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How Female Artisans Are Reclaiming Indigenous Heritage in Guatemala

“Now with technology, everything is “copy and paste”. There’s no innovation.” Doña Gloria Estella emphasises the words “copy and paste” in English.

She points to the huipiles, the traditional Maya woven top that her and her colleagues are wearing. All are hand-woven, using designs conceived by their “abuelas” (grandmothers).

“We’re reviving designs; we’re reviving drawings from our ancestors,” she continues. “Our art, it’s not artisanía (craft). It’s art.”

Her colleagues from the Consejo de Tejedoras de Santo Domingo Xenacoj (The Weaving Council of Santo Domingo Xenacoj) follow with a demonstration of the painstaking work that goes into each and every textile that they produce.

We’re shown designs that represent spiritual, indigenous Maya concepts and others inspired by the fauna of Guatemala: the red and white stripes of the dead rooster, a symbol of life and death, sit alongside a russet coloured squirrel with cobalt blue dots, and a bright pink and purple pair of birds, resting on a leafy plant.

Weavers in Santo Domingo Xenacoj, a sustainable weaving community in Guatemala
Ancient Maya patterns being reproduced by the talented women of Santo Domingo Xenacoj, a sustainable weaving community in Guatemala.

Although many of the estimated seven million people of indigenous Maya descent in Guatemala wear huipiles as part of their daily life, ancestral patterns that go back thousands of years are only now being revived, following a tireless quest to go back through the history of Maya textiles.

This is easier said than done. Many of these ancient designs were burned by the Maya when the Spanish conquistadors arrived in Guatemala in the 1500s. Not only do these items of clothing indicate your ethnic and geographical identity, they have a role in spiritual and religious practices and the Maya feared that the invaders could steal their spiritual “energy” through their textiles.

But wearing a huipil to reflect which town you originate from became a matter of life and death during the brutal Guatemalan civil war that killed 100,000 mostly Maya people between 1960 and the signing of the peace accords in 1996.

As a result, weaving was a dying art.

Weaving workshops and supporting a fair wage

Doña Gloria Estella holds up textiles woven by the Consejo de Tejedoras de Santo Domingo Xenacoj (The Weaving Council of Santo Domingo Xenacoj) that show ancestral Maya symbols and designs.

But the women of Santo Domingo Xenacoj have taken all of this into their stride, forming a weaving collective and opening a school.

Young women from the town come here to learn how to weave on heavy back strap looms. Their first task is to reproduce the historic, Maya symbols that adorned their ancestors’ clothing.

Along the way, despite reflecting thousands of years of indigenous history, each of these symbols comes to have its own individual meaning, ascribed by the creativity and beliefs of the weaver.

It’s “copy and paste” but with a few millennia of culture thrown behind it.

Weaving by the Santo Domingo Xenacoj weaving cooperative using ancestral Guatemalan designs and patterns.
One of the women’s textiles, woven to include symbols such as the dead rooster and the squirrel.

The community has very tentatively opened its doors to tourists, now working directly with sensitive local agencies such as the brilliant Guate4you.

We’re given a weaving demonstration, which, if we had time, would follow with an actual workshop to learn how to weave our own textiles – albeit those with simplified designs.

The elaborate, exquisite textiles that the women of Santo Domino Xenacoj produce evidence incredible skill and a fundamental connection with the complex Maya history that they are weaving into their work.

Visitors can also purchase some of the community’s textiles – an act that plays a significant role in supporting the town’s women and their families, while bolstering their ambitious aims of protecting their country’s hard-fought Maya heritage.

Buying directly from the weavers has another critical advantage. Although a tzute – a multipurpose strip of textile used as a shawl or a makeshift bag – can take six months to a year of work, companies that buy these items to sell in international markets can end up paying the weaver as little as 11 quetzales ($1 USD) per day.

Similarly, huipiles, which can take several months to make, are sold in the markets of nearby Antigua Guatemala for a mere 250 quetzales ($33 USD). If you buy them directly from the weavers, they charge $200 USD.

The latter is an equitable reflection of the weavers’ long hours of labour and their absolute skill as craftswoman. By buying Maya textiles, you’re investing in art.

Brightening the streets of Santa Catarina Palopó

It’s just under three hours’ drive from Santo Domingo Xenacoj to reach Santa Catarina Palopó, a colourful town skirting the gleaming waters of Lake Atitlán, Guatemala’s second most visited tourist destination.

It’s not hard to see the appeal of this lake, surrounded by volcanoes dripping with foliage, whose domed crests are often laced with tendrils of cloud.

As we arrive, in the skies above the town kites catch the late afternoon breeze in preparation for the annual Todos los Santos (All Saints) kite festivals held across the country.

Like the textiles of Santo Domingo Xanacoj, Santa Catarina Palopó is facing a rebirth. In the past two years, 172 of the town’s few-thousands houses have been redecorated using traditional colours.

These reflect the town’s huipil designs; red was used previously in the their huipiles, while blue is the colour used to weave the modern ones.

See the huipil-inspired painting of the houses in Santa Catarina Palopo, an unmissable thing to do in Guatemala if you wish to learn more about local communities
Houses painted to reflect the colours of Santa Catarina Palopo’s huipiles as part of the Pintado Santa Catarina project.

As we wander through the quiet, slumbering streets of town, we stumble upon many of these homes, their roofs red and walls blue, the latter featuring painted figures of quetzales (the national bird of Guatemala), butterflies and cats, alongside more abstract geometric patterns.

The face-lifts the houses have undergone are part of the mostly female-led project Pintado Santa Catarina. We meet 17-year-old Jasmine, one of the representatives and a local resident, who’s studying accountancy at a nearby university.

In flawless English, she talks about their ambitious plans, with 850 buildings set to be painted by the end of 2019. It’s no mean feat: the cost per building is around $580 USD but the community is positive that they’ll be successful.

Each family gets the final say in how their home is decorated, with a group of painters employed by the project coming into complete the work.

But the aims are more than just aesthetic. Their mission is to improve living standards for the people of Santa Catarina Palopó, all while putting it on the map as a destination in its own right, developing a sustainable tourism initiative for the future.

Jasmine from Pintado Santa Catarina, a sustainable tourism project on the shores of Lake Atitlan, Guatemala
Jasmine, dressed in a traditional Santa Catarina Palopó huipil stands in front of the – unsurprisingly – brightly-painted headquarters of Pintado Santa Catarina

Most of the inhabitants of the town live in poverty; it’s hoped that this project will be the driving force to facilitate further community development, with money pegged for investment in the local school and healthcare centre, as well as improving water and waste facilities in the local area.

Organic textiles in San Juan La Laguna

Across Lake Atitlán, and reached by one of the covered speedboats that zip between the half a dozen towns that line its shores, San Juan La Laguna is stacked into the gently folded volcanic mountains that surround the lake’s crystalline waters.

It’s a neat village, where vibrant, Maya heritage-inspired graffiti jumps out from street walls and a neat, cobblestone main square fronting the 16th-century church is full of young children dragging home-made tissue paper kites in clashing oranges, blues and pinks.

The crystalline waters of Lake Atitlan, top of what to do in Guatemala and bursting with sustainable tourism initiatives
Views of picture-perfect Lake Atitlan, Guatemala.

Like Santa Catarina Palopó, the community is also a regional pioneer in sustainable tourism. The Rupalaj Kistalin cooperative has been working since 2003 to attract tourists, focusing on cultural exchange that allows visitors to better understand Maya heritage.

They now send tourists to seven different projects around the town and have 26 families offering posadas Mayas: homestays with indigenous Maya families.

As part of their commitment to sustainability, they also lead reforestation projects around the local area, spend 15 days per year teaching about environmental sustainability in the local school and run a lake clean four times a year.

A Mayan woman in a weaving cooperative in San Juan La Laguna dyes yarn using organic dye
A demonstration showing how yarn can be tinted using natural dyes such as annatto seeds and avocado tree bark.

