Tuesday, January 15, 2019

The Valley of San Marcos

The walk up and around the valley behind San Marcos is a delight. We love to saunter, thereby taking in the sights, sounds, smells, moving slowly, inhaling deeply. As John Muir so smartly noted: "Do you know the origin of that word 'saunter?' It's a beautiful word. Away back in the Middle Ages people used to go on pilgrimages to the Holy Land, and when people in the villages through which they passed asked where they were going, they would reply, "A la sainte terre,' 'To the Holy Land.' And so they became known as sainte-terre-ers or saunterers. Now these mountains are our Holy Land, and we ought to saunter through them reverently, not 'hike' through them."

We began our saunter at our home base of Pasajcap where we enjoy a panoramic view of Lake Atitlán and the sweeping contours of the three fully-forested volcanoes that frame our horizon. The walk into the village of San Marcos is along a dusty unpaved road where we encounter locals that greet us warmly (including this father, son, and dog returning from firewood harvesting). 

We also pass fellow-travellers and tuk-tuks that operate as the local taxi service. We have established that even small paths and alleys lead somewhere, so we just follow our nose, uphill out of town. The way zig-zags past simple dwellings inhabited by local Mayans, past walled and fenced properties with beatiful lush gardens mostly owned by foreigners, aka gringos. Some properties are rented out, as lodges, hostels, rooms, yoga and meditation retreats. The Yoga Forest "is a sacred sanctuary with ancient Mayan altars and natural springs that have been protected as a Natural Reserve in order to honor the land and the heritage of its people" according to its website. It has towering trees and sits nestled at the base of a gigantic sacred rockface. "The Yoga Forest shares conscious living as a spiritual practice, offering a unique retreat space for self connection, connection to the Earth, and personal growth. We live, work & play harmoniously in nature, creating inclusive abundance and a safe space for personal transformation and authentic self expression. Through intercultural relationships of respect, we weave together local and global visions that inspire positive social and ecological impacts in the world."

Up the trail beyond the Yoga Forest, the habitation thins to a few wooden structures perched high, soaking up the view. There are banana, orange, avocado trees shading the coffee trees with their ripening red beans. This trail, winding through solid boulder steps, feels like it has been here forever, helping local Mayans to ferry wood, fruit and coffee down the mountainside for hundreds of years. The valley is deep and broad and leads all the way up past its rim to the village of Santa Lucia Utatlán, some three hours distant, up on the plateau. As we paused to drink in the view to the lake, up came three petite Mayan women with big machetes and gauze bags; they were off up-valley to harvest firewood, which they will bring down to the villages strapped to their backs. They were chatty, cheerful, and giggly, radiant in their colourful local dress.

After an hour or so of climbing, we took a trail that led across the river (dry at this time but a raging torrent in wet season). It led us down the other side and offered up spectacular views out up the mountain, past the rockface, and down to the villages of San Marcos, San Pedro, and San Juan, the lake and the perfect green cone of Volcan San Pedro. Here, the land is like a jungle garden, with flowering trees spreading their ample limbs laterally. A local woman with her toddler son warns us to be careful. (Yes, we did encounter three women with machetes....) We returned via the tidy upper part of San Marcos down steep paved streets to the centre.

It was time to finally check out the eclectic Japanese restaurant Allala, tucked away down an alleyway that leads to the garishly astro-turfed soccer pitch. Hungry for a late lunch after our sauntered stroll, we tucked into miso soup, tempura vegetables, and arroz con pollo, or chicken rice. A quick shop for supplies, then back to Pasajcap by tuk-tuk too weary (or blissed-out) for Happy Hour with our fellow travellers. 

We did, however, get to met white-haired, gnome-like Yves from Quebec. He has been living here for a year in his schoolbus/van, jacked up on boulders to level it on the sloping hillside. He was first on the lake thirty years ago when there was just one motorboat daily between Panajachel and San Pedro. Now they come by every fifteen minutes or so, so there must be more than fifty a day in each direction. Yves spends half his Canada Pension helping local families here. As he says: "It's no good to me once I'm gone."

Tuesday, January 8, 2019

Wider Perspectives

Gazing out over Lake Atitlán, the horizons are far and wide and dramatic. They engender wider perspectives on life and the world beyond immediate view.

In floaty San Marcos, the air is eclectic, and perspectives are many, manifesting themselves in mind and body healing modalities such as cranio-sacral, chiropractic, shamanism, yoga, Mayan Temascal, Ayurveda, Samatha, Vipassana, Reiki, Shambala, Chi Nei Tsang, Qi Gong, Tai Chi, Tarot, even Kambo (frog secretion), and more...

With no disrespect to adherents of such practices everywhere, at least whilst here on the lake I prefer to practise my karma closer to home with a casual and very flexible morning routine. Swivel stretches work for me, prompted by deep inhalations, deep exhalations... Starting with the toes, through heels and ankles, knees, sexual core, hips, solar plexus, hands, elbows, shoulders, chest, neck, face, brow, and finally head, the energy of the outside world enters the body from the earth below. It is channeled through its length and breadth and, after its journey through the body's energies, is released through the top of the head to the sky above, all through swirling motions along the way. En route, the outside world cleanses and motivates the body, and enlivens mind, spirit and soul. Ancient cultures know that all living things carry a life force with them; they call the centres of energy that move inside of us the seven chakras. They are the Root, the Sacral, the Solar Plexus, the Heart, the Throat, the Third Eye, and the Crown.

A wonderful way to start the day immersed in this magnificent landscape - with profound gratitude and integration.

Monday, December 17, 2018


lakeatitlan, guatemala


Replenish, Replace,

Rejuvenate, Rejoice,

Refresh, Reform,

Recharge, Renew.

Recycle, Restore.


Relax, once more.

Sunday, March 18, 2018

Always Look on the Bright Side

We always have nature as our earthly guide.

We always have our ancestors as spiritual guide.

We always have love as our moral compass.

We always have intuition as our sensual compass.

Following these guides, we can together overcome all adversity.

Life is a precious gift not to be passed up lightly.

Friday, March 2, 2018

It's all about the Seeds

Erythrina flabelliformis, red coral bean seeds

I have been immersed, during my days and weeks on Lake Atitlan, reading "The Unlikely Peace at Cuchumaquic" by Martin Prechtel. HIs writing glows throughout with indigenous wisdom. His words about the origins, durability and vital importance to us all of the Seed are particularly memorable:

"But our souls, like the seeds, remember. We need to find them, or we shall go mad or destroy ourselves trying to speed away from the incrementing trail of suffering unsung ghosts we leave in the wake of our flight into amnesia. Make the effort to look into the real past of the seeds you plant. Go as far as you can get, even into the annals of the standard empire-serving common system of belief, and you will find the people of the seeds and the seeds of your own past. Look into the people, and you will find your “seeds,” for all of us have them. Like all the languages, clothing, songs, ways of living, the seeds too have been taken from us, but their memory lives on, waiting to burst forth again if we just look beyond the Great Wall of cultural and historical prejudice and self-hatred. 

In every family, if you are courageous enough to stay on the trail beyond the prejudice of a family’s selective memory and belief, and don’t get your fate stunted by getting mired in some self-involved psychology, there are vestiges of customs, sayings, beliefs, that if assiduously looked into could easily lead to the more ancient evidence of your people’s unique version of the original spiritual “Agreement” with the Holy in Nature that all peoples have. Strange little shoots of bigger vines that have miraculously survived the simple-minded revisionist imperial histories we have all been taught yet dangle there unnoticed. 

These little leftover things are the signs of the “souls of our seeds.” The stories of these souls and our plants are the stories of our people; between the people, the seeds, and their stories, evidence of the ritual agreement with the Holy almost always pokes through if you know what you’re looking at when it does. 

In this way, whether you plant a small garden or sow a larger farm, if you know that many things about what your seeds carry on their backs, then you are cultivating origins to whose story your own story is then attached. By tending, growing, and worrying about the welfare of the living things you have planted, you are both caring for and are part of a true origins, and you are no longer stranded in time. You have become a vital part of the long umbilical cord of a life attached to the Holy in Nature."

Tuesday, February 27, 2018

The Future of Lake Atitlán

As I look out this bright mid-afternoon in this middle of the dry season, Lake Atitlán is in its gloriously shimmering element, all abuzz with dancing movement and vibrant light. As is normal, the winds swept a front across the lake south west to north east around noon, erasing the calm serenity of the morning. Whenever at the lake, I like to take a swim, straight off the dock if possible, bathing in the clear cobalt-blue waters, with the deep blue sky reflected on the surface. 

It would be nice to think that the pristine-looking waters of this mesmerizing 1,100-foot deep caldera lake will always remain as clear and clean as they have been historically. But sadly, Lake Atitlán already faces immense ecological pressures.

Bacteria counts are on the rise, especially at certain pressure points, where effluent of sewage and chemicals enter into the lake in increasing volume. Water quality is continuously monitored and anaysed by organizations such as Amigos de Atitlán (www.amigosatitlan.org),  AMSCLAE (www.amsclae.gob.gt), the government authority for the sustainable management of the lake basin of Atitlán, and Save Lake Atitlan (www.savelakeatitlan.com).

Amigos de Atitlán reports: "After years of contamination, the lake has presented signs of severe environmental stress."

"The lake is going from oligotrophic – crystalline and potable waters - to mesotrophic – turbid and green – and if this degradation continues it will go on to become an eutrophic lake impossible to recuperate."

"The principal threats that must be addressed in short term are:

Sewage water

The use of the soil, which includes three principal factors: the expansion of the agricultural frontier, erosion, use of fertilizers, and use of agro chemicals.

Solid waste"

"AMSCLAE, the authority responsible for the protection of Lake  Atitlán presented in 2015 an initiative to develop a Master Plan for drinking water supply and wastewater treatment. This plan includes technology options, institutional framework and community consultations for the introduction of drinking water supply, sewerage and sewage export outside the Basin. Wastewater treatment plants installed in some municipalities are only part of the solution, treatment plants alone fail to remove pathogens and nutrients such as nitrogen and phosphorus that feed the cyanobacteria."

"Since the start of the Master Plan development, Amigos de Atitlán allowed for dialogue and has spread information of the plan at a national level. The association has gained support at all levels to stop wastewater from entering the lake. Additionally Amigos de  Atitlán has promoted the comprehensive drainage system as the only feasible economic and environmental solution to preserve and restore Lake Atitlán."

Raw liquid sewage draining into the lake

savelakeatitlan.com reports:

"There are not enough wastewater treatment plants around Lake Atitlán to treat the ever-increasing amount of raw sewage produced by the area’s growing population. Most of the existing plants operate well below full capacity. They simply remove solids and do little to reduce the volume of pathogenic bacteria entering the lake. Only one of many planned new facilities has been built so far, and municipal authorities do not have the resources they need for maintenance and upgrading.

As a result, thousands of metric tons of raw sewage or improperly treated wastewater from households and businesses in more than 20 towns enter the lake each year. The ecosystem is under constant siege from putrefactive bacteria and other pathogens."

"Since the 1950s, local farmers have been pressured to abandon natural farming and instead use chemical fertilizers, pesticides, fungicides, and herbicides. These toxic products are highly subsidized, and poor farmers are strongly encouraged to use them copiously to boost their production. The fertilizers, which are particularly high in phosphorous, run off into the lake during the rainy season. Waste water from coffee processing is also acidic and high in natural effluents." 

"Lake Atitlán is a ‘Protected Area’ under Guatemalan law, but commercial tilapia farms are being allowed to operate on a massive scale, even though all the nutrients that they leave in the lake are accelerating the destruction of the lake’s ecosystem."

A perennial problem is the lack of consensus as to how to proceed that often leads to paralysis, inertia, foot-dragging. Locals are understandably reticent to throw support behind large infrastructure projects, given the checkered history of granted funds being utilized as mandated. And where does the funding come from? How much control will municipalities and communities have over their own precious and finite resource - water? Who 'owns' the project? The future fate of the lake is far from clear, but bold concerted action from all stakeholders is called for.

