Signing off from Guatemala with the Country’s Top Entrepreneurs

Richmond, Virginia, United States

And just like that, my three month stay in Guatemala, bookended by two weeks in Chiapas, Mexico is over. Moments after returning to the United States, I found myself in the Atlanta airport, munching on a Chik-fil-A Chicken Sandwich (they are in short supply in Guatemala) and converting US dollars to Guatemalan quetzals in my head (“Really? I just spent nearly 40 quetzals on this?”). Contemplating the deliciousness of my chicken sandwich despite its high quetzalian price, my thoughts drifted back to Lake Atitlán and the tastiest food I experienced there: a bag of popcorn bought off of a roving street vendor, known fondly to my friends and I as “The Popcorn Lady.” This local Guatemalan would boldly venture into the bars of San Pedro late at night, capitalizing on the inebriated gringos and their lowered inhibitions with a laundry hamper full of popcorn bags for sales at an impossibly low price of 5Q a bag (a little less than $1 USD). Night-after-night, I marveled at this enterprising Guatemalteca as she exploited this golden market opportunity, and my view of her began to shift from that of friendly street vendor to plucky entrepreneur, providing a top-notch product to a segment of the San Pedro community rife with spare cash and a willingness to spend it (specifically: drunk Americans, Europeans, and Australians). This experience with “The Popcorn Lady” led me to begin taking note of other entrepreneurs in Guatemala who were making the most of the limited opportunities offered in a country with a national poverty rate around 60% and a per capita GDP of less than $8,000. As my observations of these go-getters accumulated, I began nominating “Entrepreneurs of the Week” for particularly exemplary examples of business ingenuity. And now, looking back on the nearly three months I spent in the country, these individuals flood back into my memory, and so, while they are still fresh in my mind, I would like to highlight a few of my favorite Guatemalan entrepreneurs that, at one time another, were recipients of the esteemed “Entrepreneur of the Week” award.

Jorge and His Rope Swing

Roughly a 30 minute canoe ride from the island town of Flores in El Lago Peten Itzá lives Jorge, his family, and his famous lakeside rope swing. Jorge charges visitors 10Q (~$1.50 USD) for access to his twenty-foot high rope swing and his accompanying lakeside hangout that includes hammocks and a diving platform (about 15-20 feet high). Further demonstrating his enterprising spirit, Jorge, having noticed that his steady stream of visitors are often hungry and thirsty after their boat ride across the water, also sells modestly-priced hot food and drinks (a delicious plate of his nachos for 25Q goes great with a cold Gallo for 15Q). This humble tourist attraction has improbably climbed up to TripAdvisor’s #2 spot on “Things to Do in Flores,” a popping tourist destination given its proximity to the world-renowned Mayan ruins of Tikal, roughly a 1 hour drive away. Quite refreshingly, Jorge fully embraces the tropical island vibes of the Flores area by waiting on customers without the unnecessary encumbrances of a shirt or shoes.

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Photo cred: https://www.journeyera.com/jorges-flores-rope-swing/

Miguel, Coffee Plantation Owner and Lakeside Sunrise View Facilitator

Miguel is the owner of a coffee plantation situated on the ridge of Indian Nose, a popular hike for tourists looking for a brilliant view of Lake Atitlán, particularly at sunrise. Miguel is in a fierce competition for customers with the owners of the viewpoint from the top of Indian Nose (Miguel’s property does not quite reach the top but offers views from the summit ridge). However, Miguel is holding his own in a number of ways. First, he undercuts the competition on price by charging about 50Q less than what it would cost to reach the top for only a marginally better view of the lake. Second, at his highest viewpoint, Miguel provides his customers some luxury via a few hand-crafted benches and cups of freshly-brewed coffee from his plantation. Finally, Miguel effectively employs the disinformation strategy in sales know as FUD (“fear, uncertainty, and doubt”) by labeling the owners of the top of the ridge as “bandidos” that will “steal your money.” Given some TripAdvisor reviews that suggest robberies have occurred in the area, I find this strategy of Miguel’s especially compelling. Fight on, Miguel, fight on!

