Travel in Guatemala: Support Local Co-Ops on Lake Atitlán

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. ❤

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beautiful sunrise on the lake

Now, surrounding the lake are not only stunning mountain ranges and volcanoes, but quaint villages, home to indigenous Mayan communities.

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local indigenous Mayans hand-washing clothing on the rocks
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local man fishing on Lake Atitlán

All of these villagers are largely Catholic, which is noted in both their religious buildings, and public art displays.

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church in San Juan La Laguna

DSC_2699Now 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. map

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.
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Getting there:

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. 🙂

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TL: fried plantains with bbq, fried pork skins BL: chili and lime corn nuts TR: strawberry, pineapple and grape soda BR: Seattle BA 😛

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.
DSC_2555DSC_2551Accommodation: 

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. 🙂

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walkway to Hotel Mikaso, with views of the lake and surrounding corn fields

mikaso

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. 😀

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A dog in San Pedro La Laguna I found rolling next to a beer can. 😛 “Go home, dog! You’re drunk!” 😛

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.

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panoramic view of San Juan La Laguna

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.

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streets of San Juan La Laguna, lined with local co-ops

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.

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touring Cooperativa La Voz
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rose garden outside La Voz

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. 🙂

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German girls at La Voz

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.

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achiote seeds- a natural dye used to color fabrics

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). 😮

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Fun fact: The locals don’t use the metric system, but measure their wood using barras and tareas. A barra of wood is equal to the distance between your index finger and arm pit, and a tarea is a stack of barras, or the equivalent of one day’s worth of chopped wood. 🙂

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. 😀DSC_2652

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.

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These Arabica coffee plants at La Voz are covered by the shade of various local trees, including banana and avocado trees

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.

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Can you see the facial profile?

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.

DSC_2629As 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. DSC_2639
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.

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green= unripe, red= ripe, black=overripe

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.

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quality control equipment

Afterwards, they separate the coffee fruit from the beans, and then set them out to dry for 1-2 weeks.

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red coffee fruit separated from the two white beans

After drying, the white coffee beans are exported to the United States. La Voz currently exports to California, North Carolina, and Washington D.C.

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The dried coffee beans are typically covered in a white parchment, which is not removed before exporting, but is later removed before roasting.

Here are a few of the coffee products found in the U.S.DSC_2618They don’t export everything though. They also keep some of the coffee beans, which they roast and sell on-site.

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coffee roaster at La Voz

The coffee takes 20 minutes to roast, then it’s ground and brewed at their cafe.
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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! ❤DSC_2657

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.DSC_2685

We first spotted a few businesses selling hand-painted canvas art, as well as, medicinal plants, which are sold as herbal teas.

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medicinal plants turned into tea
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colorful canvas art

By far though, the majority of local co-ops we found belonged to the association of women weavers.

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Women’s Weaving Co-Op, written in Spanish

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.

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carrots, beets, and various herbs lay in the bowls next to their corresponding color

The colorful fabrics are then woven into beautiful scarves, bags, tops, and really anything else that you could imagine! ❤

bagsI 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.

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cotton booties made by Elena, naturally dyed with an herb called Campeche

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.20170511_180157Overall, 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. 🙂

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4 thoughts on “Travel in Guatemala: Support Local Co-Ops on Lake Atitlán

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