San Juan La Laguna, Sololá

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Lake Atitlán and surrounding villages.

“La laguna” is really no lagoon but a small bay in the Atitlán lake of Guatemala. The road to descend towards the lake is filled with huge pot holes and sharp turns as well as breath-taking views.

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Descending from cloudy mountaintop villages.

In our red Land Rover Defender we descended from cloud-covered mountaintop villages, our four children peering out at the horses, cows, chickens and pigs. Mid-descent we just had to stop. The mix of cool weather, warm weather, drizzle in the mornings and evenings and burning sun during the day allowed for all kinds of vegetation and fruit trees.

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Papaya, banana, coffee.
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Pitahaya cactii over volcanic rocks.

As seen in this picture, in one small area you can see the following trees thriving together: Papaya trees, coffee plantation, jocote trees (sooo old and beautiful you just want to swing from their big branches – as my son did), avocado trees and pitahaya cacti climbing the huge volcanic rocks.

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Swinging from the Jocote tree branches.

Lake Atitlán is known as one of the most beautiful lakes in the world. It is surrounded by volcanoes and villages of all sizes. Many of these villages host chalets and vacation spots, hotels, restaurants, etc. But only some, such as San Juan La Laguna, have actively worked toward keeping their traditions intact.

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Primitive artists’ gallery.

This small Tz’utujil village was in the local Guatemalan news not too long ago for going as far as expelling a group of Lev Tahor members.

“Miguel Vasquez Cholotio, a member of the elders’ council, said the villagers decided to expel the group because they refused to greet or have physical contact with the community. ‘We felt intimidated by them in the streets. We thought they wanted to change our religion and customs,’ he said.”

(see the full news article here: http://www.cbc.ca/news/canada/montreal/lev-tahor-expelled-from-guatemalan-village-of-san-juan-la-laguna-1.2750639)

It is easy to see how they felt intimidated by such a conservative and antisocial group. San Juaneros are warm, friendly, if somewhat reserved at first. They are industrious and open to new ways of commercializing their products as long as it doesn’t harm their community.

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Partially renovated church in the central park.

We heard this first-hand from the women at Casa Flor Ixcaco who run a cooperative of 20 women weavers. They are dedicated to authenticity by making all of their textiles from their own organically-grown cotton and using all natural dyes.

Flor Ixcaco also boasts a variety of other products such as flavored licours whose recipes have been handed down from their ancestors. These women guard their recipe jealously as some foreigners have insistently tried to steal it from them to produce in Europe and elsewhere.

I’m certain this is not an isolated incident of a group trying to steal their methods and I’m also certain that some years back they may have succeeded. But the Tz’utujiles here are better educated now. Their self-esteem is high and they boast a healthy pride in their Mayan roots.

As the ladies spoke to us they also demonstrated to our children the full process of converting cacao seeds into chocolate. What an amazing experience for us all! At every step of the process we were allowed to try the seeds, the dough, the hot chocolate.

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Cacao to chocolate process.

A soft drizzle began to fall as we piled into a small tuk-tuk and drove to our quaint hotel Pa’ Muelle. My birthday celebration was complete! I love the rain!

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FE restaurant and it’s pizza oven in the background.

We dined at the most delicious restaurant a block away from our hotel called FE. The restaurant sits on a busy corner right across from the municipal market building and boasts a robust menu including pizza cooked in a wood-burning oven dome a-la-italiana.

It seems everyone here still holds the lost Mayan knowledge of herbal properties and the secrets to growing them. We visited the Q’omaneel store and herb garden and I was hooked! No longer will I buy my herbs! What a beautiful sight! There were bushes of rosemary, basil, chamomile, tarragon, lemongrass, oregano and so much more! The bag to the Sweet Mace Terragon Tea bag I bought says it’s good for: gastrointestinal infections and useful for the treatment of stomach spasms and menstrual cramps. I mostly bought it for the aroma and taste!

My husband, ever the outdoorsman, could not pass up the chance to do some snorkeling and harpooning off the local dock. We learned it was a busy place as the public transport from this village to others around the lake (such as Panajachel) are the boats that fly in, one after the other at 5pm. By the time the last boat disappeared there were 5-6 other fishermen ready to jump in to the freezing water to do a little fishing.

We also discovered a small beach area in the neighboring town of San Pablo La Laguna called Las Cristalinas, where we spent a fabulous afternoon swimming, laying under the sun, snorkeling, and mostly watching the locals enjoy the water. The women went in with their entire typical dress on! Some women stayed on the beach and gathered a fire over which they put a huge clay pot and began preparing a chicken stew. We were quite the droolers as our little picnic was prepared with light sandwiches, chips, sodas and fruit.

Our last morning at Pa’ Muelle, I climbed the stairs to the third floor terrace to watch the sunrise, enjoy the cold morning air, the flowers and of course, my cup of steaming hot San Juan coffee.

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Can you see the face outlined by the mountains? This is a famous landmark.

You must make room in your trip itinerary to visit San Juan! You won’t regret it!

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Pa’ muelle Hotel

You may order San Juan products from Lucy Trotzke on facebook. They ship worldwide!

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