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Miguel!
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Enjoying Miguel’s coffee from his beautiful viewpoint

Keith, the Chocolate Shaman

Keith may be the most controversial member of this list, given he is originally from Pennsylvania and one of the goals of the “The Entrepreneur of the Week Award” is to elevate the locally-run enterprises. However, given Keith’s incredibly unique entrepreneurial play — that of chocolate shaman — I must give the man his due. Keith and his cacao ceremonies have attracted a devoted following in the Lake Atitlán village of San Marcos La Laguna, and although I admittedly never attended one of these ceremonies, I heard quite a bit about his business proposition from some of his customers and I found it be utterly brilliant. Keith charges each attendee of his biweekly cacao ceremony 200Q (~$30 USD), which comes with a cup of hot cocoa and a 4-6 hour service, replete with spiritual revelations conjured up through the cacao (at Keith’s urging) and Keith’s long meandering monologues about whatever he chooses to expound on that day (one of the more exciting monologues I heard about focused on aliens and how they influence our daily lives). Keith works on Wednesdays and Sundays (the days on which he holds ceremonies,) and, thus, has five days off to brew cacao and enjoy his sizable profits. It really is a wonder that more kids don’t want to be chocolate shamans when they grow-up!

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Photo cred: https://www.youtube.com/watch?time_continue=2&v=i4zD_xWTzYs

The Popcorn Lady of San Pedro La Laguna

And of course, we must end with “The Popcorn Lady” of San Pedro La Laguna. She produces some of the most delicious popcorn you will ever taste. A perfect balance of salty and sweet, her popcorn is best washed down by the Cuba Libre, Gallo, or shot of mezcal that is sure to be in your hand as you are frequenting one of the bars on the “The Popcorn Lady’s” route. Throughout my time in San Pedro, I was never able to down her irresistible calls of “¡Poporopos! ¡Poporopos!” (Guatemalan for popcorn) and, at a price of 5Q/bag, who could?!

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Poporopos!

And with this homage to some of the most interesting and enterprising individuals I met throughout my time in Guatemala, I am closing out my tales from Central America as the holidays have blown me back to States. However, the travel bug has not been quite cleared from my system as I will be flying down to Colombia for the month of January and I’m sure some tales from there will find there way to the pages of this blog.

My Farewell Discurso to San Pedro

San Pedro La Laguna, Guatemala

My time at San Pedro Spanish School and in San Pedro La Laguna came to an end this weekend. The farewells began with a speech I gave to all the other students and teachers on Friday morning in Spanish. Each graduating student is “required” to give such a speech on their last day. I say “required” because you could technically say, “No, given my basic knowledge of Spanish, my speech will probably be boring, definitely useless, and most certainly embarrassing. I refuse to subject myself to this right of passage, especially considering this passage is leading me to nowhere in particular.” (Not that this in anyway reflects my own viewpoint. I am just using my imagination to I think about what other students may think about this bonafide honor.) In order to prepare for this speech, I spent the better part of an hour on Thursday evening writing down my experiences in San Pedro in Spanish, relying heavily on my newfound expertise with the Spanish language, my Spanish dictionary, and Google Translate (only used for Spanish language emergencies, promise!). After a final review by my teacher Chusita on Friday morning, I delivered the below masterpiece to the people of San Pedro School — which I have, for your convenience, translated into English via Google Translate:

My time in San Pedro studying at the San Pedro school has been a good experience. I met many interesting people, both students and teachers. I think I’ve made a lot of new friends.

I have lived with a local family. My parents were Elsa and Bartolo and my brothers and sisters were Elsita, Bartolito, and Juanita. I enjoyed eating and spending time with my family, especially after being with them my Spanish improved. My family is very friendly and hospitable.

My teacher is Chusita; she is a good teacher and I am envious of her next student. I learned a lot of Spanish with Chusita and discussed many interesting topics, such as Guatemala’s politics, United States policies, and my previous girlfriends.

During my free time in San Pedro, I enjoyed many activities. I climbed the volcano San Pedro, I took the salsa lessons, I traveled to Xela, and saw the sunrise on the Nose of Indio. Finally, for the past two weeks, I taught the children of the lake. This experience was difficult but it was also gratifying.

I will miss this place because I have loved my time here. Thank you all!

The highlight/lowlight of the speech was most certainly when I struggled to pronounce “improved” in Spanish when saying “my Spanish improved.” Unfortunately, in the split second after this mishap, I was not able to think of the Spanish word for “ironic”, and, instead, just blurted out in the King’s English, “That’s ironic!” I think one of the Spanish teachers chuckled at this comment. I think.

The goodbyes continued the next day, as I said farewell to my “friendly and hospitable” family. They offered to host me again whenever, citing that fifty to seventy-year-olds especially enjoyed their homestay — helpful information in case I start dating an older woman during my time here in Latin America that would like to swing through San Pedro. Despite the fact that our parting was a bit sad, a part of me lives on in my Guatemalan family’s household as Elsita — the four year-old daughter who spent most of her time at meals singing songs she had made up (I confirmed with her mother that the songs she sung were brand new to the Hispanic tradition), dancing (technically not allowed by the Conservative Christian sect of which they are a part but, seriously, God would have frowned if anyone shut down such undeniable acts of cuteness), and making faces at me — is now the proud owner of a teddy bear named “Richardito.” Before he was owned by this budding Latin pop star, “Little Richard” was a prize at a fair in Quetzaltenango that “Big Richard” won last weekend and then gifted to Elsita in exchange for the hours of dining table entertainment she provided.