One of the projects they work with is the Ixoq Ajkeem weaving community, a 40-woman-strong cooperative that has permitted women the means to begin earning money in what – throughout Guatemala – is a male-dominated economy.

Through a certain economic independence, they know regard themselves as “useful in the family”, as Martina and Gabriela from the collective tell us.

Like Santo Domino Xanacoj, they run weaving demonstrations for tourists, who learn about their use of organic, natural dyes to colour their yarn.

These are made by boiling the leaves of various different plants from the region: the whistle tree produces vivid yellow; annatto seeds from the achiote tree give bright orange; and bark from the avocado tree grants a muted brown, similar to the colour of cork.

But the most interesting is the zacatina plant. If boiled, the leaves normally produce a pale blue. However, if you do this during a full moon, the colour comes out grey.

No one knows exactly how or why it happens, but our guide attests to its veracity and various different women who I speak to in the village mention it too.

After the demonstration, we’re left to wander around the kaleidoscope of colour that is their shop. 85% of the sale of each item goes directly to its specific weaver; each item is labelled with a tag indicating exactly who produced it.

It’s hard not to leave with the entire shop’s worth of delicately woven scarves, brightly dyed baby shoes or pretty shoulder bags, but I limit myself to buying a poncho for 210 quetzales ($27 USD).

A family welcome driven by female empowerment

In indigenous communities across Guatemala, men are usually the bread-winners.

However, as my homestay mum Lourdes, 35, recounts as she walks me back to her house – my home for the night in San Juan La Laguna – the influx of tourists supporting female-dominated sectors such as weaving, medicinal plants and homestays, have provided local women economic and social opportunities that were previously unheard of.

My family from a homestay in San Juan La Lagun on lake Atitlan, Guatemala
My homestay family in San Juan La Laguna: Loudres (top), Catalina (middle left) and Marisol (bottom right).

It’s been a long journey over the past fifteen years as Guatemala has been forced by the efforts of brave groups of women to face up to its entrenched machismo and recognise that women share the same rights and obligations as their husbands. As Lourdes tells me with a palpable sense of relief, “the culture was very machisto; it’s less so now”.

But the impact of tourism on the families of San Juan La Laguna runs far deeper. Back at Lourdes’ house, I meet the rest of the family. Pablo her husband is 38, chatty and wears a Nirvana shirt; we later share a mutual love of rock music as he waxes lyrical about Metallica, Red Hot Chilli Peppers and Guns and Roses and the surprising circuit of Guatemalan rock bands that play in San Juan La Laguna every now and then.

His passion is even more powerful when it comes to his two daughters, Marisol, 9, and Catalina, 8.

Pablo is determined they will have the opportunity to learn English, a skill he recognises as essential for them to succeed in a country increasingly dependent on tourism but also one opening itself up to the rest of the world.

Becoming one of the circuit of houses used for the community homestays will help the family to achieve this goal. When I arrive, he shakes my hand vigorously and welcomes me with a sincere “thank you for coming to stay with us.”

Kite flying in the main square of San Juan La Laguna, one of the towns on Lake Atitlan, Guatemala and filled with sustainable things to do and visit
Children prepare for the Todos Los Santos (All Saints Day) kite celebrations in the square of Santa Juan La Laguna, Lake Atitlan.

Lourdes talks to me about the girls as we sit together in their light and airy breakfast room, an extension made possible by grants through the Planeterra program, a social enterprise run by the founder of adventure tour company, G Adventures.

As she doesn’t feel the state school has enough disciple or rigour, she’s opted to send them to the local colegio, a private school charging 50 quetzales ($6.5 USD) per month.

It’s a lot of cash for many families, “particularly if they have five or six children, there’s no chance they’d be able to afford it.”

But families such as Lourdes’ now have two incomes: those of the husbands who generally work plots of land surrounding the town, and those of the wives who welcome tourists into the home, providing them with comfortable but simple lodgings and a truly warm reception.

