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.