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.