San Marcos la Laguna, a small Mayan village on Lake Atitlán in Guatemala, has become a Mecca for international travelers attracted by its beauty, tranquility and diverse options for spiritual exploration and therapy. These range from common practices like yoga and massage to more obscure fields like Bowen therapy, astral travel and aura reading.
There are no official statistics on the income generated by tourism in San Marcos la Laguna, in part because much of that income is never reported to authorities. But it’s safe to say that tourism in the village generates thousands of dollars daily. Yet, over 80% of the villagers live in poverty.
While tourism is being touted in Guatemala and other developing countries as a ticket out of poverty, many local experiences are proving that the benefits vary greatly depending on who controls the industry. San Marcos La Laguna is a good sample case, given its small population (2,500 people) and territory (12km sq.), and the velocity with which tourism has developed there. Additionally, the type of tourism the village has attracted thus far would seem to be low-impact. There are no large resorts and there have been no major displacements of people or destruction of natural resources. Yet perhaps the impacts are subtler.
Tourism is a relatively new phenomenon in Guatemala. The country’s economy has traditionally rested on a few export crops—principally coffee, sugar and bananas—owned by a handful of wealthy families. Throughout the last century, the majority of the population lived off a combination of subsistence agriculture and seasonal plantation work.
San Marcos la Laguna is no exception. Before tourists came, the locals grew crops and tended cattle on communally owned land. Many migrated to the Pacific coast during harvest time, to work under harsh conditions on large cotton and coffee plantations.
The vast gap in income and land ownership in Guatemala sparked a brutal internal conflict in the 1960s. Peace accords finally ended the war in 1996 after claiming over 200,000 lives.
As the country settled down in the 1990s, Guatemala began to attract Americans and Europeans interested in seeing the country’s ancient Mayan ruins and colorful indigenous culture and crafts. Tourism overtook coffee as Guatemala’s main source of income in 2001, thanks in large part to the crash in coffee prices internationally.
Lake Atitlán, which fills a deep crater at the foot of three dormant volcanoes, is one of the country’s top tourism destinations. The villages around the lake are mostly inhabited by Maya Kaqchikel and Maya Tz’utujil indigenous people. Tourism has developed to different degrees in most of the villages. Some offer luxury hotels and restaurants, while others cater mainly to low-budget travelers, with cheap hostels and simple comedores. Much of lake’s shoreline is lined with vacation homes owned by wealthy Guatemalans and, increasingly, foreigners.
In San Marcos la Laguna, the arrival of foreigners and “non-locals” began about twenty years ago. The first meditation center, Las Pirámides, opened in 1991, setting off the village’s future in “spiritual tourism.” Tourism has since developed rapidly in San Marcos la Laguna, spurred almost entirely by a continual flow of newcomers. The village now has 13 hotels, 18 restaurants and nine therapy centers. Foreigners own the largest portion of the tourism businesses (46%). Guatemalans from the capital (Guatemala City) and other parts of the country each own another 22% of the village’s tourism businesses, while San Marcos natives own just 10% (Tally, 2006).
Some of the local Maya Kaqchikel indigenous people participate in the tourism industry as maids, gardeners, cooks and construction workers. Others sell fruits and vegetables to restaurants, peddle trinkets and textiles, or provide transportation to and from the village. Many locals are grateful for the jobs, which pay more than agricultural labor and don’t require much travel. Tourism has also brought new and better communication, transportation and technology.
Lake Atitlán is one of Guatemala's top tourism destinations. San Marcos la Laguna is one of around a dozen Mayan villages that line its shores. San Marcos has found its niche in spiritual tourism.
“Thanks to tourism, we have Internet here now,” said Rebeca Quiacaín, a 21-year old local who has worked in several of the village’s tourism businesses. “When I was in school, I remember having to travel to San Juan or San Pedro la Laguna (neighboring towns) just to use a typewriter,” she said.
Outsiders have initiated a number of social service endeavors, like recycling and youth art projects. Some raise funds for the local schools and other community needs.
