Returning to Atitlán & A New Adventure in Colombia

Anna Watts
May 28, 2018 · 9 min read

This past month on the road has amounted to clocking a ridiculous amount of time in transit —whether airplane, car, tuk-tuk, the ever-terrifying chicken bus, or the occasional bicycle. Since I’ve spent so much time getting, going, and waiting to get to these places, I figured it’s about time I start to share some small pieces of these adventures.

April began with my return to Lake Atitlán, Guatemala —the same town in which I lived and worked for almost a year and a half. Famous as Central America’s deepest lake (no one really knows how deep it is —rumor has it that the ruins of an abandoned Maya town can be found at the bottom) and renowned as one of the world’s most beautiful sights, Atitlán is never short of breathtaking, even if the 20+ Guatemala stamps in my passport suggest I’ve been there a few too many times.

Fishermen in the afternoon during rainy season when the lake remains nearly completed clouded over from mid-morning onwards. This was a brief and rare view of Volcán San Pedro, one of the three volcanoes bordering the lake.

April is the start of raining season in Guatemala, which means only glimpses of the three majestic volcanoes that border the lake basin — the majority of this season is made up of cloud caps, the misty feeling of being at sea and and the occasional glance of a deep blue or green forest corner of volcano in the cloudy distance. Tourists are told to skip this season and wait for the crystal clear views of volcanoes and sunny blue sky, but this is by far my favorite time at the lake — poetic, dreamy, soft light for photographs, and a slower, less-touristed pace of life around the lake.

Getting up at dawn to watch Santiago Atitlán, one of the indigenous strongholds of the Sololá region of Guatemala (where Lake Atitlán resides) and one of my absolute favorite places in Guatemala, come to life.
Market day (Friday) in Santiago Atitlán, which began shortly after (and during) the dawn I photographed above.

At Lake Atitlán, I met Chrissie, founder and CEO of the Love Is Project, who had hired me for a whirlwind photoshoot across Lake Atitlán, into the artisan-based village San Antonio Palopó off to the colonially ornate and touristed city of Antigua and then farther away to a 5-day adventure on the tropical and sunny shores of Cartagena, Colombia!

Lina of Cartagena, Colombia modeling Love Is Project Colombia-artisan-crafted bracelets.
Can you tell that we were modeling bracelets? From artisans in Guatemala to Colombia to gals + guys from Mexico, Colombia, Guatemala, and beyond, we easily met and photographed over 30 different friends-and-friendly-strangers-come-models between the two countries.
Our last (and hottest) lifestyle shoot of Cartagena.

Cartagena was an (albeit over-touristed) dream of perfect colonial streets, brilliant colors, blasting salsa and merengue music, and some of the most fabulous looking women I’ve ever seen on one city’s streets. Highlights: eating street arepas, shooting lifestyle photos at sunset around Cartagena’s vibrant alleyways and flower-bedecked terraces, and seeing the countryside, farmland, and small town life through our 5.5 hour car ride to Tuchín, an artisan village outside of Cartagena.

Early morning fishing off of Cartagena’s coast.
A group of girls playing on the street who I very easily convinced to model in Getsemani, the younger, “hipper” travelers’ neighborhood of Cartagena.
Our beautiful Colombian model Lina posing on the street corner at dusk in Cartagena.
A family of artisans in Tuchín, Colombia showed us how they use caña flecha, a tall grass that grows around their home, to slice into thin strips, dry, and color to then weave into the bracelets pictured on the above right and hanging from the parrots’ cage.

After Chrissie and I’s whirlwind tour of almost two weeks, I returned to the outskirts of Antigua, Guatemala where a local coffee farm was hosting an event curated by a collaboration of some of the best institutions, foundations, and NGOs focused on agriculture and sustainability that I’ve seen operate in Guatemala.

The Hanns R. Neumann Institute had hired me to document this week of “Coffee Camp,” which facilitated a group of youth from the rural mountainous region of Huehuetenango, where a significant portion of Guatemala’s coffee is produced. The event facilitated a week of coffee-related educational activities for a group of youth who are either the children of coffee farmers/farm workers or from communities where the main source of employment source is coffee and have expressed an interest in coffee production.

The idea: rather than allowing farmers to continue to be exploited for little pay due to a lack of education about their rights and high-quality coffee production, educate the next generation about these issues and the difference between GOOD coffee and just coffee. Then, instead of migrating to the U.S. or to a nearby city to secure a good-paying job, they will have the incentive and knowledge to stay in their communities, work in coffee, improve coffee production quality and decrease the exploitation that has defined the coffee industry since its initiation in Guatemala.

