What A Day We Had with the Indigenous Mayans of Lake Atitlan

CECAP Training Center and Cafe Sabor Cruzeno

I walked into Cafe Sabor Cruzeno in Santa Cruz la Laguna, Lake Atitlan with trepidation. Not because it was recently opened. Not because it wasn’t yet rated on Trip Advisor or that it was a student-run café. And not because it was part of an NGO, Non-Government Organization.

Café Sabor Cruzeno was the result of the CECAP (Centro de Capacitacion) Culinary Arts program of Amigos de Santa Cruz foundation. The goal of the program is to train young people for successful employment in the restaurant and tourist business.

No, it was because I had my doubts that the culinary arts program would be successful with Antonio. I had a suitcase of dried pasta betting on it. Some people might pack extra clothes and shoes to match each outfit. I was more concerned that we have a food supply tucked away. When we traveled to Guatemala in 2010 I had forgotten to pack Crystel’s swimsuit. She ended up swimming in her Hello Kitty pajamas. But, I didn’t forget emergency rations for my son.

View from Café Sabor Cruzeno

Antonio is a healthy ten-year-old. He will eat a salad. Just don’t make a pyramid out of the raw vegetables. Instead, imagine a horizontal sundial and align the fixings uniformly around his plate. No dressing wanted or required. When Antonio and Crystel were in highchairs Jody and I would put food on each tray and what one toddler didn’t eat the other would. Being low maintenance, Crystel’s sundial can be any shape: cylindrical, conical, or vertical with a dab of ranch dressing. She’s satisfied with a ham sandwich. Antonio came to us waving a chicken leg in the air. He has never eaten a sandwich in his life. But give him a Sweet Hawaiian bun in one hand and a slice of salami in the other and he will happily eat them separately.

Our table waiting for us

We cater to Antonio and Crystel because we can, though sometimes I remind him that he was born in Guatemala.  Tamales made of corn and filled with beans are eaten with nearly every meal.

Lee Beal, our guide, originally from Texas, has lived around the world over the years, with Colorado being his home base. His wife, Elaine, and he have been full-time residents of Santa Cruz for the past 5 years. The couple came to Guatemala looking for a simpler and more fulfilling life and found it on Lake Atitlan. Lee originally started working with Amigos de Santa Cruz foundation and now serves on the board of directors. As he learned more about the people of Santa Cruz he realized there was a need for jobs creation. A part of this is now being fulfilled through the CECAP vocational training center.

The kitchen

Walking into the restaurant, I was surprised how open, clean and fresh it was. I felt as if we were on top of a mountain and we were. Two graduates of the culinary arts program were busy in the kitchen completing our authentic Guatemalan meal. They would also be serving us.

I don’t out Antonio unless I have too. Usually I just take him aside and remind him that we have food at home and simply be polite and say, “No thank you” if he doesn’t like what’s served. No funny noises or grotesque looks necessary.

After snapping a picture of our seating area, I took a deep breath and sat down. We had our choice of freshly made cold tea, several sauces, mashed potatoes, and a mixture of glazed vegetables and chicken with pulique sauce. At first glance, there wasn’t anything that I thought Antonio would try. Pulique is a common dish of the Guatemalan highlands. It is often served at holidays, anniversaries, and yearly fairs. Alex, our Guatemalan guide, explained how special it was that our chef had made the pulique for us. (Lee has been employing local guides trained through INGUAT. His goal is to create well-paying jobs that fit with the Mayan culture.)

Antonio with Alex paying our bill

The pulique sauce was mild, gentle, and creamy. I watched Antonio as he scraped a bit of it off his chicken.He tried a bite, finished his chicken, and asked for more.

Antonio had proven that CECAP’s culinary arts program was headed for success.

The café is located in the vocational center which houses carpentry, welding, computer education, sewing and weaving. The training center was buzzing with students sewing on Singer sewing machines and students welding on the rooftop.

What makes CECAP unique is that it has always been a community-driven vision and not a government project. Amigos is helping CECAP become self-sufficient.

Singer sewing machines. Girls and boys sewing.

Touring the vocational education center, watching students sew and weld, and dining at the café were some of the many highlights of our trip. We were getting a glimpse into the future of Santa Cruz la Laguna. Santa Cruz is one of the 45 poorest townships in all of Guatemala with illiteracy and malnutrition among the highest in the country. Amigos believes that education is the key to breaking the cycle of poverty for the indigenous people of Guatemala. Their primary focus has been on education both at the primary and secondary level. We were fortunate to see it at work.

Before we left Minnesota, Crystel had told us that she wanted to learn how to weave while in Guatemala. Lee contacted a local Guatemalan and set up a time for us to meet with her in her home. Both Antonio and Crystel quickly became engaged in learning to weave. They returned to her home several afternoons to complete their projects.

While Antonio and Crystel were weaving, Lee took Jody and me on a tour of the town church and also to Casa Milagro. Casa Milagro (since 1992) is an NGO that supports widows and children. Thilda Zorn, founder and manager of the project, focuses on providing an environment for creativity, joy, and freedom. Jody and I purchased handicrafts that the children had made.

