Reflections from the Habitat build and cultural activities in Panajachel, Guatemala
During our 9-day trip to Panajachel, Guatemala, along the shores of Lake Atitlan, our team built “healthy home kits,” which included smokeless stoves, latrines, and water filters, alongside recipient families and their communities. Built into the workweek, were several cultural activities that focused on weaving coops and organizations that provide women opportunities to support their families.
Our trip was designed to immerse and educate: We worked alongside indigenous Mayan families and met women at weaving cooperatives where we became students of their craft and learned how they strengthen their livelihoods. We also deconstructed women’s issues in Guatemala in order to better understand Habitat’s community-driven approach.
Saturday, October 12
On Friday evening, Weston and I arrived in Guatemala City and checked into our hotel. We had arrived ahead of our team members who would all arrive the following day on Saturday. We met everyone as they began trickling in and also our four host coordinators who would be with our team during the build week. Generally, a team may only have one or two host coordinators, but because our team was so large (24 volunteers), we had four local Habitat staff members. One local woman and three folks from other countries who had lived in Guatemala for a number of years.
Since everyone was pretty tired from traveling, the day was free of planned activities. People could explore on their own, rest, or spend time at the hotel’s pool, which is what most of us did. There were gorgeous views of the city from the roof-top pool. Before our first team dinner, we had our team members introduce one another and then enjoyed the food at an El Salvadorian restaurant. People turned in early this night since we’d be heading out very early the following morning to get to our build site location.
Sunday, October 13
Sunday morning we left Guatemala City for Panajachel, our build week location, sitting on the shores of Lake Atitlan. Along the way, we stopped at Iximche Archaeological Site (“Ishimche”), a Mayan site that was the capital of the region between 1470 and 1524 AD, where I had taken a previous Habitat group the year before.
Our local tour guide, Alexis (Alexis.Guarcas@gmail.com), was of Mayan descent and spoke two Mayan languages in addition to Spanish and English. He explained that Iximche was one of the last Mayan sites to be occupied before the Spanish invasion. Surprisingly, the site was only inhabited for a mere 60 years before it was abandoned. After it was abandoned, Iximche lay forgotten and buried for another 400+ years before it was rediscovered and unearthed by archaeologists.
After an hour and a half tour of the site, we loaded back on the buses and stopped at a restaurant on the road for our first delicious traditional Guatemalan meal. They had pre-ordered food so we didn’t have to wait long — something they did at most restaurants throughout the week since our group was so large (24 volunteers + 4 staff).
We arrived at our hotel in Panajachel in the late afternoon and had free time until dinnertime. The hotel was pretty with gardens, flowers, and a central courtyard with a pool (but it was too cold and rainy for us to swim that week). It was about two blocks from the shore of Lake Atitlan, where you could see three volcanoes and other towns on the opposing shores.
Streets were lined with shops and vendors, so it was fun to walk around. We walked to dinner that night (and every night thereafter) just down the road and enjoyed a traditional meal. Before dinner, we’d had a short intro to the location and the build, but we’d get more info on Monday night before our first reflection meeting.
Monday & Tuesday, October 14-15
Monday and Tuesday were our first build days! We worked at three sites on Monday with three families and four sites with four families on Tuesday. For each family, we built one smokeless stove and one latrine. (Water filters had already been distributed to families and consisted of a series of stacked buckets and filters that used gravity for filtration.)
The families all lived back in the forested hills around the greater Solola area. We drove between 20-45 minutes from our hotel to get to each site and often walked along narrow dirt trails through the cornfields to reach their homes.
Many families had an old, rudimentary stove without much ventilation, but most didn’t have a toilet. Instead, they had to use their nearby cornfields or using a neighbor’s toilet, if that was available. Before and after our build each day, we had a mini introduction and farewell ceremony with each family to get to know them and their story.
I helped build a stove on Monday and a toilet the next, rotating through each day. Most volunteers did the same in order to experience both building projects. The stoves were three concrete blocks high with a concrete slab across the front. It was filled with sand, a ramp was made inside the stove, and then a metal top was laid down with three burners of different sizes. The latrine was three cement blocks high and then the rest was wooden boards to close it in with a wooden plank door and sloping tin roof (like an outhouse). The families had already dug a giant pit for their toilet before we arrived.
Since it was the end of the rainy season in Guatemala, the weather was iffy: while Monday was mostly sunny and humid, it rained almost the entire day on Tuesday. It was challenging to work in the rain because almost all families had dirt floors that would become slick and sticky with mud after the downpours.
At the end of each day, we presented the woman of the household with the top burner plates to place on the stove. It was an awesome build because every day when we left, we had completely finished the stove and latrine! Accomplishment!
On Monday before dinner and after the Habitat presentation, we had our first reflection meeting as a team. We discussed everyone’s expectations for the build week and what were some of their first impressions about the work, sites, and families so far. Overall, great engagement! Everyone was super enthusiastic about the work and had insightful things to share with the rest of the team. On Tuesday, we gave the team free time after the build to explore the area and visit shops.
Wednesday, October 16
Like all Global Village builds, we had cultural days built into the week to help us not get overworked and get to know the country even better. Wednesday was our cultural day and we were all excited about it. Unfortunately, it rained…all day… But no one seemed to let that bother them, which was encouraging!
After breakfast at the hotel, we rode a small covered boat across Lake Atitlan to San Juan La Laguna, a small artistic town on the far side of the lake. Upon arrival, we got coffee and chocolate while waiting for the rain to die down. Then, following our local guide, we walked through town and learned a bit about its history and how residents make a living there.
