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.

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.

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.”

The pot-smoking hippies share the village with profoundly evangelical Indians (some of whom appeared horrified by the hippies’ lack of hygiene). Overamplified church services echo around the town, and signs instructing one to follow the Lord are painted on walls everywhere. (Among them: Jesus es el Camino, which I couldn’t help visualizing in automotive terms.) Yet the hippies and the Indians have evidently achieved a détente, predicated on an intricate microeconomy of beer, laundry, tortillas, and Spanish lessons.

I spent a large portion of my time in San Pedro at ZooLa, a rustic restaurant-and-hotel compound overlooking the lake. It consists of a series of open-air thatched huts, the main one arrayed with woven grass mats and large, brightly colored pillows. It was hand-built by an Israeli couple who wanted their guests to be able to “lie about like Bedouins.” And lie about I did, admiring the views, sipping mint tea, and chatting with fellow travelers. Most had the enviable confidence of people who’ve rejected something (wage slavery, confining shoes) and are pleased to tell you about it. I found that being among hippies still relaxes me—my hair feels cleaner, my limited life ambitions recklessly grandiose. It was hard to leave.

I eventually decamped for San Marcos, 10 minutes by boat across the bay. If San Pedro is Haight-Ashbury circa 1968, San Marcos is Marin County circa 1975. The ancient hippie colony of Panajachel had, in effect, split into two tribes, with the pot smokers heading to one village and the New Agers to the other.

The lower part of San Marcos, nearest the lake, is occupied chiefly by gringos in the pursuit of wholeness. At Centro Jazmín, you can get a Taoist healing massage (“recommended only for people who are very in tune with their internal energies”). At the San Marcos Holistic Centre, you can sign up for an Indian head massage (“helps with ‘backpack-induced’ shoulder pain”). At Centro de Meditación Las Pirámides, you can take a monthlong “Moon-course” (includes “showers with medicinal plants”) while living in a pyramid-shaped hut.

Yet I found that you needn’t feel unwhole to enjoy a few days here. It’s easy to fill one’s days with eating, swimming, and lounging about, and there’s no activities director to make you feel like a loser for not participating in forced amusements. The lake is an ideal temperature for swimming, and you can jump off rocks or wade in through marshy grasses near the west end of town.

And idly exploring is a delight. The village is not so much human-scaled as hobbit-scaled; the lower part is a labyrinth of footpaths lined with bamboo and stucco walls, the main intersections dotted with bouquets of hand-painted signs directing you to organic restaurants and holistic centers. The hotels tend to be cozy and informal. My favorite—a place that alone nearly merits a trip to Central America—is Aaculaax, a six-room hotel built by a young German named Nicolas Gronau. A former record-store manager from Hamburg, Gronau first visited San Marco in 1999. He returned the next year, bought land, and began to cobble together a miniature village of narrow pathways, lush foliage, and folk-arty buildings unfamiliar with right angles. Most striking of all is a three-story suite that’s partly carved into a cliff and has an outdoor bathroom with an astonishing view of the lake and its volcanoes. The room is like something from a fable (though I wouldn’t recommend it to acrophobes or building engineers).

The whole complex has a supple, organic feel, the sort that architects often strive for but rarely achieve. In this instance, it was achieved because when Gronau started building, he had no idea what he wanted to create. First he made a house for himself; when he discovered he had money left over, he kept going, eventually deciding on a hotel. With a crew of local craftsmen, he added structures here and there as whim dictated. “We tried to build one building off a blueprint,” he told me. “The guys just looked at me like I was completely mad.”

In keeping with the town’s holistic bent, Gronau became an advocate for green building. He started thinking there had to be a way to get rid of the garbage that threatened to engulf San Marcos like an implacable polystyrene glacier. (There’s no central trash collection; most residents dig pits and bury their bottles and bags.) He decided to use the plastic to make buildings. For some walls, he strung two lengths of chicken wire between stout concrete posts, then packed the gap with trash and slathered it with cement. He made other walls of empty glass bottles stacked and cemented into place, their tops and bottoms exposed. These look like wine racks excavated from Pompeii, and a lambent, jade-colored light gently decants into the guest rooms.

Gronau often provides lodging to artists in exchange for their creativity, and some 150 have added their sculptures and paintings to the grounds. Some artists even become part of the landscape. Alain Galtier, a Frenchman with a splendid gray beard and a Gandalfian air, has occupied an open-air workshop here for the last five years, making stained-glass-and-papier-mâché windows and lamps for the hotel.

When I stopped at Galtier’s studio on my last day, I pointed to a couple of lamps and asked how much they cost. He was cool to my inquiry, informing me that they were not for sale.

Which is a shame. I’m pretty sure I could make good money exporting them to the States.