When I’m traveling I often find myself asking the question, “Could I see myself living here someday?” While our family spent 6 weeks traveling around Central America last fall I found myself asking that question a lot. My wife and I had already begun to re-think our plan to embark on a season a perpetual Round-the-World travel and instead find a new place in a new part of the world to call home. It seemed then that every place we were visiting on our Central America was auditioning for the chance to be our future home.
We arrived at Lake Atitlan and soon I thought we might have found our future home.
Like most visitors of Lake Atitlan, we arrived in the city of Panajachel. Panajachel is a tourist town. The main road through town is full of vendors selling the usual trinkets. We walked down the street looking for a place to stay. The owner of the place where we had stayed in Antigua had recommended a place and even called ahead to arrange a special rate for us, but we wanted to test the market first. After walking into a few places, we soon realized that we were not going to get a better value anywhere than the place that had already been arranged for us.
We settled into our hotel and hopped onto our computer to check Facebook and Skype to see if our friends the Denning’s from the blog Discover. Share. Inspire. had messaged us. The Dennings are friends of the sort that’s only been possible for a few years. They’re online friends. We’d never met in person but had developed this deep connection with them through the online community. They lived in Panajachel and we planned to have dinner with them that night. Seeing the lake, other than the glimpses we got driving down the mountain and into town, would have to wait.
Only we found ourselves distracted by the hotel pool and kids that weren’t in a hurry to do anything after spending a good part of the day cooped up in a shuttle. We messaged the Dennings to let them know our rendezvous would have to wait. Later that evening, we strolled down the street and found a nice little rooftop restaurant. We were the only diners there that night. We ordered our drinks and the girl waiting on us — probably 10 or 11 years old — took our order and then we watched her leave the restaurant and walk into a little store where she purchased our drinks to serve to us. Later, when we ordered our food we watched her do the same thing. When I later ordered a second beer, she again scurried back to the store to buy my second beer.
The beauty of Lake Atitlan is hard to overstate. The glassy lake is surrounded by three majestic volcanos. When you stand on the shores of the lake in Panajachel, the landscape is breathtaking. Sadly, the shoreline is Panajachel is not. The shoreline is full of trash and debris. While you’ll find some locals swimming, getting in the water from Pana is not advisable due to all that trash and what comes with it.
This was something that struck us throughout our travels in Central America. The trash. It seems like it’s everywhere. I gripe and complain about a lot of things in Estados Unidos, but one thing I love about life stateside is how engrained the “leave no trace” mentality is in our culture.
I walked around Panajachel with the kids while my wife caught up on some work and talked with clients stateside. While the lake was beautiful, Panajachel did not capture us.
We were ready for what had really brought us to Panajachel.
The Denning Family.
We hopped in our tuk-tuk and journeyed out to their house. The Dennings are driving in a veggie powered truck from Alaska to Argentina with their 5 kids. They’re not in a hurry and have no timetable for their journey so they’ve landed in Panajachel for a while.
If you don’t have online friends it’s hard for me to communicate what an online friend is. If you don’t have an online friend, maybe you’re asking, “what could you possibly have to talk about?” Here’s the thing, though. I find myself asking, “what is there to talk about?” with loads of people that I know “in-real-life.” We have nothing in common but a zip code.
In the old world, before the internet and social networking, we had relationships of convenience. I was friends with a person because they lived near me. But in today’s online world, we have relationships of value. The Dennings are not close to us geographically yet we share common values.
We have great friends in Tahoe, where we maintain our “residence.” I don’t want to downplay the value of those friendships. They’re real. They mean a lot us us.
Yet, being with the Dennings was different. They got us. When we mentioned an idea or a goal or a way of thinking, it wasn’t like it was out of left-field. I think a lot of our friends in Tahoe think we are absolutely crazy. Certifiably insane. Greg and Rachel Denning got us. I think we got them. We were on the same page. We shared common goals (thought not identical goals) and had a common vision regarding what we want to achieve in life.
Our conversations with them had the quality of fine sandpaper. Our friends in Tahoe, who we love, are often like course sandpaper. We’re so different. We’re ultimately going after such different things. Course sandpaper is good. It serves a purpose. But the Dennings — that fine sandpaper — serves a whole different purpose too.
It was nice to get a good buffing from a fine sandpaper.
It was a great night.
The next morning we met up with the Dennings to take the 30 minute water taxi to San Marcos. The Dennings were joining us for the day — we’d meet up with them again when we came back through Panajachel, but we were going to San Marcos so settle for a few days. Another of our good online friends, Jennifer Miller, had given us the impression that we must go to San Marcos. Jennifer and her family, who’ve been traveling and living nomadically for a while, plan to eventually settle in San Marcos.
We took the boat taxi with the Dennings from Panajachel to San Marcos. Walking through the little alleyways of San Marcos gave me such a romantic feeling. Jennifer had tried to give me directions to a few places we could stay and said the same thing. It’s hard to describe. Your boat pulls up to this little dock and soon you’re walking down these little walkways. The main walkways couldn’t be more than 5 feet wide and are covered in cobblestone. Some of the less walkways may be a little more narrow and may be cobblestone or may just be dirt.
