Juan’s Wood

    Everybody Wants It. Easy now!

    Juan’s wood is the best wood in Guatemala. C’mon, lets not go there, I know what you’re thinking! But it’s true. What Juan’s family has done for sustainable tree and plant farming is truly astonishing.

    One of my biggest problems living as an artist and craftsman in Guatemala is how to acquire dry straight-cut wood for my frames to stretch my paintings and textile pieces. There are a million tiendas selling pine wood here, but the wood is still wet, and it is far from sustainably harvested. And I don’t have time to sit around and wait for it to dry only to find that it soon warps anyway in this very humid climate. But just as important, I want the bulk of my art to be created from natural materials that are sustainably harvested causing as little damage to the earth as possible. Along with Juan’s wood, I am using volcanic ash, natural twine, biodegradeable and eco friendly canvas from the New Denim Project and Iris Textiles amongst other earth friendly materials. I truly believe that the dynamic presence of these materials helps to create great art that can be felt energetically as well as seen.

    So I had been searching for this wood for a long time until I finally met Juan. Ask and you shall receive they say. He changed everything. He told me he had a whole lot of beautiful mahogany, teak and some old rosewood that he drys in a home made kiln at his finca until it is at the proper humidity to use. These excellent hardwoods are a little overkill for my stretchers as I normally use cheaper pine, but if it is straight and dry, I’m all about it. And he offered me great price and a visit to his finca, Hacienda Rio Dulce, where he grows the wood. So I decided to check it out.

    Rio Dulce, Guatemala

    Rio Dulce, on the Dulce River in southern Guatemala is a paradise unknown to many. Lush tropical forests surround the main body of the river and its many tributaries. Back packers come from all over to enjoy the landscape, serenity, hostels, cheap beer and cheap delicious food. And sailors dock at one of the many hotels on their sojourns to and from Belize. It’s a beautiful place, home to unique towns like Livingston, Puerto Barrios, and Santo Tomas de Castilla. And it is home to one of the most amazing sustainable cacao plantations and hardwood tree farms in Central America. The finca (farm) is run by my friend Juan Bronson, a forest specialist, farmer and conservationist, who is becoming well known for his desire and dedication to save species of trees like Mahogany from almost certain extinction in this region. He inherited the land from his father and mother, who are professors, business people and tree huggers, who still have a deep connection to the land and business, but are now semi-retired and living in Northern California.

    Cacao pods are beautiful and grow abundantly on Juan’s farm.

    Juan used to work for the “Industry” in California, what professionals call the film industry. Go figure. I used to live in LA and I know from friends the intensity of sustaining a career in the movies. It’s no joke. So Juan and family left California a few years ago and started a much calmer and peaceful life here in Antigua, Guatemala. A lot of my expat buddies have done the same. It’s a real boot strap kind of place where so many people I know have started businesses here in tourism, textile crafts, clothing, carpentry, and like myself, art, among many other things. Juan’s wife Molly has a thriving textile business called Luna Zorro. Creativity here is essential. We all have relatively new families and we all left the USA to find a different life here in Guatemala.

    Hacienda Rio Dulce

    Rio Dulce is about a 5 or 6 hour drive from Antigua if you are lucky. It’s about 45 min by helicopter if you are really lucky. And it is about 6-8 hours by bus, “primero clase”, or “first class” (here first class is pretty much a Greyhound, but with bootlegged videos played at full volume) which is the option I chose. I left in the morning, but due to extensive traffic (as usual) I arrived in a town just outside of Rio Dulce at dark and waited for him to come get me by boat. Everything on the river is done by boat which is cool by me. After he picked me up went to the hotel and boat slip the neighboring his property, had a few beers and some food and went back to the cabins to get some sleep. I still had no idea about the property or what it looked like as it was pitch black when we got back. The only thing I could really see was a magnificent bridge that carried the highway into the main part of town.

    The next morning I awoke to all kinds of beautiful birds singing and a gorgeous property seen through blurry eyes of palm trees, flowers, deep forest and an expansive emerald green lawn. And on the other side of my cabin was the glorious Lake Izabel off the Rio Dulce river. This was a pretty magnificent way to start the day.

    My new crib for the weekend

    Flowers seen outside of my thatched roof hut on the lake.

    Bath time

    The finca

    This was way more than I expected and I was excited to start the day.

    Every day began with a trip by boat to Tortugal Hotel and Marina next door for breakfast. If you are ever in Rio Dulce you should check it out. All kinds of friendly seafaring people stop through on their travels from Belize and at night it is full of good hearted locals downing Gallo beer and coctails. We were there every day, the food and drink is great, and it made the trip that much more enjoyable.

    After breakfast we went back to the finca to check out the wood.

    Juan and his family have been growing Caoba trees (mahogany) for years among other species of trees like tropical cedar, teak, rosewood and zebra wood. The family, whose business is called Izabal Agro Forest, is now known as the premier cultivators of “true mahogany wood” in Central America. Please check out the history here, it is way beyond the scope of what I can talk about with regards to sustainable tree farming methods, but is is completely fascinating and essential to understand in this day and age of environmental decay and dissapearing species of plants, trees and animals.

    Listen to Juan describe Izabal Agro Forest with the one and only Bob Taylor, owner of Taylor guitars and the mastermind behind Bob Taylor’s World Wide Forestry Tour.

    As we walked along the path and into the deep forest, I marvelled at what the Bronson family has done over the years. Surrounded by old growth trees, teak, mahogany and cedar of all ages, I felt an immense amount of gratitude and peace wash over me from the abundant nature we were immersed in.

    Into the bosque….

    Old growth great great grand daddy along the way

    And Finally, the Wood

    As we we were meandering through the forest looking at all the plants and trees that were being cultivated, we came upon another open thatch-roofed hut, stacked to the brim with beautiful hardwoods, mostly teak and the prized Caoba wood I had come for.

    As we we were meandering through the forest looking at all the plants and trees that were being cultivated, we came upon another open thatch-roofed hut, stacked to the brim with beautiful hardwoods, mostly teak and the prized Caoba wood I had come for.

    After digging through the stacked wood, I picked out plenty of Caoba for my stretchers and a lot of teak for our furniture.

    What a relief to finally find the wood I needed and be able to go back anytime I need more. And to know the wood comes from a finca with conservation and sustainability always in practice.

    We set the hardwood aside for delivery to my studio, then went back to Tortugal for another round of Gallo beers and a big lunch. A great end to a really elightening and fruitful trip to Hacienda Rio Dulce.

    If you want to learn more about the Bronson’s incredible projects, please visit Izabalagroforest.com.

    Izabal Agro Forest’s Other Projects

    For all you guitar players out there like me, if you want to view a really cool project, check out what Juan did with Taylor guitars. He built a really beautiful custom acoustic guitar with Taylor which is made with hormigo wood that was grown on his property. Hormigo is the most sought after wood to craft marimbas which are extremely popular in Guatemala. See the guitar here.

    Bob Taylor, owner of Taylor guitars (which I spoke briefly of before), is on a mission to save the species of hardwoods like mahogany and rosewood which are used on so many quality acoustic guitars. His project is called World Forestry Tours and he is traveling the world and visiting tree farms such as Juan’s to support them and secure great hardwood for future generations of guitar players. Bob, who is extremely passionate about hardwood, says it best here: