That time a Mayan Woman Made Me Cry In The Middle of Her Kitchen | Cooking Class in Guatemala

After a few days of feeling a bit underwhelmed in San Pedro La Laguna, I passed by a large sign outside of my hostel that said 'Anita's cooking class'. I knew I needed to mix things up a bit so I signed up to take the class the following day. I was unsure of what to expect but thought it'd be a great way to dive deeper into Mayan culture & learn some cooking techniques. I didn't know at the time that I'd end up crying in the middle of her kitchen....

The front dock of San Pedro, one of five towns surrounding Lake Atitlan in a massive volcanic crater in Guatemala’s southwestern highlands

The front dock of San Pedro, one of five towns surrounding Lake Atitlan in a massive volcanic crater in Guatemala’s southwestern highlands

I took Anita's class and I was amazed - by the food, but more so by this inspiring & powerful woman. We started the morning by walking uphill to a local market & you guys know how I feel about markets - they're a cultural hub. As expected, this showed me a completely different side to San Pedro than the western backpacker vibe I'd experienced for the first few days. Indigenous residents from all the surrounding towns flooded the cobblestoned streets to buy & sell everything from unidentifiable fruit to refurbished electronics. Brightly colored Tuk-Tuks & loud motorcycles zipped through the crowds before we ducked into the food stalls to pick up the ingredients for our meal.

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She told us we'd be preparing Pepian de Pollo – a traditional Guatemalan stew, known as the country's national dish. It's one of the oldest traditional dishes in Mayan culture. She told us that families typically eat Pepian to celebrate new beginnings & for some reason, this brought more joy & meaning to what I was about to experience.

Pepian, Tamalitos de chipilin, Rellenitos, Guacamole Guatemalan Style, Tortitas de Papa, and Frijoles Volteados. RECIPE BELOW

Pepian, Tamalitos de chipilin, Rellenitos, Guacamole Guatemalan Style, Tortitas de Papa, and Frijoles Volteados. RECIPE BELOW

Anita led us through the tiny aisles, stopping every few seconds to explain the ingredients and the Mayan history behind them. As we squeezed through the crowds, we passed by whole fish caught fresh from Lake Atitlan, butchered meat hanging from the ceilings, and vegetables grown directly on the town's volcanic soil.  We even had the opportunity handmake some salted Mayan corn tortillas which are vastly different than the flour tortillas I'm used to in Texas. After picking up all the necessary ingredients, we walked downhill to Anita's apartment to begin cooking. 

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We were led to her small outdoor kitchen that sat right above the apartment. The kitchen itself was nothing special, but the balcony views of Lake Atitlan were out of this world. Anita handed each of us an apron with traditional Mayan prints and began assigning each us roles for various parts of the meal. She led the way, but she explained to each of us how to do our part. I'm no chef, so I just followed her lead as she began to mix herbs, spices, and ingredients we'd just purchased. There were no fancy utensils or techniques, she simply showed us what cooking traditions her and her family have used for years. 

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After a few hours, the meal was coming together. She prepared each of our plates and we all sat down to enjoy th meal we'd cooked together in her kitchen. Anita began sharing her story about how she came to be an Entrepreneur, running a cooking class for those of us that have chosen to visit her home in San Pedro la Laguna. How did she end up owning a business in the midst of machismo culture where women are expected to only become mothers & wives? As most women in the town did, she became pregnant at a young age & was forced to marry a man that had little respect for who she was as an individual. She eventually had the courage to separate from him & had to even leave her mothers home because she didn't approve of her getting a divorce. After all, she stated that her culture believes, "All men are this way. You have to stick with them no matter what(despite mental or verbal abuse) ". She became a struggling single mother of two without much support. At one point, she was given the opportunity to work in a Texan run cooperative created to help benefit women in the community. She later ran across a Canadian doctor who was impressed by her English speaking abilities in a town where most women have never left their neighborhoods. He gave her the opportunity to work in a clinic in San Pedro, where she was earning 1000Q(136 USD) a week as opposed to the typical 500Q( 68 USD) a month that most people on the lake earn. Then another opportunity came her way - due to her cooking & language skills, her employer empowered her to start a cooking class. She was so afraid to do so, but eventually, she became an entrepreneur and was able to prove her husband, mother & even herself wrong.