Saturday, February 17, 2018

San Lucas Tolimán

San Lucas Tolimán

Our visit to all twelve towns and villages around Lake Atitlán is now complete. And we think that with the last on the list we have found our Shangri-la! After Panajachel, San Pedro la Laguna, San Juan la Laguna, San Marcos la Laguna, Santa Cruz la Laguna, Jaibalito, Tzununá, San Pablo la Laguna, Santiago Atitlán, Santa Catarina Palopó, San Antonio Palopó, we finally disembarked the lancha at the tranquil backwater of San Lucas Tolimán. What a magical day we spent there!

It was like a dream - Sunday in the Country meets Picnic at Hanging Rock. We took advantage of a new 3-times daily public boat service, departing Panajachel at 8.30am, returning from San Lucas Tolimán at 4pm. The cost of the half-hour trip (for, sadly, just three passengers each way), was 20 quetzals, or $3, each.

As our boat rounded a headland, we left the open waters of Lake Atitlán behind and entered a bay with clear blue water, flooded tree trunks and weedy rim. The park that takes up the waterfront is shaded by big trees and lined with thatched bars serving simple fare and beer. Tuk-tuks were conspicuously few and the locals, while exceptionally friendly, are not perturbed by stray visitors. The whole town is paved with broad streets. A walk up the hill takes us to the vibrant central square. Off to our side are several streets taken up by the twice-weekly market. The vendors are mostly women dressed in an bright array of traditional weavings and offering their family's fruit, vegetables, flowers, meats, fish, dried goods, eggs, cheese, weavings, carvings, and household utensils. The scene is lively and convivial and, even as rare tourists, we cause no undue attention beyond welcoming banter. We asked a couple of locals for a place for a good coffee and they directed us to the sweet little Cafe Jade, which served the best lattes, 'fuerte' as requested.

After sidestreet meanderings taking in several species of tropical trees in extravagant bloom, we strolled down the hill to the tiled-roofed communal outdoor lavadero, where many women were doing their laundry, using water channeled from the mountains, in ancient large concrete basins. The grey water is filtered through sand catchments before draining into the bay. A crew of men was hauling out thick weed mass from the bay, piling it up for removal and making into compost. With wet, cold hand outstretched, Marlon introduced himself. Out around the bay, the pavement finally gave way to dirt. Here a quiet, mixed community of homes from the grandiose to the humble sits quietly looking out over the water. Small coffee plantations grow shaded by banana trees, single farmers prepare and plant fields of corn, beans, peppers, tomatoes, celery. We decided we could quite happily live here, cultivating our own little backwater just outside this pueblo, with a small self-sufficient garden beside our simple home, making our way into market to purchase fresh local organic goods, with a boat ride to Pana once week to top up on supplies. On our way back into town Marlon and a mate awkwardly asked for 10 quetzals (75 cents) to buy tortillas as they were hungry.

Having worked up a hearty appetite, it was time to visit the elegant Hotel Tolimán (www.hoteltoliman.com). Set in beautiful landscaped gardens, the hotel offers luxuriant accommodation with local character. The kitchen makes full use of the most complete and impressive organic market garden that takes up half an acre adjacent to the hotel. The views over the bay and lake beyond from the covered terrace dining room are jaw-dropping. Our prix fixe three-course lunch, which included a day pass for swimming in the pool and a tour of the market garden, was very reasonable at  150 quetzals ($20) per person. The food and drinks were fresh, delicious, tastefully presented, and service from our server Lionel came with a smile and affable chat. This was a fine dining experience.

Back to the waterfront to await our return boat, we passed a beach designated for boats, another for baptisms, and another for bathing. Bathed in afternoon sun, teenagers, girls and boys, stripped down to shorts and swimsuits and joyfully, loudly dived in. A young couple doffed tops to splash around playfully and wash hair and body, innocently oblivious to the world around. 

And then our boat launched us three passengers back onto the open waters, across the volcano-rimmed lake, out of daydream, back to Panajachel, thence onward home on a second boat, this one crammed full and heavy with well over twenty tourists, luggage, and locals, sprayed liberally with water on a choppy ride. We feel blessed to have enjoyed this memorable travel day soaking up such a rare traditional, vibrant, happy culture set in harmonious surroundings.