Living in an ex-guerilla community

AS TRAVELERS, we often seek “richer” experiences. Many of us want to leave home and belong at the same time in the places we visit. Before winter 2016, I had traveled to Central America twice. I primarily spoke English and spent all my time with fellow gringos, not having the language skills or the daring to step outside of The Lonely Planet hostel mindset. But, when I’d seen the same group of tourists getting drunk in three different places I knew that I wasn’t exactly breaking new ground.
As a result, I didn’t travel for almost five years. Instead, I went to school, connected with my home in Canada and established a career in photography and writing. Then the travel urge got into my system and refused to leave. I thought about Eastern Europe — too expensive. I thought about visiting a friend in England — too rainy. I thought about riding out another Canadian winter — I don’t ski. Then I heard about a cooperative in Guatemala called Nuevo Horizonte, a community founded by ex-guerilla fighters after the country’s 36-year civil war. And I would have the opportunity to be the first student in their soon-to-open Corazon de Maria Spanish school. I booked my ticket.

ex-guerilla

Nuevo Horizonte exists as an island of relative serenity in a country that continues to be wracked by violence and injustice. Located near Flores in the Peten, Guatemala’s northernmost province, Nuevo Horizonte is an eight-hour bus ride from Guatemala City and just 90 minutes from the Mayan ruins of Tikal. The pace is slow, the people hardworking and kind. The rock-riddled dirt roads are equally safe in the early morning when children walk to school, at mid-day when lazy dogs bake in the sun, or at midnight when crickets chirp and fireflies dance in the darkness. There are murals depicting the heroes of revolutions and anti-imperialism (Che, Castro, Lenin, Arbenz, Marx and Marte), as well as the personal history of the guerrillas all over public buildings.

There is a steady rhythm to life here. None of the roughly 500 inhabitants are rich. Life isn’t perfect. Chickens patrol some kitchens. But compared to the struggle many of the residents have lived through, the current routine and stability are welcomed and beautiful.

In 1954, thanks to brotherly love between the United Fruit Company and the CIA, a coup was orchestrated in Guatemala to oust president Joseph Arbenz who was continuing the work of his predecessor Juan José Arévalo in agricultural and social reform. A major part of their work involved attempting to release the stranglehold United Fruit had on the country, which threatened the company’s grossly profitable enslavement of people, infrastructure, and government. After a smear campaign against the “vicious dictator” Arbenz, and aggressive lobbying in Washington, democracy was out and violence was in.

In 1960, the civil war officially began. In 1996, peace accords were signed between the government and weary guerrilla groups — who had spent close to 20 years traversing jungles and sleeping in hammocks. They didn’t let life stop for them. Love was found, babies were born on the run, children were taught how to read and write on scraps of paper. The mountains provided shelter and sustenance for those who were fighting an uphill battle for freedom.

When the war ended, many of the guerrillas had lost everything material and so Nuevo Horizonte was created. It was a collective mustering from 90 families of one of the groups, the Rebel Armed Forces (FAR). A 900-hectare, barren cattle ranch was purchased thanks to bank loans, and the settlers began a new life. The group built concrete houses, planted trees and began sustenance farming. Bound together by struggle and with an eye to the future, the cooperative progressed: The agriculture became commercial, schools were built, a tilapia fish farm was started in the lagoon, a forest park was created, a commercial pine tree plantation was started, trees and children sprouted and grew.

Ex-Guerilla

I crossed the highway that runs between Guatemala City and Flores at kilometer 443 and was met by a young man named Alvaro. He was to be one of my teachers or maestros, and like many of the people here, he struck me as mature beyond his years. The Spanish school was envisioned and put together by a group of eight people, all but two of whom are between the ages of 16 and 21. Along with the help of more experienced educators, they designed a comprehensive curriculum that can be shaped to each depending on their incoming level of knowledge. During my time at the school, I was joined by two students, one of whom knew very little Spanish and one who had a fairly comprehensive grasp of the language. I was somewhere in the middle and yet we all felt like we were moved along at the right pace.

