There’s a lot happening in the small, mountainside town of San Cristóbal El Alto- a municipality of Antigua, Guatemala. The verdant locale has a birds-eye view of Mt. Agua, quaint coffee fincas, and shops filled with handmade goods. You will be won over by the kind-hearted residents. It has the kind of charming, unspoiled feel of the kind of place that would draw in Anthony Bourdain. Honest, natural, and teeming with life.
Because of this, the rural village stands out as a model for community-based tourism. In fact, this October San Cristóbal El Alto hosted the 2018 Primer Encuentro Centroamericano de Turismo Comunitario (ECATC) conference. The event brought together community members and industry professionals from across Central America to create alliances, build strategy, and foster ideas to further sustainable tourism. The conference was pulsing with excitement as attendees brainstormed ways to conscientiously bridge the gap between travelers and burgeoning but fragile destinations. Since rural communities often have a high dependency on natural resources and place greater value on cultural traditions, exploring how tourism can sustain these territories is crucial. This is something Travolution, the organizers of ECATC, understand and work hard to promote.
As a non-profit aimed at facilitating intercultural exchanges, Travolution organizes networking events such as ECATC and offers curated tours throughout South America. Their work highlights how indigenous tourism can transform the lives of the traveler and benefit the destination. To understand this better, one need only to look at the company’s “why” for how tourism can be an effective tool for sustainable development. They find that tourism, done right:
- Generates more economic longevity by including all marketplace players and incentivizing local work
- Promotes the care of maintaining the natural environment, starting at the local level
- Values diversity and cultural authenticity
- Helps improve and promote policy in favor of conservation
Though they don’t yet offer tours in Guatemala, Travolution plans to bring their touring services there eventually. It’s easy to see why when you look at the initiatives under way in this marvelous country.
How community-based tourism is shaping the country
When people think of Guatemala, the first thing that comes to mind is often coffee. Although coffee farms and agriculture are a staple of the country’s economy, community-based tourism is a close contender. Rural villages and cities in Guatemala are bringing cultural identity to the foreground of the tourism experience as a way to bolster the economic landscape. Guatemala, deemed the heart of the Mayan world, has a lot of culture to offer. The diversity of the land can be seen in its 21 languages, flavorful food, magnificent arts, and astounding folklore. Indigenous tribes make up 51% of the population. Within each tribe, different symbols and patterns tell a story of their traditions and identity. This is primarily seen in rich art and textiles, and especially in weaving. It’s also how some communities in Guatemala are using their heritage to tell a new story- one of empowerment and sustainability.
Woven into the fabric of life
Many of the women in Guatemala still wear the traditional dress, traje- which consists of a skillfully woven huipil (blouse), skirt and sash. The pattern of the huipil indicates what region and tribe the clothing are from. Each handmade garment is intricate, colorful, and can take up to a year to create.
For many of the Maya, the clothing is more than just a way to identify their region. It holds ancestral significance and ties them directly to their lineage. Specific patterns on the garments can indicate stature in the community and some are reserved for sacred events and ceremonies.
In many ways, the huipil is the common thread throughout the tourism experience. The combination of geometric patterns, colors, animal and plant symbols appear in many forms and serve as a bright reminder of the richness of the culture.
These cities are leading the way for sustainability in Guatemala
San Juan la Laguna
This lakeside town is a must for any responsible traveler visiting the Lake Atitlán region. The colorful town is a boon for those who want to experience and support locally run initiatives. Supported by Planeterra, a community-led organization, Rupalaj Kistalin offers cultural exchange tours that preserve the heritage, people, and environment. Because the village is remote, job opportunities are limited and the much of the community relies on these programs for financial support. Through Posadas Mayas, or homestay programs, visitors can get a first-hand experience of life in the hamlet of San Juan la Laguna. There are 26 Tz’utujil families that have opened their homes to guests. Each host family will take in new guests each week and share their home and food. While the homestay experience provides a unique window into everyday life for the Tz’utujil, Rupalaj Kistalin also offers tours that feature textiles, medicinal plants, painting, and chocolate. When you buy a gift at many of these cooperatives, a significant portion of your purchase goes toward community projects and education. A highlight of the tour is the Gloria Cholotio Art Gallery and the Ixoq Ajkeem weaving demonstration center, where you can learn about the process of using natural dyes.
