I first traveled to Guatemala 14 years ago as a teenager with my parents on a trip to provide dental services to rural communities. It was my first experience traveling in the developing world, and it was…rough. It was a no frills service trip fueled by beans, tortillas, and water we sucked out of plastic bags. The imagery that has stuck with me from that trip is of dust, blood, and vomit–not the type of sensory experience most people would intentionally seek out. Seeing the life of travels I have pursued since that trip, it must have made a pretty big impression on me, but my memory of Guatemala has always been a bit cringeworthy. Needless to say, my excitement over the opportunity to return to Guatemala this past November was flavored with a good dose of apprehension … bordering on reluctance.
But return I did, and wow! I was blown away. I spent 5 days visiting with a new community that GATA is partnering with in the village of Tzununá on the shore of Lake Atitlán. It was spectacular. It was so different from my first experience in Guatemala and so far above any expectations that I had. I’m excited to be able to share this special place with you and to offer it as a GATA destination! Here’s a little more about the “new” Guatemala…
First of all, it is breathtakingly beautiful. I arrived at Lake Atitlán at night, taking a boat from Panajachel to the small village of Tzununá in the dark. Upon arriving at the dock of Tzununá, I took a tuk tuk up the mountain to where I was staying, the Bambu Guesthouse. It is always both disorienting and a little exciting arriving somewhere new at night, because you don’t really know what you’re going to wake up to. Well, I woke up to a jaw dropping view of the sun dazzling on the blue waters of Lake Atitlán, surrounded by volcanoes, and framed by lush green flora, with a crisp, clear, cloudless blue sky overhead. I have been a lot of beautiful places and seen a lot of things in this world, and there are not many landscapes that I classify in this upper echelon of “wow-worthiness” in which I would categorize the spectacle of Lake Atitlán as seen from Tzununá.
My initial impression was only enhanced by the setting of the Bambu Guesthouse. A beautifully crafted 3 story eco lodge built into the mountainside, the Bambu is a zero waste facility serving farm to table organic food that has balconies with hammocks in every room, an open air dining area with a million dollar view, and large open spaces for yoga or group activities. Sparkling clean, and beautifully designed, the Guesthouse is a gem in and of itself.
After breakfast, I walked farther up the mountain to meet Shad, founder of Atitlán Organics, and tour the permaculture farm he has run for the past 10 years. Atitlán Organics is a super cool organization with really interesting initiatives in permaculture and sustainable agriculture. Shad’s team of local Guatemalans is an excellent educational resource, and we are very excited to offer this experiential education opportunities to our students. I also met with the leaders of the Tzununá Youth Organization, a group of 17-27 year olds who have taken the initiative to organize themselves and improve their community. The enthusiasm and dedication of the group leaders was inspiring and just chatting with them and touring the area with them got me revved up and ready to get to work supporting their projects, which include creating gardens for families to address food scarcity; working on water treatment, waste removal, and basic sanitation; and renovating homes for the poorest members of the community. I can’t wait to lend GATA forces to support their mission!
All in all, I was very pleasantly surprised by my visit to Guatemala. It was not at all how I remembered it, and I was blown away by its beauty, culture, and educational value. The food was outstanding, the people were welcoming and kind–even though many of the locals only speak their native Mayan languages, never having learned Spanish. That element alone gave the trip an extra “cool” factor. I felt very safe, with reliable transportation and clean accommodation. It was so different and so much better than what I (and I think most people) expected, and I am very excited that we are now offering it as a GATA destination. There is so much potential for learning and growth, and I am eager and energized to be working with the Tzununá Youth Organization that is already doing so much to support and improve their own community.
Guatemala, Brought to you by GATAStay tuned for more information about our Guatemala itineraries and opportunities!