Pablo and Lourdes on average receive between six and eight couples per month, a not insignificant form of income that combines with Pablo’s work on the family land, which lies a 30-minute walk away on one the surrounding hillsides.

Tradition Guatemalan patin served up by the posadas Mayas of Rupalaj Kistalin, a sustainable tourism agency based in San Juan La Laguna, Lake Atitlan
Tradition Guatemalan patin served on a machan leaf.

Dinner is in the main community centre of the Rupalaj Kistalin, where tour families cook up a storm, serving steaming plates of patin: shredded chicken cooked in fresh tomato with rice and presented on a machan leaf. Black corn tortillas, slapped into perfectly circular shapes, arrive separately.

The conversation flows, as the homestay guests and their families sit across from one another at the long, communal table and discussions about the town and life in Guatemala quickly unfold.

That evening, Pablo, Catalina, Marisol and I return to the house, as Loudres helps finish up cleaning in the communal kitchen. She’d told me previously about the impact that the project had had on her girls, who were originally scared of tourists and then became far too involved: “they used to cry when they [the tourists] left so we had to sit them down and explain why they came. Now they’re used to it; it’s a great experience.”

Marisol slips her hand into mine as we trudge up the hill through the dark streets of San Juan La Laguna. I can’t believe that she was once scared of the families’ guests: despite her tiny size, she’s exceptionally confident and articulate and has a wild, fantastical imagination.

As we walk, she chatters away about the different jobs she wants when she grows up, which range from an architect and painter, to a basketball player and singer.

Mayan-inspired murals in the streets of San Juan La Laguna, Lake Atitlan
Maya-inspired murals in the streets of San Juan La Laguna, Lake Atitlan.

But she’s definitely most attached to the second one. Plucking a paintbrush from a pocket in her trousers, she pretends to paint in the sky above, adding in the pinpricks of stars and the thin wispy clouds that hang in slivers above.

I’m promised that the next day, she won’t paint any clouds so that I can finally see the peak of Volcán San Pedro that looms over the town.

As we reach the house and I bid the family good night, Marisol and Catalina clinging to my waist in miniature bear-hugs, I can’t help but think that the opportunities that the cooperative, but more importantly, Lourdes and Pedro have provided both girls.

They have given them a fighting chance of becoming exactly whatever they want in the future.

The next morning, as we get back into our speedboat and start out across the lake, turning to watch as San Juan La Laguna disappears behind us, I notice the wreath of surrounding volcanoes. The sky above is a flawless, limitless blue.

How to visit these sustainable tourism initiatives in Guatemala

All of the activities mentioned above are accessible from Antigua Guatemala, one of the country’s prettiest and most historic cities and a fine place to learn about Maya heritage and culture.

There are also a wealth of other things to do in Guatemala across the country and you can plan how to visit these destinations with our one and two-week Guatemala itineraries.

Santo Domingo Xenacoj

Although it is possible to reach Santo Domingo Xenacoj using public transport, you’ll get far more from the experience if you visit with a sustainable local tour operator. The weaving community only works with pre-arranged tours, anyway.

A visit to the weaving community of Santo Domingo Xenacoj is a must on any list of what to do in Guatemala, thanks to its focus on community-led and sustainable tourism.
A weaving workshop in Santo Domingo Xanacoj.

The highly-recommended Guate4You, run by the fabulous Ivania and Richard (both of whom speak exceptional English and know everything there is to know about Guatemala), is your best option. They work sensitively with indigenous communities across Guatemala and have acres of local knowledge.

Tours leaving from Antigua Guatemala and visiting the weaving community and other local groups in the Santo Domingo Xenacoj, plus a local lunch, start from $125 USD per person (minimum of three), which goes down to $75 USD per person for a group of six or above.

Santa Catarina Palopó

Buses from Antigua Guatemala operated by A Viajar Guatemala (7th Avenue North 20, Antigua Guatemala) shuttle between the city and Panajachel five times daily, with up-to-date bus times and prices available on their website.

