In Guatemala, a Solo Traveler Learns It’s Sometimes Best to Leap Before You Look

How a last-minute trip can completely change your travel philosophy.

In Guatemala, a Solo Traveler Learns It’s Sometimes Best to Leap Before You Look

Illustration by James Taylor

I woke before six on my first day in Antigua.

The older I get, the less I care about what happens at night. Intellectually, I know plenty of interesting things happen in the evening. But I am drawn to the quiet of the mornings now, the emptiness of streets and skies, the unobstructed view, the clarity of thinking.

I had risen early to hike to Cerro de la Cruz, a massive cross on the side of a hill, from which one can see all of the city beneath it, and Volcán de Agua in the distance. I crossed the calm cobblestone roads, the business of the day only just beginning. I walked past the low Spanish colonial buildings through the vacant town square, Plaza Mayor, where I took a moment to study the cathedral, and then north, past closed doors after closed doors, the city still asleep. Only as I arrived at the base of the hill did I begin to see people, all gently greeting me with “Buenos días”: a shopkeeper opening up his tienda, the girl behind the counter at a small bakery situated across from a rusted-out Ferris wheel, and then, as I hiked, some girls in plaid skirts apparently on their way to school, confidently skipping down trails I would have sworn went nowhere.

Finally I arrived at the cross. I am always a fan of enormity in public art, religious or otherwise, so even though this cross was for someone else’s god, it was also for the likes of me. Whenever possible I attempt to achieve a state of physical aloneness, so I can clearly listen to my thoughts and heart. And on that hill, looking at that cross, I thought about where I had to be, which was nowhere, and I thought about time, and how silence made time disappear. I had a good 15 minutes to myself before the first speed-walker arrived.

I had greedily accepted when AFAR asked me to travel to Guatemala on 24 hours’ notice. A chance to leave the United States, land of turmoil and stress and political upheaval? Where do I sign? But: I had just a day to plan the trip; I’m a single woman, which makes travel harder no matter where you go; I don’t speak Spanish; and I had been told it was somewhat dangerous to travel alone in Guatemala. So as much as I enjoy solitude, I planned to stay mostly on the beaten path.

Striking out on my own, though, I started wondering about who I was as a traveler. I was on the road for four months last year, but what had I really seen? Hotel rooms more often than not, it felt like. What had I done with my time? I went where I was sent, on assignment by publishers or for literary festivals and the like. I rarely thought about where I wanted to go, what I wanted to see. This time it was on me to chart my own path.


The next morning I took a bumpy shuttle bus filled with other travelers to Panajachel, the main port village on Lake Atitlán. (No one was there to congratulate me on not giving in to my car sickness, so I shall do it now: Congratulations, me.) From there I hopped onto a ferry to San Marcos, one of the Mayan villages that surround this sparkling lake at the base of three volcanoes. There is no road that entirely circles the lake, so many of these villages can be reached only by boat. I would learn to rely on water taxis—about four US dollars each—for transportation. My first stop was San Marcos because it reportedly had built up a healing community, and I would describe myself as at least a latent hippie. And indeed I found a village full of New Age opportunities, yoga studios, meditation centers, and holistic healing venues. The lower village is full of sneaky, charming little back alleyways that offer entrance to these healing centers, as well as youth hostels, restaurants, and hotels. Across from a hostel I found a framed chalkboard listing the day’s meditation times and other spiritual activities. There were flyers everywhere, for sound journeys, massages, healings, tarot readings, classes on mushrooms and cacao. Most were offered by gringos. Aggressively hippie, I wrote in my notebook.

I started wondering about who I was as a traveler. I was on the road for four months last year, but what had I really seen? Hotel rooms more often than not, it felt like. What had I done with my time?

That night in San Marcos, I took a stroll just for the sake of it. There wasn’t much to do there otherwise. A few bars in youth hostels, some dancing, some meditation. Most restaurants closed early. I didn’t see a television set anywhere. Everyone I encountered greeted me. I passed a tiny gymnasium, the locals smiling as they pumped iron. It was quiet, but also there were plenty of noises. The motors from the tiny tuk-tuk cabs puttered, waiting to drive passengers up the swirling hills. Dogs barked incessantly for much of the night. They were mostly in the distance, but a few lived next door to the hotel, and when I looked out the window at them, I saw a man urinating in the trees below. Placidly, I watched him. It was its own kind of noise.

I rose early again the next morning, this time to take a yoga class at Yoga Forest, which calls itself a “conscious living retreat and transformational learning center.” It was about a 20-minute hike from where I was staying on the lakefront, along an indirect path with a steep incline. I walked through the barrios, taking a more complicated route than I probably needed to, past the man herding goats through the streets, singing the words “la leche” over and over, and the lazy dogs, and the squawking chickens, and the wall murals, and the one determined puppy hassling its mother for feeding, until finally I arrived at a long road that curved through trees, the sun rising behind me.

There, at this gorgeous place, flourishing with tropical plants and waterfalls, I met another traveler, a woman from Alaska, a few years older than myself, easygoing, grinning, a designer, who despite being married with a child managed to spend at least a month every year traveling by herself. I admired her immediately. We made quick friends, as women traveling alone can do. The yoga class was fine; the company was better.

It was unlike me to jump so blindly, and I was punished for it, and yet I would do it again in a second. I felt transformed: I was not just the observer, I was the doer.

A few hours later we met again and decided to go to the Cerro Tzankujil nature reserve. There was a diving platform somewhere in the park, off the side of a cliff, and I intended to jump off it.

While we walked, the Alaskan told me her travel ideology, how she liked to visit countries in transition, like Guatemala, where things were changing, where there will be a before and an after. She never visits Europe; things are locked down there, she feels, its history firmly established, its present aligned with its future. There was a snap of recognition in that moment. I admitted I sometimes felt lazy as a traveler. She had it all figured out, I thought.