The nuts and bolts of teaching in Spanish schools are much the same. Being a grammar-heavy language, there really isn’t a way around learning pronouns, possessive adjectives, indirect objects, and the infamous verb conjugations. There are over forty different forms a single verb can take depending on who said it, when they said it, and which direction the wind was blowing at that particular moment. This in-class basic language instruction is fundamental and what’s really needed is a good teacher who knows their stuff and a willingness to persevere through some frustration. While the teachers at Corazon de Maria are skillful, patient, and passionate, what really separates the school from others is everything that happens outside the classroom.

Extra-curricular activities are organized by the maestros, varying from student to student based on their interests. One afternoon I casually mentioned to someone that I had once enjoyed horseback riding and within days found myself trotting off to a distant lagoon on a trusty steed. I took part in a campout in the jungle, movie and dancing nights, soccer and volleyball games, and tours of the fish farm, pine forest, mandarin orange plantations, and museum. They and the school were all conducted in Spanish, so the experience was a sink or swim immersion with plenty of friendly flotation help along the way.

Ex-Guerilla

The breakfasts and dinners that are served in the homes of families in the cooperative take the student deeper. These offer a chance to put the theoretical knowledge into practice and allow for a different perspective on the lives of people in the community. The food is predominantly traditional, with tortillas served alongside every meal. The hosts and hostesses don’t go out of their way to “gringo it up”, which I greatly appreciated. I don’t travel to eat the comfort foods of home but rather to do my best to live in rhythm with local inhabitants, a notion that is highly regarded in Nuevo Horizonte. The cooperative believes the best way to understand one another is to experience the authentic existence of another person.

Perhaps the biggest reason that Nuevo Horizonte will inevitably draw me back is the people. They carry with them a joy for life that shines through hardship both past and present. The adults carry stories with them that can shatter your heart, yet their spirits are still intact and radiating love. There seem to be no signs of PTSD from the horrors they were subjected to, perhaps because these were swallowed up in the bonds of community and building a future for their children.

Ex-Guerilla

Due to their baby boom following the war, half of Nuevo Horizonte’s inhabitants are under the age of 18. The schools are full, as are the soccer fields. These young people are living an existence their parents never experienced. They are given the freedom to choose their path, to play, to fall in and out of love, to rebel, to reunite. They are taught their history and they are proud of it. They understand and appreciate the sacrifices that were made. Because of this transparency surrounding their roots, they are given a chance to break the cycle of history. Guatemala can’t afford to lose another generation to the greed of foreign interests.
I wanted to learn Spanish because, without a shared language, I find it difficult to share a deeper communion. After three weeks of class, I’m still not able to get into the finer points of economics or history. My conversations still traverse a general loop of vocabulary but that loop has expanded — as has my ability to discover experiences that aren’t advertised in guidebooks or online forums. A Guatemalan woman on an overnight bus offered to take me on a food tour of Guatemala City, a place all tourists say to avoid because it’s dangerous. A Colombian man on a plane recommended a family in the mountains of Guatemala to stay with. “They’re wonderful people,” he said and he was right. A wrinkled grandmother shared her knowledge of where to find guitar strings in the thick of the Santa Elena market. Her directions were impeccable. I found what I needed — just as I have found what I needed in the people of Nuevo Horizonte.
If you would like to learn more about the Corazon de Maria Spanish school and Nuevo Horizonte please visit their website. They’ll welcome you with open arms, plenty of laughter, and hearts of gold.

Editor’s note: All photos are the author’s.

Everyone thinks Guatemala is dangerous. Here’s why I can’t wait to go back there.

Photo: Matt Stabile

Thousands of Guatemalans leave their country every day and cross the Mexican border to live one of the most important journeys of their lives — reaching US soil and fulfilling the American dream. They flee from gang- and drug-related violence that has crowned the country as one of the most dangerous places in the world.

But while it’s true Guatemala has some safety problems, these rarely affect visitors.

Here’s why I can’t wait to go back:

1. The people

Latin Americans have a reputation of being kind, open-hearted, generous and hospitable, and Guatemalans definitely confirm the stereotype. I’ll never forget when I got stomach sick in Antigua at the worst possible moment — it was a holiday and all the center clinics were closed. I was feeling pretty desperate and asked a passer-by if he knew where I could get a doctor. As soon as he saw my pale face he placed me on his motorbike and took me to the nearest fire station, from where I was driven to a hospital.

