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SigloNews - Peter Rockstroh

Hotel Isleta de Gaia Shows Us How It’s Done

With very few exceptions, the rural hotel industry in Guatemala is going through tough times. Many small hotels show low occupation rates and tour operators aren’t exactly putting clients on waiting lists. Some say it’s the weather; others say it’s the pre-election months, the violence, the recession or the flu. In any case, there seem to be more explanations of why the tourism industry is experiencing a slump than initiatives on how to overcome these symptoms.

In the midst of this bleak panorama I found myself looking for a place to spend a weekend with the family, and when someone told me there was a new hotel going up, I got curious. Very curious indeed, especially after trying to make reservations in two nearby hotels, both of which had no rooms available because they went out of business. It sure takes …something… to open a hotel while your neighbors are closing up shop, and I intended to find out what that something was.

The existence of Hotel Isleta de Gaia reached me via Guatemala’s fastest mass media communication system - that is, mouth-to-mouth, or rather mouth-to-ear. I visited their web-site (http://www.isleta-de-gaia.com), booked a bungalow on-line, and received their confirmation via e-mail next day. This was an amazing feat, considering how wonderful phone connections have been lately. Their website is an eclectic mixture of marketing, ecology, philosophy and images, and it gets the job done. It has accurate directions on how to get there, a complete chart of accommodations, services and pricing, and a brief description of the hotel, its surroundings and attractions.

Isleta de Gaia is located two hours southeast of Guatemala City, on a strip of beach between the Pacific Ocean and the Canal de Chiquimulilla, near the town of Las Lisas, close to the border of El Salvador.

There are two ways to reach Las Lisas: you can drive to Escuintla and from there take the road east (CA-2) to Taxisco/El Salvador, or you can take the highland road to El Salvador (CA-1) and drive south at the crossroads to Chiquimulilla. Shortly after driving through this town you´ll reach the intersection with the coastal highway (CA-2), where you drive left (east) until you see the sign pointing towards Las Lisas.

18 Km south of this intersection the road ends at the edge of the mangrove-fringed Canal de Chiquimulilla, where you leave your car at any of the parking lots and take a boat to the hotel. If you confirm hour of arrival when you make your reservation, the hotel’s captain will pick you up at the dock of Port Sarampaña, although calling those cement remnants a "dock" is almost as big an exaggeration as calling the town "Port Sarampaña." After a pleasant 15-minute ride along the main channel you finally reach the hotel grounds, whose palm-thatched water tower can be spotted from a distance.

Isleta de Gaia promotes itself as an "exclusive bungalow hotel," and the words couldn’t be more fitting. Half a dozen colorful palm-roof bungalows surround a crystal-clear pool. There are an additional four smaller beachfront bungalows and three more facing the channel. The kitchen and restaurant overlook pool and beach, and on the opposite side of the complex a water tower/observation platform completes the installation. The impeccably kept hotel grounds are criss-crossed by a series of concrete walkways, and the gardens (laid out on a gardener-challenging substrate of volcanic sand and rocks) are slowly beginning to take shape.

 The hotel is managed by Laetitia and Frederic, a French couple who initiated this project two years ago and opened their doors to the public in mid-July. When construction started, the hotel still didn’t have electricity, and as Frederic is telling us the story a few deep sighs between smiles indicate he has learned the deeper meaning of fíjese and no tenga pena the hard way. He speaks mainly Spanish with his guests, and his pleasant accent sounds like the documentary voice dubbing Jacques Cousteau (had Cousteau learned his Spanish in Las Lisas).

 Accommodation rates range between US$ 35.00 - 40.00 per person/day for bed & breakfast. Each bungalow room has a single and a double bed with mosquito netting, bath and closet. An overhead fan provides circulation under the high roofs and large glassless windows allow for air and light. The hotel also supplies hammocks hung under the bungalow’s terrace for those richly deserved siestas absolutely necessary after the hotel’s generous meals.

The kitchen is managed by Laetitia and offers a tasteful array of Mediterranean cuisine, with an obvious inclination towards seafood. Plates range from US$3.50 - 9.00, and with willpower, concentration and a little help from my family I managed to go through most of the menu in two-and-a-half days.

 And, except for the cocktails (which had a price tag a little too stiff for my liver), there’s nothing I wouldn’t recommend.

 After this pleasant weekend, it was easy to identify that special "something" that made the owners decide to open a hotel at a time when others are closing their doors. That "something" is what makes the tourism industry click and it is called service. With the owners living on the premises (rather than managing the hotel by remote control, as so often is the case), a simple request is not subject to discussion or evaluation by waiters, administrators or the cleaning lady; it is simply carried out.

I can only recommend visiting Isleta de Gaia, especially now when they’re just starting up and there’s still space available. I suspect it won’t stay like that for long.

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