This blog post is a guest entry from Returned Peace Corps Volunteer Cyrus Sethna, who served as a Youth in Development volunteer in San Juan Comalapa, Chimaltenango from 2013-15.
Florence of the Americas: San Juan Comalapa
San Juan Comalapa is a peaceful mountain town of nearly 55,000 people, 90% of which are indigenous Maya Kaqchikel. For those looking to escape the throngs of tourists in Antigua and have a more rustic Guatemalan experience; Comalapa is just a stone’s throw away.
Comalapa is home to the largest hand-painted mural in Guatemala, which spans over 180 meters in length and two meters in height. In it, 62 distinct scenes depict the conception of the town by Mayan gods and an armed conflict that wiped the entire village of Pamuy from the map. This mural’s beauty lies in its story, told from a uniquely Guatemalan perspective and created by locals born into a vibrant artistic tradition. Internationally acclaimed painters Andrés Curruchiche and Óscar Perén hail from Comalapa, and the influences of their unique art styles prevail in the town’s expansive murals.
For those looking to soak up even more culture, San Juan Comalapa is well versed in music. The score of the Guatemalan National Anthem has its origins in humble Chixot, a rural village of Comalapa whose name in Kaqchikel means ‘between comales’ (a flat metal pan used for cooking tortillas over an open flame). It was here that the composer of Guatemala’s national anthem, renowned classical musician Rafael Álvarez Ovalle was born and raised. The Himno Nacional de Guatemala is proclaimed as the ‘most beautiful in the world’ by Italy’s Milan Conservatory. A museum in Ovalle’s childhood home called La Casa de la Cultura displays an extensive collection of carefully restored personal effects and original scores, including the original, handwritten draft of Guatemala’s national hymn.
Diving deeper into the Comalapan experience leads a socially conscious traveler to Long Way Home (www.lwhome.org), a well-managed NGO working on behalf of the underserved in this hotbed of cultural wealth. Long Way Home (LWH) uses sustainable design and materials to construct self-sufficient schools that promote education, employment, and environmental stewardship. Celebrating its tenth year in Comalapa, LWH has triggered a growing awareness that repurposed waste materials can be used to build homes and schools. Following LWH’s model, garbage that would otherwise contaminate drinking water and fertile farmland ends up serving the community in a variety of ways.
The benefits of building with waste are numerous and long-term. Environmental decontamination restores ecological integrity and improves health. Ridding the landscape of litter adds to its aesthetic value, benefiting both Guatemala’s tourism industry and the local population. This is a low-cost development strategy, appropriate and affordable for rural, low-income residents. Long Way Home is about to complete an 18-building primary, middle, and vocational school campus. LWH instructs 61 students from grades K-6 and provides professional development opportunities for a qualified, local teachers. Additionally, LWH contributes to the growing green building movement, serves as one of the largest local employers, and encourages youth to reach their potential for global impact. LWH runs an international volunteer program that provides skilled individuals with valuable experience in sustainable construction, community outreach, and nonprofit management. Furthermore, the organization can arrange for its volunteers to live with a local host family.
Proudly proclaimed La Florencia de las Américas by locals, San Juan Comalapa lives up to this reputation of high culture and is an embodiment of what it means to be Guatemalan. A trip to the land of the eternal spring isn’t complete without a visit to the heart of the Mayan world – conveniently located between comales.