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She now promotes sustainable tourism by running a successful cooking class that is preserving her Mayan culture giving back to her community in so many amazing ways. She supports over 25 single mothers in the town. Any leftovers from her class are given to these mothers to help support their family & children. In addition, Anita is now teaching other girls in her community English so that they can have the opportunity to go to school and leave town one day to become successful on their own terms. 

After hearing her story, I'd forgotten that I was in a cooking class. The food was delicious, especially those Tamalitos de Chipilin, but this was much more than that for me. I began to tear up. With all odds against her, she's become an amazing example for women around the world who have have been silenced. I left her class feeling empowered and inspired simply because she had the courage to write her own story. Anita had slayed my whole life!

And, that's not all....

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The following day, I stopped by Anita's weaving cooperative beneath her home(where the cooking class was held) to pick up some souvenirs. There she was, helping a middle-school-aged girl practice her English. The young girl was actually on a break from weaving goods(handbags, scarves, etc.) to be sold in this co-op Anita had established. 75 percent of the purchases would go directly into the hands of 25 indigenous single mothers who Anita hired to provide an opportunity to succeed in backstrap weaving, a Mayan practice dating back centuries. This woman is doing extraordinary things for her community. 

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I was SO inspired by her story, which gave me chills and brought tears to my eyes...especially since I initially wasn't feeling San Pedro. One month into my solo trip around the world and I felt so blessed to come across a woman like her. If you find yourself in San Pedro La Laguna, please stop by Anita's cooking class & meet this incredible woman!

Girls truly run the world!

See the recipe for everything we cooked below!

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ESSENTIAL INFORMATION

  • I stayed in a hostel in San Pedro La Laguna. I would NOT recommend it as the rooms were literally equivalent to a jail cell. It also had a very western backpacker vibe, which I stated in my blog post about Semuc Champey, is NOT my vibe. I should have looked into homestays for a better cultural experience in this area. 
  • Lake Atitlan is not one place. There are a number of different towns surrounding the lakes. Some are open to tourists and some are not. The residents in the area are indigenous Mayans. Adventurous Kate does a great job of going into detail about the lakes in a blog post here. I should have read this before choosing where to stay.
  • I traveled here via shuttle from Lanquin, after visiting Semuc Champey. You can get here from any of the major cities. 
  • If you're in the area, I recommend taking a local shuttle to colorful Chichicastenango Market - the largest market in Central America. I also recommend you try some of the cheap fruit smoothies sold everywhere. SO GOOD!

ADDITIONAL RESOURCES

Don't forget travel insurance! I used World Nomads while traveling through Central America. The reason that I don't have more photos from my time in Guatemala is that I lost my phone a week later on a Volcano. Through insurance, which includes personal loss & theft, I was sent money to purchase a replacement phone. The insurance definitely paid off.

Thinking about trying Airbnb for the first time? Click HERE for $40 off your booking!


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HAVE YOU MET ANYONE ON YOUR TRAVELS THAT LEFT YOU FEELING INSPIRED? Comment below!

DISCOVERING GUATEMALA'S CULTURE AT THE COLORFUL CHICHICASTENANGO MARKET

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Want to really learn about a country's culture and people?

GO TO THE LOCAL MARKET

There is no better way to get a sense of the local lifestyle, rituals, aesthetics, traditions, and environment. 

While traveling through Guatemala, I had the chance to visit the largest market in Central America - Chichicastenango!

CHI CHI, whatttttt? 

CHICHICASTENANGO!

Doesn't it have a ring to it? 

'Chi Chi' is an open-air market that runs on Thursdays & Sundays. I'd only found out about it on a late Wednesday evening, but I knew I had to go.

From San Pedro La Laguna, I had two ways of getting there: a Tourist shuttle or local bus. 

Since 'Last Minute' is my middle name, the tourist bus in San Pedro was full by the time I tried to sign up. I was pretty bummed, as this would be my only opportunity to go. 

