Learning Spanish in the Hippie Haven of San Marcos La Laguna

Time flies when you’re losing track of time, and Lake Atitlán is the perfect place to get lost for a while. Since our last post, we’ve split our time between San Marcos La Laguna and San Pedro La Laguna—two nearby pueblos with distinctly individual vibes. Then again, split may not be the appropriate word for how our time has been divided. Our time in San Pedro will need its own post at this point—maybe even two!

Initially we were supposed to spend one week in each location. That was easy enough for us to stick to in San Marcos, which is a place worth checking out but a place we were content to move on from. That’s not to say we didn’t enjoy our time there, but moreso that it wasn’t really a place we connected with.

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Can’t say we didn’t love the view from our room!

We had read and heard from other travelers that San Marcos was super hippie, to the point where a lot of people we chatted with said it was too hippie for their liking. Us, being Oregonians who appreciate a chilled out music festival from time to time, thought that maybe it would be just hippie enough for us to enjoy. Turns out this place is really hippie.

It’s not a bad thing, per se, but something about it feels a little self-contradictory and inauthentic. The main thing that struck us as odd in San Marcos is that the maze of footpaths between the dock and the main road appear as though they were constructed entirely by and for visitors.

There are yoga retreats, reiki massage parlors, and spiritual rebirthing centers at every turn. No tuk tuks or scooters whizzing by, just a sea of dreadlocks, bare feet, and pathwork parachute pants—the official dress code for gringos on spirit quests the world over. Curiously, what you don’t see among that dock-front real estate are very many Guatemalans.

To get to the unmanufactured San Marcos, you have to walk up two big hills in either direction from the main road entrance. These barrios feel entirely separate from the area that we’ll call Little Eugene, and it’s obvious that these places have not been coopted by and for tourists. We found ways to appreciate both sides of San Marcos and its quirks. Not to mention three very different and delicious pizza experiences (in one week no less!).

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The first of three delicious pizzas we would devour in one week’s time.

Turns out we were in San Marcos during the town’s feria, which meant an abundance of churros, sweet pretzels, and—our personal favorite—elotes locos. The feria also brought loud fireworks at seemingly random times of the day. Except, you can’t see these fireworks—you can only hear them. Unfortunately, the one night we went to go enjoy the live music and festivities, we were hit with a massive torrential downpour. That didn’t seem to stop the locals from cutting a rug, though!

The highlight of our weeklong stay was undoubtedly our Spanish classes. We studied for four hours per day at the San Marcos Spanish School, and we can’t think of a single negative thing to say about our experience there. The teachers were warm and welcoming, and they did much to help improve our understanding of the Spanish language.

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Obligatory first-day-of-school picture!

In the past, Whit felt pretty comfortable with Spanish. After years and years of not using it, however, her language skills transformed into a fairly rough version of Spanglish. Twenty hours of instruction with her enthusiastic and thoughtful teacher Andres, and Whit has a whole new understanding of past and future tenses that have upped her Spanish game bigly.

John—or Super Juanito, as his teachers affectionately renamed him—had very little Spanish instruction prior to our classes. After 20 hours of learning with his patient and sincere teacher Irma, Juanito is now doing the lion’s share of our bartering for frutas y verduras en el mercado. One-on-one Spanish instruction really pays off!

Additionally, we were both fortunate to have teacher-in-training Esmerelda sit in on each of our lessons to help us out. Little did we know that wouldn’t be the last time we got to see her! And little did Juanito know the next time would be on a laundry day when all he had to wear were his running tights.

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Graduation day with Irma, Esmerelda, and Andres!

Making our way through Little Eugene toward the dock on our day of departure, we can’t say we felt sad to say goodbye. While we met some interesting people and enjoyed some stimulating conversations, the only thing that could have kept us there would have been another week of studying with our awesome instructors. That wasn’t in the budget, though, so it was off to San Pedro La Laguna we went.

We had absolutely no idea what to expect from San Pedro, as some wildly different personalities we met throughout our time in various settlements along Atitlán all seemed to agree that San Pedro was just sorta meh. Some people went as far as to emphatically declare that they didn’t like it at all.

Regardless of all its bad press, we were very much looking forward to hiking Volcán San Pedro and visiting the Atitlán Women Weavers Co-op. If we hated the rest of it, at least it would only be a week.

Truth be told, we were a bit wary when first stepping off the dock and into the main tourist strip. It felt loud, chaotic, and touristy—and armed with the negative impressions of others, it felt easy to assume that we might not enjoy our stay. San Pedro is markedly bigger than San Marcos, and it has a reputation for being the party pueblo.

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Hola, San Pedro La Laguna!

Walking to our Airbnb with backpacks in tow, a guy driving his family on a motorcycle (very common sight in Central America) pulled over to ask if we needed help. We let him know we were en route to our apartment and thanked him for the offer. With a big grin on his face, he said, “Don’t worry, be happy!” before driving away.

Never to see that guy again, he changed the course of our impression of this surprising town. And that was only the beginning of our warm welcome to what we would later discover are the best bits of San Pedro, and possibly Guatemala.

Stay tuned for our next post detailing three amazing weeks in San Pedro! That is, if we don’t end up extending our time here even longer.

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4 thoughts on “Learning Spanish in the Hippie Haven of San Marcos La Laguna

  1. Okay – going to walk in your footsteps to every place you have visited. Now that Whit and Super Juanito are armed with superior Spanish, can’t wait for reports of the deep conversations they have with the Guatemalans – and others! Keep the blog posts comin’.

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  2. Three pizzas in one week sounds like an excellent week to me! Also your Spanish teachers looked so sweet and nice! Did Super Juanito explain in Spanish that he was down to his last pair of shorts on laundry day? I can imagine that’s a pretty useful phrase to have handy….

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    1. Haha it was quite gluttonous after having abstained from pizza throughout the first three weeks of our time in Guatemala! Super Juanito, being a bit embarrassed and out of Spanish practice after a week, could only spit out the words “lo siento” and “lavanderia,” which mean “sorry” and “laundromat” respectively.

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