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What stands out to you about San Juan La Laguna, Guatemala?

San Juan is a unique place both natural and cultural reasons. It’s located on the southern shore of Lake Atitlan, in between the San Pedro volcano and the so-called indigenous “Rostro Maya” (Indian Nose), a mountain which has a face-like shape.

The luxurious subtropical forest covering the surrounding mountains gives way to majestic coffee and avocado orchards and a variety of farm crops, most of which are cornfields. This is the setting of the everyday-life activities and economy of the local indigenous people, who are largely farmers on the mountainside. The people who live here hike for hours from the village up to the very top of the “Sierro” (mountain) to work their land, pick corn or coffee.

From a cultural point of view, as soon as I arrived to San Juan to work with Alma de Colores, I was astonished by the pulsating life of the small village. It stands out as an uncontaminated village, a cradle of Mayan cultural tradition and heritage in the area.

The colorful traditional clothes and the local language, Tzutujil, a surviving Mayan language, are the most apparent signs of the indigenous culture. I was amazed by the wall paintings scattered in several places of the village, which offer a modern representation of the traditional Mayan cosmology.

However, managing to stay in San Juan for a little more than the typical tourist’s plan of 1-2 days, it’s possible to scratch below the surface and get to the vibrant soul of the community, thanks to the welcoming attitude of the locals.

As an anthropologist, I have noticed that this approach towards foreigners is not simply a matter of good manners or goodwill, but rather a practice that stems from the locals’ cultural identity. Not that the neighboring villages are unwelcoming, but the “Juaneros” (people from San Juan) actually construct their identity and represent themselves through this practice. In other words, it is a place where, people will disclose authentic, intimate aspects of their life and culture to visitors with the traveler’s mindset: openness, curiosity and a sense of adventure!

Handcrafted goods lie at heart of the cultural and social life of the community as much as the coffee production and refining. The cooperative of coffee makers and textile artisans, opened to visitors, is definitely a must-see of San Juan.

This is my perspective, as a foreigner, but what would a Juanero answer to the same question? Well, what stands out about San Juan La Laguna is the Rostro Maya! Not just from a geographical and panoramic sense, either. To the indigenous people of San Juan, it is a sacred and ritual place, a highly evocative and symbolic of their culture and identity as Maya.

(I’d like to thank our friend and colleague, photographer Colin Field of Photographers Without Borders, who has thoroughly documented both our work and various Guatemalan lifestyles).

Tell us about Alma de Colores as a program. Who does it serve, and why does it matter?

Alma de Colores is a social and labor inclusion program for people with disabilities. The project is based in San Juan La Laguna and serves people ages 16 and older in the whole Lake Atitlan region.

The project is strongly rooted in the cultural and social ground of San Juan, and is part of Centro Maya Servicio Integral, a local organization that provides therapy, special education and other services to people with disabilities in the Lake area.

Its occupational therapy and inclusion project is developed through five different areas of work: handicraft production, sewing, baking, organic agriculture and a small restaurant. The quality of the handcrafted goods is astonishing, and visitors can find both traditional and original pieces from macramé to traditional clothes and jewelry. The organization’s fair approach, rooted in values of social and environmental sustainability, also extends to its products, which are carefully crafted employing local materials and knowledge, placing recycling at the heart of the creations, and practicing and promoting organic agriculture.

The restaurant, Alma de Colores Cafè y Comedor, is a beautiful, chill locale where organic and healthy food is served in a floral veranda overlooking the lake. Alma de Colores’ users receive fair compensation as employers of the different areas of occupational therapy. They also receive benefits like food, therapy, transportation and interest-free loans for education, along with access to a health fund to cover their short and long-term medical needs.

The impact of the project is huge – it’s the only program in the area that employs and provides regular income to people with disabilities. Alma de Colores even develops the professional skills of its users in a genuinely positive environment pursuing a communal approach which leads users and workers to share many existential and professional experiences. Also Alma de Colores is a great resource for the broader community as it fosters a new and sustainable model of production and development.

What are you as an organization most excited about right now?

The project is growing, not just in size, but also in terms of the results we’re creating! Our impact on the people is what we care most about. Alma the Colores, after expanding its project last year with the comedor, is enhancing its reach giving therapies and occupation to more and more people.

The social and economic independence of our users is at the core of our mission and through developing their work skills that allow them to practice in different job sectors, from handicrafts and agriculture to the culinary work, we are building inclusion and supporting our constituents’ wellbeing. Our greatest satisfaction is contributing to the fulfillment of our peoples’ goals and dreams, giving them the chance to pursue careers and create independent lives.

We are even in transition as a developmental project, moving away from being supported by a foreign organization to being independently run and funded. This is highly motivating as it is a challenging process and it opens up new horizons as a social enterprise, and we are deeply excited by this new phase!

What are the best ways future travelers can support Alma de Colores?

