Travel and Healing Silver Winner: Spiritual Enlightenment for Modern Conquistadors

by Eliot Stein

“Lake Como touches the limit of the permissibly picturesque; but Atitlán is Como with the additional embellishments of several immense volcanoes. It is really too much of a good thing.”

Aldus Huxley, Beyond the Mexique Bay, 1934

Where do we come from?

Huxley may not have realized it at the time, but when he traded in Italy for Guatemala and waxed lyrical about Lake Atitlán, he virtually founded the country’s tourism department. Seventy-five years later, you find Huxley’s rapture on a pamphlet, check out of Italy and head to Atitlán to follow his footsteps. After two years of watching well-heeled singles sashay down cobblestone sheets in Sardinia, you’re anxious to assimilate into a less modish Latin reality and grow the kind of coarse mustache that doesn’t come from sipping frothy cappuccinos. Plus, you’re looking for spiritual enlightenment.

Things don’t start off smoothly. You’re the only passenger aboard a ferry that tears across the lake before downshifting to a hum at the San Marcos La Laguna dock. Looking around, you fear you’ve discovered a serene hunter-gatherer utopia and shattered it with your high-octane arrival. Farmers drop their wooden hoes and eye you from under tan sombreros. Fishermen brace against the sides of their handmade cedar canoes as their hand-held lines bounce uncontrollably in your ferry’s wake. Nude women washing their linens and bodies by the bank hurriedly cover themselves. You wish Cortés’ moral compass had been as good as his maps.

Who are we?

Sardinia may be marooned in the Mediterranean, but Guatemala is marooned in the Maya civilization. Shoehorned at the northern tip of Central America, the country remains gripped in its pre-Hispanic past. With roughly 60 percent of Guatemala’s 13 million people of Maya descent, the country boasts the most distinct indigenous identity in the western hemisphere and, if Huxley is to be believed, “the most beautiful lake in the world.” He has a strong case: Atitlán’s translucent blue pool stretches 130 square kilometers and is hammocked by three towering volcanoes. Mountain peaks poke their heads above the clouds, many hovering over avocado trees and corn fields that cling for life as they climb the crags. Add thirteen subsistence-based indigenous communities ringing the lake’s lip and streets that often lose their asphalt and Atitlán is a shimmering metaphor for Guatemala itself: moody topography, disjointed infrastructure and a crushing convergence of beauty and poverty.

San Marcos’ dock doesn’t inspire confidence. The ferry drops you at the end of a wooden jetty missing several key planks that force you to hopscotch across. It’s the kind of welcome mat that discourages suitcases and promotes short visits. You wonder if Huxley secretly wanted the lake for himself.

Guatemala’s rainy season floods the narrow dirt trail up the bank into a frijole paste each afternoon. You trudge between rows of mango, banana and jocote trees on your way into town. Indigenous women in hand-stitched, ankle-length huipil skirts breeze past you while balancing baskets of plantains on their heads. Barefoot mocha-coloured children chase free-range roosters around coffee plants. You approach a sunburned gringo peddling animal masks and marijuana pipes carved to resemble Maya deities to a pair of dreadlocked Europeans draped in sarong skirts.

“Democracy has so changed our yin-yang.” says the first woman to her shopping partner, who’s admiring a single-hit bowl. “I mean, look at ancient Egypt. Back then women were pharaohs, now we’re bitches.”


San Marcos is a curious mix of 2,500 Kaqchikel Indians and roughly a hundred bohemian peacenik ex-pats living in the shadow of the San Pedro volcano. Spiritual pilgrims have taken the village by storm in the past 20 years as rumors have spread that the pueblo is one of the world’s few vortex energy centerson par with, say, Machu Picchu and the Egyptian pyramids. Soothing auras supposedly swirl here, that, once absorbed, enable the soul to experience a future of spiritual enlightenment. The unlikely mix results in a tense, segregated co-existence between the two divergent demographics. Up the bank, the Kaqchikel huddle in a tumbledown adobe and cinderblock village. Closer to the dock, yoga instructors, holistic healers and Reiki practitioners have snatched large swaths of real estate and planted organic orchards to buffer their new age colonies. Signs advertising “Shaluha-ka Cleansing.” “Ashram Acupuncture” and “How Crystals Can Unlock Your Inner Being” dot the trail, each pointing the way to Mecca for tourists convinced they are suffering various stages of physical or mental decomposition.

You continue up the trail past Las Pirámides del Ka, a lush garden compound fenced off from the public and studded with conical-shaped meditation centers. Inside, spiritual leaders in flowing, pearly robes verse participants in astral travel. Others ready students for the three-month “Sun Course”which begins on each solar equinox and culminates with 40 days of fasting in complete silenceall for just $2,770.

