The open-air ferry glides smoothly along the calm waters of the Talofofo river. The jungle along both banks is thick and lush. A few moments into the ride the boat rounds a bend to reveal a well-manicured clearing. There is a large A-frame hut with a thatched coconut frond roof, and smoke billows from a cooking fire on one side. Across the way, there are several rows of ancient latte stones.
As the boat slows toward a wooden landing, a small group of “villagers” approaches to greet the visitors. These locals are mostly young men, tanned and well-muscled, clad only in loincloths. As the guests alight they are guided toward an older man, still quite fit, the obvious leader of the village. After confirming with the young villagers that the visitors will respect the land, the elder welcomes them in.
The river tour has been in operation since the late 80’s, but group Managing Director David Tydingco says they wanted to reinvigorate the entire sense of place and culture, “and what better way to do it than to actually create a living village.“ Tydingco partnered with his long-time friend and business associate Bruce Kloppenburg to launch the newly renamed Valley of the Latte tour in June of this year.
The Ulitao group of traditional canoe builders is the newest addition to the tour. “They were looking for a permanent home. We thought what better place for them to call home than a place they actually built, so we invited them down here, and they’re now an integral part of the entire experience, and it allows us to be able to share truly what a living village was hundreds of years ago through Ron Acfalle and his group,” Tydingco explains.
“We were a seafaring people, and so, what you’re going to be able to get is first, an education of what this particular part of the island has to offer as a living village, but ultimately (Ulitao’s) specialty is to carve canoes, and so you’re gonna be able to get lessons on how the ancients built canoes to sail the world,” Tydingco adds.
The tour is part cultural, part recreational experience. In addition to the main jungle river ride, customers can go kayaking on the river, go tilapia fishing in an eco-friendly pond, visit a 6.5-acre plantation that produces fruits and vegetables for local businesses, and take the always popular carabao rides. “When people travel around the world, they’re looking for what is so unique about a destination…this is a very special, magical area,” Tydingco says.
John Aguon, who operates the carabao rides, grew up in the surrounding village. “We call this a ‘lancho’ (Chamorro for ranch). All of these latte’s were already in existence here; they weren’t relocated. This is an actual site, you can feel the spirit of our ancestors here,” he reveals.
The latte stones were used as building supports by the ancient Chamorros. They are pillars with capstones that are typically made of limestone. The presence of latte stones is seen as a sign of an ancient village or community. “All along the river valley, this place was thought to be the most populated area prior to the arrival of the Spanish. It had fresh water for cooking and drinking and cleaning, and for farming. Ultimately this connects all the way to Fena Lake, and Fena was kind of the lifeblood for this entire river valley,” Tydingco explains.
He adds that based on personal feedback and comments he’s read on travel websites, visitors seem to be enjoying the experience. “They’re really surprised and awed by the actual history of this area. And that reaction is basically manifested in their write-ups in Trip Advisor. They write that ‘the people are great, the experience is great, and they really love the cultural education that they get when they come down here.’”
Tydingco says the Valley of the Latte group is also proud of the fact that they’ve gotten so much support from residents of the South. “We’re giving it new life through all the people who are part of this team. Most of the people who have come down here are from the southern villages. This is a continuing effort so that we kind of shine down here, and share what is so good about Guam.”
What the Valley of the Latte really wants to be is an education center, says Tydingco. “We can educate and entertain and share our history by bringing it to life.”
Aguon adds, “(Visitors) want to experience the culture. They want to feel it, touch it.”
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