San Pedro la Laguna
Seven out of 26 municipalities in Guatemala have or are starting to implement a single-use plastics ban. This includes straws, styrofoam and plastic sacks. San Pedro la Laguna was the first on Lake Atitlán to take the lead! In 2015 the local government passed an ordinance moving toward environmental conservation. The city saw how polluted the lake was becoming due to plastics and decided that in order to preserve the natural beauty of the lake and attract more tourism, they needed to do something about it. What wasn’t an easy shift at first has now become a standard. Local residents were initially uninterested in making the switch because they thought it would cost too much, but the government visited each family and gave them tools to make the switch to a plastic-free life. Now everyone carries reusable bags and Tupperware to the street market.
Santa Catarina Polopó
Art is a tool for change in the city of Santa Catarina Polopó. Another city in the Solola region near Lake Atitlán, Santa Catarina Polopó is a fishing village. In recent years the population has increased significantly, which has shifted the economic landscape. Traditional trades like fishing and agriculture are no longer a viable option. Many of the Maya Kakchikel families are being forced into extreme poverty because they can’t keep up with commerce and don’t have the necessary skills for a competitive job market. That’s where Pintanado Santa Catarina Polopó comes in. Built for the community, the organization aims to revitalize the town by making it a cultural destination through art. With the support of community leaders and volunteers, individual homes are painted with Mayan symbols. The organization expects that this beautification will lead to more tourism and in turn, more investment opportunities, jobs, and publicity for indigenous arts.
The project also allows families to reclaim their heritage through these symbols by giving them exposure. There are around 850 houses that are set to be painted by 2019. Each family chooses the base color, symbols, and secondary colors. The association then provides the painting materials and a locally-employed promoter, who ensures that the project is completed.
The cherry on top? The paint is ecologically friendly!
“The design starts from the idea that Santa Catarina is a large huipil that is drying on the mountain and that connects the lake with the sky of Atitlán.”- Pinatanado Santa Catarina Polopó
Surfing, sunshine, and sea turtles. El Paredón is a hidden gem on the Pacific coast of Guatemala. Still relatively unknown, the oceanside village is starting to gain tourism traction. This has caused some concern for the largely conservative population, who are deterred by the party hostels cropping up. However, the social enterprise La Choza Chula is working to ensure that the tourism boom doesn’t hurt the residents. The proceeds from Chula tours go towards funding education and environmental projects. They’ve set up a community garden and are teaching people how to grow their own food. They have also established a computer lab, a secondary school, and a library. This is extremely important when you consider that Guatemala has the lowest literacy rate in Latin America.
La Choza Chula is also committed to providing jobs by hiring residents for guides and hosts. They offer homestays, turtle tours, cooking classes and more.
El Paredon makes up 10% of all of Guatemala’s mangrove systems which are, unfortunately, being deforested. Because their biosystem is so fragile, the organization is working to change the local mentality and stress the importance of beach clean up and conservation.
The great news is that these examples are only a small taste of the Guatemalan movement towards sustainability. Companies like Guatepassport offer entire eco-friendly holidays, and even the Guatemalan tourism institute, INGUAT, is pushing for reform.
Tips for being a responsible traveler in Guatemala
- Do your research on the products you buy. Ask who made it and where it’s from as often as you can. One of the women’s cooperatives we visited shared with us that the company Maria’s Bags has been plagiarizing their patterns and work, and selling them as ethical fashion.
- Stay in a homestay! There are very few fully sustainable hotels, even in Antigua. So the best option is a homestay when possible. Plus it’s a truly wonderful experience.
- Bring a water bottle to stay hydrated. Many of the municipalities have eco-filters to refill your water and is safe to drink.
- Bring your own straw and utensils. After all, they are working on banning plastic 🙂
- Learn some Spanish. You don’t have to be fluent, but it helps to know basic phrases. As previously mentioned, many of the locals speak a Mayan dialect. The bridge between all the communities is Spanish and it will get you a long way.
- DO hike a volcano. The recent eruption at Fuego was devastating and recovery is ongoing but the tourism from volcano hikes can help. On the way up to the crater at Pacaya there is a place called the Lava Store. This shop in the middle of nowhere sells jewelry made from molten rock, by locals whose homes were destroyed by the eruption.
Misty is the owner and founder of Green Suitcase Travel. She is a consultant, travel writer, and all around travel maven. When she is not traversing the world, spreading the news about sustainable travel, she is in Tucson, Arizona enjoying the desert.