Some places evoke an immediate image, like the Swiss Alps or a castle on the Rhine. But when I told people my wife Jane and I were going to Guatemala, a common response was, “Oh, are you going on a mission trip?” or, “Why on earth would you want to go there?”
It was a kind of mission trip for 12 people associated with Habitat for Humanity of Evansville to help build a home and make other improvements. Ultimately, the greater benefit was to us, as we experienced a bit of Guatemalan home and family life from the inside, not just from passing by.
Why did Jane and I go? For three reasons, or maybe four: to celebrate our 45th wedding anniversary, to meet with friends from our college years who spend part of every year in Guatemala, and to learn a little more Spanish, in weather warmer than our late winter in Indiana.
So we went to Guatemala where there is poverty and need, and where healing is not yet done after centuries of exploitation and decades of war. But there is beauty, too, in Mayan and Spanish art and architecture, in the lakes and mountains, coffee and chocolate, and in the people you meet once you leave the confines of simply being a tourist.
Our friends gave us a weekend walking tour of Antigua, which once was the Spanish Colonial capital city for all Central America and portions of North America. We discovered active churches and 16th century ruins, marketplaces for Mayan arts and crafts, exquisite hotels and modest lodgings, fine restaurants, art museums, jade jewelry makers, coffee, and chocolate specialties — all within easy walking distance from the central square.
We stayed at reasonable hotels, Posada Los Búcaros and Posada Hermano Pedro, and enjoyed several meals at Epicure, one of the best restaurants in the region. Epicure is fine dining with good conscience, serving meals from the owners’ farm while offering culinary and managerial opportunities to indigenous staff.
We visited Hotel Casa Santo Domingo, an impossibly beautiful combination of luxury hotel, museum, and monument preserving the treasures of its foundation on a 16th century convent. (Think about using Wi-Fi while viewing 500 years of artwork on your way into the convent crypt.) A shuttle takes hotel guests to El Tenedor del Cerro Cultural Park, another great restaurant combining mountain-side views of Antigua, a wedding chapel, and a free outdoor sculpture gallery featuring whimsical works of Efraín Recinos, “Guatemala’s Picasso.”
With good fortune or good luck, we experienced Guatemala in late January and early February, sunny and dry weather when coffee beans are harvested and before the rainy season. We also experienced a traditional religious procession on the First Sunday of Lent.
Warnings: Exploring the streets of colonial Antigua requires common sense and good shoes. Don’t trust street food. Don’t use an open-air ATM. Not everything for sale on the street is made in Guatemala.
A visitor can breathe in the local culture or find ways to avoid it at English speaking accommodations. We chose to book a week of private Spanish lessons, four hours each morning, with meals and board nearby and extra opportunities for excursions. Our week’s activities included visits to churches and a made-by-hand chocolate shop, free one-hour salsa lessons, and a full-day trip to the Pacific coast with our Spanish lesson at the beach.
Considerations: We attended Ixchel Spanish School, but there are many Spanish schools in Antigua, Guatemala City, and elsewhere, offering weeks, months, or more of instruction. Home stays may be arranged with other English-speakers or in Spanish-only accommodations.
AMAZING LAKE ATITLÁN
We visited Lake Atitlán, first on our own for a weekend exploration and a celebration of our wedding anniversary, and then again with our Habitat group. It could be the most beautiful lake in the world, ringed by volcanic mountains and a dozen small villages. We took a small lancha from Panajachel across the lake to Santiago Atitlán where steep village streets are filled with craft shops and markets. With the help of a local guide, we went to pray at the Catholic Church where a priest from Oklahoma was murdered in 1981 during the civil war.
Back in Panajachel, we stayed the night at El Hotel Cacique Inn but we had dinner at Restaurante Las Espadas in Hotel La Posada de Don Rodrigo with a view of the lake, and breakfast at lakeside Hotel Atitlán with its acres of gardens alone worth the visit. Local names are in Spanish but several distinct Mayan languages are spoken in the area.
We returned to the lake with our Habitat team, taking a tour boat to San Juan La Laguna, a village known for its many cooperatives. Earlier, Jane and I had visited Finca Filadelfia, a commercial coffee plantation near Antigua — well worth seeing — but the San Juan co-op, La Voz Que Clama En El Desierto, offers a more personal view of the cultivation and production of shade-grown coffee. We also visited a weaving co-op, Casa del Tejido, where indigenous women grow cotton, pick it and spin it into thread, color it with natural dyes, and then weave it into fabric for table runners, bedspreads, hammocks, and other items.
Some words about bargaining:
Artwork and souvenir craft items in the lakeside villages usually are less expensive and more authentic than in larger cities. Bargaining is expected everywhere, but skill and livelihood always should be respected.
We did not bargain at Manos Preciocas (Precious Hands), a fair trade company based in Antigua and Louisville, Kentucky, selling high quality products made by Guatemalan and Mayan artisans. Some of its profits are used for micro-loans.
A weaving co-op, such as Casa del Tejido, could be one of the few places in the world where a visitor may want to bargain the wrong way: “That took a month to produce and you are asking 50 dollars? Would you take 60?”
OUR HABITAT EXPERIENCE
Tecpán is a city at a significant junction on the Pan-American Highway, about 25 miles from Antigua. At an altitude of 7,000 feet, this western highlands area could be near freezing at night but sunny and warm on many days. Our main project involved working with William and his family. We mixed concrete, wired lengths of rebar together to add structural security, and laid concrete blocks in place for a four-room house. We were guided by a master mason, not always pleased with our volunteer work that required his correction. In the end, this combination of skilled and willing labor, along with a loan from Habitat, made possible another home for a family in Guatemala.
On each of four of our workdays, a small group was assigned to help build a smokeless stove in the home of an indigenous Mayan family in a nearby village. These projects were for the poorest of the poor, where the woman of the household traditionally prepares three meals a day over an open fire. Wood is expensive; it is often green, burns poorly, and its smoke hurts the eyes and the lungs of the women and children in the home. With adobe blocks handmade by the homeowners, along with a subsidy to help the family pay for firebricks and a steel stovetop, we Habitat volunteers helped fashion a stove with the young couple Joel and Justa and their toddler son Juan. I can’t say the stove is pretty, but it provides a cooking surface above ground level; it needs only half as much wood to make a meal, and smoke is vented though the roof.
Caution: Once you meet a family in a new home or at a new kitchen stove, and work side-by-side, you will have to accept the human truth that “we” and “they” really are just “us.”