I stood around on the streets early Thursday morning trying to think of how I could get to Chichicastenango. As a tourist shop was opening, I ran to the owner and asked about alternatives modes of transportation. He told me I could catch the local bus and hop on the tourist bus to return back to San Pedro at the end of the day. I thought, why not?

Just as he said this, a local van miraculously passed by. He flagged it down & I jumped inside. 

I, along with everyone else on the bus, became aware that I didn't quite fit in as soon as I got inside. 

I was about a foot taller than every local inside. As opposed to their long black hair, I had short curly hair. I had on jeans, while they all wore variations of the same colorful woven skirts. All eyes were on me. 

I sat there nervously as people piled into the van one after the other. Some were standing, some were sitting in each other's laps, and some were even hanging outside of the door. 

A stop was made every minute or so to drop someone off or pick someone up off the side of the road that had their hand sticking out.

The women behind me curiously touched my hair & giggled to themselves. They were probably wondering where the heck I was from & why I was in that van. 

Admittedly, I was just as confused as they were. Nobody on the bus spoke English & I honestly had no idea where I was going. I was just hoping that I'd end up at Chichicastenango at the end of the ride. 

 Thanks to the tour shop owner, the driver knew I needed to get off at Los Encuentros, the final stop. He was an angel for reminding me because I was pretty lost. He pointed me to a chicken bus that would take me directly to the market. 

This ride was a little less crowded than the van but a little more bumpy as we rode switchbacks through the highlands. Within, 45 minutes I'd finally arrived at the colorful town of Chichicastenango. 

I was introduced by shouting - vendors were repeatedly shouting out the name of whatever they were selling.

Then I was smacked by the smells - the smells of incense burning as Shaman's performed rituals on the steps of the Santo Tomas Cathedral mixed with the stench of freshly butchered animals. 

I was entranced by brightly-colored patterned handicrafts at every turn - handbags, blankets, hammocks, and tapestries. 

As I shuffled through the crowds, I was most impressed by the women I saw - dressed in colorful woven fabrics, toting goods over their shoulders, holding down their stalls, completely running the show.

Although I made a few purchases, I was mostly concerned with observing life in the market. There was so much to witness - the colors, the sounds, the textures, the smells, and the people. I grabbed a few cheap street snacks and spent hours aimlessly wandering between endless rows of market stalls. This exhilarating journey to Chichicastenango and my time at the market ended up being one of the highlights of my trip to Guatemala!

Scroll past the photos for tips at Chichicastenango.

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TIPS FOR VISITING CHICHICASTENANGO

  • Try to arrive as early as possible to see the market come to life
  • Stray away from your tour group to see the tour at your own pace
  • Watch for pickpockets - keep an eye on your bags, especially in crowded spaces 
  • I didn't deal with much harassment from vendors, but if you do not want to buy something simply look at them, firmly say "no, gracias" and keep walking.
  • You can bargain/haggle with vendors if you feel that you aren't paying a fair price. Allow them to make the first offer, then counteroffer with half of that price, and bargain from there. 

ADDITIONAL RESOURCES

Don't forget travel insurance! I used World Nomads while traveling through Central America. The reason that I don't have more photos from my time in Guatemala is that I lost my phone a week later. Through insurance, which includes personal loss & theft, I was sent money to purchase a replacement phone. The insurance definitely paid off.

Thinking about trying Airbnb for the first time? Click HERE for $40 off your booking!


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chichicastenangoguatemala

Do You Enjoy Visiting Markets When You Travel? 

My Experience Studying Spanish & Living with a Family in Guatemala

Becoming fluent in Spanish has been one of my goals for a long time, so I decided to travel in an area where the language is widely spoken - Central America. Guatemala is known to have some of the most affordable classes in the world, so I contacted a spanish academy before my trip to get the ball rolling. Keep reading to see how things went!


“Wow, I really don’t know anything”.

This was my exact thought as I sat in my first 5 hour one-on-one Spanish Class.

This was a serious blow to my ego because most Texans proudly believe we know enough Spanish to ‘get by’ in a conversation. Seriously! Ask a Texan if they know Spanish. Most of us will assure you that we can definitely understand it. Growing up in a state bordering Mexico, I’ve always been around native Spanish Speakers. I was even required to take Spanish classes for 2 years in both Middle School & High School.  So when I booked a trip throughout Latin America, I naturally believed that I could just ‘get by’. HA! I was sadly mistaken. Like, deeply mistaken.

