By Kevin Tuerff, president and cofounder of EnviroMedia Social Marketing and CEO of Green Canary Sustainability Consulting
Five years ago, Jeffro and Mayah Brandon didn’t intend to build an eco-hotel. They just wanted to start a boutique hotel using the natural values they live by. Now, the Laguna Lodge Eco Resort on Lake Atitlan, Guatemala, may be one of the most authentic green hotels in the world. On a recent trip there, I was blown away by what I saw.
As my friend Will Taylor and I arrived at Laguna Lodge via boat (there are no roads), my first thought was, “This is a place that Thurston and Lovey Howell from the TV show ‘Gilligan’s Island’ must have built. Except way better.” The adobe brick walls and thatched palm tree roof are beautiful and peaceful.
“There wasn’t one decision to build this, it just came about from my lifestyle,” said Mayah, a native of New Zealand who first visited Guatemala as a backpacking tourist 15 years ago. Later, she met an Australian surfer in Santa Cruz la Laguna who was also traveling through. They’ve been married since. “We bought the land on the mountain and just wanted to share it with people. We went to a Norwegian travel industry conference. It was the first we’d ever heard of ‘eco-tourism.’ [We thought] Hey, we’re doing this already, we just need to market it that way.’”
It’s not discussed much in travel articles, but this Guatemalan retreat is an exotic vacation destination where you may see with your own eyes what climate mitigation and adaptation mean, while supporting sustainable tourism. More on that later.
The lodge is a 10-minute lakeside walk along a dirt path to Santa Cruz la Laguna, a hillside village of indigenous Maya. Lake Atitlan is one of the most beautiful lakes in the world, formed at 5,500 feet above sea level from three volcanoes that erupted 84,000 years ago. The freshwater inflows come from rainwater across the country. There are no creeks or rivers to send the water downstream to the Pacific Ocean, so lake levels vary.
The hotel has nine rooms, with six that would qualify as 5-star hotel suites anywhere. The rooms are spacious, and each one features lakefront and volcano views from a patio, with plush furniture, beautiful local artwork, and energy- and water-efficient devices. Mayah explained, “We love visiting nice places and hotels, so we wanted to create something similar here for our guests.”
Jeffro works hard at making the hotel sustainable, noting, “We’re not completely off the grid yet. But I just purchased enough panels that soon we will be when we go full solar.”
The adobe bricks were produced combining clay, dark soil and pine needles. Jeffro hired laborers from Santa Cruz to help him build the remote hotel, and a few of them changed careers from construction to waiters and bartenders when the hotel opened. I was surprised to see the level of detail in the hotel features and furniture, especially for such a remote location.
The rooms purposefully don’t include a TV, but there is a gorgeous, open-air living area with a flat screen TV where you may watch movies on DVD from their library. They also have a fairly reliable, free Wi-Fi connection in their restaurant.
Activities include hiking the reserve or San Pedro volcano three hours up/two hours down; spa services; a yoga and reading room; pool and lake swimming & hot tub; scuba diving; fishing; touring small villages via boat; shopping for handcrafted textiles, art and jewelry; learning Spanish; and drinking, eating & dancing at nearby restaurants.
Mayah and Jeffro don’t see the advantage of obtaining green hotel certifications. “We’d pass all of the requirements, in fact we exceed their requirements because of our organic, full vegetarian menu in the restaurant. It’s a proven fact the farming meat causes great damage to the environment. If not vegetarian, all hotels should try a Meat-less Monday option,” Mayah said.
The couple owns a house in Santa Cruz and the soil is the source for the adobe brick foundation, as well as for the huge organic garden that provides everything from morning coffee to amazing dinner in Zotz, their full-service international restaurant just off the hotel lobby. The organic garden includes enough items to fill plates at the hotel restaurant daily. On a special tour of the garden, we saw wild figs, spring onion, chipilin, amaranth, basil lettuce, cilantro, asparagus, squash, green chilis, coffee beans, baby strawberries, banana and papaya.
Everything they can’t grow, they purchase from an organic supplier from across the lake. The owners are proud that the cuisine is “meat-free,” but during my five days there, I never missed it. Cold papaya soup, lasagna and eggplant vegetable tower were all delicious.
The couple are clearly in love with the indigenous population around the lake including Tz’utujil and Kaqchikel Maya, and they do everything they can to support them. “All of the staff have no background working in hotels. We’ve trained them, and they are genuinely nice, work very hard, and appreciate their jobs,” said Jeffro. Frequently, the couple drive very sick residents three hours to Guatemala City to see medical specialists.
Climate mitigation: Hotel’s nature preserve draws line against deforestation
On my walk up the Tzantizotz Nature Reserve, I was stunned to see the clear deforestation with a difference between the hillsides, which looked like they’d been shaved with a razor, and the thousands saved by Mayah and Jeffro on the preserve. I could also see smoke rising from my vantage point. The fire was burning trees and brush as locals cleared land for crops.
Brandon explained, “We had to save the trees from being completely destroyed on the mountain.” Several years ago they started purchasing the mountain land from locals. Now they have preserved 60 pieces of land in small family parcels. There are 100 acres to wander on a carved dirt trail that takes you by a hilltop palapa, coffee plantation and Mayan ceremonial rocks.
Guatemala has one of the most extensive and diverse forest systems in Central America.
According to the UN Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO), Guatemala’s forests contain 281 million metric tons of carbon in living forest biomass.
About 3,657,000 hectacres, or 33 percent, of Guatemala is forested. Of this, roughly 5 percent is classified as primary forest, the most biodiverse and carbon-dense form of forest. Between 1990 and 2010, Guatemala lost 23 percent of its forest cover, or around 1,091,000 hectacres.
“What we did was a good start. Deforestation happens here every day, and has for hundreds of years, because the people are so poor they can’t afford gas for their homes. They need the wood. Woodcutters make a living. To improve the situation, they need new jobs, new ways to heat stoves and homes.”
Ecotourism indirectly helps reduce deforestation by providing tourism jobs to the locals. “The population is growing here and there is a shortage of jobs. The more employment we create, the less wood gets cut. People who earn a salary every week can afford to buy a slow-burning stove that uses one quarter the amount of wood,” says Jeffro.
Climate adaptation: Building lake walls higher to avoid future floods
In June 2010, Tropical Storm Agatha struck the country hard. It was Guatemala’s worst storm in 15 years, and it caused the loss of lives and houses in the upper villages of the Santa Cruz area. Millions of tons of water, rocks and mud tore through people’s lives, leaving these small communities without roads, access to clean water, food and adequate shelter.
Now all around the lake, hotel and homeowners are working fast to build their water retention walls even higher before additional rains come. Last year’s four-meter rise in lake levels haven’t evaporated from the sun. No one knows if changing climate systems will mean more tropical storms like last year, but preventing future flooding is an example of climate adaptation.
Get thee to the true green Laguna Lodge
I can’t say enough great things about my trip to Laguna Lodge and Lake Atitlan. The owners have demonstrated their passion for the land and the people. They serve as a model for small hotels and bed & breakfast establishments trying to attract eco-tourism.