You need to book via Whatsapp or head into their office as the service picks you up directly from your hostel or hotel and costs $116 quetzales ($15 USD). It takes around two and a half hours from Antigua Guatemala.

A local girl poses for photographs outside her family's shop in the indigenous community of Santa Catarina Paolopo
A local girl poses for photographs outside her family’s shop in the indigenous community of Santa Catarina Palopo. 

From Panajachel, minibuses continue around the lake to Santa Catarina Palopó every 15 minutes or so, leaving from Calle El Amate, the main road heading south out of town.

For tours of the town, head over to the headquarters of Pintado Santa Catarina (in the Plaza Central, next to the church), which cost 95 quetzalesz ($12 USD). You can also donate painting materials and learn more about the project through their website.

San Juan La Laguna

Rupalaj K’istalin organise homestays within the town and you can contact them in advance via their email ([email protected]) or by phone (+502 5930 4773).

Even if you don’t speak much Spanish, other English-speakers in my group managed to communicate with their hosts, who went out of their way to make sure we all felt welcome and comfortable.

The Ixoq Ajkeen weaving cooperative in San Juan La Laguna, Guatemala
The Ixoq Ajkeen weaving cooperative in San Juan La Laguna, Guatemala.

Lodgings are basic but provide everything you need. Guests stay in a private bedroom (with space for up to three people) with a key for locking it when you leave, and have access to a toilet and shower.

An evening meal and breakfast is also included and I was offered a bottle of mineral water (although I’d brought a filter with me – which I strongly recommend you do too, as you’ll be saving both money and the environment.

Read about my favourite portable water filter, the Steripen or about the best water filters and purifiers for travel). Homestays cost 160 quetzales ($21 USD) per person per night; tours, such as to the weaving community, are an additional extra.

It’s a truly fantastic experience and one that really allowed me to learn thoroughly about the lives of my hosts and the Maya people in general. Some of the others in my group were even dressed up in traditional huipiles that their hosts had woven to get a better sense of their traditions and customs.

There are plenty of activities to do within the town; Rupalaj K’istalin support seven different projects, from textiles to medicinal plants, art workshops and even hikes around the region for spectacular lake views and to learn more about the endemic flora and fauna of Lake Atitlán.

Exploring Guatemala with Travolution

I was fortunate enough to spend my time in Guatemala as a guest of Travolution and Visit Guatemala, who invited a small group of bloggers to learn about the country’s array of nascent sustainable tourism initiatives.

While my trip was sponsored by the two organisations, this has no way impacted the objectiveness of this post, which reflects my true experiences and genuine enjoyment of experiencing these fantastic new projects.

Weaving by the Santo Domingo Xenacoj weaving cooperative using ancestral Guatemalan designs and patterns.
Indigenous textiles reproduced by the talented women of Santo Domingo Xenacoj, a sustainable weaving community in Guatemala

Travolution is a not-for-profit community of sustainable and often indigenous projects in countries across Latin America, who organise events such as the ECATC sustainable travel summit, an annual conference for their community members, which was held this year in the village of San Cristóbal el Alto, just outside Antigua Guatemala.

Their for-profit arm is, a tour agency that focuses on unique, community-led sustainable tourism and is in the process of beginning tours in Guatemala.

They currently offer a selection of tours in Chile that grant visitors fascinating local insights into Chilean society through the eyes of its indigenous communities.

In all the work I’ve done researching for Moon Chile, I have yet to come across an agency offering such an interesting and truly unique range of tours, working sensitively with indigenous communities and visiting both well-known regions of the country, but in a truly original fashion.

They also focusing on parts of Chile that few other tourists ever have the chance to explore – which for me, is always a winner. I definitely recommend you check them out and I’ve arranged a 5% discount for Worldly Adventurer readers if you mention us when booking! You can check out their selection of tours here.

Looking to travel more responsibly? Look no further than Guatemala's Lake Atitlan, where three indigenous, community-led tourism projects are paving the way for sustainable tourism in the region and should be added to your travel bucket list. #guatemala #guatemalatravel #responsibletourism #responsibletravel #sustainabletravel