Every morning I took a photo from our patio of what the novelist, Aldous Huxley, described as, “…really too much of a good thing.” Lake Atitlan takes its name from the Mayan word, “atitlan,” which translates to, “the place where the rainbow gets it’s colors.”
Volcano and lake, height and depth, pointed and vast, cradled me for five nights and six days. I felt taken care of regardless of what was or what would be. 2,895.3 miles from Minnesota, my family and I were home. Jody, Antonio, and Crystel were perceptibly at peace as well.
Across the lake from our suite at Los Elementos, Volcano Toliman rose up with Volcano Atitlan behind it. Owners, Lee Beal and his wife, Elaine, reinvented their lives in Guatemala. They have been full-time residents of Santa Cruz la Laguna on Lake Atitlan for the past five years. They came to Guatemala looking for a simpler and more fulfilling life and found it on Lake Atitlan. They originally started working with a local nonprofit Amigo de Santa Cruz. Lee now serves on the board of directors. As he and others learned more about the people of Santa Cruz, they realized there was a need for jobs. The CECAP vocational training center run by Amigos helps fulfill that need.
Lee’s background as an entrepreneur in the horticultural field gave him the experience and basis to introduce a new cash crop to the area. He has developed a Vetiver Grass program, which is a good fit with the agricultural culture of the local people. This is a multi-year program that will not yield profits for 3-5 years, but will make an impact in the long-term. Lee and Elaine wanted to expand on the idea of creating new jobs, and from this idea grew Los Elementos Day Spa and Los Elementos Adventure Center.
Elaine has trained over a dozen local women to do manicures and pedicures and has trained three women as massage therapists. Each of these training programs offers the women employment opportunities that would not have been available to them otherwise.
Lee developed a series of tours, hikes, kayak excursions, rock climbing, and cultural sharing opportunities through Los Elementos Adventure Center. He has been employing two local guides trained through INGUAT on some of the tours and have been training a dozen local youth to develop the skill sets needed to be a guide.
Accompanying us to San Marcos la Laguna was Zach, a 14-year-old adventure “guide in training” who was staying with Lee and Elaine. Zach’s personal story is similar to Antonio and Crystel’s. He was born in and adopted from Guatemala, he met his birth family for the first time last year, and he returned to Lake Atitlan and Los Elementos as an intern. It was our good fortune that Zach would be our guide for much of our stay. Antonio and Crystel had someone ‘just like them’ to hang with.
Lee had arranged our day for us. We were picked up at his dock and ferried twenty minutes to San Marcos. The waters were calm on Lake Atitlan as they usually are in the morning. They don’t kick up until noon. This surprising turn-around is known as the Xocomil winds.
Stepping onto the shores of San Marcos is walking into New Age. Signs greeted us touting Astral Traveling, Metaphysics, Kabbalah, Tarot reading, Reiki and more. The village has several meditation, yoga, and massage centers. Walking up the foot path to the main center, Lee pointed out medicinal and curative plants and elaborated on their use and origin. Banana, coffee, and avocado trees blended with the landscape.
Next to the walkway was a wall with beautiful colorful paintings including a Mayan calendar.
We came to a wall on our right made of plastic bottles. Project Pura Vida or what I call the bottle project finally made sense to me. The evening before in their home, Elaine had shown me how she was putting plastic trash in a bottle. She had a stick she used to compress the waste. But it was the moment that I saw the wall in San Marcos that I understood what she was doing.
The bottle of trash would be joined with other bottles and become a wall for a home. In more technical terms, the construction technique consists of stacking thousands of bottles between a shelter’s wooden supports, holding them in place with chicken wire, then applying concrete to create what looks like a typical concrete wall.
The walls are cheaper than those built with cement blocks, which is the material typically used in low-cost construction in Guatemala. The plastic core also makes the walls more flexible—and thus less dangerous—than block walls in the event of an earthquake.
Pura Vida began in January 2004 as a pilot project in San Marcos to solve the local problems of garbage.
One of Lake Atitlan’s greatest attractions is the cliffs of San Marcos. Our group headed towards a dirt path that led up the side of the mountain when a very large sack fell out of the sky and hit me on my head. After I straightened up and shook off the shock, Lee explained that the locals unloading a truck were looking at me and not where they were throwing. I have often told people I need to be hit on the head to get the message, so it was kind of funny in a spiritual sort of way. Still, I missed the esoteric message that was divined for me.
The sack incident was not on anyone’s mind a short while later when we were standing on a diving platform three stories above the cool waters of Lake Atitlan. We quickly determined that Zach should be first to jump.
Sometimes all it takes is one. If that first person can make it safely through an adventure, then we figure it will be okay for the rest of us. I wasn’t any stranger to cliff jumping, having jumped and dived off the cliff at Spring Valley dam in Wisconsin when I was a teenager. Still, it was frightening. My heart went up, my body went down and that feeling didn’t dissipate on any of my next jumps. The kids kept telling me to do a pencil dive. I screamed and waved my arms crazily instead. Lee pointed out a tree that hung out over the water to Antonio. Without hesitation, just like at home, Antonio scampered up the trunk, inched out on a limb, and swung off into the water. He did this over and over and over.
Later, I asked Antonio and Crystel which was scarier, meeting their birth moms, or jumping three stories off of a cliff. In unison, they said, meeting their birth moms. The bar was set. Their world had opened up. From the moment they met their greatest fear, they leaped beyond their nine years.