Wild swimming, hobbit houses and some great company – volunteering in Lake Atitlan, Guatemala

Volunteer while backpacking in Guatemala

So here it is, a writeup of the second volunteering experience with Workaway of my trip. Workaway is a fabulous way to combine backpacking with volunteering with local families. Have a look at their webpage here.

After my great start in El Salvador, volunteering for two weeks at a small San Miguel guesthouse, I had high expectations of the small farm in Santiago de Atitlan, located at the backpacker mecca of Lago de Atitlan.

Volunteering in Lake Atitlan Guatemala

Firstly the setting – an American in El Salvador told me Lake Atitlan was simply magical and on my first view, as the chicken bus hurtled down a million hairpin bends with the lake glistening below us, I knew exactly what he meant. Eleven miles long and five miles wide, with three forested volcanos rising magestically from the waters edge, who wouldn’t love it?

Panajachel, Guatemala
My first view of Lago de Atitlan with two of its volcanoes

I arrived at Panajachel dock, the largest lakeside town, where lanchas (small boats) wait to ferry people to towns dotted around the lake. As the roads are so bad and allegedly full of thieving bandits, boats are the main method of transportation for tourists and locals alike.

I was bound for Santiago, one of the more traditional towns with a mainly Tz’utujil, Mayan, population. Around 40% of Guatemalans identify as indigenous or Mayan and there are many different tribes each speaking their own language.

Arriving at Santiago De Atitlan

Carolina, my Workaway host, is a Guatemala City native, but left for the USA at age 17 to study. Now she lives on the outskirts of Santiago town with her American husband David and their 9 year old. David was away in the States working for seed money to fund building a rodeo ring on their property here (!!) so I didn’t actually get to meet him.

Their property is an old avocado and coffee grove, littered with various casitas, or small houses, built from adobe.

Santiago de Atitlan Workaway, Guatemala
Carolina’s house


Adobe hobbit houses

I slept in one of the hobbit houses, which looks tiny from the outside but had a bed, desk and shelving unit, with plenty of space to stand up. It was so warm and toasty inside, which was just as well as it got pretty chilly once the sun dropped behind San Pedro volcano around 6pm.

I was joined on my second day by Christy from Portland, and later five more volunteers arrived, staying in tents and adobe structures around the property.

Hobbit house, Santiago de Atitlan Workaway, Guatemala
My hobbit house is the one on the left

Work was 8am til 1pm, with a couple of people breaking early to make a delicious vegetarian lunch with fresh vegetables, grains and pulses bought daily from the market. Considering the ‘kitchen’ consisted of an outdoor table, an extension lead, a single electric hob and a rice cooker, we ate pretty well.

Carolina has loads of different projects underway, from building a new deluxe outdoor kitchen to creating meditation beds underneath coloured glass in frames, which reflects light associated with different chakras across your body. Christy and I spent several mornings painting all the freshly welded frames, enjoying a fabulous view of the lake.

San Pedro volcano, Lago de Atitlan
What a great view from our workplace

Other daily tasks were clearing manure from the horses corral (a side business in horse trekking), watering bamboo stands (to be used for building projects), digging out and restarting a compost pit (with the shower water pipe coiled inside to heat the water naturally) and scrubbing labels off wine and spirits bottles (to be used in building a cob wall in the outdoor shower).

Lago de Atitlan, Guatemala
My favourite afternoon spot for a swim and beer

Swimming in Lake Atitlan

I quickly fell into a wonderful routine in the afternoons after work. I headed straight for the private pontoon of the posh hotel next door and swam ‘lengths’ in the lake until I turned blue with cold.

Then I lazed in their deckchairs with either a hot coffee or cold beer, reading until dusk. Then I’d do a lap round the town, to pick up some veggies for dinner and a frozen chocolate banana (delicious), before heading back to enjoy the fire that hopefully someone else had started.

San Pedro, Lago de Atitlan, Guatemala
Great street art in San Pedro

Day trip to San Pedro and San Juan, Lake Atitlan

I only managed one day trip across the lake, to San Pedro and San Juan. San Pedro is a mini backpackers enclave, full of European style cafes, jewellery stalls and health food stores on one side of town, while normal village life continues on the other side.

A thirty minute walk took us to San Juan village, reknown for its weaving cooperatives. Local ladies here weave using the backstrap method, where the weaving is tied to a tree or post at one end, with the other attached to a strap around their hips.

They sit on a low stool to weave, moving backwards as it gets longer. Apparently the movement of their hips helps control the tension. A single item of clothing can take weeks to complete depending on the pattern.

San Juan, Lago de Atitlan, Guatemala
Colourful cotton skeins in one of the cooperatives where we watched a demo of backstrap weaving

Next stop – Nebaj, in the Ixil triangle, for hiking and boxbol making…


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