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.

Guatemala, Our Best Vacation Ever!

Our front yard at Los Elementos Adventure Center

By Elizabeth

It’s amazing our best vacation ever would be in a third world country deemed dangerous for travel by the U.S. State Department. Even my best friend was questioning my risk assessment capability when I told him that I was going to Guatemala AND taking my partner and two nine-year-olds AND calling it a vacation. I myself found it a strange thought to be spending ten days in the same country where the Peace Corps announced that they would stop sending new volunteers due to the increasing violence in the country.

So what was I, a white woman, with her partner and two nine-year-olds doing in Guatemala? Simply, having the best vacation of our lives.

My next several posts will be about our trip. I hope to capture the feel of the Mayan culture in Guatemala. How truly immersed in our experiences we were. How full our days were. How peaceful and at ease we were and how I slept with the doors open each night without fear of intruders.

Antonio and Crystel loved the trampoline

This would be our second trip to Guatemala. Our first trip in 2010 was to see the country and Antonio and Crystel’s birth villages. Following our trip, Antonio and Crystel said they would like to meet their birth moms. That story and their recent meeting is described in my forthcoming memoir HOUSE OF FIRE: From the Ashes, A Family, a memoir of healing and redemption.

Making our acquaintance with the locals

I made our travel arrangements with one primary goal: to get as close to the Guatemalans living in villages as possible. Since Antonio and Crystel were born in Guatemala, I wanted to show them what their life might have been like if they had grown up there. Seeing it in a picture book doesn’t equate to learning to weave from a Guatemalan woman in a casa and playing soccer in the village square.

Lake Atitilan is famous for its natural beauty and the colorful Mayan villages near it. Santa Cruz la Laguna is a traditional Mayan village located on the steep mountainside of the lake. The village can only accessed by boat or footpath. A single winding road connects the dock to the village. A common gathering place in the village is the sports court, used for basketball and soccer by the children of the village.

This location was the perfect destination for our family because Santa Cruz la Laguna also has two nonprofits, Amigos de Santa Cruz and Mayan Medical Aid that focus on the local indigenous people. Santa Cruz ranks at the bottom in terms of literacy rate: 73.4% of the population is currently illiterate. One of the missions of Amigos de Santa Cruz is to help improve the lives of the people through support for education.  Amigos officially opened a trade school in 2010. The school features a computer lab, craftsman workshop, and culinary area. Santa Cruz also ranks # 1 in infant and maternal mortality. Until the intervention of Mayan Medical Aid, health services, were practically non-existent.

A new friend

Lee Beal, a U.S. citizen living in Santa Cruz, serves on the board of directors of Amigos de Santa Cruz and is also involved with Mayan Medical Aid. I contacted him via email to inform him of my interest in visiting the projects.

Kayak Guatemala  and Lake Atitilan Travel Guide showcases the many varied tours that Lee Beal provides. Hmmm, I thought, horseback riding, cliff jumping, ziplining — exactly what our family needs after meeting the birthmoms. Time for celebrating, letting go and having fun! What most piqued my interest is that his services are advertised as being family-friendly and safe for women travelers.

We came to stay at Lee Beal’s Los Elementos Adventure Center, because by the time we were leaving the States, I was totally confused about where we were staying and what hotel was the best for my family. Lee mentioned that they had a guest suite available that was connected to their private home. When he added that it also came with a kitchen, Jody and I were sold. We don’t classify Antonio as a picky eater– we only cook what he eats. And that means familiar foods that don’t touch each other. Packed inside our suitcase was dry elbow macaroni and wide egg noodles. Staples for unknown times.

Los Elementos Adventure Center became our home for the next five nights and six days.

Another friend and fresh eggs every morning

Lee’s personal touch was transmitted in his emails and became cemented when he said that he would meet us at the supermarket once we got to Panachel, help us grocery shop, bank, and then board the launch for his home.

The first thing the kids ran to after getting off the boat was the trampoline in the garden. All of their excess energy flipped and flung away. They only stopped to pet the chickens that ran loose and make their acquaintance with the three dogs. Soon after they were holding the dogs on their laps.

View from the village

After meeting Elaine and informing her that having a massage from Los Elementos Day Spa was on our itinerary we started our hike to the village square. Antonio lagged behind grumbling. It was too hot. The hill was too steep. The top too far away.Once at the square, he sullenly sat by himself and wouldn’t join us in watching the children playing soccer.

But the next day all that would begin to change.

In large part, this was due to Lee Beal using English-speaking Guatemalan guides, who not only guided us throughout our stay, but who also related to our nine-year-olds on a very personal level.

Samuel, a 21-year-old indigenous local guide kayaked with us on Lake Atitilan and rode a horse on San Pedro La Laguna. We looked to him for advice during our lunch, when we bartered with a Guatemalan woman from San Antonio la Laguna who was selling her weavings. Encouraged by Samuel, we ate Guatemalan foods and drinks that we would never have dared without his assurances that they were safe for a gringos’ intestinal tract.

Alex, also a local guide from a nearby village, hiked with us to waterfalls, played soccer with Antonio in the village square with the local children, assisted with weaving, and swam with us at El Jaibolito.

Staying with the Beal’s was Zach, an adopted 14-year-old Guatemalan who is also from the United States and interning with Los Elementos as a guide. He was Antonio and Crystel’s constant companion. It was Zach who first jumped off the cliff followed by Antonio and Crystel. It was Zach who first put on his zipline hardware at Atitilan Nature Reserve to zing through the trees.

As the children’s mother, I could see that it made a difference to Antonio and Crystel that Samuel, Alex, and Zach were Guatemalan. They weren’t Hispanic. They weren’t Latin American. They weren’t from a different country. They were Guatemalan. Antonio and Crystel are Guatemalan. Their brown arms are the same skin tone. Their hair has the same coarseness. Their faces have the same Mayan features.

Through our Guatemalan guides, the village came to us and Antonio and Crystel began to gain a sense of who they are.

Next post: hiking, nonprofits, weaving.