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Tales from La Angostura, Guatemala, A Project in the Making – Chapter 3: Preparing to do Something

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To be sure, buying a nice piece of land requires a lot of effort and a few happy accidents. Things have to happen ‘just right’ in order for you to acquire a highly valuable property with little cash and a lot of complications, but, who said it was going to be easy?

As with everything in this life, when you overcome great complications, you feel like you’ve accomplished a great thing, and tend to think that things afterwards will be easier. Most of the time, things go the other way: once you’ve proved to yourself that you can do great things, you’ll probably find an even greater challenge lying ahead, so you can prove again that you have more capabilities than you ever thought you had.

So, this has been the case with La Angostura project.

After my wife and I bought the land, we’ve had even more financial stress, up to the point that we’ve thought about selling the land and turning our back on the project, despite the heartache that this gives us.

Life is like this. Sometimes you work so hard for something that destiny simply does not want you to have or do. Sometimes you have to be willing to let it go, and after you do, things start rolling your way. It’s quite ironic, but things are this way.

So, we put up some classifieds to sell the land and nobody responded. If this does not mean that we’re meant to have it and execute our project there, then please tell me what does it mean!!

Starting the work (at my desk)

The first step was to read Bill Mollison’s books again, at least the Designers’ Manual. With this book in my hands, I started to learn the first steps that I had to take before anything could happen.

I had it clear in my mind that I needed to ensure the project had enough water to function, and to accomplish this I needed a water source, somewhere to collect it, a way to transport it and a way to ensure it was clean and ready to use.

Of course, with electric energy, fuel and a lot of money, these issues are a walk in the park; but being that we want this project to be a demonstration site, we cannot simply connect to the mains and hope for the best.

So we had to assess everything that the land had to offer and then think how to design with those elements to accomplish what we wanted.

The first thing we did was to get an aerial picture (Google Earth did not provide good pictures at that time — unluckily, the picture they had had a great cloud over the land, so most of it was impossible to see).

We found that the local Maps Office had aerial pictures of the land in high definition, so we bought one.

The sad thing is that this was a JPG image file, with no elevations and so no possibility to take measurements, so things were quite complicated in order to evaluate elevations, water courses and more.

Check my aerial picture:

So we decided to walk. We went to the site and walked through, trying to determine where the most interesting areas for our water challenge were.

We found a few water holes, plateaus, high areas, low areas, small gullies and other indicators on where water passed. Also, we analyzed vegetation, so we could determine what the intensity of the wind on the site was.

This field trip gave us a lot of ideas and we could begin to see where could we invest our efforts for best effect.

Our master plan

We found ourselves with a truckload of ideas and possibilities, only limited by imagination. But, later, we landed back on earth after finding out that our pool of ideas had to be limited, not by imagination, but by finances.

We had to make a master plan that could identify what was first priority and what would have to wait.

To start with our plan we needed a full topographic map of the land, with contour lines every meter or so. Without this, our master plan was near to impossible, so we managed to buy one.

With this we had the basics to start planning.

How much water do we have?

We have five water holes. They seem to have water all year, but how much water can they deliver in the driest months? We didn’t know. So, we had to wait until the driest month came and recheck the water supply at that time. February came, and we discovered the water level in all of our holes was almost down to zero. This leaves us with great problems, since we need to provide for those dry months.

What to do with a low water supply?

We do have a few things to do: our biggest water hole has an almost steady pure water production all year, but most of the water runs off the land into the river. We decided to put a small dam on it, but the worst problem was that the land absorbs the water and it runs off. Reading more, we found out that there is a system called ‘gley’, which consists of waterproofing the soil with an organic ferment plus soil.

So, we ‘gleyed’ the soil.

Then, we had to build the dam. We found the narrowest point because this would give us better hold for the wall and would need less material. We decided upon which materials to use, because we didn’t want to spend a lot importing heavy materials using great quantities of fuel.

Analyzing our land, we found out that we have great quantities of limestone, so we decided to use limestone with a light lime and cement mortar. We would have to use a heavier mortar to seal off the corners, so this is the plan.

This will give us enough water to drink and use in households, but we calculate that with four or five cubic meters of water a day on average, we cannot supply more than five homes. However, it is at least enough for employees and WWOOFers that may come someday.

