GoPhil Travel’s Second Journey to Guatemala

by Linda DeWolf, Co-Founder & Christina Bruce, Guatemala Program Manager

April 26, 2018

We arrive in Guatemala in the early evening with a soft rain falling and thought “has it only been 9 months since we were last here?” Everything is still so familiar… the cobblestone streets, lovely old stucco buildings with charming interior court yards, women in their colorful Mayan costumes and the marvelous Latin American food. It is good to be back and we are ready for a new adventure.


April 27, 2018

Today was a full-out work day, meeting and vetting three local NGOs to understand their issues and programs. We were impressed with how these small, fragile grassroots programs serving the indigenous Mayan population do so much on a shoestring budget, like Caras Alegres (Home to Happy Faces) providing lunch every school day and a safe after-school space for 80 children in a remote village in the Quetzaltenango region. Or Communidad la Esperanza providing a range of sophisticated educational services for very poor children outside of Antigua.

It is just so easy to forget how fortunate we are in the U.S. until one is confronted with the type of abject poverty seen in Mayan communities in Guatemala and then the amazing bravery and perseverance of those providing services.

April 28, 2018

We prepare for the travelers’ arrivals tomorrow, checking out restaurants, art galleries, colorful handicraft shops and more. We find ourselves having a wonderful lunch of simple but elegant tacos at the well-known Frida’s and just must have our photo taken below Frida’s menacing eyebrows. That evening we venture out to purchase some simple traveler welcome gifts (coffee, notebooks, maps and chocolate) and get caught in a torrential downpour as it is the beginning of Guatemala’s rainy season. We had to wait about an hour before we dared venture out. The good news is we were “trapped” in a local chocolate shop and just had to sample some of the delectable dark chocolates while waiting.

Later that evening we join our GoPhil colleague Travis and GoPhil Founders Circle members Brian and Peggy for dinner. The contemporary home they rented sits perched on a hill and features a wide expanse of glass in the great-room overlooking the sparkling lights of Antigua as well as two impressive volcano peaks. We were treated to a beautiful sunset and delicious meal with our good friends who are hooked on Guatemala as much as we are and are totally committed to improving the lives of so many in the area.

April 29, 2018

Our nine travelers straggle in throughout the day after long trips from many parts of the U.S. and we are there to provide a warm welcome for each of them. Small “goodie” bags await in each room. Everyone is quite congenial and compatible and we think, once again, how lucky we at GoPhil are to attract such like-minded and wonderfully thoughtful people to our fold.

Our hotel, El Convento, is as the name suggests a converted convent full of nooks and crannies for snuggling up to read a book, chat with a new friend or just relax. Everyone loves it and feels immediately at home. We get together that evening over a welcome glass of wine to toast our adventure, introduce ourselves and to learn about what has brought each of us on this journey. We also have the chance to hear from Peggy and Brian about their GoPhil journey last year, returning to Guatemala after a 30-year absence.

April 30, 2018

A GoPhil journey always starts out with an orientation as to our “listen and learn” model of responsible tourism and a contextual setting for the country we are visiting. Our guide, Vinicio, highlighted Guatemalan history and current political and economic environments for our group and several people had questions, as all had done their background reading before joining our journey.

The first day is one of easing into the trip by visiting local markets and a textile co-op. We find we are the only tourists at this particular village weekly market at Santa Maria de Jesus and appreciate taking our time, browsing through the food stands, talking with the locals and sampling some of their delicious locally produced foods.

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May 1, 2018

This morning we are off and running, visiting a small grants program about 35-minutes outside of Antigua. Comunidad la Esperanza (CLE) was a recipient of GoPhil funds this year through the Small Grants Program of EntreMundos, one of GoPhil’s partners in Guatemala. Behind a brightly painted mural depicting strength and community, CLE is the equivalent of a middle school offering an alternative academic experience to impoverished local Mayan youth, providing them not only the Guatemalan academic requirements but also creating what CLE calls “young agents of change.” Our group sat in on a class on conflict resolution where young teens role-played opposite gender roles arguing, to understand the impact of feeling powerless in a relationship. It was an enlightening insight into a very small but effective approach to training the next generation to deal with the continuing issues of cultural and racial disenfranchisement through creating a culture of peace and assertive communication.

The afternoon is dedicated to optional activities including a local arts tour where we visited two artists studios and a magnificent outdoor art space. Then most of the group participated in a traditional Guatemalan cooking class later that day. Let the bonding begin while having lots of laughs and chopping veggies and herbs for the quintessential Guatemalan dish Pollo al Pepian.

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May 2, 2018

Today we depart Antigua and head to Lake Atitlan. On our way, we stop to visit our wonderful partner ASSADE which provides health services to the poorest of the poor in the region of San Andres Iztapa. We always look forward to seeing Maria Elena, the founder of the program, and her son Julio who provides a brilliant overview of health care issues in Guatemala… most of which are quite dire. GoPhil donors support the program’s dental clinic and their new oral outreach program and we have a chance to meet the two young women – called communitarians – who have been selected from their village to provide outreach education and referrals. We visit during a busy women’s health day, and reconnect with Dr. Fernanda and Dr. Marinelli, the dental clinic director.