A P.A. system crackles a fervent appeal in the ancient sounds of Kaqchikel, tearing your curiosity from inner healing toward its source. When you emerge from the organic orchards into the indigenous pueblo’s centerpiecea barren dirt plaza surrounding a modern stone churchyou realize the sounds are religious exhortations in a town where Spanish is very much a second language.

You take note: away from the month-long “Moon Courses” and “Tarot Treatments.” San Marcos’ Kaqchikel core seems an unlikely source to ooze some of the planet’s most soothing, swirling vibes. Maya men bend forward to support heavy satchels of firewood strapped around their foreheads; women use both hands to swat the flies from their faces and two pair of stray dogs violently hump the bejesus out of each other by the church. You wonder if vortex energy is selective.

A shirtless boy makes a b-line for you and your suitcase. He flashes a broad smile although his slight frame and protruding belly suggest malnutrition.

“Hey dude, yo soy guia.” he says, offering to take you to a hotel. You’re not accustomed to being called “dude” when not wearing a leather jacket or carrying a surfboard, but you agree, averting your eyes from his ripped jeans and the shoes he outgrew several years ago. He takes you back through the gringo trail to El Paco Real, a sprinkling of huts thatched with shaggy palm leaves reminiscent of Robinson Crusoe. You remember that 70% of Guatemalans scrape by on less than $2 a day and that an average family of four barely makes $250 a month. You suppose seeing the local economic misery helps edify your spirit (which is why you’re here in the first place, right?) But your upscale B&B offers the best of both worlds for the tourist looking to cultivate their awareness: being right next to the heartbreaking poverty, but not in it.

You tip your guia generously, knowing that he and his family are now that much closer to not having to fast for 40 days.

Where are we going?

Your siesta is cut short by the punchy Bronx accent of a woman in the adjoining room raving about the hotel restaurant’s lobster bisque dinner.

“But Fran, you know sodium blocks my chakras!” snaps another female voice in a deep, smoky hack. You call her Sherry and imagine she’s seated in the lotus position puffing a Pall Mall. You don’t know what chakras are, but you don’t want them blocked and decide to eat elsewhere.

Outside, you follow the only glimmer of discernable electricity up to the Kaqchikel village where you notice a squat tin roof restaurant with bamboo trim: Los Abrazos.

Inside, an elderly Maya woman sits glued to a black and white television in an empty dining room. You lean in, asking “�Está abierto?” The woman stands, raising her hunched shoulders and braided hair, smiling, “Claro que si!

A single flickering light bulb shows three bench seats, each molded from clay, dyed Earthy tones and topped with adobe heads shaped like an eagle, a condor and a black Rastafarian lady with dangling dreadlocks. You sidestep a few dogs passed out on the cement floor and sit between the eagle and the condor. Your host introduces herself as Antoña and explains that the only item available for dinner is brick oven pizza, which seems about as likely in rural Guatemala as a Rastafarian. You order the pizza mixta and ask for the bathroom as Antoña turns, shouting orders in a faraway language.

Just then, a young woman in a purple huipil skirt and matching headdress shuffles in from behind a curtain, her eyes never leaving the ground. She leads you outside past a washing basin to a cinderblock cubicle. You reach to speak to her but she breaks the silence, apologizing for the bathroom’s lack of electricity. You close the door and battle Montezuma in the dark.

The girl is waiting for you in the dining room when you return. You compliment her huipil, noting the geometric pattern is different than those you’ve seen in San Marcos. She explains that huipils differ between villages, with each pueblo stitching its own motif like a signature. She’s from Huehuetenango, a remote Jakaltek-speaking town perched in Guatemala’s western highlands, and she’s come to work against her family’s will as an ayudantea sort of live-in maid.

“My father doesn’t want me working for an Evangelical.” she says, nodding in Antoña’s direction. “But we need the money.”

She starts explaining how difficult it was to leave her family and learn both Kaqchickel and Spanish, but you’re distracted by the glimmering flashes coming from her mouth. In Maya tradition, even those with perfect dental structure often place copper fillings on their teeth to radiate light in honor of Totik, the sun god. You’re busy admiring the girl’s pagan bling when another Kaqchickel command from the kitchen sends her scurrying out the door.

Antoña places your dinner on the table and stands over you expectantly. You cut off a sliver and chew, slowly considering it. “Muy bueno!” you lie, inviting her to join you. She sits across the table, the earthquake lines on her face erupting with each flicker of the light.

