Vacationing or Volunteering in an Eco-Friendly Guatemalan Mountain Lodge
Stunning volcano views, magical tree houses, delicious guacamole, and plenty of community spirit.
Article and photos by Lies Ouwerkerk
Independent Travel Columnist
Imagine waking up to the first rays of sunshine casting their spell on smoke puffing volcanoes and a lush valley just in front of you. And then realizing where you actually are: in a comfortable, rustic king size bed inside a secluded, window-walled tree house, with a hammock waiting for you on a private deck, your own bathroom with a hot shower just down the stairs, and a message pinned on the wall: “Welcome! This tree house is built into the oak tree. If the wind is strong, it will sway a little bit…"
I had been advised not to walk up from Antigua for safety reasons, nor take the chicken bus because of its erratic schedule, but use the services of their driver (50 Quetzal [QTZ50.00 = US$6.40] for one person, QTZ30 each for 2 people, QTZ25 each for 3 people, etc.) instead. He came to collect me in Antigua with his pick-up truck, and brought me as close as possible to the lodge. Airport shuttles from and to Guatemala Airport can also be arranged.
As the lodge is situated at the foot of a steep hill, the last 300 meters had to be walked down (and back up again when leaving!) along a rather steep dirt path. Therefore, you have to be reasonably fit, forget your rolling suitcases, and wear shoes with some grip, as the path can get slippery, in particular during the rainy season. After passing several encouraging signs marking the distance still to be covered, I arrived safe and sound at the main lodge, where I was warmly welcomed and handed the key to the magical tree house, with a flashlight attached.
The Earth Lodge
Canadian-American couple Drew Shankman and Briana Havey must have had an epiphany as they first saw this perfectly situated but yet undeveloped piece of land in the village of El Hato when they arrived in the summer of 2003. Having worked in the tourist and hospitality industries in other Central American countries, but without any prior construction or farming experience, they managed to open their eco-friendly Earth Lodge and avocado farm by the summer of 2004 on this spectacular bluff, over 6,000 feet into the mountains above Antigua, overlooking the Agua, Fuego, and Acatenango volcanoes.
Numerous additions and enhancements (e.g. a well-stocked library which includes books, DVD’s, and board games; a fire place; a wood-fired Mayan sauna; a playground) and more than 400 planted avocado trees later, Drew and Briana can now lodge about 30 people in a variety of accommodations—from tree houses and cabins to a budget-conscious dorm and tents—and harvest avocados twice a year, usually around January and July. The Earth Lodge guacamole has become a famous staple on the restaurant menu over the years!
Family Style Meals
The Earth Lodge is known for its delicious home-cooked meals, which include moussaka, enchilada casserole, and roasted garlic and red pepper pasta, and desserts such as Scott’s tres leches cake, Briana’s brownies, and Jonathon’s bread pudding with rum sauce. Dinners are served in family style around one big table, an excellent way to meet and swap travel tips with other guests, a predominantly 25-40-ish crowd with often-interesting life stories. On Sundays there are musicians performing during the afternoon lunch, which also attracts day-trippers from Antigua and Guatemala City, eager to exchange city life for a few hours of spectacular nature with ever-changing volcano views.
The meals at the lodge, vegetarian during the weekdays with a BBQ fish and meat option on the weekends, have been such a success that the owners wrote their own cookbook. The proceeds go to the local elementary school of El Hato, and if you like to exercise more philanthropy, 7% of each drink ordered in the full bar during happy hour goes to the village school as well. In addition, of course, donations are always welcome.
In addition to hiring local people for cleaning and restaurant duties, running the avocado farm, and guest and food transportation, Drew and Briana have been sponsoring the local school (currently about 300 students) since their arrival in El Hato. They supplement the government menu with fresh fruits and local vegetables, provide school supplies and student sponsorships, and realize field trips such as a recent outing to the Guatemala Zoo.
They have also teamed up with Las Manos de Christine, a small NGO dedicated to provide English instruction, educational programs, and support for disadvantaged Guatemalan children. For example, Drew and Briana have acted as a liaison between the El Hato school officials and teachers and the NGO, and they provide free housing and meals to volunteers who teach at the school in exchange for reception duties in the lodge.
Las Manos de Christine
Las Manos de Christine was founded in 2006 by the Hand family from Las Cruces, New Mexico, in an effort to honor their mother Christine, a lifelong educator.
After assisting NGO Safe Passage in an educational project for children living in and around the Guatemala City landfill until the organization was able to sustain itself, Las Manos began focusing on the rural school of El Hato by providing them an English, Art, and Preschool program. In order to introduce programs in the school not all parents could understand, they relied heavily on the trust and goodwill Drew and Briana had already established in the community.
It is Las Manos’ firm belief that a good command of English can offer access to higher education, scholarships, business opportunities, and jobs in international organizations, tourism & service industries, and education. They see such development as a chance for the village kids to break out of the cycle of poverty, and they hope that those who grow up in this system will eventually take ownership of their community themselves.
They also know, however, that changing an entire community may take a whole generation of families being told about the importance of education and goals for the future. Yet still too often, children of this low-income farming community are kept home to take care of younger children, or to help with household duties and errands around the house. On the other hand, it is encouraging to see that presently about 50 young adults come together at the school after work to learn English in the little free time they have available, and that many parents are participating in parent-teacher meetings.
To become a volunteer at The Earth Lodge and/or Las Manos de Christine there are no registration fees involved.
At this point, The Earth Lodge welcomes volunteers for their reception area and is therefore looking for social and flexible people with good communication skills in English and (some) Spanish, and an ability to take initiative. They require a minimum time commitment of one month, and the work involves 5 hours a day/6 days a week in exchange for free room and board, and a share in tips.
The Earth Lodge is always on the lookout for volunteers with good carpentry and building skills as well.
Volunteers at Las Manos de Christine support the full-time teachers of the El Hato school, either in Dora’s Kindergarten from 8 – 11 am, Monday through Friday, or in reading books with the kids during recess time. Any other particular skills (gardening, carpentry, arts, sports, etc.) the students may benefit from are welcomed as well.