The first time I visited San Juan La Laguna, one of the twelve towns surrounding Guatemala’s famous Lake Atitlán, I knew I had landed somewhere special. For someone who has traveled rather extensively throughout Guatemala, and Latin America in general, I was heartbroken to find that some of that initial feeling of awe has worn off. So, when a place impacts me now, seven years into my travels, it’s a pretty big testament to just how amazing it really is. Within hours of meeting the women of a local textile cooperative, Casa Flor Ixcaco, it was clear they were doing truly magnificent work within their community. I knew then and there on that hot August afternoon that I wanted to find a way to work with them.
After my initial visit I remained in touch with Delfina, one of the young women who helps to run the cooperative that was officially founded by Doña Teresa in 1996. Delfina is not only beautiful and sweet, with almond eyes that could break even the toughest hearts of stone, she is also a sharp and savvy business woman who speaks three languages, Spanish, English and her native Tz'utujil. I expressed my interest in working with her to help raise awareness about Casa Flor Ixcaco and see in what way, if any, The Heart of Travel could be of assistance.
Soon, we had the idea of incorporating home-stays into The Heart of Travel's trips to Guatemala which would allow people to get a closer look at life in San Juan and form deeper relationships with the community and cooperative members. Additionally, providing this service would give the families an opportunity to generate more income and also build their communication skills with foreigners and make lifelong friendships. Delfina and I began coordinating a home-stay for a group of 13 travelers from CASA de ESPAÑOL, a Spanish school in California, all of whom enthusiastically agreed to participate during their February trip to Guatemala. Delfina and I were both beyond thrilled and my weekly correspondence with her via Facebook messenger quickly became a highlight of my work week.
February finally arrived and while our boat pulled into the dock of San Juan La Laguna I looked at my friend and co-guide, Ana, as giant smiles widened across our faces. Delfina stood there waiting for the group, donning a gorgeous handmade huipil, eager to greet the visitors. After a tearful hug hello we got started with the tour and what would come to be the best part of the 10 day trip to Guatemala.
Our tour began with a delicious lunch at Licor Marrón Chocolate factory where they served us a traditional meal of pulique de pollo, tamalitos, tortillas and rosa de jamaica before giving us a presentation on the chocolate making process. Edson, the son of one of the cooperative members, is a hardworking, charismatic and kind young man who worked tirelessly to tend to each member in the group. After serving us an incredible meal he put on his cap and apron and walked us through the chocolate making process from bean to bar, giving us samples along the way.
With full bellies and happy hearts we headed a few blocks down to a medicinal plant garden run by another cooperative that often collaborates with Casa Flor Ixcaco. Here, María and Lucy taught us about the many different plants they grow in the region and how they are able to harness their natural powers for medicinal and cosmetic uses. After sampling a tasty lemon tea at the medicinal plant garden we took a leisurely walk around San Juan before ending up at small bee farm on the outskirts of the town center to learn about a newer community project to produce all natural honey.
As the sun began to slowly set over the lake we gathered around Delfina inside the Casa Flor Ixcaco store as she explained the incredibly involved processes behind each and every product made at the cooperative. With a vibrant assortment of brightly colored yarns hanging behind her, Delfina, with grace and confidence, walked us through all of the steps including picking out the seeds from the organic cotton (grown locally), spinning it into yarn, dyeing it with 100% all natural materials and eventually weaving on back strap looms with a complex counting system in order to create the intricate patterns founds in so many of the works of art the women at Casa Flor create.
As I looked around the room I saw jaws drop and a few teary eyes as the group tried to wrap their minds around just how much time, work and skill went into creating the products. Motivated by the story and impressed by the genuinely superior quality of the products at Casa Flor Ixcaco, the group began to shop, and shop and shop and shop.
After almost two hours spent browsing the cooperative and admiring the blouses, headbands, belts, scarves, ponchos, purses, table runners, blankets, and more the group was ready for a cozy dinner and a good night's sleep. As we entered the home of one of the cooperative members we were immediately hit by the enticing smell of grilled chicken and fresh tortillas. In the kitchen there were at least 8 women huddled over the wood-fired stove making tortillas, rice, salsa, and veggies while Doña Teresa's daughter, Ana, grilled chicken and squash and explained to us how everything we were about to eat was grown locally in San Juan including the chickens and even the corn used for the tortillas. Farm to fork at its finest.
While dinner ranked high on my top list of meals in Guatemala, the heartfelt speeches and gift exchange that followed our meal tasted sweeter than any dessert they could have offered. As I watched the group being divided up into pairs to spend the night with their host families I felt tears swelling up and an overwhelming sense of gratitude rush throughout my body. Gratitude to the amazing families in San Juan for their hospitality, generosity and effort to make us all feel at home. Gratitude to the wonderful travelers for agreeing to share in this project and help me to realize a personal dream which I plan to continue expanding upon. Gratitude to my dear friend, Carlos, who recently passed away, for introducing me to the community in August and was a driving force behind this collaboration. Gratitude for being alive and having the privilege, opportunity and resources to collaborate with people like Delfina, Teresa, Johana, Juana, Gloria, Edson, Ana and many more to create a beautiful, memorable and mutually beneficial experience such as this one.
ABOUT CASA FLOR IXCACO
In 1984, founder Teresa Ujpán Pérez learned how to spin cotton, and in 1996 she began organizing the group of local women with the goal of commercializing their own handmade products. In 2009, the market had grown, and the women decided to weave exclusively with organic cotton, planting their own cotton just outside of town in the mountains. Today, Casa Flor Ixcaco houses 22 families dedicated to the production and commercialization of handcrafted items created in the most natural way possible.
"Casa Flor Ixcaco envisions fostering education and supporting children in San Juan La Laguna through scholarships and financial aid. By selling and commercializing our natural weaving products, we can ensure a better future for our children so they can not only finish their studies, but also continue on to college."
While in San Juan La Laguna I was fortunate enough to meet up with Alana, Michael and Meredith, from Washington D.C. and New York, all of whom are working with Casa Flor Ixcaco to help improve their sales in the U.S. and spread awareness about the cooperative. Together with them, my co-guide Ana, and of course the 20+ women in the cooperative we are finding ways to facilitate the cooperative's growth and also expand on home-stays and other opportunities for visitors to learn about the community as well as donate to specific projects such as educational scholarships and enhancing infrastructure in the community.
HOW TO GET INVOLVED
Visit San Juan La Laguna next time you're in Guatemala.
Email firstname.lastname@example.org for information on upcoming trips and home-stays.
Visit http://www.woven-gt.com/ to learn more and purchase products
Keep your eyes peeled for more information coming soon in The Heart of Travel newsletter!