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Guatemala: Adventure With A Social Conscience - It's A Win-Win-Win

What do you get when you throw together 11 adventuresome, like-minded women, a well-curated week of socially-responsible activities, and a charismatic tour guide in a developing Central American country? We were anxious to find out, but first we had to get there.

We were headed for Guatemala City which, on a good travel day, would take about 13 hours. But it was -40 (-59 with the windchill) when we left Calgary, Alberta. It doesn’t matter if that is Celsius or Fahrenheit, it was so cold that it broke decades-old records for a deep-freeze on the Canadian prairies, wreaking havoc for air travel. Mechanical objects just can’t operate in that weather.

So, after over 30 hours, we arrived in Guatemala City. (Truthfully,  though, I can’t be upset by the delay - the airline gifted us with nice hotel rooms and three meals in Los Angeles, so we turned our extra day into a visit to Venice Beach and Santa Monica, the day salvaged and another story to tell.)

A driver was waiting for us at the airport and quickly transported us in less than an hour to our hotel in Antigua, Guatemala, in time for breakfast and in time to join our Elcamino Travel group that had arrived the day prior (as was our original plan) for the day’s scheduled activities. Our hotel was a minimalist hotel that, after paying expenses, reinvests proceeds to educating children and training locals.

I heard about Elcamino Travel ( and from someone I respect, and she praised them for curating an amazing adventure in Guatemala, one that included cultural awareness, adventure, and social responsibility (such as assisting small businesses or sourcing local goods and services to promote independence and healthy futures).  It was easy to take the bait. One brief text to my sister and we were soon flying out of our prairie deep-freeze. My ‘source’ was not wrong in her assessment.

During our four days in Antigua, we had just enough free time outside of our group activities to explore the city. Antigua is a small city of about 50,000 people, once the capital of Guatemala, and designated as a UNESCO World Heritage Site (one of my favourite things). The city has an interesting history, both due to politics and due to natural disasters dating to the early 1500's, worth researching. It sits under three massive volcanoes which are beautiful backgrounds for 'photo ops'.  Morning and evening views are exquisite. The city centre is small with an easy grid street system with the main plaza Central Park in the centre and the huge Antigua Guatemala Cathedral serving as a good reference point. Other landmarks are the Santa Catalina Arch (an obvious photo stop from either direction) and the beautiful yellow Iglesia de la Merced at the top of 5th Avenue North right close to the arch. A self-guided walking tour would take all of 20 minutes if you walked quickly. So, with the volcanoes to the south and west, a couple of well-placed landmarks, and the tidy street grid pattern, you can't get lost. There’s also many historic churches, ruins and museums to investigate, superb coffee on every corner, an abundance of restaurants with shockingly good traditional and modern food, and plenty of artisan shopping. It's worth a few days just to explore.

Here are three landmarks in Antigua (A photo collage at the end of the blog will show off some of Antigua's enticing street scenes):

The Central Park with the Antigua Guatemala Cathedral, the Fountain of Sirens, and the Palace of the Captain-Generals:

The Santa Catalina Arch

La Merced Church

But do not be fooled by the beauty and modernness of Antigua. Guatemala remains a developing country, and articles are consistent in estimating a poverty rate of over 50% (over 70% for Indigenous Guatemalans) with subsequent deficits in health, growth, education, and quality of life.

Thankfully, our tour provider's focus is to travel in a socially conscious manner - either directly supporting home-grown small businesses or supporting those who use local products and who hire local employment, all which contribute to a higher standard of living for locals.

Day 1 saw our group at Luna Zorro Studio where we learned about traditional Mayan weaving and the use of natural dyes. As well as accessing local products and talents, the studio hires generations of women in one family as expert traditional weavers. Mayan weaving is important to Guatemalan culture. It is a centuries old craft which allows a woman to display her personality and to reflect her community; in fact, each Mayan community has it's own signature pattern and colour scheme. Most importantly, weaving provides a woman with an income which gives her independence and helps her support her family. The work is intricate and brilliant - and highly skilled. We had our chance to use natural dyes to colour our own aprons. As a fun aside, we agreed that the finished products were definitely an indication of our individual personalities, some precise in design and some quite eclectic and erratic.

Day 2 took us to a coffee farm that is part of the De La Gente cooperative that cuts through about three ‘middle-man’ steps to allow the small farmer to earn 30% more income which allows for a more prosperous life. We learned about the production of coffee from planting to growing to harvesting to roasting to grinding and, finally, to drinking. What a treat it was to be served coffee that we helped to roast and grind in the traditional way.  It was a good reminder of the amount of work (often poorly-paid) that goes into one cup of our daily brew and also a reminder to source coffee which is free trade or cooperative. This is especially important in Guatemala where coffee exports apparently account for about 40% of the country's agricultural export income.

That evening, we tried our hand at preparing a traditional Guatemalan meal with La Tortilla cooking school.  We were coached by a Guatemalan lady chef who firmly kept us on track as we cut and diced and smelled and tasted for the Pepian, Guatemalan Rice, Tortillas, Radish Salad, and Rellenitos. She scolded my sister for double-dipping when, in fact, it was me who did the first dip. When she realized her mistake, she laughed and hugged us. The meal was tasty, using just a few locally sourced ingredients. Who knew that a simple mix of diced radish, lime, mint, and salt could be so delicious? With just a bit of wine and much laughter, this was a night to remember.

On Day 3, we had our first ‘chicken bus’ experience as we were transported to a private estate/nature preserve/botanical garden, Finca el Zapote, about 80 kms outside of Antigua for an adventuresome hike to a waterfall, lunch, and an afternoon to enjoy the manicured grounds. The estate has been in one family for generations.