We stopped and inquired about places to stay. A few meters later we stopped into this little cafe where they serve up amazing homemade bred and coffee and sell used books. We perused the available titles while we waited for our fresh baked bread toped with cream cheese and olive oil and basil.
Soon, we would happen upon the place we’d call home in San Marcos. For us, it was perfect. We stayed at El Dragon, which was still under construction lite construction on some of the secondary facilities but the main building was completely and beautifully finished. The main house has 3 rooms and there’s then a few other rooms off the main house and then finally a completely separate guest house.
The best part of El Dragon, though, is what’s next door. Next door is a place called El Lago, long known among travelers to the area, and owned and operated by Brian and Sarah, who shortly before our visit had just had a baby. El Lago is a hippie hang-out. There’s a low-key vive and a trampoline right on the waterfront that the kids had a ton of fun playing on.
Before we would truly settle in to our place, though, we had a day of fun planned with the Dennings. We headed out to the platform, a popular spot where people jump off a 30 foot platform and into Lake Atitlan.
On the walk out to the platform there was a lot of talk about who would jump. When we got there, I looked and I have to admit I was a little nervous. It’s a big jump. But my kids — Jackson who had just had his 5th birthday and Emery who had just had her 3rd birthday — where both chomping at the bit. They wanted to jump.
I jumped in and figured why project my fears onto them. My wife literally had to hold Jackson back to let someone be in place to help him after he jumped in. He jumped, went under, and then burst back into the surface of the water with a huge smile on his face. A few moments later, Emery jumped. Her jump didn’t end quite as well — she did a bit of a belly flop — but she was still so proud of herself for jumping.
That little swimming spot was magical. There were more jumps. At the bottom, there was a great little spot to jump in from a more reasonable height. We swam and all of us just hung out and had a great time. Yep, it was magical.
We walked back to the dock and saw the Dennings off. We’d reconnect with them when we came back through Panajachel, but for now, San Marcos was our and just ours.
We were about to settle into life in San Marcos.
Because the roads connecting the towns are so rudimentary and disconnected, each of the little villages around Lake Atitlan feel like island towns. You’re totally on your own. Restaurant Fe, owned by a British expat who married a local woman from the village, served up fantastic curry dishes. We began spending time at a little playground in the center of town. The children from the village accepted our children right into the mix. El Dragon, where we were staying, had a raft we’d take onto the lake for little paddles. We went back out to the platform. We bought food from young girls on the street or when they would come by our hotel.
At night we would put the kids to bed, and Monica, now progressing in her pregnancy, would be ready to just chill out and relax. I’d head next door to El Lago to hang out with the hippies.
After almost a week in San Marcos, it was time to leave.
Leaving wasn’t easy. We were in a groove. We were comfortable. We really felt no reason to move on, other than the fact that our time in Central America was slipping away like an hourglass and we had other places we did want to see and a city on the other side of the continent we eventually needed to fly out of to return home.
But before we could leave we had to settle our bill.
One of the things I love about Central America is the trust. You check into a hotel or a hostel and there are no credit cards or deposits. Just agreed upon rates that you’ll pay upon departure or along the way if you happen to be there for an extended time.
We had arrived in San Marcos with the equivalent of a few hundred dollars US. That was enough money for us us for incidental expenses in San Marcos, but we’d stayed on credit at the hotel and built up a little tab for food and drink. The hotel didn’t take credit cards (no hotel in San Marcos does) and there is no ATM in San Marcos. That meant I was able to go on a field trip by boat to San Pedro, the nearest town with an ATM.
Those are the things I love about a place like San Marcos. I love that you have to take a 20 minute boat ride to get to an ATM. I love that the people in San Marcos will extend you credit for whatever you need and just trust you that you’ll eventually get to San Pedro and get the cash you need to settle your accounts.
By the time that we left, I just wasn’t sure we would ever call San Marcos home. I loved San Marcos, yet there is a part of me — a part of the essence of who I am — that I was just not sure is expressed in San Marcos.
Yet I would give anything to be transported back to San Marcos right now. I love Lake Atitlan. I love San Marcos.
There’s a part of me that I feel Lake Atitlan and San Marcos doesn’t reach.
Yet there’s a part of me that only Lake Atitlan and San Marcos can reach. That’s why I went there. That’s why someday I will most assuredly return to San Marcos.
Hi, if we’ve not met before, I’m Clark and I am on adventure called life with my wife Monica and our two kids Jackson and Emery. We’re expecting a 3rd child in just a few weeks. We live in Lake Tahoe, California, not because we have to or because it’s just where we happen to live. We live here because we want to!
We’re on a quest to work less, live more, and travel the world as a family. We’d love to connect with you. This isn’t just a blog. We’re people. So reach out and let’s connect. You can like our page on Facebook or follow us on Twitter but when you do, don’t just be anonymous. Drop us a line. We’d love it.
For more on our recent 6 weeks of travel through Central America, go here.