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One Year of Authenticity

· Lake Atitlán,Guatemala,Responsible Travel,Responsible Tourism

Celebrating One Year

By: Sara Lynn Ritchie

The way that I got to know and love Guatemala was not as a tourist. I arrived in the country for the first time in my life in 2016 to work for an NGO that supports community development and disaster relief projects throughout Guatemala. In my first weeks, I was taken to visit all of these projects nestled in small isolated communities often using limited resources and cooperative-style implementation to facilitate impressively innovative projects of immense impact. It would be an understatement to say I was simply “off the beaten path” during those visits. As I reflect on these early weeks and first impressions, incredibly vivid and sensory memories come rushing back of preparing boxboles in a smoke-filled kitchen, hearing languages and sounds I could not discern (Spanish being one of them, mind you), and riding in the beds of pickup trucks through the vast foothills of the tallest volcanoes in Central America. These project visits continued until our last stop on the shores of Lake Atitlán.

I was taken to a community on the outskirts of the Maya Tz’utujil town of Santiago Atitlán where I was introduced to an inspiring local organization called ANADESA. Here, they taught me about the community's struggle during the armed conflict, shared elements of their culture with me, and chronicled their steady development and impact since their founding in 2005. This was my first impression of Lake Atitlán, and ANADESA would come to be the place I have visited most since that first introduction in 2016. I was privileged to have what I considered to be one of the coolest jobs ever: designing and leading trips all over Guatemala to visit these project sites and get to know communities striving for positive change. But there was something specifically about ANADESA that drew me in. Every single trip I ever organized for a group, friend, or family, included a visit to ANADESA, solidifying my very distinct impressions of Lake Atitlán.

I then moved on from that NGO and got to know what I consider more “conventional tourists” (foreigners and Guatemalans) by living in Xela and working at a language school. I can confidently say that almost 100% of the travelers that I have met have been to Lake Atitlán, one of the most touristy spots in the country. However, their experiences at the lake are starkly different than mine. My memories of the lake include wrapping corn dough in maxan leaves to make chipilin tamalitos, sitting in the back of the Catholic church looking at a sea of colorful shawls, watching women embroider their güipiles with images of birds, seeing the bullet marks in the tiles of Stanley Rother’s annex, dodging chickens roaming in the patio to make my way to the kitchen, the sound of the pat-pat of making tortillas, taking pickup trucks along the shorelines to a nearby picnic spot, hiking the foothills of Volcano Toliman, crowding around a table at ANADESA stringing beads to make bracelets will sipping coffee and eating sweet bread, touching the plaques of the tombs where 13 members of the community were killed in the 1990 massacre, sitting in the kitchen with host families listening to those sharp yet indistinguishable sounds of spoken Tz’utujil, and feeling part of a generous and hospitable community.

However, when talking with other travelers, when I say chipilin or Tz’utujil or güipil or Stanley Rother, I am not understood. Their impressions of Lake Atitlan are quite different, although equally vibrant and impactful. Colorful weavings displayed in the stores of Santander, enjoying espressos while watching the boats come and go at the dock, beautiful sunrises from the hotel room, kayaking to swimming spots along the shoreline, yoga classes beneath the banana trees... Even if this “conventional” impression of Lake Atitlán was my one and only, I would undoubtedly be enchanted, like many are with the vast beauty of this volcano lake and the colorful communities that line its shores.

Yet, there was something disheartening about the thought of someone going to Lake Atitlán and not having an experience beyond volcano views, tasting tortillas, bargaining for textiles, and yoga retreats. What about the tales that these volcanoes hold, the significance of corn found in the Popol Vuh, and the meanings of the patterns of those textiles? Where was the authenticity in their travels? In analyzing this, I unfairly put the fault on the traveler for not unlocking the authenticity of Lake Atitlán.

And then I stopped myself.

If I were to have arrived in Guatemala as simply a traveler, not to start a job, I would have undoubtedly found myself at Lake Atitlán, and instead of being taken to a local development project and staying with a Tz’utujil host family, I would have wandered the streets of somewhere like San Marcos, San Pedro, or Panajachel and I would have been overwhelmed by restaurants enticing me with curries and falafel, vendors selling me their products, sipping overpriced smoothies at waterfront cafés, and announcements inviting me to join a Mayan cacao ceremony conducted by expats. Without ANADESA introducing me to their work, their community, and their culture, where would I have possibly found the authenticity among the loudness of the thriving conventional tourism? It didn’t make sense to me that places like ANADESA couldn’t be heard in that loudness and the responsible traveler couldn’t find them. As a foreigner who lives in Guatemala, I feel like I straddle two worlds, which seems like the perfect position to be in to connect them both.

It didn’t make sense to me that places like ANADESA couldn’t be heard in that loudness and the responsible traveler couldn’t find them. As a foreigner who lives in Guatemala, I feel like I straddle two worlds, which seems like the perfect position to be in to connect them both.​

So that is what I set out to do. I moved to Lake Atitlán to connect conscientious travelers to places like ANADESA so they can have the rewarding and insightful experiences that I feel so privileged to have had. One year ago today, the Authenticity story began.

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