Lake Atitlan is one of the planet's most breathtaking bodies of water, on par with Lake Como. Formed in the crater of a massive volcano, it is surrounded by verdant hills, its shores dotted with tiny Mayan villages. San Marcos is the most magical of these villages, and its charms creep up on you.
The village layout is little more than two quarter-mile paths extending from the lake into a dense forest of banana trees and other thickly forested greenery. Along the paths are small inns, restaurants, several healing centers and small shops catering to the small local and tourist community. That's it. Best of all, you'll be hard-pressed to spend more than $50 a night for a room or $20 for a dinner.
Days in San Marcos are spectacularly low-key, with only two "musts." Swim in the lake under the magical, mystical spell of the volcanoes. And explore the amazing range of therapeutic treatments on offer -- reiki, refloxology, cranial sacral therapy, color therapy, sound therapy, and the list goes on.
An hour costs a fraction of what you'd pay elsewhere, so explore and see where your body and mind take you. If you feel the need for physical adventure of the more active kind, head to the village dock and hop on a launcha, the small boats which serve as the primary means for getting from village to village. Other towns worth visiting include Santiago Atitlan and San Pedro La Laguna.
San Marcos has a solid lesbian and gay following because of our long history of finding undiscovered gems. The vibe though, is more laid-back and chill than anything else. When my traveling companion mentioned that he was from California, one long-term expat responded, "Whereabout? Santa Cruz?" That alone sums up the worldview of San Marcos.
WHERE TO STAY
Accommodations are low on luxury but high on romance and charm. And the settings are invariably priceless. There's not a room in town over $70. For a truly memorable lodging experience, your first choice should be Aaculaax (www.aaculaax.com, $30-$70/room), a dream of a place harmoniously built into the surrounding hillside and offering amazing views of the lake and volcanoes beyond.
Be sure to enjoy a meal on the Aaculaax terrace if you stay elsewhere. Another excellent lodging option is the Posada Schumann (www.posadaschumann.com; $35-55/room), located right on the shore of the lake and steps away from the village dock.
WHERE TO EAT
There is little in the way of fine dining in San Marcos, which is true of most of Guatemala outside Antigua or Guatemala City. Your best bet is to stroll down either of the two main paths and follow your ears to the place with the most appealing chatter or romantic music. Pick-up artists regularly play restaurants in exchange for meals. By 9 p.m., the town is heading to sleep, and you'll be settling into a book and your finest state of Zen.
If you rent a car, San Marcos is about a three-and-a-half-hour drive from Guatemala City, and you must arrive before sunset. The drive is unlit and would be treacherous by night. Plus, you'd miss the breathtaking views. Most people make their way to San Marcos by taxi or bus to Panajachel, the largest (and least appealing) town on Lake Atitlan. From there, you take a small launcha to San Marcos (about 20 minutes). Note that the last boat leaves Panajachel around 6 p.m. There are no banks or ATMs in San Marcos, so be sure to arrive with sufficient cash for your stay.