At the women’s weaving coop, we learned about how they spin cotton balls pulled off from vines into thin threads, which they then dye using plant materials and eventually weave into intricate textiles! Each of us had our turn at spinning the cotton, which was much more challenging than it first appeared, and dye the strands. After the tutorial, we visited their shop where most of us bought gifts and souvenirs.
We had lunch at the women’s weaving coop before having some time to explore the town and visit other art shops and galleries. The ride in the boat was much nicer on the way back because by then it had stopped raining and we had nice views of all the little towns along the lake’s shore.
The rest of the day was on our own until the team reflection meeting that evening before dinner. It was held outside near the hotel pool where everyone had already congregated to hang out, and we had a very engaging conversation about our work thus far and the cultural experiences we’d had throughout the day.
Our team has been awesome! Everyone has worked in different groups each day, sat next to different people at each meal, and has been super respectful, patient, kind, flexible, and excited about our work. What more could we ask for?
Dinner that night was at a local pizza restaurant. It was a nice change from the traditional Guatemalan food we’d been having at all other meals. Following dinner, Weston and I and two other volunteers stuck around at the restaurant to listen to the live music band that would be coming on soon and we got front row seats. The three men played traditional music on guitars and drums and sang in harmony. We listened to several songs, including the Eagles’ Hotel California, before meandering back to the hotel for the night.
Thursday & Friday, October 17-18
Thursday and Friday were build days again. We had four teams working at four sites with four families. One of our small groups worked with one family on both days and built the stove on Thursday followed by the latrine on Friday. Thankfully, it didn’t rain again until Friday afternoon after we had finished all the building projects.
For lunch on build days, we ate at one of the build sites. If several teams were working near one another, then they’d join together and eat in one of the families’ courtyards. All food was local and catered, but none of the families themselves made it for us.
On these two days especially, the kids were everywhere! Interacting with them is always a highlight for volunteers on GV builds, because no matter where we are, kids break the ice immediately with their constant smiles and curious natures. Plus, they just want to play!
Overall, we had built stoves and latrines for 14 different families in the Solola area!
On Thursday evening, the Habitat staff scheduled a special event for us: we got to see a traditional Mayan spiritual ceremony performed by a Mayan priest in his indigenous language. He would speak in his native tongue, then translate his prayers into Spanish for the Habitat staff members who would then translate into English! We learned about different Mayan deities that are still revered and prayed to today.
On Friday we had our final celebration with most of the families we’d met over the week. Close to 50 people were present to celebrate the work we had accomplished and the families’ new beginnings. It was held at an informal church building that had been built by one of our recipient families and was where they were currently living.
The Habitat staff brought a piñata for the kids, which they quickly smashed to pieces and scrambled over one another, arms flailing, seizing the colorful candies. Many staff members, volunteers, and family members made short speeches to the rest of the group to thank everyone for their dedication and help with the projects.
Following the ceremony, we had lunch there, including a Guatemalan dessert delicacy consisting of mashed plantains with a sweet, creamy bean filling called rellenitos de plátano — they were delicious! (You can also fill them with chocolate…yum.)
We said our goodbyes to the families and their kids and drove back to the hotel. It was an emotional day because we had seen how many lives would be positively affected by the new smokeless stoves and latrines. It was hard to imagine how anyone could have lived without a proper stove or a safe and sanitary place to go to the bathroom.
Friday night was our last night in Panajachel. We ate dinner at a place down by the lakeshore with a live band. We’d had a really fun time throughout the week, and now we’d get to explore Antigua together!
Saturday, October 19
Early in the morning, we piled in the buses, waved goodbye to Panajachel and Lake Atitlan, and headed on to the beautiful colonial city of Antigua. We arrived by early afternoon with just enough time to visit the local Habitat office, check in to our hotel, and catch a quick lunch before our activities would begin.
After lunch, a group of us hiked up Cerro de la Cruz (Hill of the Cross), which is probably the most photographed spot in the city: A huge cross sits in the foreground while the cityscape and Volcan Agua lie in the background. Of course, as soon as we got up there, it began to rain, so we were soaked!
We headed back to the hotel to change and then everyone had an optional activity. Several of us took a chocolate-making class at Choco Museo, something I’d wanted to do the last time I was in Antigua but didn’t have enough time. We learned about how the Mayans used all parts of the cacao plant and how they processed it to make different products. We got to try several types of hot chocolate drinks and then make our own chocolate bars. Delicious!
Other team members did the Antigua walking tour since we only had one day in the city unless they were staying on after the trip. For dinner, we met at a super fancy hotel and restaurant and really ate well. Most of us said our goodbyes to one another there, because the first airport shuttle would leave at 2:30 am and the second at 8 am. Most of the volunteers were traveling back home, but a few stayed longer in Antigua to hike Volcan Acatenango.
Sunday, October 20
On Sunday after the team had departed, Weston and I headed north to Flores, the jumping-off point for most Mayan archaeological adventures. From there, we headed further north to the small cooperative town of Carmelita for our El Mirador jungle trek with the Carmelita Tour Operator and Tikal VIP Tours. (We highly recommend both! Juan Carlos and Elmer were our guides.)
We were in for a 5-day, 70-mile round-trip hike through the humid, dense jungle to see several archaeological sites. Along the way, we also saw and heard spider monkeys and howler monkeys, wild peccaries, grey foxes, coatimundis, wild turkeys, tarantulas and insects, and saw fresh jaguar and tapir footprints in the mud. Not to mention that the stars were out of this world…