Alma de Colores is a place for sharing, sharing experiences and knowledge. We love inviting travelers who are visiting San Juan to learn about our project by involving them in our activities, introducing them to all our staff and users, and to their stories.

We then welcome them to the Cafe Y Comedor Alma de Colores to try the fresh, vegetarian food that we cook everyday using vegetables from our own organic garden. We also arrange day trips for travelers to San Juan, which begin with a rich, traditional breakfast at the Comedor, where our guest can sample the best local organic beans, fruits and free-range organic eggs.

We then show travelers a tour of San Juan where they visit our partner organization Centro Maya Servico Integral, to get a feel for their longstanding experience in the lake region working with communities with disabilities.

Travelers can partake in a workshop of handicraft and weaving and get a glimpse into the traditional manufacturing process of clothes and accessories. To support, travelers have the opportunity to purchase goods as take-home gifts!

Then it’s back to the Cafe y Comedor for lunch, which changes based on our organic garden produce. Travelers can sample traditional local dishes and gourmet samples of our chef’s specialties like empanadas, calzones, burritos, pizza and fried dough as a side dish.

What are the must-do’s for travelers visiting Guatemala for the very first time?

Guatemala is an enchanting country! It is one of the richest Central American regions for discovering the Mayan culture, indigenous tradition and heritage. It also offers an incredible variety of microclimates, from the tropical sea level to the highest volcano top, rising to over 4000 meters above sea level. The shorter Atlantic coast offers a beautiful stretch, while the Pacific coast is a long, low-lying tropical land characterized by volcanic sand seashore.

From the old colonial city of Antigua to the market of Chichicastenango, or the many volcanic hiking routes to Tikal, the Mayan archeological site, Guatemala has both rich cultural history and natural beauty to offer the hungry traveler’s eyes.

The area “Indigenous Altiplano” includes several provinces with an indigenous population as the majority, the provinces San Marcos and Huehuetenango along with Sololà (Lake Atitlan) are of particular interest for the indigenous culture; the lively and pulsating one with its traditional and contemporary practices, their cults and syncretic religious practices expressing Christianity in constant dialogue (not without contradictions) with the traditional Mayan religion.

Lake Atitlan itself, where Alma de Colores is based, is one of the main areas of interest for travelers. Here the spectacular natural scene piques all the senses. With its three volcanoes surrounding the lake that Aldous Huxley once described as “too much of a good thing”, indigenous traditional culture is preserved.

It also coexists with a more recent phenomenon, that of groups of expatriates, travelers and other locals who have created certain sites around the Lake as countercultural places of prayer and worship, where yoga, meditation, natural medicine, communal living and even some Dionysian parties are an integral part of the everyday life. And when you travel to Lake Atitlan, don’t forget to swim in the lake! It is powerful – at least, that’s what the locals say!

About Alma de Colores

Alma de Colores (Soul of Colors) is a labor and social inclusion program for people with disabilities in the Lake Atitlan region, Guatemala. Located in San Juan la Laguna, the workshop has over 24 participants between 16 and 44 years old who work in five main areas: handicraft production, sewing, baking, organic gardening as well as cooking and running a small restaurant. The garden and the restaurant are part of the Café Correcto project which took place in the frame of the “Nutrire il Pianeta 2014” program. Visit www.almadecolores.org to learn more and support the program.

March 19, 2017
6 Ways To Deal With Sticky Situations When You’re Traveling

We all find ourselves in trouble from time to time, especially when traveling abroad. On the road, any negative incidents can seem extra difficult — we are out of our comfort zone and without our usual support network. Sometimes we don’t even know how to contact the police (or if the police will help us).

Giving up and heading home might seem like the best decision when stuff hits the proverbial fan. But, life is going to happen wherever we find ourselves. You can conjure great strength in the midst of adversity that you didn’t even know was possible. Here are a few tips for how to avoid sticky situations, and what to do if it is already too late.

To Avoid Trouble

1. Choose Your Travel Mates Wisely

In 2009 I was a part of a film crew driving trucks around the globe. One member of the crew was always looking for a party and was also a magnet for unseemly company.

When he would describe his experiences to us after being out all night I often wondered how he managed to survive unscathed and thought it was only a matter of time before something happened.

In Puerta Vallarta, Mexico our luck ran out as I came upon him losing a fight in the street. My instant reaction was to intervene and before I knew it, the police were involved and we all risked a night in the local jail. Luckily, I talked us all out of it and Axel wasn’t hurt badly either. I resigned to be more selective with travel partners from then on.


2. Wait Until The Morning To Decide

One of my favorite activities in the world is swimming, which I love doing at night. However, the types of creatures that inhabit the waterways change with location and elevation.

On this particular trip, we had just descended from a cold mountain lake in Guatemala where I had taken refreshing dips at each opportunity. A few hours down the road we arrived at a new destination with another lake. It was a dark night already and we were now in more of a jungle environment, so I decided to wait until morning for my dip.

