Our arrival in Guatemala facing the Volcanoes [Newsletter 1 Guatemala]


Hi everybody,

How are you doing ? On our side, we are really excited! 🙂 Thanks to the advice of Brooke, one of my colleagues who lived in Guatemala, we left with my sister Marine and my brother Quentin for new adventures with the NGO Los Amigos de Santa Cruz located on the shores of the Atitlan Lake in Guatemala.

#Our Arrival

Although we had our sanitary pass, we weren’t relaxed at customs when one of the Guatemalan inspectors went 3 times to verify it. After a first night in the capital, Jorge – taxi driver and a close friend of the NGO came to pick us up and we headed to Lake Atitlan. Barely an hour after our departure, we discovered a first common point between French and Guatemalan people: the strike. Blocked for 4 hours in the middle of the highway, sellers of ice cream and tortillas appeared out of nowhere. The driver of the truck in front of us even started selling his melons before taking a good nap, lying down on his cargo. 🙂

Strikes Guatemala
Protests on the country’s main highway

#The Atitlan lake and its multiple « Pueblos »

In order to access the village of Santa Cruz (2000 inhabitants), we ended our boat trip by taking a “lancha” – ensuring the shuttles between the villages around the lake. We were stunned by the beauty of Lake Atitlan located at 1600m altitude and bordered by 3 volcanoes Toliman, Atitlan and San Pedro. For hundreds of years, dozens of villages of Mayan origin have developed along the water’s edge. Every morning, we have a magnificent view of the lake and its volcanoes. A little corner of paradise ! 🙂

Arrival Santa Cruz Guatemala Romain Sion
Our arrival in the village of Santa Cruz with my brother and my sister

To give you an overview, we left one morning around 4:30 am equipped with flashlights and a young guide who took us to the heights of the village through the steep paths used by farmers to cultivate their fields or collect wood. .

Atitlan Lake Guatemala
View of Lake Atitlan from the heights behind the village of Santa Cruz

#Los Amigos de Santa Cruz

After several weeks of discussions ahead of the trip, we got to know Jessie – the director of the NGO Los Amigos de Santa Cruz who introduced us to the teams and showed us around. The welcome was very warm and the teams are extremely attentive. For example, not being able to find a SIM card in the village, one of the directors bent over backwards to find us one from her sister.

For 20 years, their mission has been to improve the lives of the indigenous people of Santa Cruz and the surrounding villages through education and financial independence. Los Amigos does not want to do charity. They seek to develop skills and self-confidence so that their participants improve their own livelihoods and their community in the long term. As such, we quickly noticed that almost all of the staff were locals, including many former beneficiaries who in turn wanted to give back to the community.

CECAP Los Amigos de Santa Cruz
CECAP in yellow, main building of the NGO located in the heart of the village

Knowing that access to education is the key to lasting change, they adopted not only a holistic approach ranging from reading aid programs, scholarships to university, vocational training programs but also numerous programs to support women in launching their businesses and asserting their rights within the community. Estella, the director of the “Women Empowerment” program, explained to us that the role of women is essential in their mission. In general, a woman in Santa Cruz will reinvest 100% of her salary in the family home (education, food and clothing) while a man will contribute between 10% and 30% on average.

#The sad reality of Covid

The closure of the borders during the covid had a dramatic impact on the village of Santa Cruz, whose economy depends largely on tourism. Many hotels, restaurants, organized tours… have had to close their doors. More than 50% of the inhabitants of Santa Cruz, that is to say a thousand people, lost their jobs. The food stores sat empty for several months. The price of certain products having increased by 50%, the poorest families found themselves in a situation of famine. While jogging with Alex and Jake, two friends of the NGO, we noticed that some tourist trails looked brand new. They explained to us that in order to face this unprecedented crisis, Los Amigos had suspended most of their programs in order to put in place emergency initiatives. They were thus able to ensure that families had food, create emergency jobs, support health centers and carry out prevention campaigns. They have created more than 600 temporary jobs linked to 34 initiatives of general interest (renovation of trails, waste collection, upgrading of schools to disabled standards, etc.). On the issue of the vaccine, it is free, but residents have so little confidence in the government that most do not want to hear about it.

Wood collection by villagers

The average salary in the country is € 324 per month and it drops to around € 130 (1200 Quetzales) for the poorest families in Santa Cruz. So far, we have not encountered any beggars. Everyone works, including many children. Some men in search of work during covid find themselves clearing land at high altitudes or lowering huge sacks of wood for miles. For ten hours of work, they were paid about € 6.5 (60 Quetzales).

#One Day One Meeting: Herminia – President of the Ruk’U’X Keem Women’s Association

Before leaving we have been introduced to Herminia – the President of a cooperative of women working in textiles. In Guatemala, it is not uncommon for a husband to forbid his wife to work outside the home. In addition, many single women with dependent children must find opportunities that allow them to generate income while looking after their children. This is why Herminia started one of the oldest cooperatives in her village. 37 women can thus generate a satisfactory income while working from home.

Traditional loom

By associating, members pool their production and take turns to ensure the sale of their product. By selling to an intermediary, they can expect to receive 15% of the selling price, while by working with the cooperative, they receive 85% of the latter. The remaining 15% is used to pay store rent and running expenses. Herminia explained to us that to join her cooperative, you have to respect 3 rules: be hardworking, be punctual and speak a minimum of Spanish. All decisions are made under a democratic model where the president, secretary and treasurer are elected by the members. If at the end of the year there is money left over – dividends are shared among all participants. The model is fair and sustainable!

Romain Sion and Herminia San Juan Cooperative
Demonstration of the weaving thread creation process with Herminia

Before leaving, Herminia offered to meet her mother and her children. Very smiling, welcoming and well-dressed, we were surprised by the simplicity of her house, made up of a few concrete walls, corrugated iron for the roof and furniture placed on the floor. Without complaint, she explained to us how difficult the covid period had been because it had been necessary to last several months with only a few bags of corn.

Hermina and her family San Juan Guatemala - Romain Sion
Invitation for a visit to Herminia’s family

#Maximon for Latinos and San Simon for Spaniards

This weekend, we went for a walk in the village of Santiago located on the other side of Lake. There, we had an unlikely meeting with Maximon – a deity revered throughout the region at the crossroads between Mayan, Spanish and Catholic cultures. Every year, the human-sized effigy is received by a resident of the village, so it is impossible to have a precise address. Two policemen gently escorted us through the narrow little alleys to visit Maximon. Flowers, candles and incense smoke accompanied the offerings. We notably saw a young man on his knees offering a vial of Vodka which was emptied into the mouth of the deity. Improbable! 🙂

Maximo San Juan Guatemala
Maximon – deity in the village of Santiago

Absolutely brilliant first week with los amigos. More info next week! 🙂

Have a great week,

Quentin, Marine and Romain

Romain Sion Panajachel Guatemala