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  • The hippies take over – Lake Atitlàn

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    Jeltsje Boersma
    Jeltsje Boersma

    The competition is fierce. Walls are covered: posters offering shamanic herbalism, a soulful journey of Self, 5rhythms movement and Osho meditations. Also: a phone number to call for private intuitive alchemy and invites for open floor tantra sessions, esoteric breathing and a dark room for higher dimensions.

    This is San Marcos: a town on the shore of the most jaw-dropping lakes of the world, locked in by active volcanoes and lush-green mountains. A place described as one of the most peaceful destinations in South America. In the last decades, it developed itself to a modern pilgrim destination for spiritual seekers.

    Other villages in the area all have a different character. There are 7 in total, but as our hotel owner said: ‘’for the party, go to San Pedro, for handcraft go Panajachel, for yoga go San Marcos. There is nothing in the other ones’’.

    Easy choice. Stiff backs from backpacking, tired of deep-fried street food. San Marcos seemed our much-needed hippie haven.

    The vegan food relieved our bellies, yoga our stiff muscles. But 2 days later we woke up early, hurried to the dock, caught the first lancha and left the town behind. With no plans of turning back.

    San Marcos is fully gringo-fied, yes, but perhaps more disturbing to us, was the level of spiritual mystification that lacked any clear connection to the native Mayan culture. The hippie vibe created a cultural vacuum, much like an artificial theme park, where nothing reminds you of where you actually are. Similar to other regions in Guatemala, tourism in San Marcos remains a world separated from locals. Most of the vacation homes, eateries, hostels and luxury stays are owned primarily by foreigners and wealthy Guatemalans from the capital; only 10% is owned by San Marcos natives.

    Nevertheless, locals do see profit from the influx of visitors. Those who are able to adjust the taste and experience to the modern pilgrims can raise their prices. Others organize local transport or sell fruit and vegetables on the side of the road. Tourism also led to better technologies and communication. But the speed in which the natives lose their land and properties leave little hope for future improvement for those who need it most.

    The first spiritual seekers arrived at Lake Atitlan in the ’60s and ’70s, in the bloom of the New Age movement. Several made it their home and included Mayan culture and spirituality in their philosophy. In the 90s, the first spiritual centre was established and shamans, therapists and other teachers from all different spiritual corners followed quickly after. Despite its competition, demand for therapeutic sessions keeps the price up to a level similar to those in Europe; don’t expect cheap yoga or massages here.

    ‘’You can buy a house here for a few bucks so why wouldn’t you?’ A line we heard a few times while sipping local produced, ethically sourced coffee in one of the hipster cafes. Many locals answered that call and sold their house to entrepreneurs or real estate agents. Without access to savings accounts, it is the method to pay for that surgery, the study for the youngest one or to fill a lacking pension. As a result, the increasing interest from Europeans and Americans rose land prices up to almost 40 times in 5 years.

    Rebeca Quiacaín (21), a San Marcos local: ‘’One of my brothers sold his inherited land five years ago for about US$260 to someone from a neighboring village. Now it’s on the market for US$10,000.’’

    Uncontrolled tourism development

    As natives often fall short on experience and education, the gentrification overwhelmed them. As a result, they now fall behind. We found some initiatives to involve more villagers, by employing local tourist guides or by selling traditional art and textiles. But the true financial loss is irreversible. Land and properties are now exploited by others, a missed opportunity for locals that will not come round again.