Let me tell you - nothing can make you feel dumber than having to stare at someone in complete & utter confusion because you haven’t understood a word they just said to you.

Not. A. Single. Word

It sucks.

After way too many awkward language exchanges in markets and taxi cabs, I was counting down the days until I arrived in Guatemala to learn Spanish so that I could stop looking like a deer in headlights and relying on Google Translate to speak to the people around me.

TAKING SPANISH CLASSES & DOING A HOMESTAY IN ANTIGUA, GUATEMALA

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After a night of intense Googling aka trip planning, I learned that Guatemala offered some of the most affordable Spanish classes in the world. Lessons and homestays were offered as a package for complete cultural immersion. I try to go beyond the surface when I visit a new country, so I immediately knew this was something I wanted to do. I figured I’d take this opportunity to build upon my already existing Spanish skills and learn about the Guatemalan way of life. I thought I’d be going from being an intermediate level Spanish speaker to advanced. Once I arrived in Central America, I quickly learned that I was a complete novice in my Spanish proficiency - if that.

I signed up to take classes & do my homestay with Antiguena Spanish Academy in Antigua, Guatemala - a colonial city in the central highlands of Guatemala. At the tail end of a bumpy five-hour bus ride from Lake Atitlan, I awoke to vibrant colored buildings outside of the bus window. I stepped off of the bus to see a volcano far into the distance. I showed up at the door of my new Spanish school and nervously waited for my new Guatemalan familia take me to my new home. I had no idea what to expect.

THE HOMESTAY EXPERIENCE

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I was dropped off at a two-story home on the outskirts of the city. My new madre, Silvia, greeted me with a big hug and introduced me to the rest of my familia. It was a family of 5 - a mother, a father,  and three sons all above 16 years old. I quickly learned that this would be a challenge. They spoke less English than I spoke Spanish and that’s saying a lot.

They gave me a key to come & go as I pleased. I had my own room and they’d call me down for breakfast every morning if I wasn't already awakened by the sounds of Latin beats & the smell of fresh tortillas. A rarity in my own home, everyone sat at the table for all three meals. There were many awkward meals where less than 10 words were spoken between the family & I. Think 'awkward first date' with the added fact that you’re sleeping in their home. Uh, yea...it was pretty uncomfortable. Initially, I couldn’t get beyond the basics to have a deeper conversation with them. It was disappointing because I wanted to learn more about them. In moments of frustration, I had to remind myself that I asked for this challenge. I was trying my best and so were they. 

Despite our initial language barrier, I was able to learn quite a bit about their lifestyle in the short time that I was there. The mother was a teacher and the father was a shuttle driver. Both cooked and cleaned, which was a bit of a surprise to me since Guatemala is known to have a very traditional culture. It was clear that family was very important - 3 extended family members lived on the same street and they were always in & out of the house. The sons were often away at school, playing fútbol, watching fútbol, talking about fútbol or with their girlfriends. They were all extremely close & it was extremely refreshing to see that a family in a different part of the world didn’t seem to be very different from my own.

TAKING SPANISH CLASSES

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I signed up for daily one on one 5-hour Spanish classes. On day 1, I realized just how much I didn’t know. It was clear that the years I spent learning Spanish hardly paid off.

I’d walk 4 blocks every morning to get to class, which was outside in a shaded courtyard.  We were given a lesson plan & a notebook. We covered grammar, vocabulary, and pronunciation through a series of interactive lessons. The curriculum helped me build a solid foundation that I never learned in my middle school & high school courses. 

I had a really good relationship with my teacher, Mayra. She was extremely patient and I loved that we were able to share laughs. One on one classes made me feel comfortable to ask the same questions over & over if I needed to. Because of this, I picked up on the teachings rather quickly. Mayra never got annoyed - or at least she didn't show it. We got along so well that our conversations went far beyond what was on the lesson plan - we often discussed family, hobbies, politics, and traditions in Guatemala.

