From hiking up active volcanoes to exploring glaciers, we absolutely adore active travel adventures of any kind. But, not all active travel has to include hiking boots, walking sticks or parkas. Today, we’re going to explore a more relaxing activity, based in a breathtaking location. Guest contributor, Kirsten Gallagher, is here to share her experience practicing yoga at Lago Atitlán, Guatemala. Namaste.
Yoga Retreats in Guatemala
It’s noisy at the dock with all the competing voices. I’m trying to figure out which boat is for me as the boatmen call out the names of various towns dotting the shores of Lago Atitlán, Guatemala: Santa Cruz, San Marcos, San Pedro… My destination is Santa Cruz, a little town, or pueblito, known for its laid-back atmosphere. This suits me because I’m not looking for a wild time but rather, a quiet place where I can indulge in a healthier lifestyle for a few days by practicing yoga, meditating and eating an assortment of greens. It might surprise you, but Lago Atitán is one of the best places in all of Central America for yoga retreats. If you’re interested in taking some time to yourself to breathe, Lago Atitlán is for you.
I hop on a lancha for Santa Cruz with locals and other tourists, and dart across the vast, sapphire-blue lake from Panajachel to Santa Cruz Panajachel (often simply called “Pana”) is every tourist’s first stop at Lago Atitlán. It’s got the feel of a beach town, but it’s much more culturally diverse and interesting. You’ll find cheap t-shirts and swimsuits for sale as well as hand-woven fabrics; you’ll see sunburnt tourists as well as women wearing traditional huipiles, the beautifully embroidered short-sleeved blouses that Guatemalan women wear; you’ll hear snippets of English as well as Kaqchikel, an indigenous language spoken by many of the locals with more ease than Spanish.
Learning Spanish has been the focus of my trip for nearly a week – it’s time to shift gears. I’ve had an on-again-off-again relationship with yoga over the years, and it’s my intention to throw myself into it while I’m staying at the lake. I desperately want to be stretchy.
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Practicing Yoga at Lago Atitlán, Guatemala
During a morning Hatha yoga class the next day at nearby Isla Verde, I roll my mat out with a decisive slap. The instructor takes us through a series of familiar yoga postures – Warrior I and II, Downward Dog, Camel Pose – while encouraging us to breathe despite the serious effort required. I’m amazed how much my body relaxes when I successfully time my breath to my movements. I exhale through my nose as I slide back into yet another Downward Dog, my heels touching the ground neatly.
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Isla Verde is only one among a plethora of places to practice yoga at Lago Atitlán. San Marcos is, without a doubt, the hub for yogis. It’s unapologetic about its New Age identity, boasting a “Smile Center,” numerous vegetarian eateries and chakra balancing. Most people here, including myself, are carrying rolled-up yoga mats, ready to pick from a variety of yoga and meditation classes.
On my third day at the lake, I stop by Las Pirámides, a secluded spot offering yoga and meditation, as well as metaphysics sessions. The crowd at Las Pirámides is serious about yoga, so there’s no messing around. As I discover, it’s a center for serious spiritual activity, not a posh studio attempting to appeal to North Americans mainly concerned with how much fat they’re burning during their headstands.
This class requires more physical exertion than the one that I had attended the day before. The instructor begins with a quick series of postures called Vinyasa Flow which we repeat several times. I break a sweat while struggling to avoid making my Chaturanga Dandasana – a movement in which you start in a plank, bend your elbows and descend to the mat – look like a belly flop.
But I surprise myself. I attempt a difficult posture known as Wheel Pose, a type of backbend, and I’m able to do it, pushing hard into the ground with my hands and feet, arching my back, and driving my middle up towards the ceiling. The stretch on my abdominals is incredible – is it possible that I even feel my internal organs stretching?! Exhausted, I’m grateful when the class wraps up with a few minutes of meditation.
Hiking in Santa Cruz
When not getting bendy and twisty, there’s plenty of other active travel options in the area. There are several walking trails that wind around the island, providing stunning views at every turn.
Though I took my yoga á la carte at Lago Atitlán, if you really want to delve in, there are retreats anywhere from three days to three months. And as the lake and its surrounding volcanoes offer an inspirational and tranquil setting for yoga practice, you can be sure to bring your heart rate down a few beats before continuing your travels.