Large quantities of water

If we want to develop the whole site, and plant a lot of crops and trees and have fun in the process, we need large quantities of water.

Our obvious option was the Rio Dulce river, that carries great quantities of water to the sea, but since we are in the river mouth, water runs salty in our area, and this is a great problem. We would have to build desalinization stations in order to use that water, and this is either too complicated or too expensive. So we had to find another solution.

I contacted the national weather office, and asked for the rain figures in our area. It seems we have an annual precipitation of 3,000 to 5,000 millimeters on average. This explains the exuberant growth of all plants in the area.

So, we had to analyze which parts of the land were the best to concentrate water, keep it and later move it by gravity to wherever we would need to use it.

Water reservoirs

After walking around with a GPS in my hand and scrutinizing the topo map, we found that there were several areas suitable to make water reservoirs. You can check on the map above and see what I mean.

These areas are like holes, and in some cases, have small entrances that can be closed with a dam. Most of them are in the areas where water runs naturally downhill, so they are very good to retain it.

You can see also that there is a large area in the lowest point of the land. This is the area where we want to make a large pond where we will produce fish, watercress, etc. Also, to aid in the enjoyment of the project, we wish to have a few paddle boats, which will also help to aerate the water.

But, before…

Water comes first, but before water comes people. We need to provide our workers (and ourselves) with a good area to pass the night.

We thought that the least expensive way to provide this was to down a few trees and make a little timber. So we did.

You can see that this simple house has recycled advertising on the roof. We will use it for insulation from heat, once we install the metal sheet roof (it is difficult to establish which roof material has lower carbon footprint).

Later, we will build the walls with superadobe. We already have our quote for the polyethylene tubing and we are awaiting the TerraZyme quote for stabilizing our soils.

When our house is ready…

Once the house is ready we will be able to open the site for WWOOFers.

We will prepare an acre or so of land to hold chickens and a couple of pigs, so we can prepare nice meals for our visitors. Also, we will plant our vegetables. In the initial months we will not be 100% self-sufficient of course, but happily we have a lot of neighbors that can prepare delicious food with fish, shrimp and other ocean delicacies.

As you saw, we have great quantities of stone, so we will build our dams with that. Depending on the quantity of water to be held, we may have to reinforce, but it depends on calculations made by the engineers. We want to do things as ‘green’ as possible, but we also don’t want catastrophes.

Then, the water reservoirs

The next step will be to continue with the master plan, especially the zoning of the project.

In my next article I will share with you all that we have analyzed in order to elucidate how to design our zones. This may be the most important thing in the design, after water management.

So, see you in the next one!


  1. Yes, Joshua. Please visit the site. You can find here my other articles and if you wish, you can write anytime. I am always awaiting your valuable comments and suggestions. All the best,

    Juan P.

  2. Via the link in my last comment, Joshua, you’ll get an idea of the vision behind this. Instead of 1 million (often obscure and unread) blogs, where project leaders spend too much time and/or money trying to raise traffic levels (and usually failing since they don’t know enough about websites and don’t have enough content to post, etc.) instead of working on the ground where they can do the most good…, we try to be a ‘portal’, where people can take advantage of our high traffic count to bring more attention to what they’re doing, with the goal of their receiving lots of suggestions and potentially other support. All permaculture sites around the world, PRI or not, can also benefit, with increased interest, increased student counts, and the PRI gets a little more support to help start new projects, and provide better networking tools for permaculturists, like

    It’s a win-win – or at least the best we can come up with within the constraints of a very skewed system.

  3. Hey Juan,

    Nice to read the update. Keep em coming!

    Those rock walls look like the same as the rock walls here, but with different vegetation. As they say, “same, same, but different”. It is amazing how often solutions from one part of the globe can be applied to other parts of the globe. I ripped the idea about the rock walls whilst reading about the lives of peasant farmers in Liguria, Italy. Yours look really good and quite organic.

    3m to 5m of rain per year. Oh my!

    I can’t speak from experience about tropical soils, but here I try to get all of the available water stored in the ground. It is a worthwhile ambition because the water evaporates slower (if at all) and moves through the landscape slower. Get it right and you won’t have to worry about watering fruit trees over high summer (and here it can get to 40 degrees Celsius with a relative humidity below 10% sometimes).



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