The Story of Us.
It definitely begins with Niels on a kayak. In 1998, Niels came from Germany to visit a friend in San Pedro. Everyday he jumped on a kayak with a pineapple for breakfast, to go to the rocks of San Marcos to swim and enjoy the splendor of Lake Atitlan. For three months he never set foot in the village of San Marcos. (These rocks are now known as the Cerro Tzankujil Nature Reserve and are our next-door neighbors at Lush).
The next year Niels came back to Guatemala, finally did explore San Marcos, and bought a piece of land there. In 2000, he put more quetzales down on a stretch of coffee, corn, and cliffs that would eventually become Lush Atitlan. Everyone in construction thought he was crazy, that he would consider building on the steep slope, pure mountainside.
Niels spoke virtually no Spanish and the laborers didn’t either. The native language in San Marcos is Kachiquel, and in those days many locals just didn’t speak Spanish. (There are twenty-one Mayan dialects spoken in Guatemala).
Niels thought building would be simple, having little experience with his record-shop-owner background. He handed over plans for a completely round construction and headed to Germany for six months. Upon his return, Niels found a totally square house. When asked why, the simple answer was that they didn’t know how to build round.
The adventure began. Niels realized that he needed to be on-site for the construction and did not go back to Germany for three years. It wouldn’t be as simple as anticipated but would become the most all-consuming passion Niels could imagine, for many years. He fell in love with the process of building: trying out new ideas, making mistakes, and starting over.
As Niels continued to build what was initially intended to be his home, he realized he didn’t want to stop. Planning to retire at age 30, he decided to turn his construction project into a hotel/hostel. He welcomed volunteers, who helped him build and create art. He fed and housed them in exchange for their work. It was a little commune. He started a small bakery, paying for his living expenses through the thirty loaves of bread he baked daily. He was engaged and obsessed. Soon he realized his little project wouldn’t be able to continue without further income. Hotel Aaculaax was born.
A collective of artists, hippies and spirituals lived in San Marcos at that time. There were no landlines, no cell phones, and one had to go to San Pedro or Panajachel to get on the internet. It wasn’t easy to find out about San Marcos; there were no Facebook groups, no reservations, no easy travel… It was an adventure, purely for backpackers. The chosen few, as we saw ourselves, ended up there with a journey not for the faint of heart, changing buses three or more times, a boat, and maybe
even a long walk.
I was a social worker. A New York City girl, who had recently visited India and seen my whole perspective of the world shift. After that trip, New York seemed like an impossibility, not the life I wanted any more. India was so full of contradiction, and categories that I thought were set in stone… blurred.
What was supposed to be ten days stretched into six weeks. Niels asked my boyfriend (another German) and I to take care of the hotel while he went on vacation. I had never been so impulsive in my life. I had never ditched my responsibilities so completely… I had a job! But San Marcos offered so much more.
To be clear, Niels and I didn’t like each other at all when I first came. I thought he was cold and aloof. It’s probably best that I still don’t know what he thought of me.
Some things have changed and some have stayed the same. San Marcos remains a town full of interesting characters and spirituality-seekers, art, music, vivid Guatemalan culture and charm. But we now have wireless and it’s a bit easier to reach us..
Our story is, like many others, that we never know what will happen. We must be opened to possibilities as they come, be willing to go off plan. To build a dream up a mountainside. Decide for something different.