It’s almost midnight, two weeks into a precious writing residence in New Hampshire, where I’ve come to finish a novel. My phone rings.
From Lake Atitlán, Guatemala, a few thousand kilometers away, comes the voice of a woman I’ve never seen: “I left the key to my little house on the bed. Can someone let me in?
I’ll work it out, I tell her. A few hours earlier, I had spent an hour on the phone with a plumber discussing installing a new hot tub and ordering firewood for the sauna. The day before, I had arranged for a guide to take two guests on a hike to see the sun rise over the volcanoes, and the day before, an airport pickup for a family of five from Indiana and dinner on the terrace for a couple from Germany celebrating their honeymoon.
With my property manager ill, the last few days have been busier than usual, but it’s a rare day that I don’t find myself busy with at least one guest staying in the modest place I bought 23 years ago as a haven for writing. It now includes two houses, four casitas, two docks, a fleet of kayaks, a sauna, a yoga platform, a waterfall and a pizza oven.
I’ve been a writer all my life. But these days, my role as an innkeeper occupies me almost as much as fiction. It never was my intention, but introducing travelers from all over the world—especially those from the United States, my home country, whose State Department website has for years published advisories about travel to Guatemala—has become a central concern of my life.
‘It was my little private oasis’
My story in Central America began more than 50 years ago, at the age of 11, when my mother took my sister and me on a six-week trip by bus and train from the Texas border to San Cristóbal de las Casas, in the Mexican state. from Chiapas. My experience with indigenous culture that summer opened up my world.
A decade later, I was invited to participate in an orchid hunt in the highlands of Guatemala. It didn’t matter that a civil war was going on.
Our flat tires didn’t stop me from falling in love with the country – especially the 80 square kilometers of turquoise Lake Atitlán and the people who built their homes there, who still dress in traditional Guatemalan clothing made from hand-woven fabrics. , grew corn on the slopes and followed the Mayan calendar.
I swore then that I would return to the lake, though years passed before I did so. Until then, I’d raised three kids and watched them go on their own adventures. For $250 a month, I rented a small house on the lake, signed up for salsa classes and Spanish school, wrote a novel, and experienced a greater sense of well-being than I had experienced in years.
I lived alone. I didn’t have a phone. There was no internet, so every few weeks I would take a boat across the lake to check my email. At the end of my writing day, I took my shopping basket to the market to pick up vegetables for dinner that night. Every morning I swam half a mile in the lake.
It was on one of my dives that I saw a sign on the beach: For Sale. For sale. The land was wild and steep, overgrown with weeds, with a small adobe house. A dozen species of birds I’d never seen before roosting in the trees. Across the water was one of the five volcanoes that surround the lake.
Those were the days when a person of limited means could still borrow for their home, and that’s how I raised the $85,000 to buy about three acres of land on the shores of one of the most beautiful lakes on the planet.
I called the place Casa Paloma. A few times a year I would travel there to write and swim. It was my own little oasis.
With the help of two young people from the village, Miguel and Mateo, I built a garden, with retaining walls and stone paths that wind up the steep slope. Over the years, the fruit trees we planted have matured and roses have blossomed – also orchids, Thunbergia vines, figs, pomegranates, bananas.
I finished half a dozen novels in that house. Every afternoon I took a bowl of popcorn to my dock for the kids who came to swim there, and every morning I greeted the fisherman who appeared in the little bay in front of my house without fail to pick crabs just as the sun rose behind the volcano.
Having recognized early on that this was a place that offered inspiration and peace, I started a writing workshop, hosting a small group of women for a week each winter. For $35 a night, they stayed in a simple hotel in the village, but gathered at Casa Paloma every day to work on their manuscripts.
A lot has changed over those years. A hurricane hit, causing a landslide. Travelers arrived in greater numbers, along with shop windows advertising healers, yoga teachers, and shamans (cranial sacral massage, sound healing, known as the Mushroom Academy). I enlarged my house, planted more flowers, built a temazcal – a Mayan sauna – and a small guest house where I set up my desk. Back in California, I fell in love with my second husband, Jim, and introduced him to the lake. The fact that we are in our 50s didn’t stop us from climbing the volcano together.
