Lake Atitlán is located in the mountainous highlands of Guatemala, and was formed in the base of a volcano. In Mayan, Atitlán means, “the place where the rainbow gets its color,” and I’d say this lake surely lives up to its name. ❤
Now, surrounding the lake are not only stunning mountain ranges and volcanoes, but quaint villages, home to indigenous Mayan communities.
All of these villagers are largely Catholic, which is noted in both their religious buildings, and public art displays.
Now with only two days in Lake Atitlan, I chose to make the village of San Pedro La Laguna my home base, and make day trips to visit the neighboring village of San Juan La Laguna, known for its local co-ops, selling beautiful artisan crafts.
San Pedro La Laguna
San Pedro La Laguna is definitely the top choice for backpackers, since it offers cheap accommodation, eclectic restaurants, and loads of organized tours for tourists.
To get from Antigua to San Pedro La Laguna on Lake Atitlán, I took a shuttle, arranged through my hostel in Antigua, which cost 13 USD and took four hours. On the way, we made two pit stops for everyone to load up on snack foods, and I also got to talking to a few girls on my van. That’s where I met this gem (pictured below). This Seattle native may look a little rough around the edges, but she was super nice to chat with, and her main goal for visiting the area was to hike as many volcanoes as she could. 🙂
Anyway, after arriving in San Pedro La Laguna, the two of us walked through winding alleyways, past gorgeous Mayan street art, on the way to our accommodation.
I chose to stay at Mikaso Hotel in San Pedro La Laguna, which was peacefully located in the back of the village, with stunning views of the lake, and even a few hot tubs to help enjoy the view. 🙂
Cost: 9 USD/night (free WiFi and purified water)
Now although I enjoyed the convenience of San Pedro La Laguna, I also found it to be a bit of a tourist party hub, which is why I chose to spend my time in the neighboring town instead, in search for a more cultural experience. 😀
I felt that the quaint neighboring village of San Juan La Laguna, seemed to preserve more of their traditions and culture, without the influence of tourism.
The village is home to many unique, local co-ops, which are essentially groups of Mayan villagers who have joined together to produce and sell their handcrafted goods.
Fun fact: Before co-ops, only half of the profits from their goods would go back to the Mayan workers. With co-ops, the workers now receive 90% of profits. By cutting out the middleman, they are able to use these additional profits to help better their community. For example, before co-ops, most families couldn’t afford to education their children, but now, every child in San Juan La Laguna can afford to go to school. 🙂
Support Local Co-Ops: La Voz Organic Coffee
The first co-op I visited was a coffee farm called La Voz, which not only sells their delicious organic coffee, but also runs tours of their coffee plantation and production facility.
I chose to take the tour with two German girls from my hostel. Funny enough, our guide Benjamin, a Guatemalan local, was still trying to learn English, and the German girls were still trying to learn Spanish, so I felt like the tour’s translator, which was actually quite fun. 🙂
Now the tour began with a lesson on the history of coffee in Guatemala, and an explanation of the kind of coffee they produce at La Voz.
What is the history of coffee in Guatemala?
Essentially, back in the 18th century, Guatemala used to rely heavily on the income from the natural dyes they exported, but when the demand for dyes was low, the government needed to find another way to generate income.
As such, the government decided to sell their land to wealthy Germans, on the condition that they would grow and export coffee, with the government then benefiting from the cash crop. They also forced the indigenous communities to work on these coffee farms for free (i.e. slavery). 😮
Anyway, fast forward a few hundred years, and the coffee farm land is now back in the hands of the indigenous people, where they are able to generate income from the coffee that they produce. 😀
What kind of coffee do they produce?
Essentially, there are two different types of coffee plants: Arabica and Robusta. La Voz produces Arabica, since this plant is shade-grown at high altitudes, which is perfect for this mountainous region of Guatemala.
La Voz grows their coffee plants on over 150 hectares of land, which stretches high into the mountains, to a place called Indian’s Nose.
Now Arabica coffee is known to be of higher quality than Robusta, with a more complex taste; however, it’s also more difficult to grow. One such hazard that the farm faces has been coffee rust, a fungus that eats at the plant, forcing the farmers to chop down the branches.
As well, they also have problems with grackle birds eating the plants, so they cover some of the fields with these strings and shiny tape to scare them away.
Anyway, if all goes well with plant growth, the coffee at La Voz is harvested by hand from November to March, when the coffee fruit is bright red, like a cherry.
After harvesting, they go through a set of quality controls, to make sure they have only the freshest beans. Apparently, the ripe coffee fruit is heavier than unripe green fruit, so they sort the two by placing them in a large vat of water, where the lighter fruits will float to the top.
Afterwards, they separate the coffee fruit from the beans, and then set them out to dry for 1-2 weeks.
After drying, the white coffee beans are exported to the United States. La Voz currently exports to California, North Carolina, and Washington D.C.
Here are a few of the coffee products found in the U.S.They don’t export everything though. They also keep some of the coffee beans, which they roast and sell on-site.
The coffee takes 20 minutes to roast, then it’s ground and brewed at their cafe.
Now comes the good part of the tour, where we were able to sample some of their freshly roasted coffee. I tried an iced coffee, which was very smooth, while the girls both had cappuccinos. Yum! ❤
Cost: 10 USD for a 2-hour tour, which includes one coffee drink
Anyway, the next day I went back to San Juan La Laguna with a Canadian girl from my hostel, in search of more local co-ops.
We first spotted a few businesses selling hand-painted canvas art, as well as, medicinal plants, which are sold as herbal teas.
By far though, the majority of local co-ops we found belonged to the association of women weavers.
Support Local CoOps: Women Weaving Natural Dyes
In San Juan La Laguna there are over 30 weaving co-ops, where local Mayan women are using traditional backstrap looms to produce of variety of textiles, with locally grown cotton, colored with all-natural dyes. The natural dyes come from local herbs and vegetables, and they color the fabric by boiling it with vinegar.
The colorful fabrics are then woven into beautiful scarves, bags, tops, and really anything else that you could imagine! ❤
I found the women at the local co-ops to be very friendly. They appeared proud of their handcrafted work, and some of the pieces even listed who made the product, as well as, the fabric and natural dye they used.
Anyway, by the end of the day, I ended up buying a cute handbag and a scarf, but honestly, if I had more room in my suitcase, I could have bought much more.Overall, if you’re visiting Lake Atitlán, I definitely think it’s worth making a stop in San Juan La Laguna, to support these local co-ops, by purchasing of few of their gorgeous goods. 🙂
Anyway, after San Pedro La Laguna, I made my way into the country of El Salvador. Stay tuned to hear all about it. Until then. 🙂