My journey to Guatemala last year began like many other trips for me — with a fresh sketchbook in my backpack, its blank pages ready to capture scenes from the country where I’d rented a small house along Lake Atitlán and planned to spend the summer.
This time, I had a different mission in mind for my sketchbook. In addition to sketches, I also wanted to include maps, write down short observations and entries, and paste in travel memorabilia: things like boarding passes, ticket stubs, business cards, beer and wine labels, notes and receipts — i.e., all those little pieces of ephemera that usually end up tucked between the pages of your guidebook or novel.
In short, my mission was this: to transform my sketchbook into a travel scrapbook — a place to creatively document my favourite moments and memories from Lake Atitlán.
While I often focus on an entire scene for a sketch — be it a market, cathedral, or bustling streetscape — for one of my first sketches in Guatemala, I narrowed my focus in — way in — to a single vermillion-coloured hibiscus from my front yard.
The house I had rented was situated mere metres from Lake Atitlán, a serene body of water in the country’s western highlands that is encircled by volcanoes and misty hills. Observing the lake’s beautiful natural landscape swiftly became a favourite part of my day, especially the verdant bushes, hibiscus plants, and morning glory vines that grew around my house in abundance.
One balmy morning, I plucked a hibiscus from my yard, placed it on my worn wooden dining table, and portrayed the flower’s vibrant hues in my sketchbook as best I could with watercolours. But, my sketch of the hibiscus was only half of that particular entry.
On the facing page, I glued down a part of the box for the hibiscus herbal tea I brewed every night, as well as the label from a bottle of Quezalteca — a sweet liqueur, infused with hibiscus juice (or rosa de Jamaica, as the flower is known in Spanish). I’d grown up with hibiscus plants in my own backyard in the U.S., so it was exciting to see the flower reimagined and given so many new uses in Guatemala.
As content as I was with my new daily rituals in Guatemala, once or twice a week I managed to pull myself away from my little house on the lake and head into town, about a 20-minute walk away. Lake Atitlán is surrounded by many traditional Mayan villages, and I was living on the outskirts of a town called San Pedro La Laguna.
My first stop in San Pedro every week was the local market, where I’ve always felt more grounded in a new community. There, I befriended a produce vendor named Juana, whose cherries and lychees were a perfect afternoon snack. I bought mangoes from Alex, their skin the colour of a sunset. And from many others I would fill my shopping bag with piquant chilies, avocados, tomatoes, peppers, and limes.
Once, I arrived home and began unpacking my latest purchases, I stopped to marvel at the quality and quantity of what I’d just bought at the market — all for the equivalent of USD $7.00. To obtain such a bounty for such a price felt like another gift from Guatemala that summer — one I knew I couldn’t fail to record in my sketchbook.
From my weekly wanders through the market to a nightly cup of hibiscus tea, my days in Guatemala were soon ordered by sacred rhythms and rituals — and yet the moment I most looked forward to every day was a walk along the lake at sunset.
This wasn’t only because Lake Atitlán takes on a magical glow during golden hour, the rich, gloaming light making the region’s layered hills seem almost transparent; it was because so many local residents also seemed to enjoy an evening walk, and they always had time to slow down and say hello.
I met the family featured in one of my first sketches above, where a woman named Gilda and her mother, Petrona, walked home with cloth bundles on their heads. Another night, I met a coffee farmer named Nicolas, who told me his small farm was by the lake. When he asked, “Would you like to see it?” I couldn’t have been happier to accompany him down a narrow dirt trail to the lake’s edge and view his organic coffee plants.
And, on the night I met a woman named Josefa and her daughter, who were out gathering guava and jacaranda leaves to use for medicinal purposes, I carried a few of the leaves home with me. Just as I’d done with the hibiscus at the beginning of the summer, I laid the leaves out on my dining table and sketched them by candlelight, writing beneath the sketch: “Life along Lake Atitlán continues to welcome me in.”
Just as it’s easy for bus tickets and favourite labels to be forever lost in the pages of our guidebooks, so is it easy to lose these small encounters and connections from a journey. Transforming my Guatemala sketchbook into a scrapbook taught me the value of capturing them — that it is one way of honouring a journey’s fleeting moments, which are so often the ones we most want to hold on to.
G Adventures runs a number of departures in Guatemala encompassing a wide range of departure dates and activities to cater to different tastes. We’re thrilled at the prospect of showing you this big blue planet of ours — check out our small group trips here.