We followed the ASSADE visit with a trip to the nearby traditional Mayan spiritual site of San Simon, a temple/church where we observed various Mayan religious ceremonies and traditions which ASSADE integrates into its health-care program. We were lucky enough to be visiting on a local religious holiday as well as a period of thanksgiving to San Simon for success in business and commerce. The visit was wonderfully rich with the opportunity to observe several personal and public shamanic ceremonies being carried out.

Then onwards to the Trans American highway where we found ourselves eagerly awaiting the first peek of Lake Atitlan and the adventure of our boat ride across the Lake. After having been treated to a very luxurious setting in Antigua, the group made the shift to a cozier, more rustic (almost Swiss chalet-like feeling) accommodation at Hotel Casa del Mundo. Ah, but if there weren’t those 180 steps up from the Lake to the reception area! Thank you, thank you to the staff who hauled our luggage up and then later down those steep stone steps.

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May 3, 2018

Today we visited two NGO’s. First was Aula Mágica (Magical Classroom), a pre-K program in several departamentos (or states) across the Western Highlands where the majority of the Mayan population live. Aula Mágica is a GoPhil pilot program, and hosted us in the classroom of Rosita, a pre-K facilitator in the small village of Concepcion. Her class consisted of twelve four-to-six year-olds seated on benches made out of boards and cement blocks, in the earthen-floor patio of Rosita’s home.

The classroom was set up around the patio with learning centers for math, reading, and spatial skill building. The students were well-behaved although active (mostly the boys) and thrilled to have visitors – they even invited us to participate in a craft activity. Class is taught bilingually, since in the rural Mayan villages that AM serves, children speak K’iche’, their Mayan language, but school is taught in Spanish, seriously impacting a first-grader’s potential to succeed.

After Aula Magica, the group visited the rural home of Angelina, one of the beneficiaries of the Cultiva program in the department of Solola, a program dedicated to creating community responsibility for family and community health and welfare through training in nutrition and home plot gardening. Cultiva is not currently a GoPhil partner, but we just beginning to develop a relationship here. Cultiva founder Greg Jensen explained that in order to earn a garden, participants must complete two five-hour Cultiva classes covering “seed to plate” nutrition and small plot gardening. Classes are taught by Cultiva staff in the local K’iche’ language. After completing the classes, the participants earn a raised bed garden of their own, installed in conjunction with Cultiva volunteers. Our host Angelina explained that she has attended two Cultiva training programs and now has two garden boxes, as well as a small compost/fertilizer incubator for her gardens.

We say good-bye to Angelina and her extended family and return to our hotel where we gather each evening for a family style dinner, enjoying the magnificent sunset over the Lake with the volcanoes in the backdrop. We talked about our impressions of the day’s visits, and the thoughts and feelings that we will take home with us.

May 4, 2018

Our last NGO visit was to Centro Maya, a program that serves over 150 infants, children and young adults with disabilities. Centro Maya provides a wide range of services including therapies, meals and education. They never cease to inspire by always creating a special musical performance for the GoPhil group. This time the classes acted out mime sketches, and then presented musical numbers – from classical to the Beatles. Our group walked to Centro Maya’s restaurant Alma de Colores for lunch. The open-air café is part of the labor inclusion program for the “young leaders” (young adult beneficiaries) where they learn organic gardening, kitchen skills and restaurant service – all skill sets which help them to find jobs in the community and achieve their own levels of independence. The wonderful hearth-baked bread at Alma de Colores is a big seller with hotels and restaurants around the Lake!

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The afternoon was topped off by observing a weaving demonstration at a women’s cooperative and then having some free time to wander the winding streets of San Juan de Laguna, well-known for its local artists painting in a naïf style, and just time enough for a stop to enjoy a cup of delicious Guatemalan coffee before meeting up with our lancha (motorboat) for our return trip across the Lake.

Our farewell dinner is something we always look forward to, and this one did not disappoint. First we met on a terrace overlooking the Lake for a stunning view of our last sunset together. We spent some time reflecting on what we had seen, which experiences had impressed each of us the most, and what we would take back with us in terms of memories and personal growth. We toasted each other, our guide Vinicio, and the wonderful GoPhil partners in the Guatemalan NGOs for the incredible work they do. As we moved into the dining room for a typical Guatemalan dinner, GoPhil travelers found little handcrafted “worry dolls” at each of their places as a memento of our time together Guatemala.

May 5, 2018

On our way to Guatemala City for departures the next day, we stop at Iximche, one of the two existing Mayan ruins in the Guatemala highlands. Buildings, ball fields, royal residences and other reminders of an ancient and sophisticated culture are all clearly visible at Iximche. Vinicio gave us a tour of the site, putting this very special place into cultural and historical perspective. The Iximche ruins are also a religious site, and a place where many Mayan spiritualists or shamans come for personal introspection and renewal. The GoPhil group participated in a traditional Shamanic ceremony where we each received blessings from the Shaman. After the ceremony, we continued on our trip over the TransAmerican Highway to Guatemala City. Many of us met that evening in the hotel lobby to have one last conversation about Guatemala, the beauty we had experienced, the pride and dignity of the people we met on our journey, and the selflessness of the wonderful GoPhil partners as they strive to make a difference in the lives of the indigenous Mayan population.

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May 6, 2018

Hasta luego, Guatemala! We will think of you often and be back in August 2018!

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