Five months ago, I found myself on a choppy boat ride across the picturesque Lake Antigua in Southern Guatemala.
It was a warm afternoon. My two new friends and I were making our way across the lake to a famous cliff jumping spot at the Cerro Tzankujil Nature Reserve in San Marco La Laguna. While researching for my Guatemala trip a few weeks prior, I had come across a photo of someone cliff jumping at this spot, and I knew I had to do it. It didn’t take a lot of convincing to get my two new friends, whom I had just met a few days prior through a Facebook travel group, to join me.
We had boarded the boat at Panajachel, Lake Atitlan’s most visited town and transport hub. The three of us were in for a splashy 30-minute boat ride to our destination. People onboarded and offboarded at each stop.
About halfway through our trip, three beautiful, blonde women boarded onto the cramped little boat. One looked older, perhaps in her forties, and the two other women looked like they were in their twenties. I assumed it was a mother and her two daughters as they looked rather similar.
As they boarded the boat, the two younger women sat in front of us, and the older woman sat next to my friends and I. A conversation naturally sparked between us, as it often happens when you meet other travelers on the road. The woman introduced herself as Valerie.
Valerie had a bright, friendly demeanor and spoke with an endearing British accent. We engaged in the typical traveler’s small talk: “Where are heading?”, “Where are you from”, “How long have you been here?”.
Valerie shared with us that she was traveling alone and had been in Guatemala for a month already. Before Guatemala, she had spent several months traveling through Mexico and experiencing the rich culture there. She had fallen in love with Mexico and spent more time than she had originally planned. Valerie pulled her phone from her bag and showed us some photos of the Día de Muertos (Day of the Dead) celebration she had the opportunity to experience during her time there.
After she had shown us her photos, my friend Solomon asked her, “What were you in your past life?” I burst out laughing at his awkwardly phrased question.
“Past life?” she responded with a cheerful laugh. “Like reincarnation?”
He smiled and clarified that he meant to ask where she was in life before her travels started and how she ended up in Guatemala. She told us that several months prior, she saw a photo of Lake Atitlan on Facebook. The beauty of the lake captivated her so strongly that she booked a flight to Central America. Her plan was to visit Mexico for a few weeks and then make her way down to Guatemala, where she had planned to spend several months relaxing by the lake.
Our conversation with Valerie continued as the boat made it’s way across the lake, splashing water on its passengers ever so often. Valerie then divulged with us that she had quit her job as a nurse. As much as she loved her job, she had felt unappreciated and had grown exhausted dealing with the bureaucracy of the NHS. She decided to finally quit her job and take a year off to travel and reflect on her life. And what a better place to do so, then at Lake Atitlan, which the Lonely Plan describes as “the closest thing to Eden on Earth”.
While I might refute that statement, I do concede that Lake Atitlan is one of the most idyllic lakes I have ever seen. What makes the lake unique are the charming lakeside towns and the magnificent volcanos and mountains that surround the lake. It’s more beautiful than any postcard of Guatemala can portray.
Our conversation eventually drew to an end as we finally reached the hippie town of San Marcos La Laguna. As we got off the boat, we said goodbye to Valerie who had also gotten off at the same stop.
The Cliff Jump
There are two main reasons why people visit San Marcos La Laguna. The first is to go cliff jumping, and the second is to indulge in the magical, spiritual vibes.
My comrades and I were there for the first reason. (Though if I had more time, I probably would been there for the second reason as well.)
As we walked on the narrow brick pathway into town, we were surrounded on both sides by lush foliage as well as a plethora of healthy restaurants, cafes, yoga retreats, meditation centers, and shops. The hippie feel of it reminded me of the town of Ubud in Bali.
After walking around aimlessly for a bit, we asked around for directions to get to the famous cliff jumping spot and were instructed to turn off the main pathway into a smaller, almost hidden, pathway tucked between shops. It was about a 10-15 minute walk from where our boat had docked.
