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."