2. Cultural diversity

There isn’t a single corner in the country where you can’t admire the colorful textiles of the indigenous population and treat yourself to their traditional food. Although they are simply known as Maya people, there are actually more than a dozen ethnic groups that differ in language, costumes, rituals, diet,…

3. Volcanos

There are so many volcanos in the country – quite few of them still active – that you’re going to end up climbing at least one of them, whether you planned it or not. And with a bit of luck you’ll get to experience one of the most impressive natural phenomenons – volcanic eruption.

4. Tikal

When you finally get to the top of Temple IV, one of the numerous pyramids inside the most famous Guatemala’s archeological site and the tallest pre-Columbian structure in America, you feel like the world has no end and you’ve reached the sky. There’s a carpet of rainforest beneath you wherever you look.

5. Jade

There are only four countries in the world where jadeite, the rarest and the most valuable form of jade, is extracted, and Guatemala is one of them. Workshops in Antigua transform the mineral into some true masterpieces and although it’s pricier than its “cousin” nephrite, it’s definitely worth buying.

6. Rum

Once considered pirate’s cheap alcohol, rum has become a highly valued drink, produced in every Central American and Caribbean country. However, the Guatemalans managed to find a perfect blend to warm up your heart. Do take a bottle of Zacapa with you when leaving the country.

My Experience Learning Spanish In Guatemala

San Pedro La Laguna

Learning Spanish in Guatemala

San Pedro La Laguna, Guatemala

While traveling through Guatemala I spent 3 weeks taking Spanish classes and staying with a local family on Lake Atitlan. Here’s a rundown of my experience.

Guatemala is one of the best countries in the world to visit if you’d like to learn Spanish. It’s not too far from the United States, classes are inexpensive, and locals naturally speak slowly without using too much slang.

Plus, if you’d like to learn Spanish fast, there’s no better way then to be totally immersed in the culture & language for an extended period of time.

I decided to study in the town of San Pedro La Laguna on Lake Atitlan, located in the Guatemalan Highlands of the Sierra Madre mountains.

This massive lake is surrounded by volcanoes, colorful wildflowers, and traditional Maya villages. A picture perfect setting to learn Spanish.

Lake Atitlan

Beautiful Lake Atitlan

San Pedro La Laguna

My Home for 3 Weeks

Spanish School In Guatemala

I went to Cooperative School San Pedro on Lake Atitlan (Lago de Atitlan). It’s a true cooperative started by a group of experienced Spanish teachers who believe they have a responsibility to their community.

In general it’s recommended to take at least 3 weeks of Spanish classes to get a basic grasp on the language. You can choose between 3-6 hours of instruction per day, either morning or afternoon classes.

Homestays are available or you can find your own accommodation.

I paid $205 USD per week for 4 hours of class per day, 5 days per week, which also included my homestay plus 3 meals a day. It was a great deal!

Lake Atitlan has a laid-back hippy vibe, and the landscape around the lake is breathtaking with many outdoor activities nearby. However Antigua & Quetzaltenango (Xela) are also popular towns for learning Spanish.

Xela is a larger city, while Antigua is a bit more touristy.

Friends of mine have recommended ICA Spanish School in Xela and Antigua Plaza School in Antigua if you’re looking to stay there instead.

San Pedro La Laguna

Spanish Class with Flori

A Typical Day At Class

There are a few different options for class schedules, however I choose 4 hours of one-on-one Spanish instruction per day, five days a week. My teacher was Flori, a local woman who’s been teaching for years.

She always seemed upbeat and excited to teach as we sat in the shade overlooking Lake Atitlan.

After a general evaluation of my Spanish skills (almost non-existent in my case), Flori gave me a refresher course on rules of Spanish and helped improve my vocabulary using fun games and written exercises.

There were homework assignments every night too…

My Spanish quickly improved with regular daily instruction, and I was finally able to communicate with my Guatemalan host family and other locals.

