I am spending some time living at an off grid hostel in a Mayan community near Lanquin, Guatemala. There are many self certified ‘eco’ hostels on the other side of the river from us however after visiting one, I would strongly dispute their claims.
A brief run down of the hostel and the area.
Firstly the hostel itself isn’t actually open yet, we are still building it.
The electricity comes from solar panels, water from the creek at the bottom of the hill, filtered through a ceramic eco filter, the toilet was originally meant to be composting but the locals built a long drop through miscommunication (Spanish is a second language often learned in their own time, their first language is an ancient Mayan one). It has been overcast since I arrived so the fridge has been off, however we have been able to charge our various electrical devices, and keep the lights on all evening without power shortage (there are between 4-6 of us generally). There is no internet without a cell phone, and phone reception can be got at the top of the hill, or at the hostel which is 30 minutes to one hour walk away depending on whether it had been raining and the paths are mud slides
With regards to the locality.
The land is an incredibly steep 2 acres, a triangle from the creek to the summit.
We are about half an hour walk from the nearest hostel which has showers, wifi, a bar and everything else you would expect from a well built jungle retreat. The walk is along the local Mayan paths through the hills. When it rains it takes longer and you are likely to arrive at point B after having fallen at least one time.
The insects and bugs here thrive. No one seems to use pesticides, and many of the hills are planted with corn, and weeds grow between. The kitchen and living space here are open air so the nature comes and goes as it pleases. Butterflies and flys make their way in and out during the day, and tarantulas, poisonous toads and of course mosquitoes at night.
When I walk to my cabin after dark with my head torch there are tiny twinkling iridescent blue eyes looking back at me from all over the paths. Turns out these diamonds belong to tiny spiders. There are scorpions and snakes here too but I haven’t yet seen one.
The locals are very friendly, and say hello and smile as you pass on the mountain paths. The kids are generally excited to see you and confidently speak in Spanish, whereas the adults can sometimes be a bit timid, on account of the fact that Spanish is their second language, with the first in this area being Q’uechi (possibly misspelt). There are 22 Mayan languages in Guatemala alone and for the rural folk, Spanish is a language I guess they learn in order to communicate and trade with tourists and people passing through.
The place I am staying at is amazing. To call yourself an ‘eco’ hostel opens yourself to a lot of criticism, and to be truly ecological is near impossible, especially in a rural location like this. Shipping in any modern eco appliance is difficult to say the least. The wood for the structures had to be floated down the river in rubber tubes. The fridge and cooker arrived on the back of a middle aged man, who somehow walked along the narrow dirt path for I expect at least the half hour section.
As a result this hostel has decided to call itself a community hostel, and I really like that. A significant part of the project is ecological, partly through necessity, convenience, and also the owners desire to be more mindful, but it’s never going to be perfect. There is a lot of concrete here, which isn’t ecological, but with the budget and logistics it is pretty much the only option. As mentioned above however, they’re off grid, which is a lot more than any other hostel can claim.
The community aspect comes in many forms, some of which probably aren’t my business to share here, but there are some things which I can.
With basic knowledge of modern medicine the owner here can (and does) help the locals when someone is ill. A lot of them still use witch doctors so when a child has epilepsy for example they need extra help.
He has also provided employment to the original land owners, and helps them with their shop. For example he taught them the English names of their products, and made a sign for their shop. Since the sign was put up they have been getting many more tourists come by which has helped increase their income. When creating a tourism industry in a rural place like this I think it is one of the most important things to respect and benefit the local community, if you can be ecological at the same time then great, but not disrupting and damaging the local culture should be of primary importance.
This place has my utmost respect and I feel blessed to spend a month or two helping get the place tourist-ready.
As for the work, it’s very chilled, some days some of the volunteers don’t really work, on account of hangovers or lack of motivation. The locals really do the proper building which actually I’m quite happy about as it is seriously hard work with the steeps hills and baking heat. We just plant trees, herbs, vegetables etc, prepare the spaces, basically make the structures in to hospitable rentable places. I work a few hours in the morning, then take a three hour Spanish lesson in the afternoon (for £10 total…). I’ve requested some palm leaves so I can make some reed mats which I saw in the ‘barefoot architect’ book, so that’ll be my spare time occupation.