Her albino cat inches toward you between bites, leaning its front paws on the table and eyeing your pizza mixta. Antoña barks commands in the animal’s direction before whizzing a barrage of garlic cloves by your ear, pelting the cat in the face.

“So you can eat in peace.” she explains. You ask what she yelled to the cat.

“It’s in Kaqchickel, my husband’s language.”

Despite the Conquistadors’ best efforts, twenty-eight Maya languages survive in Guatemala. While residents in San Marcos and neighboring Santa Cruz speak Kaqchickel, those in San Pedroa 15-minute lanchia ride awayspeak Tz-utujil. It’s a tangled cultural patchwork, though modern customs now act like a seamstress: Maya women must learn their husband’s language upon marriage, just as Antoña did when she arrived in San Marcos from her K’iche village. Years after her husband’s death, she still reverts to his language to control her few possessions: two dormant dogs, an albino cat and an ayudante.

You learn that this is the second incarnation of Los Abrazos. Four years ago, an especially active rainy season carried the first version into the lake. Having lost not only her business but also her home, Antoña sought financial assistance from the only people in San Marcos who could afford to help her: the gringo altruists.

“They all refused.” she says. “It took my five sons and a kind friend two years of work, but I now have a house again, praise Jesus.”

Jesus and His father are important spices in your dinner. Antoña peppers them into her responses when asked about such things as what people in San Marcos eat (both meat and fish, thanks be to God), whether she has grandchildren (two, praise the Lord) and why the Swine Flu had yet to penetrate the lake (it’s God’s will, though she has stocked enough lemons to make tea for her family and friends, just in case).

Like all of Central America, Guatemala is built atop a rumbling fault line. In the midst of a bloody 30-year civil war, an especially violent shake decimated the country in 1976, leaving 100,000 Guatemalans injured or dead and one million homeless. In the aftershock of the devastation, the only group willing to shell out enough paper to rebuild the country was U.S.-based Evangelicals, who also seized the opportunity to convert the campesinos.

This Evangelical conversion was further accelerated by American political interests. Fearful that Guatemala’s Catholic church was riddled with guerilla sympathizers and socialist supporters, the U.S. government backed strong-armed dictators, such as Rios Montt. An ardent Evangelical, Montt’s “Frijoles y Fusiles” (“beans and guns”) campaign lasted from 1982-1983, during which time Washington slipped him millions of dollars to form state-sponsored death squads that pitted Mayas sects against each otherjust as the Conquistadors had done centuries earlier. In two years, the U.S.-backed regime burned hundreds of villages to the ground, beheaded numerous Catholic priests and murdered 180,000 people. When America’s foreign policy was questioned, Reagan stated that Montt was “getting a bum rap.”

Today, Guatemala is the most Evangelic country in Latin America (with an estimated 40% of the population practicing) and claims more new converts every year than anywhere else in the world. All this helps explain several questions that have been bothering you: 1) Why does San Marcos’ church need to hold four services a day and accompany each with a crackling play-by-play on a P.A. system? 2) Why were there eight Christ-related images in your hotel room last night (including a picture of a stuffed teddy bear straddling the keys of a grand piano with a speech bubble drawn from his mouth reading, “Dios es mi inspiración.” )? and 3) How did this elderly K’iche woman forget about the eternal ch’ul soul her ancestors believed guarded all Mayas and become firmly convinced that her obedient Jakaltek ayudante is destined to burn in hellvortex energy or not?

You thank your host with a handshake, hurdle her dormant dogs and bid her adios.

The gringo trail is now a blackout. Squinting, you make out a sign reading “Unite Your Inner HarmonyNow, Forever.” A shadow slowly comes toward you. It’s the ayudante, weighed down by an armful of firewood destined to burn in her keeper’s brick oven. You approach, asking if there’s anything you can do. She shakes her head no.

You then ask, “How do you say ‘hopefully I’ll see you tomorrow’ in your language?”

“You can’t.” she says. “In Jakaltek culture, we don’t believe people are destined for anything. There’s no future tense.”

Where do we come from (revisited)?

You come to realize that modern travel, like spirituality, is less about treading your own path to new frontiers than it is putting your faith in others, trusting thatlike good shepherdsthey’ll lead you to a horizon so pleasant that you feel compelled to tell the masses. And in heeding this journey to the promised land, you not only better yourself, but help those around you. Yet, you’ve followed Huxley’s word only to cringe at what San Marcos has become. You desperately want this pueblo to be different, to be something that it’s not. But so has everyone else that has ever looked like you who has beaten you here.

You breathe deeply and make peace with the fact that you so can’t change that.

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