Guatemala isn’t anywhere near the birthplace of yoga, but the teachings of this wonderful practice have travelled thousands of miles to meet their match at Lake Atitlan. The tranquillity of the lake is the perfect place to regain some inner zen after the madness of urban Guatemala, so be sure to head to this paradise before you go on to travel the rest of Central America.
Guatemala is a mad country. I spent four weeks in Quetzaltenango, its second biggest city and quickly learnt that it is completely socially acceptable to salsa dance at all hours of the day and night, loud music has to be blaring from every street corner and there is no limit to the number of times a bus can honk its horn in one minute, even at 5am.
Don’t get me wrong, Guatemala is a beautiful nation, my favourite in fact. Despite its madness, Guatemala is incredibly safe and I relished and adored the chaos of the country, but after four weeks of manic city life I was desperately seeking some inner zen. So I headed to Lake Atitlan, where those dreams were met. It’s there I experienced a completely different dimension to the Central American country. Even just driving towards Lake Atitlan, I felt a sense of amazing calm wash over me. As I descended upon the lake, which has been deemed by many as one of the most beautiful in the world, I felt pretty awe-stricken. The waters glistened and sparkled, like a thousand fairies were dancing on the ripples, and the volcanoes fringed the lake and proudly pointed straight up into the blue sky. This beat all of the exotic beaches I’d ever walked on, or every snow capped mountain my eyes had witnessed. I felt like I’d just stepped into paradise. This seemed like the perfect place to reconnect with myself through yoga.
The best towns for yoga in Lake Atitlan
Although I maintain that Guatemala is safe, Panajachel is where I felt my safety the most compromised. The town is the ‘hub’ of Lake Atitlan, but definitely the least scenic. For that reason, coupled with the fact that there didn’t seem to be much in the way of yoga meant that the town wasn’t for me, so I quickly caught a boat heading to San Pedro.
San Pedro is split into two: the area around the Panajachel dock and the other around the Santiago dock. The Panajachel dock area hosts most of the budget accommodation and typical tourist restaurants, but the Santiago dock area offers vegan cafes, a yoga school and an abundance of smoothie and juice bars.
If you’re on the pursuit of clean eating and downward dogs, San Pedro has what you require for a day or so. The area around the Buddha bar is pedestrian friendly, brightly coloured with quirky signs, and it is a pleasant spot for a stroll. Vegetarian and gluten or dairy free food is fairly easy to locate. However, the town is rather expensive; and the one yoga school is aware that it has the monopoly in San Pedro.
If you’re after yoga in San Pedro, the aptly named San Pedro Yoga is your answer – the classes are professionally taught in a wonderful air conditioned studio. However, at $US5 a class, they’re a bit on the expensive side. Still, the classes enjoy unbeatable views of the lake, so if you’re only looking for a spot of yoga during your Lake Atitlan trip, San Pedro could be the answer.
No more than twenty minutes by boat from San Pedro is the sleepy village of San Marcos. At first glance, it seems an extraordinarily quiet area with very little going on. However, the village is fabled to be built upon sacred land and has become a mecca for all things spiritual. Today, it hosts many yoga and meditation classes.
The village itself submits to complete relaxation and serenity. There aren’t really any cars; dirt paths and handmade painted signs guide you to the yoga classes and different cafes around the village. It’s a perfect destination to forget about any niggles of day to day life and focus on being in the present moment.
Best Places for Yoga in San Marcos
Hostal Del Lago
Hostal Del Lago is situated just outside the village and provides serene yoga classes twice a day, with an unbeatable lake view. This is perfect for those who wish to just drop in to a yoga class.
Mahadevi Ashram yoga retreat is an eco friendly sanctuary focusing on spiritual growth through yoga, meditation and peaceful living. The site is strictly alcohol, tobacco, drug, meat and fish free and promotes a detox for the mind and body. The course is an all inclusive two week intensive and takes place right at the gorgeous shores of Lake Atitlan.
The Yoga Forest
The Yoga Forest was my favourite yoga experience at Lake Atitlan. It is a retreat based community, and offers a fantastic location, a peaceful community, and fantastic classes. The retreat is isolated; a 20 minute walk from Lake Atitlan itself, but there is everything you need there for an off the grid yoga experience.
At The Yoga Forest, the day begins with 6am meditation, followed immediately by morning yoga. Breakfast generally consists of tropical fruit and oatmeal with homemade honey and peanut butter. All of the fresh fruit and vegetables served at The Yoga Forest are made in the forest itself; they grow fresh papaya and serve some of the most delicious avocados I tried in Guatemala (I ate a lot, the country is known for them). Prayers follow breakfast, and then the mornings are free to spend as you please; forest tours are available, or the peaceful surroundings make for the perfect place to catch up on reading or writing in a journal (there is no WiFi at The Yoga Forest). Lunch is a Guatemalan inspired vegetarian feast, and the afternoons are taken up by restorative yoga. During the week, there are different activities happening including the chance to use an authentic Mayan sauna. Dinner is just as delicious as lunch, and bedtime is early, ready to be up for early morning meditation the next day.
As The Yoga Forest is a community, retreaters are expected to clean up after themselves and long-term guests undertake daily chores such as making the lunch salad or gardening. Prayers are said before every meal, and ceremonies are had at full moon or half moon. The community vibe and the layout of The Yoga Forest are something pretty special, but what extenuates this is that it is set in paradise.
When I went to The Yoga Forest last year, I arrived with food poisoning which had given me a bad case of the travelling grumps. Five days and a dozen mugs of papaya leaf tea later and I left reminded of how lucky I was to be on this adventure, feeling rejuvenated and refreshed.
Santa Cruz is well off the tourist trail. The village is nearly vertical, built into one of the steep inclines surrounding the lake. It has little in the way of tourist accommodation, with one exception; La Iguana Perdida. This is a different kind of community; it is less focused on spirituality and more on activities around the great lake. However, there are still fantastic yoga classes which are definitely worth a mention.
These yoga classes are done right on the shores of this quiet Atitlan village. During the class, you have the chance to gaze straight over the crystal waters of the lake, marvel at the fantastic volcanoes and breathe in the fresh aqua air. The classes are taught fantastically and offered cheaply, making La Iguana Perdida a fantastic place for some morning yoga.