In the light of the new day, I put on my swimsuit and headed down to the lake, where to my dismay I saw multiple signs of caimans (essentially alligators), which eat humans.

I couldn’t see them at night and I probably shouldn’t have even come as close to the water as I did. Thankfully, I had decided to wait until morning and likely saved my own life that day.


3. Beware Of Mother Nature

I was staying at a nature retreat in Costa Rica during a massive flooding. When we arrived at our destination, the bridge across the river was nearly submerged. Reports were coming in of multiple deaths and some villages destroyed nearby. I was fascinated by the sheer power of the water as humongous trees floated by like toothpicks. I could tell the river bank had moved substantially since my arrival the day before, and yet out of curiosity, I approached the raging water to take a video.

As I began filming and narrating a section of the bank dropped away right in front of me and I was left standing with my toes on the edge of certain death. I quickly retreated and learned a valuable lesson about the fragility of my own life. I won’t make the same mistake again.

When Trouble Has Already Found You


4. “Stay The Course”

In 2005 I was living in Fremantle, Western Australia when my girlfriend at the time got in a car accident and broke her hip. I had not yet found work and was running low on cash.

I called my parents during a breakdown moment and they were sure that I was going to call it quits and head home. Instead, I buckled down and got a job. I had to cook all the meals, run errands, go to work (not to mention carry her up and down the stairs of the loft we were renting).

I also managed to find us another inexpensive car. She healed up eventually and we took advantage of our temporary home, going to the amazing local beaches regularly and exploring further into the outback with our vehicle.

We saved enough money to drive west to east across the entire continent, having a blast along the way before continuing our journey to New Zealand. Today, I am so happy I chose to stay the course in the face of adversity.


5. Breathe & Don’t Panic

In 2010, while living in rural New Zealand, I was hiking up a mountain with two young Swedes and a stray hunting dog. We were tramping off trail through thick brush when one of us stirred up an entire hive of wasps.

I found myself at the edge of a 20-foot cliff with jagged rocks below, and above me was a thicket of thorny bushes. The only way out was through the wasps or the thorns, as jumping of the cliff would most certainly cause broken bones or even death.

For a few seconds that seemed like hours I took a few deep breaths and steadied myself for the unavoidable trauma. As the wasps began to attack I dived into the bushes and crawled through them and then ran up the mountain out of their range.

Scratched, bloody, and very badly stung, I hiked down the mountain and went to the nearest hospital 1.5 hours away. I am grateful that I didn’t panic as I survived and even returned back to the woods shortly thereafter, much the wiser.


6. Chalk It Up To Experience & Laugh

The film crew I mentioned above needed to get from Colombia to Panama and there are no passable roads, so it required sending our vehicles on container ships from Cartagena to Panama City.

As for the crew, we decided to take the journey via sailboat. I was feeling uneasy about the captain we hired, as he resembled an actual pirate in both looks and demeanor. The Colombian Coast Guard flagged our boat and highly recommended that we postpone the trip for a day or two as a monstrous storm was coming. The captain shrugged and we continued on while he began to drink alcohol.


By the time it was my turn to take the helm, the storm was raging and he was drunk. He pointed to a heading on the compass, and then disappeared into the cabin for the night. The rest of the crew also decided stayed below and for over three hours I was alone in the pitch black.

I stared at the compass, desperately trying to stay on course as the waves tossed the boat around like a rag doll. I yelled for someone to relieve me, but no one came. I began to scream curses at the storm like Lt. Dan in the movie Forrest Gump. Finally, I laughed hysterically at the absurdity of my situation, relieving the tension of my deliriousness.

There are some common themes to the incidents above, like using common sense. Nature can be dangerous whether in the form of a storm at sea, river flood, caimans in the jungle, or wasps in the forest.

When you are abroad, the constant stimulation can be exciting and you may forget to keep your wits about you. Trust your instincts. If someone or something seems like a bad idea, then he/she/it probably is.

In most of the situations described above, I had a thought that something or someone wasn’t right, and I either didn’t honor it or couldn’t. Simply asking questions if something is safe, like whether or not swimming in the lake is ok, can save your life too.

The statistical truth is, most of you won’t find yourselves in extreme life or death scenarios when you travel abroad. However, if you do get into a sticky situation, stay in the moment, don’t panic and you’ll likely end up with a fantastic story to tell.


About Craig

d77646_f58fa61e8bf04d2fbd393b9186d33c30Craig Arthur Johnson is a humble student of life where there are no degrees, and a seeker of truth even when it challenges his current worldview. Part troubadour, part monk, and part shaman, he is a burgeoning writer and speaker, connoisseur, gastronaut, explorer, adventurer, martial artist, and yogi. Craig has never enjoyed the inside of “the box”. He can be located outdoors communing with nature, breathing mindfully, drinking spring water, soaking up the sun, and walking barefoot on hallowed soil. Connect with him at www.craigarthurjohnson.com.


February 10, 2016