A year after we were married, Jim was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer. The two of us traveled to the lake together for what turned out to be his last winter. After he died, I went back alone. Many times over the years I have found solace in these waters. Now I did it again.
the pandemic strikes
I had scheduled my memory workshop for March 2020, the month the pandemic hit the United States. As usual, I booked a dozen rooms for my writing students in a small village hotel. While the coronavirus has not been reported in Guatemala, I wasn’t sure anyone would show up, but 16 women traveled there.
Two days later, the president of Guatemala announced that the airport was closing and eight women had returned home. Eight stayed — contenting themselves with meals of rice and beans and guacamole and lots of wine.
Twelve days later, the State Department provided a plane to take American citizens home. But I decided to stay and invited two of the women from the workshop, Jenny and Xiren, to stay with me for a few weeks.
In the end, we stayed for six months – Casa Paloma, we realized, was probably the best place to be. People in the village seemed blessedly Covid-free. But another problem plagued them: with all the tourists gone, they had no way to support their families.
Some of the city’s expats have taken up a collection to help. I’d lived there long enough to know what the community needed most: jobs. So I embarked on the project of building an inn.
Every day, a crew of about 20 men came down the slope with their picks and shovels, bags of cement or stones on their backs. Every morning, as soon as the sun was coming up, they would greet Jenny, Xiren, and I as we sat at our laptops.
Sometimes a harpoon fisherman would stop with a fish he had caught 10 minutes earlier. That would be dinner, eaten by candlelight.
In the months that followed, I continued to present construction projects. Five more casitas, each one different. One featured stone walls with hand-carved stone heads made by a village man. In one, we built a high wall using ancient adobe construction methods. I bought a chair made by a local artisan, carved from a single solid avocado tree. He carried it on his back about a mile from his home.
I’m not a rich woman. In California, I could never have employed a team for 18 months. As it was, paying men a good local salary was pushing me to the brink. But I knew this: when you gave a person a job in this village, a family of 10 ate that night.
The men did beautiful work. Sometimes, checking in with them at the end of the day, I’d discover a few details – a spiral of tiny snail shells cemented into the shower wall, a broken ceramic monkey attached to a twisted piece of wood, with bougainvillea sprouting from its head and paper. silver of a chocolate bar wrapper for the eyes. Miguel and Mateo trained plants to grow into the shapes of a giraffe, a llama, a rabbit and a heart. A carpenter named Bartolo built me a conacasta wood table in the style of one I found on Pinterest that was designed by woodworker George Nakashima.
Our days and weeks took on a rhythm. Every morning, as I walked up the hill to my desk with my laptop and my coffee, I greeted the team of men coming down. Sitting at my table, I could hear the constant banging of the men’s hammers, the sound of stones being poured from buckets.
It occurred to me that in all my years of writing books – nearly half a century – I had never known such an immediate connection between the stories I made up in my head and the world of physical work. When the men and I called our greetings each morning, we knew we each had a job to do. One supported the other.
The following winter, just over a year after the world shut down, with vaccines finally available, we welcomed 12 writing students. This time they were able to stay on my property in the five new homes the men built, sharing meals on the extended porch overlooking the lake, with meals prepared by our local chef, Rosa.
I’m a writer, not a businesswoman. It occurred to me that if a person empties their bank account to build a 16-guest property that requires a staff of 20+ to maintain it, the place cannot be left empty. And that’s how I became the host of a hotel and retreat center.
With the time and thought I put into building Casa Paloma, I probably could have written a few more books. The casitas are named after some I wrote: “To Die For”, “At Home in the World”, “Count the Ways”. One of them, Casa Una, is named after my youngest granddaughter. Over the past year, my team, made up almost entirely of local men and women, has hosted more than 300 groups of guests – yoga practitioners, hikers intent on tackling the volcano, couples celebrating a honeymoon, families bringing children who have adopted years back to the country of his birth for the first time. Last high season we were booked most nights.
In 2020 – that period of months when it felt like the world had stopped – I experienced an unprecedented state of concentration that I managed to finish a novel.
So—with the men still working—I started another novel about a woman from the United States who, after a personal tragedy, lands in a small village on the shores of a lake surrounded by volcanoes, in an unnamed country in Central America. . She unexpectedly finds herself running a magical hotel surrounded by orchids and birds.
At the time, I believed that what I was writing was a work of pure fiction, almost a fairy tale. It was a year later that the thought occurred to me: I built a hotel myself. Now I better figure out how to run one. And I did.
Joyce Maynard’s most recent novel, “The Bird Hotel”, was published earlier this month. Her novel sequel “Count the Ways” will be released next spring.
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