements with periods of intense and quick breathing. Running thoughts easily distract me, yet I felt present and focused on my movements throughout the class, right up until the end. As the class wound down and we laid on our mats for final relaxation, the distracting thoughts entered my mind once more. I observed this fact, that I was not able to fully relax in the absolute most relaxing physical and mental space I could possibly be in.
After class I returned to the pier to simply enjoy and breathe in the beauty of the day. A slight breeze blew through the air, and the sun gave my skin a slight burn even through my layers of sunscreen. San Marcos La Laguna is said to be one of the most healing places on earth, home to a positive energy vortex that has been held sacred to the Mayan people for centuries, and in the more recent past has attracted spiritually-inclined people from all over the world to bask in it’s healing energy. I felt this strongly during my whole stay in San Marcos, but nowhere more fully than when I was on the pier, absorbing the energy of the three volcanos and the waters of Lake Atitlán.
Although San Marcos attracts a certain amount of tourists, souvenirs aren’t abundant and there isn’t an ATM anywhere in town. There were a few locals selling things at stands along the main pedestrian strip. I had walked by one that caught my eye a few times, so stopped in on my way back from the pier to grab a few things. I’m an enthusiastic souvenir shopper and I love to bring unique items home from each trip I take. I get giddy whenever I find my own little treasures to bring home, and gift shops are almost my favourite part of museums and art galleries. I stepped into the small makeshift shop and admired the traditional textiles alongside typical touristy items while chatting with the young owner of the shop. I came away with a wonderful poncho for my dad, along with two cute leather backpacks with a traditional Mayan design in bright yellow. All in I spent 550Q, just shy of $100, which is a steal of a deal considering online shops sell ponchos alone for $100+. I had a certain amount of cash on me that had to last until my next stop, Antigua, and my shopping spree took a significant chunk out of it. I had $44 left to cover food, water, some spiritual sessions the next day, plus the boat and bus ride to Antigua. If you’re going to San Marcos or any of the towns around the lake, make sure you have more than enough cash to cover your stay!
My last full day in San Marcos was the most spiritual of all. There are posters all over town advertising different services like reiki, meditation and yoga, astrologers and more. Two of them caught my eye; a woman named Batya advertising “soul therapy,” and an astrologer named Sevonne. But first, another 9am yoga session at La Paz, this time with a tall, bald, muscular German named Eric. That class was in stark contrast to the one from the previous day. Eric’s class focused on Himalayan Hatha, a style of yoga that I found much more challenging. We concentrated on holding strong poses for a long time, and cycling through them twice. I definitely struggled and pushed myself hard through the class. I also couldn’t help but giggle internally, observing the middle aged women in the class as they themselves giggled at our strapping instructor, making eyes at him and holding themselves in a much different way than the students in the class the previous day.
I hailed a tuk-tuk in the town’s main square and rode up into the hills to meet Batya. I entered through a wrought-iron gate and crossed a dusty courtyard to her beautiful home, perched on the side of the hill. She guided me to the “clinic,” a large terrace facing Lake Atitlán. To say that the view was breathtaking is a gross understatement. As soon as I met Batya I could feel the beauty and strength radiating from her soul. She instantly made me feel at ease and I knew we were about to take an incredible journey together. Her poster had advertised, amongst other things, “Emotional and mental release, guided visualization, and practical tools for transformation.” I spent 2017 struggling through the dissolution of my marriage and starting a brand new life on my own at the age of 32, all the while still carrying heavy, unresolved grief from the passing of my mother in 2007. To say that I was in desperate need of some soul therapy would be putting things extremely lightly. Batya and I spent nearly two hours together, delving into the depths of my soul and we only just began to scratch the surface. Her intuition and the advice she gave me was spot on for the issues I was and still do struggle with, and while I don’t feel ready to go into depth in them here, I absolutely recommend that you go see her if you are in San Marcos, whatever type of spiritual guidance you may be seeking. You can reach her by email at thealchemyofliving(at)gmail.com.
After my intense session with Batya, I dipped back into town to take a breather and have a light lunch before my next session of the day. I pulled up a chair at Moonfish, a tiny outdoor eatery on the main pedestrian strip in town, and snacked on falafel while watching life wander by. Construction workers pounded away on the roof of the building beside me, and a couple of ex-pats at the table next to mine discussed life, all while reggae music vibed in the background. The stoic, dreadlocked jewelry stand guy calmly watched the eccentric, other jewelry seller guy across the street as he pounded on his drum and chatted with every tourist who walked by. I wondered if he would have a seat with me and pull me in, but alas he let me be to simply observe the life ebbing and flowing around me.
I met Sevonne, the astrologer, back in the main square in town. Makeup free with long, wavy blond hair cascading naturally down her back, she too radiated a calming presence that I immediately found comfort it. She led me to her home a few minutes from the square and we settled into two chairs on the porch where she was to do my reading. I have been around astrology all my life – my mom used to do natal charts the hard way, back before you could plug your birth info into the Internet and get your chart within seconds – and have really been getting into it, learning and applying it to my life over the past two years. This was to be my first time having a full chart reading with an astrologer in person. As I’m still learning, Sevonne dove into parts of my chart that I still don’t know how to read on my own, providing clarity on aspects of my personality, behaviours and life that really blew my mind, as well as advice to carry with me into the future. I got strong Gemini vibes from her, which turned out to be right, perfectly explaining how we spent over two hours together talking about more than just my chart. We dealt with some heavy topics during the reading, and as she walked me back to the main square while the sun was sinking in the sky, she held my hand with gentleness and gave me a warm hug before we parted ways.
I was completely mentally and physically drained after my sessions. All I was able to do for a few hours afterwards was crawl into my bed, hydrate and gently try to unwind. I slept for a while but woke up when I realized I needed to eat. My energy was still near zero, and I had to physically drag myself out of bed and walk myself to the hotel restaurant. I nourished myself with a vegetarian curry, which gave me the bit of energy I needed to shower and pack up my things in preparation for leaving the next day. My final morning in San Marcos was as idyllic as I could have hoped for it to be. I rose early to spend a few final moments on my favourite pier, the pedestrian street still empty at that dawn hour. A couple of solitary folks practiced yoga in silence and solitude on the big pier, their simple presence bringing even more calm to my morning. I enjoyed a nourishing breakfast at Posada Schumann, the view over the nearly calm lake framed by deep pink geraniums. A tiny tabby kitty decided to join me and sat on the table next to me while I finished my food, happily sharing a few morsels with him. I couldn’t have asked for a better companion or send off from my time in San Marcos, and I was more than ready for my next destination: Antigua Guatemala, the country’s crown jewel.