But, first, let’s talk about those chicken buses. They are the main form of transportation in Guatemala. Chicken buses received their name because they do carry any manner of items - people to suitcases to groceries to supplies to fresh produce to, yes, chickens. The view is that there is always room for one more of 'something'. They are repurposed American school buses (remember the Blue Bird line?) that are about 10 years old with 150,000 miles when they are purchased, repaired, painted in gaudy colours (perhaps with some sexually suggestive stickers), and fitted with the requisite roof rack for all that cargo. These buses are tough and rough. The driver is assisted by a ‘helper’ who takes fares and loads cargo. He also hangs out the open door and makes sure the way is clear, often with his  cell phone in one hand. This is hard, low paid, and sometimes dangerous work. Research the chicken bus, and you will find that chicken buses have been victims of gang violence due to the cash they carry. Our driver was skilled, dodging ruts, dogs, children, adults, and broken-down vehicles, and ploughing through wet river beds, all driving the manual gear shift.  You have to give full respect for the driver and his helper. My sister and I were attracted to the chicken bus station adjacent to the local artisan market later in the week. It was a hub of activity, people, dust, smells, noise, colour, and organized chaos. But it works - what was a fun experience for us is a life-line in Guatemala. I highly recommend this little diversion for a social study into a cultural scene totally unfamiliar to us.

Back to Finca el Zapote. As soon as we arrived, our group headed out on a hike guided by a young local, fording several rocky, narrow river beds and arriving at a waterfall which we reached by climbing a ladder, slithering along the slippery rocks with rope support, and then hauling ourselves up under the frigid water. Our young guide was much more sure-footed than we were as he leaped from rock to rock, even with his huge knife in hand. (Even though the knife was for cutting walking sticks, I admit I felt safer just knowing it was there.) At one point, he veered off across the river and up a forested slope to retrieve an obviously hidden ladder that he then secured for our use. It was so much fun.

After a farm meal, we had a couple of hours to enjoy the ponds and tropical flora. I have never seen so many varieties of flowers in one location. As our leader states, it was 'paradise'.

Click the arrow on the right for a slide show of brilliant colour.

This picture is proof that you can swing on a rope into a pond while wearing a dress. Can you see the look on my face? I was wearing my easy-wash, easy-dry 'travellin' dress' (but did have athletic shorts underneath).

Then, it was back to our chicken bus for the one and a half hour ride to Antigua.

We had a free morning on Day 4, so my sister and I walked to the Cerro de la Cruze,or the Hill of the Cross, for a good physical work-out and spectacular views of Antigua with Volcan de Agua in the background.

We began our afternoon with a farm-to-table lunch at Caoba Farms, an organic garden/restaurant/shop.

We spent the rest of the afternoon at FUNBA (Fundacion Nacional Para Las Bellas Artes y La Cultura), a foundation aimed at promoting and encouraging Guatemalan artists. The foundation began with a private collection of art that is open to the public by appointment only, housed in a mansion which was built for the sole purpose of sharing the art with the world while the owners lived upstairs. The husband has passed away, but the 83 year old woman continues to live on the second floor. We were mesmerized by the collection that was intricate and unique and diverse in topic, styles, methods, and materials. Even my untrained eye knew this was special. The garden was a display in itself with flowering beds, ponds, and sculptures. Our tour ended with champagne and tarts on the garden patio. I wondered if the 83 year old owner was peering at us out of her upstairs windows? Here's just a minute example of this marvelous and eclectic collection.

On Day 5, we transitioned to Lake Atitlan by turista bus (sadly, not a chicken bus). After almost three hours, we were deposited in the town of Panajachel where we had an hour for a snack (for me, coffee and cardamom gelato - I repeat, cardamom gelato ) and shopping if we wished. Panajachel is probably the largest and most developed of the Lake Atitlan towns with a colourful street perfect for strolling. You can tell I am in complete bliss with my coffee and gelato . . .

We then jumped on a private 'lancha', or water taxi, to take us to our hotel on the shore of Lake Atitlan.

Lake Atitlan is a remote lake that sits in a huge volcano crater and is surrounded by small towns (about a dozen in total), most accessible only by footpath or water taxi. The lake is about 130 square kilometres and averages 154 metres deep.  I was able to experience the footpaths as, after reaching our hotel and checking for safety, I hiked the trail to the town of Santa Cruz la Laguna, a little trek I made on each  of the three days in the area for beauty, exercise, and ‘alone’ time. The trail is a mixture of hills, steep stairs, and stones with a fabulous view of Lake Atitlan.

Beautiful lake Atitlan

The footpath between our hotel and Santa Cruz la Laguna is simply a means of transportation for locals.

We came to learn that the villages surrounding Lake Atitlan, each in their own way, are making a concerted effort to build the economy and help the citizens live healthy and prosperous lives.

Day 6 took us to two small towns, again by water taxi, on Lake Atitlan. At Santa Catarina Palopo, we toured the Centro Cultural Santa Catrina Palopo (a cooperative of women weavers) and learned about the history of the town before shopping for textiles. The highlight of Santa Catarina Palopo, though, was learning about candle dipping from an industrious and ingenious young lady at Fabrica De Velas who was unable to find employment after school so taught herself how to make and market candles, a very small business. Her work was colourful and looked so easy - until we tried dipping our own candles. Again, our candles reflected our personalities, with some gentle and others bold. Santa Catarina Palopo is worth exploring. The streets are colourful and bright - part of a revitalization project that is worth researching.

Santa Catarina Palopo streets

Centro Cultural Santa Catarina Palopo

Candle making. The last photo shows our finished work.