I haven’t taken an official class since leaving Antigua and I still remember everything that was taught to me, which is a testament to the program. I grew to truly love learning & speaking Spanish. Now, I speak it any chance that I get. I’m extremely proud of what I know. I’ve even had Spanish speakers tell me they thought I was fluent. *flips hair*. My decision to take this class was pivotal to the special cultural exchanges I had throughout the rest of my trip.

DID I LEARN SPANISH?

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After only one week of complete immersion, my Spanish improved greatly. Overcoming the language barrier became a challenge that I looked forward to daily. Everyday tasks such as asking for directions in taxi cabs, asking for food prices at market stalls, and asking about menu selections at restaurants became easier. I didn’t have to miss out on conversations because I could now engage with locals in a meaningful way - leading to more beautiful friendships and spontaneous adventures. I also felt like less of a ‘dumb American’ around all of the travelers who could speak 2-4 languages on top of their own.        

I was able to use my new language skills throughout the rest of Central America & Latin America. I’ve even been able to use them in Morocco because my taxi driver only spoke Spanish & Arabic. Even though I wanted to enjoy the 2-hour taxi ride in silence, you can bet he spoke to me in Spanish for the entire duration of the ride. Thankfully, I could understand & respond. I’ve got a long way to go before being completely fluent, but when I say I can ‘get by’ now….I really mean it.

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ESSENTIAL INFORMATION

SCHOOL - Antiguena Spanish Academy. Compare schools at Guatemala365

SCHEDULE - Monday - Friday 8am-1pm with a 30min break, other options are available

COST - $200/week including classes, 3 meals/day Mon.-Sat., and a homestay(private room & I got lucky with a private bath since I was the only student in the house that week). Discounts are typically offered during the offseason, so it doesn't hurt to ask.

HOW THE HOMESTAY WORKS - My school paired me with a family as part of the homestay. They have a roster of families that regularly host students & they will place you with one.

THINGS TO CONSIDER

  • Location of your school - classes are popular in various cities throughout Guatemala. I ended up having some really special experiences in Antigua, so I was happy with my decision to study there. I actually found myself bored around Lake Atitlan, so be sure to look up surrounding activities and consider what environment works best for you.

  • Housing - Will you do a homestay, stay in a hotel/rental, or stay at a hostel? If you’re around other travelers, you’re less likely to practice your Spanish simply because it will be more convenient to speak English. I was forced to practice my Spanish because nobody at my homestay spoke English. If you want to make the most of your learning experience, doing a homestay is probably best. Keep in mind that you will be staying with a family of complete strangers. It's certainly uncomfortable at first, but it's going to be a great way to see how another culture lives. 

    • Be sure to notify whatever school you choose if you end up feeling uncomfortable about your homestay situation. I got lucky because I didn’t have any other students staying at my family's house with me. However, I met some students who ONLY had students(with no family members) staying in their house which made it more like a hostel situation as opposed to a homestay as they expected. I would have been disappointed by this. Don’t be afraid to bring this to your school’s attention and request a change if you’re unhappy.

 

  • DURATION

    • How long should you sign up for? Whatever you think is best. I don’t think any specific time period is too long or short because you’ll see an improvement either way. only signed up for a week and my Spanish improved immensely. I wish I could have stayed longer, but I wanted to explore other countries. Of course, you're more likely to become fluent with more class time.

    • Its advised to only sign up for a week at first so that you can see if you like the school, teacher, and your homestay. If you don’t like it, you can make changes. It’s YOUR experience so you want to make sure it works for you.

Like anything else, the experience is what you make it. If you put in the work, you’ll get a lot out. Remember that everyone learns at difference paces due to a variety of factors so there is no use in comparing your progress to someone else’s.


ADDITIONAL RESOURCES

Don't forget travel insurance! I used World Nomads while traveling through Central America. The reason that I don't have more photos from my time in Antigua is that I lost my phone a week later. Through insurance, which includes personal loss & theft, I was sent money to purchase a replacement phone. The insurance definitely paid off.

Homestays not your thing & thinking about trying Airbnb for the first time? Click HERE for $40 off your booking!


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Do you want to learn Spanish or another language? Let me known down below!