I first visited Earth Lodge, located in the town of Aldea El hato near Antigua, Guatemala, when the “lodge” itself was a dining room smaller than the one in my childhood home and a fairly dank “movie room” about the size of a walk-in closet. The toilets were of the drop variety found in camping sites, and it cost five quetzales ($0.63) to have a hot shower, produced by firewood rather than electricity or gas. The “bar” was self-service with a piece of paper hung next to it to tally your beverages. It wasn’t luxury, but it didn’t need to be. That’s not the point for people who go there.
While Antigua attracts more than a million tourists each year, significantly fewer find their way to Aldea El Hato (pop. 1000). Though just seven kilometers away from the Central American sightseeing superstar, El Hato is largely lacking in typical traveler amenities. There are no cafes or bars, no ruins or markets, and not one travel agency to book a tour with. However, what is there is one of my favorite places in the world: Earth Lodge.
In the sightseeing department, Earth Lodge has something that few places in the world can compete with: a view of three massive volcanoes, one of which erupts on a daily basis. What’s more is the eco-hotel/avocado farm has a certain feel, a vibe that encompasses both the familiar isolation many travelers seek in foreign lands and a sense of traveler community. I fell for it all: the insane vista, the family-style dinners, the space to play, and the people. So, over the last five years, I’ve managed to find myself back in Aldea El Hato as a guest, teacher, receptionist, and chef.
In Your Bucket Because…
- It’s an Antigua expat consensus world class view. Nearly everyone brings visiting family and friends to Earth Lodge.
- For people who’ve traveled a lot, it’s one of those spots where folks accidently linger for a month. For less experienced travelers, it provides a glimpse into the off-the-beaten-track culture.
- Being a tourist is more than sightseeing. Sometimes it’s stopping to appreciate what’s around you. Earth Lodge offers some pretty comfortable hammocks from which to do that.
- The vicarious aspect: Many travelers dream of opening hostel, and lots of us have something like this place in mind. Started by two former adventurers, it’s full of great ideas.
- It’s an avocado farm. 400 trees. Guacamole doesn’t get fresher, nor does avocado chocolate mousse, avocado lime pie, or avocado pesto pasta.
- Good for adventure travelers who like the laid back vibe and experiencing stripped down authenticity.
Life on the Farm: Tree Houses, Traditional Mayan Saunas — and Wifi
Earth Lodge has grown tremendously since my first visit. These days there is a full bar on offer, a bartender, and selections ranging from Brooklyn micro-brewed beer to Ron Zacapa (the world’s best rum). The lodge can now seat seventy-five diners at its annual Thanksgiving dinner, and if you arrive early enough, you might score a prime seat by the massive fireplace. The new movie room also has a bumper pool table and a computer (or WiFi if you prefer). There’s even a children’s playground to accommodate vagabonding families.
Drew and Bri, the owners, have worked hard to upgrade while keeping that special quality of the lodge’s early days. Now, all the showers have free on-demand hot water and most of the toilets have been converted to flush. Still, the traditional Mayan sauna is a light-it-yourself affair, the volunteer reception staff providing lodgers with firewood and matches then leaving you to it. At roughly seven o’clock, everyone sits together and chats over a great vegetarian meal, the seconds out on the table just like at home.
The cabins—now booked weeks in advance—remain rustic, no TVs or ACs, but all with great, wide windows to take in the main attraction: That volcano view hasn’t gone anywhere. In the arsenal of abodes, the two most popular are a tree cabin (with a tree growing through to middle of it) and a tree house (in a tree, with a hammock porch and a glass-front shower facing the valley). As of Spring 2013, there is a new en suite, eco-friendly earth-bag cabin.
Games, Activities, and Sustainability at Earth Lodge
While Antigua is only a twenty-minute ride away, Earth Lodge also offers activities for a vacation within a vacation. There are outdoor games—horseshoes, volleyball, and badminton—and a movie collection of over a thousand selections. There are hours’ worth of hiking trails created by the village locals, tending their fields flowers (the local cash crop). Dogs to play with. Hammocks to swing in. Board games to learn.
The best game at the Lodge is something called cornhole. Invented in the States, the game basically consists of throwing bean bags at two opposing boards with holes cut in them. Though the scoring is a little complex, the game itself is simple to play. It is one of those fantastic “sports” best attempted with a beer in hand, you know, to counter-balance the weight of the bags. They even have the occasional cornhole tournament, with competitors coming up from the city.
Not only fun for backpackers, Earth Lodge has also done a lot to help the local community. Since the beginning, Bri has been raising money to buy supplies, clothes, and food for the village’s students. Then, in 2010, the hotel partnered up with a Guatemalan-based NGO, Las Manos de Christine, to provide English classes and after-school activities at the local school. As a guest, it’s possible to volunteer at the school and see what the program is all about.
- Walking to the Lodge is usually discouraged for safety reasons. The road near Cerro de La Cruz is notorious for stick-ups.
- The best way to get to Earth Lodge is arrange a ride via email or phone. They have several pick-up points in Antigua and will send a driver within the hour. It’s the cheapest fare you’ll get.
- Be prepared for the hill from hell. Once you are dropped off, getting to the lodge still requires walking about a quarter of mile downhill on a dirt path. Good shoes and light bags help.
- Earth Lodge is 6000 ft. above sea level, and the altitude often catches people by surprise. Drink plenty of water, especially if you’re making the most of happy hour. It’s easy to dehydrate.
- If you want to volunteer, contact Earth Lodge and/or Las Manos de Christine beforehand. Accommodation discounts may be available.