But new problems have accompanied tourism growth. Locals complain that foreigners bring drugs and that local kids are now selling and using drugs. They also say theft and other crime is on the rise.
Some local authorities are particularly alarmed by the rapid rate at which outsiders are buying up land. Most of the gardens, fruit orchards and coffee plantations that once lined the San Marcos lakeshore have been partitioned, fenced off and replaced with businesses and homes owned by non-locals. Only 40% of land in San Marcos is still owned by villagers, according to Narciso Puzul Mendoza, head of the municipal planning department.
Many villagers first sold their land, and very cheaply, to people from neighboring villages. These others have since profited handsomely from land speculation and increasing interest from Americans and Europeans in building homes in San Marcos la Laguna.
Statistics on changing land values in the village aren’t readily available, but there are telling examples. Quiacaín said one of her 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.
Puzul Mendoza fears the younger generations will face a land crunch. “Now they live with their parents, but when it comes time for them to have their own families, they’re going to have problems,” he said. “They’re not going to have anywhere to live.”
Villagers’ need for instant cash often seems to rule out financial planning. “It might be someone in their family getting sick or the family needs a little bit of money, another baby was born, another mouth to feed, and then people will come and try to sell their land with me,” said Annika Börner, who sells real estate and manages rentals in San Marcos la Laguna.
Börner, a 26-year old from Germany, came to the village three years ago and decided to stay. She feels the tourists and resident foreigners are helping to raise the locals’ living standards. “They get a better life. We have a beautiful place to live,” she said.
Many San Marcos natives lack the resources and know-how (and perhaps interest) to exploit the village’s tourism potential. “Our natural wealth is being exploited by foreigners because often we don’t know how to invest, we don’t know how to take advantage of the resources we have,” said Puzul Mendoza.
However, some are trying to catch up. The first locally owned hotel, Hotel Panabaj, opened in 2005. The hotel is removed from the village’s major tourist sector and caters to low-budget tourists who want a more “authentic” experience. The owner, Lucas Puzul Mendoza, and his sons are also building two bungalows on the land, which they plan to rent out.
Also in 2005, a group of young locals started the village’s only guide business—Jóvenes Maya Kaqchikel Ecotours. The Jóvenes help promote local artisans by taking tourists to see their work, and by selling textiles at the group’s office. They also work on reforestation and other environmental projects.
The municipal government is making efforts to plan for the future, and seeking ways to collect more from the tourism businesses that already exist. Ideas include increasing payment for water, which currently costs a maximum of around US$41 per year, according to Puzul Mendoza. Zoning and construction laws are also on the drawing board, he said, though no timeline for implementing such laws has been set.
It may fall to the younger generations to take the reigns of their village’s future.
1. Secretaría General de Planificación y Programación de la Presidencia (SEGEPLAN) – Gobierno de Guatemala. Mapa de la Pobreza. According to the map, 82.3% of inhabitants of the municipality of San Marcos la Laguna live in poverty, and 26.2% of these live in extreme poverty.
2. Tally Rosales, Engelbert Mohammed. “Turismo espiritual en tiempos posmodernos: El estudio del caso de San Marcos la Laguna, Sololá, Guatemala” (“Spiritual tourism in postmodern times: The case study of San Marcos la Laguna, Sololá, Guatemala”). Universidad del Valle de Guatemala. Department of Anthropology. Guatemala, 2006. Tally includes in his calculation hotels, restaurants, Internet cafés, therapy and art centers, food and artisan shops and tourism agencies (p.174-175).
3. Tally uses this term to describe Guatemalans from other parts of the country. The local indigenous people often see the lighter-skinned, urban Guatemalans who have settled in San Marcos as foreigners. Jesús Landa, a blue-eyed Guatemalan who grew up in Guatemala City but has lived in San Marcos la Laguna since 1988 put it like this: “To the gringos, I’m an indio. To the locals, I’m a gringo.”