Putting Santa Cruz la Laguna on the Tourist Map

CECAP – Centro de Capacitación (Training Center).

High on a mountainside, overlooking majestic Lake Atitlán and her three volcanoes, sits beautiful Santa Cruz la Laguna. A small village accessible only by boat, Santa Cruz was previously known only for its scattering of restaurants and hotels on the lakeshore, and many visitors felt no reason to climb the steep hill to the pueblo.

photo Manos Cruceñas store

Proud artisans show off their work at the Manos Cruceñas store (Patricia Torpie)

In recent years, however, that has changed with the opening of the Centro de Capacitación (CECAP). CECAP’s restaurant, Café Sabor Cruceño, specializes in outstanding Guatemalan cuisine and a small artesanía shop, Manos Cruceñas, features exquisite, locally-made jewelry, bags, textiles, scarves, and wood or metal handicrafts.

The vocational center first opened its doors in 2010 as a result of the cooperation between the community and Amigos de Santa Cruz, a US 501c3 foundation working to improve the lives of the people of Santa Cruz since 1998. With input and guidance from the community’s leaders and especially its youth, the initial programs included computer classes, culinary arts, English and carpentry, skills that had the most potential to help graduates find gainful employment.

In the ensuing 6 years, more than 600 students have completed course work in one or more of 20 different classes that now also include sewing and weaving techniques, beadwork, basic electrical repair and iron work.

The programs have successfully helped many graduates find work in local restaurants and hotels, start their own small businesses, or work from home making and selling beaded or textile handicrafts. For the first time ever, Santa Cruz now has its own welding shop, barbershop and several small carpenterías.
CECAP’s restaurant and artesanía shop are social enterprises, providing meaningful employment for women and men from Santa Cruz and improving the local economy.

The brightly lit and cheerful building has transformed itself into a production center, where visitors can see women making beaded jewelry, or sewing bags, aprons, or eternity scarves. Adults and youth are frequently in the carpentry shop, making puzzles, toys and furnishings.

More than 70 women are earning a fair wage, producing handicrafts that are sold in the Manos Cruceñas gift shop or to international, wholesale customers. These women are earning income for the first time in their lives, building their self-esteem and more financial security for their families.

The products are simply gorgeous. Designs are unique but current with international styles and every handmade product is of the highest quality. It is not unusual to see visitors spending lots of time in the small shop, where their only difficulty is in choosing amongst the beautiful wares or deciding which colors would be best for their friends and family.

Just beyond the gift shop and the sewing center is Café Sabor Cruceño, rapidly earning a reputation for the best Guatemalan food on Lake Atitlan. 20-year old Juan Carlos Mendoza, the chef and manager of the restaurant, was a young student looking for an opportunity in the first CECAP culinary arts class in 2011.

Cafe Sabor Cruceño Guatemala

Chef Juan Carlos creating his art at Café Sabor Cruceño (Patricia Torpie)

He found his passion in creating beautiful and delicious traditional food that now consistently receives rave reviews. Specialties include chicken or tofu pepian, (a national favorite) as well as suban-ik and jocón, traditional foods in the Atitlán area. My favorite is the tostada plate—fried tortillas with beans and salsa piled high with fresh salad and tomatoes.

The restaurant staff includes 4 other CECAP graduates and the kitchen is often bustling with this year’s 9 culinary arts students. The café is the real-life learning center for the students and Juan Carlos is their teacher.

The restaurant is beautifully decorated with local textiles and paintings, fresh flowers on the tables and wide windows with perhaps the very best panoramic view of Lake Atitlán and the volcanoes. Gasps can often be heard as visitors enter the restaurant and first see the vista.

Café Sabor Cruceño and Manos Cruceñas are becoming very popular with visitors to Lake Atitlán and are well on their way to being operationally sustainable and providing more employment in Santa Cruz.

Plans are underway to move the restaurant to the rooftop, where the view will be even more spectacular, and to enlarge the production center and gift shop. And, coming soon, visitors will be able to participate in beading, weaving or Guatemalan cooking classes.

In a few short years, CECAP has gone from a dream and a vision in the minds of the community to being the very heart of the community, providing training, economic opportunity, employment and positive role models for our youth.

Article by Jeanne Mendez

For more information about CECAP and Amigos de Santa Cruz, please visit Amigosdesantacruz.org. Or better yet, come to Santa Cruz and experience it all for yourself. From the public dock in Santa Cruz, you can make the invigorating walk up 325 vertical feet or for Q5 just ask the Tuc Tuc driver to take you to CECAP.

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