When did you open La Fortuna and what inspired you to do so?
We bought the property which was an old hobby coffee farm in December 2010, and spent two years building the infrastructure as there wasn't any power, water or buildings to speak of. Our first paying client was in October 2012. We were inspired to create La Fortuna at Atitlan while traveling through South East Asia in 2009. My husband is American and I am Canadian and we realized we wanted to set up our new life together in a new location, and both had been to Guatemala together and separately and loved the peace and tranquility that Lake Atitlan offered. The design of the eco boutique hotel was loosely based on a variety of bamboo and wood cabins we stayed in Bali and the Philippines. We also wanted to make sure that we had a minimal impact on the land, and so decided to stay off grid and are 100% off grid solar powered. We also use locally sourced, and early renewed materials. We try to grow a good percentage of our own food here as well. We still harvest 1,000 pounds of coffee which we serve to our guests!
What do you love most about La Fortuna?
No winter! No, seriously, the weather here is pretty perfect. They call Lake Atitlan the land of eternal spring, as it never gets too hot or cold. We have a lovely breeze all the time, and during the day it's warm enough for a dip in the lake, and in the evening it cools down so that you are nice and comfy under your down duvet. The spectacular view of three volcanoes encircled around a lake isn't too shabby either!
What has been the most rewarding part of opening La Fortuna?
This is the first time my husband and I have ever owned or run a business so that in itself is pretty rewarding. It's nice to see an idea come together and work, and be well integrated into the community which we have embraced as our new home is also amazing. We have 18 local staff, some of whom have been working here since we broke ground, and it's really nice to see our small business have a positive impact on their lives by providing stable and enjoyable work.
What has been your biggest challenge and how have you overcome this?
The biggest challenge is probably living far away from our family and friends from before. The first few years we had some homesickness, but we have since made new friends, and feel more apart of the community here. We also try to visit our family and have them come down and visit us as much as possible. We love introducing new people to the beauty of Guatemala and Central America.
Tell us about your team...
We have a pretty big team considering we only have 5 bungalows, but we think that customer service is really important and you can't do that without great team members. We have 4 front line reception/managers, 2 full time kitchen managers, 6 cleaning and serving staff, 2 full time gardeners (we have 5 acres!), 2 maintenance workers who are really good at masonry, and a head maintenance person who is also great at carpentry. The team came together over time, but interesting enough the head of our kitchen actually built the kitchen before he moved in to be the head chef. He wanted to be in our kitchen so badly that he worked for a year to get it built and up and running. Now he can enjoy it from the inside. We try to let our staff do the stuff they are good at, and also encourage them to learn new things so that they can grow. We believe that the more room for growth, the happier the staff person is and it makes them want to stay at the hotel.
What's next for La Fortuna?
La Fortuna has been built a little by little over time. We opened in 2012 with only two bungalows, cooked all the meals out of our house, and served directly to the bungalows. By 2013 we had 4 bungalows, and by 2014 we had a main reception/bar and wine cellar where guests could enjoy their meals and drinks. In 2015 we added an industrial kitchen, and 2017 we added a 5th, and our most luxurious bungalow with private plunge pool. The past two years we have focused on maintenance and adding some nice smaller touches to the property, as well as started to build a new house for ourselves. We hope to build two more suites in the coming years, but are happy to keep the feel of La Fortuna small and intimate.
How has Tab helped La Fortuna?
Being off grid and solar powered, we can have issues with power and traditional credit card equipment. Our guests though continually asked for this option, and because TAB works off our manager's iPhone and our front reception iPad we can use cellular if the power goes out and still complete the transaction. It's helpful as guests do not have to calculate every cent they have at check out as we are in a remote location and it is difficult for them to go out and get more money from a bank machine. It definitely gives our guests peace of mind to know that they have this option.
Why is Lake Atitlan a great place to visit?
There are so many great things to see and do at the lake! If you want to see culture, there probably isn't a better place. The local Mayan culture is alive and well. Women and men wearing traditional clothing, speaking various dialects of Mayan languages, selling beautiful colorful local artisanal products. It's also a great place to enjoy nature and do activities like swimming, kayaking, paddle boarding, hiking, zip lining, paragliding, and cycling. It really has it all.
Are there any trends/changes that you've noticed in tourism?
In the last 10 years we definitely see tourism on the upswing in Guatemala with the addition of more direct flights, and with more information provided to the general public, it has become a place people want to see. It's great to see that Guatemala has become a place of interest for a broader spectrum of travellers and we hope this continues.
What would your advice be for anyone thinking about starting their own ecohotel?
I think my advice would be the same for anyone starting a hotel/lodging business. Just look at the market before you start, and make sure you aren't duplicating what is already there. Also find something that makes you stand out from the competition. We were lucky as we started on the upswing of a tourism rise so there was a need for more accommodation here at the lake. If you find a place where there is a need, you will most likely make it work!