When we finally arrived, we had to pay 15 GTQ, roughly 2 USD, to enter the Cerro Tzankujil Nature Reserve. We paid the fee and made our way to the cliff jumping area. My heart started beating faster as we approached, and I thought to myself, “Why the hell did I suggest cliff jumping again?” My friends were too enthusiastic about it by that point for me to back out, not to mention cliff jumping was the only reason they wanted to visit that town.
When we got to the platform, I looked down at the lake and felt my insides squirm. I told my two friends that I would go down to the lower area to record them while they jumped, urging them to go first. My two friends, who are thankfully much braver than I, agreed. I made my way down the rocks and got to a nice viewpoint of the platform.
Josh went first, seemingly without hesitation. He ran and leaped off the platform, wailing his arms in the air while freefalling 30 feet.
Solomon went right after Josh. As Solomon jumped from the platform into the lake, a loud, albeit hilarious, scream escaped from his body before he plummeted seconds later into the water. After I managed to stop myself from laughing at Solomon’s unexpected shriek, I realized, “Oh shit, it’s my turn.”
I made my way back up the rocks and onto the jumping-off platform. My stomach squirmed. I walked up to the edge and looked down at the water. It looked so far down. “Fuck,” I thought to myself.
After 10 minutes of running to the edge, freaking out, and running back to safety, my friend Josh came up to the platform to see how I was doing. At this point, everybody seemed to be watching me. Strangers on the platform were cheering me on.
“Jump! You can do it!”
“Don’t look down, it’s not that bad!”
“Jump like you’re jumping into 2020!”
After about 15 minutes, I took a deep breath and asked these strangers to count down for me.
“1!” and with that, I took one of the most terrifying jumps of my life. The seconds I spent free-falling felt like an eternity. As I finally emerged from the water, I sighed with relief. Thank God I’m still alive.
I swam back up to my friends, who cheered me on like a soccer mom cheering on her kids at a game. When I reached the rocks my friends were waiting at, I saw Valerie standing with them. Apparently, she too had come to San Marcos La Laguna for the same reason.
While we rested on the big rocks under the shady trees, I watched Valerie practice jumping off the rocks where we were at. It was probably about a 10-foot jump into the water. She wanted to practice her jumping technique first before taking on the slightly more terrifying 30-foot jump that she had come there for.
We stayed for a little while longer there, enjoying the beautiful weather and watching the crowd of cliff jumpers and swimmers. Unfortunately, we had to leave before getting to see Valerie do the grand jump.
After grabbing dinner at some taco restaurant off of the main pathway in town, we headed back to the dock to get on the final boat back to Panajachel. On the boat ride back, I reflected on my cliff jumping experience and realized that it’s an experience similar to going on any new path in life.
When the thought of doing something new first comes to mind, you experience excitement and eagerness: “I WANT to do this. I can’t wait to do this!”
Then, you slowly start to experience hesitation and doubt: “Should I do this? Do I really want to do this?”
This is usually followed by anxiety and fear: “But what if it all goes wrong? What if I fuck up my life?”
I have experienced this so many times in my life before. Before moving abroad to study in Belgium at age 17. Before moving abroad right after college to teach in South Korea at age 22. Before quitting a desk job and moving abroad to work remotely in Bali at age 24. Before moving back home and then to Houston to start a new career at age 25.
If you manage to overcome your anxiety, you’ll arrive at the “fuck it” phase, a.k.a. the free-fall. This is the terrifying, but exciting, feeling of going all-in. You finally take the leap and hope life will catch you, and that everything will be alright.
The best feeling in the world is what’s waiting on the other side of your fear. The rush of adrenaline. The feeling of being fully alive. The sense of accomplishment, doing something you were once scared to do.
Quit that job that sucks the soul out of you. Book that one-way ticket to that beautiful place you saw one day on Facebook. And jump off that cliff you came to Guatemala to do.
The world will catch you if you’re brave enough to trust it…
(But also, please be smart about it.)