It was love at first sight.
The talented women of Guatemala’s indigenous communities simply wove their way into my heart. The brightly colored huipil they wore in daring combinations– which somehow just worked for them– and the endless variety available for sale called to me like a moth to a flame.
Surely in another universe I ended up blowing my entire budget right there in the marketplace.
And yet, in this reality at least, I remained strong and ended up with a few fabulous items that will be used often and cherished for years.
Here are some tips to shopping for Guatemala’s exquisite textiles…
- Breathe. The selection is overwhelmingly attractive but it is important to remain calm.
- Don’t buy the first thing you see. Most markets have the more touristy items near the entrances to lure in customers. Get a feel for the entire place before making a decision.
- Have a plan. Know what you want ahead of time, but leave some room to be surprised. I knew I wanted a tapestry, a bag, some boots, and jewelry. I got all that plus a blouse that is my New Favorite Thing.
- Haggle, but not too much. It’s both fun and expected to haggle. However, once you realize you’re arguing over a couple bucks, just stop. $5 means a lot more to a shopkeeper than it does to you. Also that hand embroidered blouse took her at least a month to create!
- Go early, or late. Get the best deals by being the first or last customer of the day.
I really wanted first hand knowledge of what the weavers lives were like beyond a simple transaction, so I went to Martsam Travel, who offers tailor made tours in the Central America region. After telling them of my interest, they set up an intimate village tour in the Antigua region that revealed a wealth of personal stories.
Girls begin training as early as six years old and quickly learn complicated designs. During a visit to a local home, where we also shared a delicious lunch, a young girl proudly showed off her intricate tapestry.
Guatemalan textiles are works of art with pre-Hispanic roots. Women can look at one another and immediate know what village each is from, as well as a host of other personal information such as married or single and social status. Once disregarded by the majority of the population, indigenous textiles have seen a resurgence in popularity in recent years.
WHERE TO GO:
- Chichi Market. It’s a bit of a drive, but it’s the largest handicrafts market in Central America every Thursday and Sunday. Regular shuttle services can drop you off and pick you up.
- Santiago Atitlan. In the shadow of Lake Atitlan’s volcanoes, this small town has a lot of offer. Birds are their specialty- a long held tradition celebrating the many types of colorful birds in the area.
- Solola Market. Perched above Lake Atitlan near Panajachel, this market is perfect those who can’t make a market day in Chichitelango. Enjoy great views of the lake while you shop.
- Antigua Guatemala. Explore the maze like stalls of El Mercado and the neighboring- though more tourist centric- handicraft market for great finds. Also don’t miss Nim P’ot, located near the arch, which offers artisanal goods from around the country, organized by region.
BONUS: Pastores is a small village just outside of Antigua that specializes in leather boots. I found some sick embroidered boots that fit me perfectly.
My friend had some custom made with her own choice of fabric, which took about a week to make. At another shop, I had a completely custom pair of leather sandals made from my own design! Take a chicken bus from El Mercado or flag down a tuktuk and it’s as simple as that.
About the author: Kathryn Lejeune is a documentary filmmaker, artist, and writer with a passion for travel, art, and culture. You may find her sipping whiskey in the speakeasies of Los Angeles, exploring medieval cities in Italy, or getting happily lost in the countryside of Cambodia– depending on the day. She has been published in LADIES Magazine, Les Femmes Folles: Women in Art, and is a regular contributor to Los Angeles Travel Magazine. Her documentary, YEAR 33, will be released later this year.