Three weeks of class wasn’t enough to become fluent, but traveling through Central America was MUCH easier because I could understand a lot more and make myself understood.

Even though I probably sounded like a 5 year old!

Homestay Guatemala

Guatemalan Homestay

Mayan Hosts

Local Maya Host Family

The Homestay Experience

While taking Spanish school in Guatemala I stayed with the Bixcul-Pichilla family in their small two-story cinderblock home nestled at the bottom of Volcano San Pedro.

It was super difficult to communicate at first, as they don’t speak any English. Only Tzujill (a local Mayan language) & some Spanish.

I had my own bedroom, and the family of 5 shared 3 others. We also had a basic kitchen and open-air courtyard. Living this way was an eye-opening experience for me, very different from the “comfortable” American lifestyle I’m used to.

There was a bathroom in the courtyard, and a sink area used for washing clothes, cleaning dishes, brushing teeth, shaving — pretty much everything.

Water was delivered via pipes once or twice a week, where it’s stored in drums for later use. Occasionally it would run out if we used too much.

San Pedro Volcano

Climbing San Pedro Volcano

Lake Atitlan Canoe

Traditional Wooden Canoe

Activities Nearby

Like I mentioned earlier, the Lake Atitlan area is full of cool things to do. So when I got sick of trying to memorize new Spanish words, I’d take a break and get outside for a Guatemalan adventure!

Volcano Hikes

Lake Atitlan is surrounded by volcanoes. Hiking these is a great way to get some exercise and capture epic photos of the landscape. Two of the most popular hikes are Volcano San Pedro and La Nariz de Indio.

Lake Kayaking

Rent a kayak and explore Lake Atitlan up-close and personal. Or if you’re feeling REALLY adventurous, find a local fisherman willing to rent out his traditional wooden canoe. They aren’t easy to navigate!

Scuba Diving

Yes, you can go scuba diving under the lake here, and apparently there’s interesting stuff to see. Like freshwater crabs, underwater volcanic hot-vents, and flooded hotels. ATI Divers is located in the town of Santa Cruz.

Coffee Tours

Coffee is a big deal in Guatemala, and the nutrient-rich volcanic slopes around Lake Atitlan are covered in coffee farms. A coffee tour allows you to experience the fascinating coffee production process from start to finish.

Maya Villages

There are 12 Maya villages spread out around the shores of Lake Atitlan, with many only accessible by boat or on foot. My favorites were Santiago, San Juan, and San Marcos. Walk the cobblestone streets, visit old churches, watch a local basketball game, and experience some Maya culture.

Community Outreach

Many of the Spanish schools in San Pedro give back to the community with social aid projects, and you can volunteer to help out by bringing food or building supplies to poor local families in need.

San Pedro Church

Church in San Pedro la Laguna

Santiago Lake Atitlan

Santiago Streets

Tips & Advice

Panajachel is the main transportation hub for the Lake Atitlan area. A bus from Guatemala City to Panajachel takes 3-4 hours. Once at the lake, the best way to travel from village to village is by lancha (boat taxi). Prices vary, but are generally around 15-25q ($2-3 USD).

The temperature around Lago Atitlan fluctuates between 50 – 80 degrees (F), so it can get chilly at night. Larger towns like Panajachel & San Pedro have ATMs, but not all of them do.

When picking a Spanish school in Guatemala, keep a lookout for schools that funnel money into social aid projects for the local community. I’d also recommend staying in a homestay for the same reason, that money goes a long way towards improving the lives of your host family.

For additional recommendations, talk to people who’ve actually attended the school you are interested in. Search travel blogs or online forums like Lonely Planet to read reviews of other schools. ★

More Information

Location: San Pedro La Laguna, Guatemala [Map]
Spanish School: Cooperative School San Pedro
Total Cost: $90 – $225 USD per week depending on hours/homestay
Useful Notes: Staying with a host family is the most cost-effective way to learn Spanish in Guatemala, and the best way to practice what you’re learning in school while learning about local culture.
Recommended Reading: Lonely Planet Guatemala

READ NEXT: Camping On An Active Volcano

Any other questions about learning Spanish in Guatemala?

This is a post from The Expert Vagabond adventure blog.