Finally, I scattered goodbyes to my classmates and friends I met in San Pedro, who have provided excellent English-speaking companionship throughout my month here. These friends hail from all over the globe, except, oddly enough, the United States (I am doing my best to represent the homeland!). However, I hesitated to say true goodbyes to most of them as I imagine many of our travels will overlap over the next few months, and as stated in my farewell discurso, “I think I’ve made a lot of new friends” and friends, well, they stay in touch.

Some of the Highlights of My Time in San Pedro La Laguna:

An Indian Nose and A Chocolate Shaman

Lake Atitlan, Guatemala

My second weekend here in Guatemala got off to an instructive start on Friday afternoon as I was wandering around San Pedro, looking for legitimate wifi connections (a new favorite pastime of mine in this wifi starved town). Spotting a cafe that boldly advertised their wifi, I entered, ordered an espresso for 10 quetzals, and then rooted into my wallet for some cash. All I had was a 100 quetzal bill (the exchange rate is roughly 7 quetzals to the dollar, so a 100 represents approximately 14 dollars), which I handed to the barista and then waited for change. After an oddly long period of digging through the cash register, the barista handed me a nearly complete set of Guatemalan currency denominations: 2 one-half quetzal coins, 10 one quetzal coins, 4 one quetzal bills, 9 five quetzal bills, and 3 ten quetzal bills. (Just a 20 quetzal bill short of Bingo!) As I moved from the bar to a table to sort through my cornucopia of cash, I asked the barista for the wifi password. “No esta trabajando. No hoy,” she said with a smile on her face. Both the Spanish (“Wifi does not work, not today”) and the smile (the barista’s personal amusement at denying wifi to this Internet-addicted gringo with 28 new pieces of Guatemalan currency) were easy to interpret. I took my expresso to go and headed into the weekend, having learned a few key lessons to apply in Guatemala moving forward: ask if the wifi works before you order and avoid large discrepancies in cash payed versus cashed owed.

This past Friday evening began with dinner at my host family’s place, where they asked me questions about my plans for the weekend in extremely slow, “present-tense and simple words-only” Spanish (“QUE…HAC…ES…ES…TA…NO…CHE…REEEEEE…CHARD?”). After dealing with this now familiar mix of discomfort and amusement I experience when interacting with my host family, I headed over to Hostel Fe’s bar for the weekly trivia game. This game, hyped up by the Spanish schools and hostels in town, seems to be what kicks off the weekend nightlife in San Pedro. And we fell right into proper form: San Pedro Spanish School students were split between two teams, the La Coopertiva Spanish school students comprised another team, and the guests of various hostels throughout town formed 5 or 6 more teams. The game itself, however, did not quite live up to the hype. The 40-question, 2.5 hour death march was conducted by a drunk Australian making angry jokes of scant comedic value. My new Australian friend Bill even apologized to me after the game for this poor showing by his fellow countryman, affirming that the humor was not lost in some cultural translation (“No mate, not even funny for an Australian!”) The highlight was mostly certainly the guy who jumped out of the bar into the lake in response to a 50-quetzal challenge issued by the honorable master of ceremonies (as the bar is situated on Lake Atitlan, this is actually possible if you can hurdle the barrier that keeps sane, rational humans inside the bar and out of the lake).

The evening improved as I stopped into San Pedro’s premier dance club Sublime for a few hours where I got to witness the “who’s who” of San Pedro nightlife, which includes the hard partying Israelis (who notoriously make their way through Central and South America after they complete their time in the IDF), the Spanish school students, the local Guatemalans who party with (or creep on, depending on who you ask) the tourists, the mish-mash of international travelers (mostly from Europe), this local frat star guy named Sergio who seems to know everyone in town, and, of course, your smattering of drunk Australians (for the record, there are absolutely respectable, not drunk Australians; I’ve met two real, live examples of them in this town that buck the stereotype). The night ended at a hostel pool party, which I left on the “early” side to make it safe and sound into my homestay a little before 2 am.