Casa Milagro – children learning to weave

By the time Jody and I returned to our children, Antonio had left with Alex and Zach to play soccer in the village square, and Crystel was making fast friends with the girl of the house.

Antonio rushed in breathless and excited. He was poking fun at Alex and Zach, “Those kids were smaller than me,” he laughed. “We lost 10-7. It cost us 3 quetzales (50 cents).” Apparently, there was a side bet and the local children came away the winners. “Alex, they blew right by you,” Antonio added. “And, Zach he couldn’t stop anything.”

Antonio and Crystel learning to weave

Antonio and Crystel were being changed. And, it had nothing to do with their parents and everything to do with their parents. We had brought them here – to their birth country to have an opportunity to connect with other Guatemalans.

The boy who wouldn’t look at the kids in the square the first night was now facing off with them in a soccer match and for a short time he had two older Guatemalans, Alex and Zach, that could brother him.


Antonio’s bud’s – Zach and Alex

Crystel’s new friend

This very fine day would finish in a hot tub and swimming pool in the next village, El Jaibalito. A ten-minute launch from Los Elementos.

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The hotel is somewhere around here . . .

by Elizabeth

I know exactly where I am. Each time I say this, the folks that know me, go Uh, Oh. They start looking around, become skittish, grab a map, grab a phone, read the fine print on documents. I just think they are taking things a bit too seriously.  Trust me, I say.

Before I disclose any more facts, I do want you to know that I am a very responsible parent, friend, coworker and partner. You are safe with me. Totally.

To myself, I myself grimace, I know exactly where I am, when it’s me that is first to comprehend that I am totally in the wrong place, the wrong hotel, the wrong state. But, I get over it quickly. Life is meant to be an adventure.

Yesterday, I printed out the confirmation for where my family will be staying in Guatemala. I love to research and via the Internet, I explored the 14 villages surrounding Lake Atitilan, and decided the small Mayan village of Santa Cruz la Laguna was the place for us to reside for five nights and six days. It is accessible only by boat or footpath.  There is no road access to or from the village because it’s surrounded by jagged mountains. Amigos de Santa Cruz Foundation and Mayan Medical Aid, two non-profits are living out their mission on Santa Cruz la Laguna. By learning about the non-profits, perhaps my family would have more access to the Guatemalans in the three villages located in the mountains.

It was January when I secured our hotel.  Our trip is planned for this summer. Maybe I picked that hotel because all rooms had a great panoramic view of the lake and the three volcanoes. Perhaps I chose it because all the rooms were set amongst lush tropical gardens bearing fruits and flowers all year long. Or maybe it was workout gym for Jody or the private beach that the family could enjoy. I made the reservation and bookmarked it as a favorite. From time to time, I took a look-see at the hotel, the gardens, and the rooms.

Reading the confirmation I quickly came to the understanding that we were totally in a different hotel from what I had thought.

I fast-forwarded in my mind to landing on the village dock after being ferried from Panajachel, Guatemala. How we would have climbed up the mountain to our hotel only to find out that we didn’t have a reservation and then because there is no telephone system and maybe the Internet wouldn’t be working that I wouldn’t have a clue as to where I did have a reservation in this remote location. Perhaps, Crystel would look up at me and say, Mama Beth is this your most embarrassing moment today?

And I would respond as I always do with, It’s an adventure!

I went back to the email chain certain that “they” had made a mistake. As I read, it became clearer and clearer that it was not their mistake but mine. Goodbye private beach. Goodbye exercise room.

Yet, I also knew that being the researcher that I am, there must have been a reason I changed hotels. Clearly, I showed a sharp detour in my emails, asked them to the cancel the hotel and went with a different place. Now for exercise, we can enjoy the well-maintained paths that traverse old Mayan trails on the steep mountainside. And for gosh sakes, we will be on a mountain, where all views are panoramic. And won’t we be standing in the locale that is mentioned four times in the #1 Bestseller, 1,000 Places To See Before You Die? At least we’ll be in the right spot, alive.

I don’t think the Gopher to Badger half marathon is in the #1 Bestseller. Maybe it should be. It is set along the banks of the St. Croix River about 30 miles east of Minneapolis. I know exactly where it starts, I told my niece. She was training for a marathon and I was accompanying her. Our goal, as always, was to beat the trash trucks and the biffy picker uppers. We are not fast. We aren’t even slow. We are just above walking pace. When we got to the start of the race there wasn’t anybody. I couldn’t figure it out. The town was sleepy. Where are all the people? My niece called her husband and got him on the Internet. He found out that we were in the wrong state. We jumped in our car and raced across state lines to Wisconsin. After parking, we jumped on the moving bus that shuttled us to the start.

Gopher to Badger, Badger to Gopher. Gosh, an easy mix-up.

Trust me Jody, I know exactly where I am and you and the kids are safe. Get ready for an adventure.