We found the diving platform easily, the lake and the volcanoes all around us, the sun shining, a few clouds in the sky moving quickly as the late afternoon wind—known as Xocomil—began to pick up. I eagerly stripped off my clothes to my bathing suit. I have no idea why I was so excited to jump, except that it was something I had never done before. The Alaskan had no intention of joining me, but she offered to film me. Foolishly, I jumped in without even considering my actions, or a strategy to perhaps arrange my body as a straight line, for when I jumped, it was all wild and willy nilly, my bottom smacking the water first, and it was as if a thousand hands were spanking my ass at the same time, somehow, a great, resounding pain.

It was unlike me to jump so blindly, and I was punished for it, and yet I would do it again in a second. I felt transformed: I was not just the observer, I was the doer. As I dried off, I noticed there were instant, massive bruises on my backside and along my thighs, bruises which would haunt me for days. I felt giddy and high and a little damaged. I liked it.

More people showed up to jump. As we watched tourists lose and gain their nerve, some running to the edge of the platform and then stopping at the last minute, others happily jumping in, the Alaskan told me a story about herself, about why she was less likely to take risks. In her youth she was in the Peace Corps in Africa, and had a terrible skydiving accident in which she broke her leg, which forced her to give up her assignment and return to America. “Your life can change in an instant,” she said. We left when some of the tourists started chanting “Cape Cod” as one of the jumpers prepared herself.

When we bade each other goodbye, I said, “If you’re ever in New Orleans,” knowing I would probably never be in Alaska. “You never know,” she said, and I thought maybe I would see her again sometime.

This was another kind of healing, a practical, long-term commitment to helping other people improve their lives.

The following day I left the dreamy haze of San Marcos and took a ferry a few villages over to Santa Cruz. A New Orleans friend had connected me with a woman named Nancy Ochsenschlager, another New Orleanian who lives part-time in Guatemala. She is on the board of the Amigos de Santa Cruz Foundation, which sponsors a vocational school called Centro de Capacitacion (CECAP). The school teaches indigenous students carpentry, welding, and sewing as well as skills they can use in the tourism industry. I lunched with Nancy at the restaurant run by students from the school. The clarity of their vision and what they are trying to accomplish sharpened me from the fog of San Marcos. I respect the New Age and the subtle changes we can make in our minds and bodies in order to grow or even just to maintain a certain level of sanity. But this was another kind of healing, a practical, long-term commitment to helping other people improve their lives.

After that, I was off to the other side of the lake, to an eco hotel called Kaalpul Atitlán near San Antonio Palopó. It hung on the side of a cliff, a series of detached buildings with thatched roofs and astonishing views of the lake. When I transferred at Panajachel I was informed I would be the only guest for the weekend, and in fact there would be no English-speakers working at the hotel. If I wanted silence, I was getting it.


Illustration by James Taylor

On my arrival, my luggage was whisked away and I was immediately handed a frothy fruit drink, then escorted to a terrace, where a woman sat me down and began to give me a foot scrub. More than at any other time during the past week, I wished desperately to speak Spanish right then. “¿Como estás?,” I said weakly, and she smiled at me. And then came the silence until morning, except when I asked for a glass of wine, which was poured, gratefully, to the very rim. I watched the sunset. A man kayaked in the distance, whistling to himself.

I drank the hell out of that glass of wine and got another. I checked myself: Was I too alone? It is something I negotiate in my life daily, a balance between the internal and the external. If I isolate myself too much—easy enough to do with my books and my journals not to mention social media, which in theory works as a bridge but often acts as a wall instead—I can find myself dangling precariously on the edge of an existential crisis. (And here I was, on the side of a cliff, after all.) But no, I wasn’t dangling. I could not help but feel an absolute sense of calm.

That night, in complete darkness, I slept perfectly, lulled gently by the lap of the water against the shore. Whatever neurotic creaks and moans thrived within me, they could not fight the magic of my surroundings.

The next day, another boat racing across the water took me to Santiago Atitlán, one of the largest of the villages, where there was a church I wanted to visit. I walked up the dusty roads lined with craft vendors and crossed a square where chairs were being set up in front of a massive stage for an upcoming Pentecostal service. I made my way through to the colonial church, where I sat, contentedly, in its pews.

Whatever neurotic creaks and moans thrived within me, they could not fight the magic of my surroundings.

Children packed the seats near the front. Statues of saints dressed in different colorful robes adorned the walls, and green lengths of fabric hung from the ceiling. Nearby I noticed a portrait of a priest, Stanley Rother, a missionary from Oklahoma, who had been murdered in the church in 1981, a consequence of standing up during the country’s civil war. He was beatified by the church, and I heard he is up for sainthood.

Saints are my favorite kind of heroes, because they often do wrong before they do right. I know I’ll never be a saint, but I am always striving to be a little bit better than I was the day before. This is one of the things traveling can do for you, I think. Open up your world in ways both big and small that force you to be a little different than you were before. I thought again about my friend I had made from Alaska, and her travel philosophy. I made a pledge then to push myself to try new things in the future. More leaps. Maybe more bruises. I wanted something to leave a mark.

I watched as a group of guitarists, young men, their faces shy and amused, walked up to the front of the stage holding the hands of small children, who joined them in singing. I imagined them all as a family from one of the villages I had visited. Another family followed them, and another family after that, all with one-song performances. I felt serene. I understood nothing being said around me. All I knew as familiar was gone, and I was just there. All alone, but surrounded by people. As quiet as it could get in my mind and heart.

>>Next: Heavenly Music, Space-Age Architecture, and the Many Surprises of Armenia

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