I awoke Saturday morning at 9 am (painfully early after a late night) in order to eat breakfast with my host family, where it quickly became clear that they were aware of my late arrival home last night. “Muchas fiestas anoche, Reeechard?” my madre said with a grin. “Solo una fiesta pequeña,” I fudged with questionable grammar and pronunciation. My padre then chimed in with a grin “Trabajas las chicas?” (Translation: “You are working the ladies?”). I smiled, shook my head, and dove into the bowl of cornflakes in front of me, deflecting further lines of questioning by these newfound comedians.

Refusing to let a late night derail my Saturday, I linked up with Will — an American from Atlanta I met on the hike up Volcan Pacaya the week before last — and three friends of his that he had met while hostel-hopping through Central America. Our goal for the day was to climb up Indian Nose, a mountain ridge near San Pedro whose outline is shaped like a man’s face with the peak being the “nose.” (See pictures below). This ridge offers stunning views of Lake Atitlan and is one of the most popular hikes in the area. To get there, the five of us took a local “chicken bus” out of San Pedro to the trailhead for the ~30 minute hike up to the ridge (Quick note on chicken buses: These are hilariously tricked-out old school buses from the United States that bus operators in Central America buy via auction, tow down to Central America, and repaint with outrageous color schemes that include the newly christened names for the bus. The one we took on Saturday was named “Melissa”.) The bus dropped us off in the local village of Santa Clara where we struck out on a trail through a cornfield. After only a few minutes of hiking, we got to a fork in the trail. Looking up the trail to the right, we could see a local Guatemalan man ~100 yards away, waving at us with a machete, encouraging us to follow him. To the left, we could see another Guatemalan man also ~100 yards up the road, waving us down his path. We choose the path on the left given this man was not waving with a machete.

After following the man on the left for about a quarter mile, we arrived at a makeshift gate in the trail that the man opened and ushered us through. The little man (who topped out at approximately 5’5”) introduced himself as Miguel, the owner of the property that includes the trail to top of the ridge. Miguel seemed very happy to see us, as evidenced by the hugs he gave each of us as he introduced himself. Miguel seemed especially happy to see the three girls with Will and I, as evidenced by the kisses he snuck in while hugging them. Miguel’s friendliness made quite a bit more sense once he asked us for a fee, which we negotiated down to 20 quetzals/person. After paying, he guided us up the ridge, stopping us at prime lookout points to gaze down to the lake below and take pictures. The views were absolute stunning of Lake Atitlan and its surrounding volcanoes. (Check out the pics below!) When we arrived at the top of his property, we realized we had not yet made it to the very top of the ridge, which we could see further above along with a few more Guatemalan men waving us up towards them. Miguel called these men “bandidos” and told us to stay away. (The likelier story is that these “bandidos” owned the property further up the ridge and were just some old fashioned competition for Miguel.) After a few minutes at the “top”, Miguel led us back down the ridge and, at his property line, pointed us the right direction down. We said goodbye to Miguel and headed down, but not before some more hugs…and kisses for the girls.

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After a relatively relaxed rest of Saturday, I woke early on Sunday to meet some of my schoolmates to make the trek over to San Marcos, the hippie town across the lake from San Pedro that features classic hippie activities like meditation, yoga, crystal healing, flower healing, drum-making, mushroom growing classes, and tarot card readings. I am at least 4 to 5 months of unemployment away from feeling the sense of desperation that would motivate me to engage in most of these activities, but I figured a yoga class on the lake with some of my schoolmates would be cool.

The yoga class was in a beautiful location in a dock by the lake with a clear view of several volcanoes across the water. The class itself was a relatively normal sequence of hatha yoga poses; however, our instructor informed us that she was on a bit of a tight schedule as she needed to consult a local shaman over a mug of cacao promptly 25 mins after the class was scheduled to end. This, understandably, elicited some questions from our end, and we learned that this consultation would last 5 hours, the requisite amount of time for both the chocolate and the shaman to do the work needed to take clients to a spiritual plane. Curious about the identity of this “chocolate shaman”, my classmates and I did a bit of research found out this guy’s name is Keith. Keith is from the well-known spiritual homeland for authentic shamans (Pennsylvania), and charges tourists up to 200Q to attend his biweekly cacao ceremonies. The Internet has quite a bit to say about this chocolate shaman which you can find if you search “cacao shaman san marcos.” I do think I trust this TripAdvisor review the most.

I spent the rest of the afternoon swimming off of a San Marcos dock with my hiking friends from Saturday before taking one of the last boats back to San Pedro last night to get a good night’s sleep in before classes this week. I switched my classes to the afternoon this week in order to get some free-time in the relatively drier mornings. And Keith, the chocolate shaman, has a ceremony on Wednesday — if the chocolate spirit calls, I will answer and report back!

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Hands up…then jump?
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Just trying to be a cool guy jumping off of a dock!