It was an incredible experience to watch this gang of young adults come to life as they tasted a cappuccino for the first time, learned latte art from the top baristas of Guatemala, studied new sustainable methods of farming and had their local, family-farmed coffee samples tasted and reviewed by Guatemala’s top buyers and producers.

With the end of Coffee Camp, I had now been on shoots for over 15 days straight and ready to take advantage of a week of shorter, low-key shoots and more relaxation back at the now-very-rainy Lake Atitlán.

During my off days, I spent some time with a few of the smaller NGOs whose community-motivated, collaborative, and thoughtful approaches to development work I’ve learned to admire from past trips becoming acquainted with the nonprofit community in Guatemala (if this seems like what should be a standard description of the nonprofit model—I can assure you that the ones who really do this WELL are far and few between).

One one of these shoots, I was introduced to the powerful Days for Girls whose hardworking team makes reusable sanitary napkins for girls and spends long, hot days in market stalls of the weekly markets of local communities to sell, answer women’s questions and start to break taboo barriers against menstruation.

I also had time for a few more bike rides…

San Andres Semetebáj, a remote, indigenous region in the mountains surrounding the Lake Atitlán valley.
Lake Atitlán gets stormier. This was about 5 minutes before I (and my camera) ran desperately for shelter.
The typical mode of transport into the mountains of San Andres Semetebáj —pickup trucks or “fletes.” Consider this one a “medium” amount of passengers —they can get a whole lot fuller.
Street shooting while traveling through the outskirts of Sololá to Totonicapán —a rare day of sunlight and a serious gentleman who gracefully and stoically acquiesced to my request for a photograph.
Scenes of Guatemala’s rural, agricultural Highlands.

After a few more brief shoots, bike rides, and a brief bout of traveler’s sickness (it’s an inevitable part of the job), I launched into a final week in Guatemala with Mercado Global, an artisan-based fashion business and dual NGO for artisan empowerment in Guatemala.

With Mercado Global, I traveled from Nahualá to Sololá to Totonicapán (departments in Guatemala’s mountainous Western Highlands) to document the process of thread to product.

Artisans who work with Mercado Global weave on the foot loom, which creates wider and simpler large sections of cloth in a shorter amount of time than the traditional backstrap loom. However, operating the foot loom is (to my photographer’s eye) akin to managing a small dragon —it takes both careful artistry and manipulation of minute threads in complicated patterns as well as tremendous strength to pull threads together to make cloth and operate the massive piece of equipment. It’s about the size of a small garden shed and looks about as difficult to use at one time as it is to capture in a single image. An all around impressive feat to use, let alone craft beautifully intricate woven cloth.

Visiting artisans and watching embroidery classes, sample sewing, nutrition and education charlas for mothers, and plenty of threads.
A young artisan practices creating the pattern of criss-crossed threads that will be placed across the loom in order to be woven. In order to create this pattern, artisans use fingers to twist threads into different arrangements —what looks like an elaborate ballet dance of ‘mano’ (hand) on ‘hilo’ (thread).
Above: The step before weaving: spinning threads from piles onto the spools that can then be inserted into the tiny “boats” used to weave each line of thread through the loom (see the below photo on the right for an image of these “boats).
An artisan using the foot loom in San Rafael, Totonicapán. Top right: The small boat-like device that holds the spools of threads that artisans pass back and forth through the intricate array of threads held by the loom.

Stay tuned for a more in-depth piece on artisans, weaving, and textiles in Guatemala once I’ve completed the deep-dive into my edits for Mercado Global. No matter how many times I photograph or document this complicated process of artistry, I can’t say I’ve yet to even come close to an understanding of how each piece is carried out. But at the very least, my bafflement and thousands of questions never seem to fail at getting my subjects to laugh.

asta la próxima vez! Adventures to come: a photo-reportage series on cervical cancer in Honduras and Guatemala for World Health Organization and a lead poisoning awareness campaign for NYC Health — with final layouts featured only in Bengali and Urdu!

Thanks for tuning in! Please feel free to send me a line at annacwattsphotography@gmail.com if you have questions, comments, or feedback on how I can make my next “from the road” story blast better.

Anna Watts

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is a documentary photographer focused on ethical visual storytelling within marginalized populations. See more at: www.annacwatts.com

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