A lonely hilltop in Guatemala seems the unlikeliest of places for a hobbit hole, but on a chilly spring night, I found myself being hauled up a mountain in the back of a pickup truck looking for just that. Too steep for anything but a four-wheel drive vehicle, the hill crested to reveal a small group of buildings, people making merry, and a goat grazing in a flower bed. But what caught my eye was a round blue door, so perfect it could have been stolen from the Lord of the Rings set in New Zealand.
I got out and stepped inside the door to the restaurant, half expecting to see Bilbo Baggins smoking a pipe. Rather, I found a list of drinks, including the Pomagrandalf and the Bilbojito, scrawled in chalk on the back wall.
Hobbitenango, or "land of the hobbits" in the indigenous Maya tongue, is a sustainability project, eco-hotel and restaurant modeled after Bag End and located outside Antigua, Guatemala.
The founder and co-owner of this endeavor is Guatemala native Roberto Arzu, a self-named dreamer, humanist, carpenter and Lord of the Rings enthusiast.
"We are not trying to be the Shire, or Hobbiton from New Zealand," Arzu said, while sipping a Firespell — hot chocolate with tequila and a kick of chili powder. "We are trying to be a hobbit village that has its own story of fantasy situated and born here in Guatemala; it is not a replica of any other."
While it maintains its distinctly Guatemalan flavor, Hobbitenango's story has roots that reach around the globe. Arzu was a sailor in the Mediterranean working on classic ships for 10 years before returning to settle in his homeland. Using the money he had earned sailing as his initial capital, he and his father bought a piece of land intending to start a social, entrepreneurial project. Just as the Lord of the Rings movies were hitting the big screen, Arzu's research into eco-friendly houses led him to learn of a hobbit-hole experiment in Wales ... and Hobbitenango was born.
"People looked at me like I was a crazy man," Arzu said.
A taste of Middle Earth
Daniel Terzuola, the co-owner of Hobbitenango, was born in Guatemala but grew up in New Mexico. He moved back as an adult and opened a comic book store in Antigua with the intent of promoting literacy in the region. There, he met Arzu and joined the venture, together making plans to open at least 10 hobbit houses, a farmers market and a restaurant.
"The first time I went up there I will always remember… I remember thinking 'Where are the unicorns?' Because it's too magical up here," Terzuola said.
With the restaurant, bar and first hobbit hole ready for some 400 guests that visit on an average weekend, mostly Guatemalan, the two are now working an archery range using homemade bows, so visitors can channel their inner-Legolas and "protect each other from the orcs," as Arzu told me. The area also has a campsite, a walking trail through the nearby forest and a terrace for sunset views.
These views are perhaps the real sell for Hobbitenango. They seem to combine Middle Earth’s most iconic landscapes. The idyllic drive up from Antigua through tiny villages dotting the hills, the land stitched by agriculture, is reminiscent of the Shire’s farmlands. The five volcanos looming on the horizon evoke Mount Doom or the Misty Mountains shrouded by clouds.
Its human and animal counterparts are also an apt realization of Tolkien's fictional land in a modern world. Arzu told me that while the community may not be comprised of dwarves and elves, he compared its diversity to the books' eclectic group of travelers.
"We are a fellowship of the ring… We are indigenous, we are ladino, we are foreigners, we are lower middle educated uneducated and a strong family really fighting together for this project because it benefits everybody," said Arzu.
Building up the community
Arzu and Terzuola employ 23 locals as waiters, drivers, cleaners, managers and cooks from what they say is one of the poorest villages in the province. With a population of around 1,500 people, the village is plagued by chronic poverty and lack of educational opportunities. In Arzu's reasoning, 23 individuals earning a decent salary means 23 families supported, making a relatively significant ripple effect of economic impact for one business.
One such employee is Ivan Rodrigo Archila, a 21-year-old native of Vuelta Grande, the village near Hobbitenango. Archila and his brother grew up in the village with no mother and an absent father, leaving them even more vulnerable to the cycle of poverty. But through Hobbitenango, they are employed, live on the grounds, and Archila is now training to be a manager.
"My dream is to stay here and see how the project grows," he told me while stroking Frodo, the resident cat.
Archila said his home village has mostly prospered from foreign organizations' investment and services that the state isn't offering. So Hobbitenango as a truly Guatemalan effort is all the more impactful.
"We want the money and the empowerment to stay in the village," Terzuola said.
Alba Esperanza, a woman dressed in the traditional Mayan garb of an embroidered guipil, told me she provides for her three kids with what she earns at her housekeeping job at Hobbitenango.
"For me this is a huge help. With what I earn here, I can keep moving forward," she said. "But I would like to learn more here, too, like how to be a cook."
This investment in local human capital is more than economic. Arzu and Terzuola also consider the venture an investment in the region's environmental health.
A greener Guatamela
Run entirely on solar and wind energy, Hobbitenango uses permaculture and a zero trash policy to stay true to its mission. The restaurant's internal skeletal structure is filled with recycled plastic bottles. Arzu told me while that the bottles serve virtually no structural function, this alternative technique prevents them from ending up in a landfill or making their way to the ocean.
"You are giving a perpetual grave to 5,000 bottles in one house," Arzu explained.
The adjoining cafe is also a perpetual grave to several thousand egg cartons that serve the same function. Hobbitenango is one of the first businesses in Guatemala to use these alternative building techniques. And this approach is beginning to influence the surrounding community. Archila explained that he has seen people in his community begin to recycle trash instead of burning it or tossing it.
"Because we use all of our trash here, some members of the community are beginning to have ideas about how to change their way of life," he said.
Residents of Guatemala are divided on ecological issues. Environmentalism has not yet emerged as a national movement. Meanwhile, habitat loss, contamination and air quality are critical issues facing the country. Much of the country's land is agricultural, and people use traditional methods to throw away waste, many assuming that the Earth will take care of it.
"That was true a 100 years ago, but not anymore." Terzuola said.
Tolkien himself was no proponent of industry, and Arzu and Terzoula's intent is to create a space where people can "disconnect to reconnect."
"This is magical, this is fantasy, this is a frontier where your self passes into another realm," Arzu said.
I felt myself passing into another realm when I heard a fellow visitor on the terrace exclaim: "Mirá la erupción!"
I looked behind me and saw Fuego on the horizon, one of the country's seven active volcanoes, spewing out lava, glowing red against the night sky.
The War of the Ring was just ending in Guatemala.