Learning Permaculture at Atitlan Organics on Lake Atitlan

Lake Atitlan draws you in. We forcibly drug ourselves away just before our visa expired, but numerous travelers we shared time with remain, unable to leave this spot so filled with magic and mystery.

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Of all of the villages dotting the lake side, San Marcos is the most mystical, filled with hippies and yogis. Juice bars and vegetarian restaurants line the narrow, meandering pathways to the lake and travelers and locals alike sell their wares while the smell of incense drifts through the fresh lake air.

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While we loved our time there, one thing nearly impossible to find was good lettuce. Romaine was available a time or two a week but was only mildly tasty and spoiled quickly. Then wee heard rumors of heavenly mixed greens produced in the next village of Tznuna at Atitlan Organics and we simply had to get some for ourselves. What followed turned into multiple trips to not just buy the precious greens but to enjoy avocado-banana smoothies from the restaurant at the Bamboo Guest House and enjoy a half day tour of the farm.

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Permaculture is, in its most simple form, the development of agricultural ecosystems intended to be sustainable and self-sufficient. A fully integrated way to live sustainably off the land around you.

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As with most things in this life we have chosen, it isn’t so simple as simply showing up to a stand and purchasing said lettuce. We reviewed their website and followed directions, emailing Shad, the co-owner of the farm and an enthusiastic face for all things sustainable. Order intact, we were advised to head to the Bambu Guest House. Put on your hiking shoes.

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As I have mentioned previously, everything surrounding the lake is uphill. Seriously, even when walking downhill (there is, very literally, almost nothing that is simply flat) it only meant you would need to go back uphill so there was no joy in the down. But our buns were growing tight and our lung capacity improving with each week that passed.

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We meandered our way along the road from our home at Pasajcap to the small village of Tznuna. Mostly devoid of tourist infrastructure other than the farm and guest house, we made our way through town followed by the ever curious gazes of the local community. And then we headed up. And up. The guest house, itself is lovely. Built of giant bamboo, it reminded us a bit of similar jungle lodges we had seen in Southeast Asia.DSC00909 DSC00912

The Bambu Guest House is a feature all on it’s own. As the home for those volunteering and learning permaculture at the farm, it also features comfy hostel beds with amazing views of the valley and lake below as well as a farm to table restaurant run by three amazing young people from the local community.

Our lettuce came beautifully packaged, featuring vibrant edible flowers, and the herbs we had also ordered were easily some of the best we’d seen in many a month, and after the hike we fueled up with one of their unexpectedly delicious avocado-banana smoothies enjoyed with a typical epic view.

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The stunning salad that night made any effort worthwhile and we made a pact to make the trek for this lettuce mix a weekly event.

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In the meantime, John and Mandi, along with Matty and Ingrid expressed interest in heading to the actual farm to meet Shad and his staff and see firsthand what was happening at the farm.

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Atitlan Organics began with a dream. In 2009 Shad and his partner Colleen purchased 2.2 acres of overgrown land bordering a river. From that purchase they have been able to craft a farm so fertile it fully sustains three households of their staff as well as providing produce and animal products to the community, the Bambu Guest House, and other staff members.

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I had originally heard of Atitlan Organics in my search for goat cheese. One of my very favorite things in life, I consider myself fortunate that it is now readily available in Mexico and much of Guatemala but theirs was reputed to be the best. Sadly for me, one young male matured just a little too early and managed to impregnate the entire herd before he was separated! So much for goat cheese for me, but a tour was still in order.

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On our appointed day we gathered the troops and ambled down the road to Tznuna. Once again we went up and up, passing the guest house and continuing our climb before arriving, winded, at the farm. As we were escorted through the farm to the goat house, and starting point for our tour. I was impressed immediately by the merging of various beds and animal pastures.

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As Shad gave his opening statements regarding his ideas on sustainability the adorable goats begged for pets before heading off to their pasture for grazing time. The tour encompassed the entire property and really gave me a good feel for their version of permaculture. Seeing how each area had multiple layers of growth featuring ground plants, middle height and the larger fruit trees overhead made complete sense on a sustainability level.

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The pigs, chickens and goats were all rotated frequently to avoid overgrazing and destruction of the earth along with a near total elimination of “farm smell” that I was so familiar with having grown up on a large farm.

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We ended our tour back at the guest house, eager to indulge in another great shake before wandering down the road to home. The task Shad has taken on is admirable. Hearing his continually evolving thoughts on what true sustainability means fascinating. He certainly couldn’t have found a more beautiful spot to perfect his craft.

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