Planeterra Project Manager Tania Robles travels to Lake Atitlán’s San Juan La Laguna and learns that, while it takes hands to build a house, only hearts can build a home.
In 2013, Planeterra and G Adventures partnered with the Multilateral Investment Fund (MIF) of the Inter-American Development Bank (IDB) to develop community-based tourism projects in rural communities underserved by the travel economy. I was hired on to oversee projects as a Project Manager in Central America & Peru.
Planeterra’s mission is simple—to help people by providing solutions, not handouts. We do this by providing the resources and opportunities for local people in the areas we serve to develop and strengthen their communities, and G Adventures’ network of travellers provides these communities with the long-term income to make these solutions sustainable.
In Guatemala, our focus has been Lake Atitlán—hemmed in on all sides by volcanoes and steep hills. It’s truly a breathtaking place. Depending on the time of day its waters shift take on an astonishing range of hues—aquamarine, silver and green. It never looks the same twice. Every time I return here, it’s always more beautiful than I remember.
Residents of San Juan La Laguna.
Here, we’ve been working with MIF to develop a homestay program and visitor centre for one of Atitlán’s small villages—San Juan La Laguna—that has traditionally lacked opportunities to benefit from tourism. The first phase of the project involved the renovation of 18 of the village’s houses, so San Juan’s families could host visitor groups and initiate their own microenterprises.
After all, despite all the natural and cultural richness San Juan offers, there are few jobs to be had here. That said, San Juan’s inhabitants—the Maya T’zutujil people—keep their language, their customs and their traditions intact, making a visit here an unforgettable experience that can hardly be found elsewhere. It’s the perfect venue for a homestay.
Meet Santos Gabino.
It was here that I met Santos Gabino, a guide who lived in a tiny house on the southern shore of Atitlán with just one bedroom for him, his wife and their three sons and one daughter.
He was instrumental in helping us to complete the first stage of the Mayan Community Homestay Project. Santos worked tirelessly (while doing double duty as a guide to support his family) and, even though he had completed renovations to satisfy the project’s mandate, he continued to work on improving his home. He was truly an inspiration.
During one of the project’s scheduled reviews, I learned from one of the residents that Santos was short construction materials that he couldn’t afford, despite his tireless efforts. With the support of the local NGO (Atit’ala), Planeterra and G Adventures were able to supply him with the materials he required. He gratefully accepted them.
Today, instead of staying in a local hotel, G Adventures travellers can now enjoy a homesty with a host family in San Juan, sharing their food, picking up some Spanish and T’zutujil, and learning some of the region’s traditions by sharing valuable time with local families.
The Gabino’s guest room.
But, more importantly, the Gabino Family now has a revitalized home. Its three rooms, (including an updated kitchen and bathroom) mean they can now receive travellers to supplement their income. Even better? Santos’ 18 year-old son Gaspar, following in his father’s footsteps, has begun to guide tours while studying and practicing English with the travellers they welcome into their home. The rest of the family is also benefitting from new opportunities, as well. His son, Jorge Pascual, and his daughter Evelya can continue their studies (without the burden of loans), secure in the knowledge that their village will have opportunities for them in the future.
The Gabino Family.
A few months ago, I stayed at the Gabino Family’s home and, after a typically delicious dinner, Santos confided in me. “You do not know what this means for me” he said, “to finally have a home, a job and be able to send my kids to school.” He raised his glass: “On behalf of my family and the community of San Juan, I want to thank you for this opportunity—I’ll always be grateful to all of you”.
But little did Santos know, I was just as grateful. In the two years since this project began, I’ve learned so much about San Juan and its residents—amazing entrepreneurs—who’ve taught me, not just about their culture or their language but about the strength of their determination and the satisfaction one can take in a dream realized. Santos has proved to me that, while it may take one’s hands to build a house—only hearts can build a home. I’ll never forget that valuable lesson.
While the first phase of the Mayan Community Homestay Project is now complete, we continue to seek out opportunities for community tourism projects wherever possible to help our travellers put their travel dollars where they belong: within the communities (like San Juan) that need them.
G Adventures runs a number of departures to Guatemala encompassing a wide range of departure dates and activities to cater for different tastes. We’re thrilled at the prospect of showing you this big blue planet of ours — check out our small group trips here.