Travels September 2007

The Grateful Living

Old hippies and New Agers commune along the shores of Guatemala’s Lake Atitlán.

When I left Lake Atitlán in the Guatemalan highlands some 25 years ago, I was in the back of a van sitting atop a bale of kaleidoscopically patterned shirts and skirts. I was sharing the ride with a guy named Lucky, who was planning to fly with his cargo to Philadelphia, where the Grateful Dead would be playing in a few days. It was what Lucky did: He flew to Guatemala every month or two, stocked up, then flew back to set up shop outside Dead shows.

From Atlantic Unbound:

Slideshow: "On the Shores of Lake Atitlán."

Wayne Curtis narrates photos from his hippie-seeking pilgrimage.

I was a recent college graduate, and Lucky had inspired me to launch my own business. So I was traveling with a duffel full of brightly colored woven wallets, which I intended to sell on college campuses. As the van labored up the winding road from the lake, I looked out the rear window toward the silvery-blue water hundreds of feet below. The view was heart-stoppingly beautiful, and I was in a buoyant mood. I knew I’d be returning soon to buy more wallets; the lake would be my second home. Like Lucky, I would keep on trucking.

As it happened, more than two decades would pass before I made it back, wiser for my years. Among the bits of wisdom I’d acquired: The demand for colorful cloth wallets is not without limits. And when I did return, curious about what had become of the hippies and Deadheads, I discovered that the gateway town of Panajachel, which I recalled as a sort of countercultural Shangri-La in a nation racked by civil war, had more or less vanished. It was now a bustling mini-metropolis of speeding tuk-tuks driven by teenage Indians, some of whom wore wireless-cell-phone earpieces. Hardly any tie-dye was to be found.

I walked down to the new cobblestone promenade along the lake. The view across the water was as breathtaking as ever: Three improbably symmetrical volcanoes anchor the far shore, and the rest of the lake is rimmed by high escarpments irregularly tattooed with nearly vertical cornfields. At the main pier, boatmen were hawking tours of the shorefront villages. I asked one guide what there was to see. “Indios. Indios,” he told me, making a wide sweep of his arm. Then he gestured toward the villages of San Pedro La Laguna and San Marcos La Laguna. “Hee-pees. Hee-pees,” he said. I caught a launch to San Pedro the next morning.

Also see:

The Travel Advisory
What to do, where to stay, and where to eat at Lake Atitlán.

Lake Atitlán is six miles across at its widest and at least a thousand feet deep. The area was populated chiefly by Indian subsistence farmers until the first road to the lake was built, in the 1940s. Travelers soon started to make their way there. Efforts to create a Cancún of the mountains failed, and instead Panajachel emerged as a stop on the budget-travel circuit. Even during the worst of the fighting, a polyglot crew of long-haired, consciousness-altering proto-slackers, myself among them, were drawn by the cheap hotels and restaurants, the abundance of exportable products, and the quasi-psychedelic Indian vibe.

Visiting one of the villages across the lake years ago—chasing ill-founded rumors of cheap wallets—I had found an eerily remote town where kids ran and hid from strangers. When I disembarked at San Pedro on this recent morning, I realized that it had undergone a sort of bohemian-colonialist transformation. The dock was flanked by restaurants blooming with colorful café umbrellas, and the sound of techno music wafted down the hill. At the top of the steep cobblestone street that leads up from the water was a sign with the iconic red circle and slash superimposed on a drum (the hippies apparently used to gather and drum here). Nearby, a man in a cowboy hat muttered, “Weed. Smoke. Weed,” and a man with no hat said, “Nice weed. Smoke.” Someone handed me a flyer for the upcoming “Mayan Experience Psychedelic Trance & Dance.”

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Wayne Curtis is a frequent contributor to The Atlantic.

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