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Indigenous Villages and other Places of Interest

 

Table of notable Mayan villages with their languages, market days and Festival dates: Click here

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Solola

 

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Solola

If you only visit a few markets in Guatemala, Solola should be a top choice (Todos Santos and Chichi being the others). Unlike Chichi, you won't meet many tourists here. I go to markets to see local people, not tourist trinkets. Maybe this is why I liked Solola. It is one of the largest in the country and I recommend it for its truly elaborate men’s dress. Although it is on the way to Panajachel and an easy day trip from Guatemala, Antigua or Xela, it is seldom visited as tourists hurry by on their way out to the lake. As you walk the market streets, you will see many men wearing a pair of striped pants topped by a square-pattern skirt and a colorful, woven jacket with gold embroidery. Each design represents their status and social class. Yet even in Solola, traditional clothing is slowly giving way to jeans, T-Shirts and baseball caps. If you go, keep in mind that Thursday is the big market day and it gets very crowded.

 

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Panajachel

Panajachel, also dubbed Gringotenango as half of its population is made of expatriates or tourists, is the portal town to lake Atitlan . Although I like to avoid mass tourism, the surrounding villages and the view are well worth a visit. You can escape the discos and western restaurants by taking a ferry across the lake to Santiago de Atitlan, which hosts its main market on Sundays, or by hopping on a pick-up truck to the villages of Santa Catarina and San Antonio. On a tight schedule, you could visit both villages in a day from Panajachel and make it back to Antigua or Guatemala the same evening. However, you ought not miss the sunset on the lake with the volcanoes in the background.

Panajachel is also the best place to stay if planning a visit to the highly recommended Solola market. 

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Santiago de Atitlan

Santiago market is one of the most colorful around the lake. Its people, called Tzutuhil, have preserved their traditional huipiles (cloaks) and headwear that they make by rolling a woven belt around their heads numerous times. Their clothing is interesting and you might certainly be tempted to take photos, but be aware that little girls here are aggressive toward camera holders. They will pester you to take their photos, then demand money.

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Santa Catarina / San Antonio Palopo

San Antonio Palopo is one of the most interesting villages around lake Atitlan . Walking through the village one can see people wearing bright huipiles and women weaving fabric of wool and cotton. Santa Catarina is much smaller, but you pass through it to reach San Antonio. Some people rent bicycles in Panajachel and pedal the 8 K's on this beautiful road. Be warned though that some climbs are steep.

"Help A Village" donation project !

 

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San Juan la Laguna

San Juan la Laguna is a small village. Although just a 30 minute walk from San Pedro, it is seldom visited by tourists and retains much of it's innocence and charm. People didn't seem to mind me taking photos as much as in other places around the lake.

San Pedro is a much nicer place to overnight than Santiago. Or try Panajachel if you want to be on the lake in a quieter place. Sunsets on the lake can be beautiful. If the day was sunny you can bathe in solar heated pools and sip a beer while looking out over the lake. Unfortunately, the local people don't wear the bright clothes you see everywhere else.

 

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Totonicapan

A favorite tour offered by most language schools in Xela is the market of Totonicapan. This village is also known for its ceramic crafts. You can’t mistake the buses to get there; they are the brightest red or green ones with big signs saying TOTO. For those with poor eyesight, the driver’s assistant will scream the destination name to every passerby hoping people might change their mind and decide to take that bus on a last-second whim. Tuesdays and Saturdays are market days and it gets very crowded.

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San Francisco El Alto

If you visit San Francisco any day of the week but Friday, you will find one of the sleepiest villages. But once a week the steep narrow streets get packed with vendors and the upper plaza hosts the largest animal market around. Surrounded by screaming pigs and loud cattle, you can observe people as they bargain aggressively to buy or sell everything from livestock to pet dogs and cats.

Momostenango

 

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Momostenango

If you spend the night Momo, it will come as no surprise that these people weave thick blankets and ponchos instead of beautiful, delicate patterns like the ones found in most of the other towns. Nights get very cold. The thick hand-woven coats and the famous chamara blankets you will find in Momo's market are simple and utilitarian. If you have time (a few days) you might get people to show you their wool spinning and weaving techniques, if not you can try hiking to the Pala Chiquito hot spring where the blankets are dyed and washed.

Momostenango is one of the few villages which is still using the ancient Mayan calendar. The main market day is Sunday.

Zunil

 

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Zunil

Just six miles from Xela, Zunil is a small sleepy village. Its small and dark indoor market is not as attractive and thus Zunil is often omitted as a tourist destination. Personally, I never go to Xela without visiting Zunil on it's market days (usually on Mondays). Like nowhere else you will see an explosion of colors. People coming to buy their produce wear the brightest and most diverse combinations of colors I have seen in Latin America.  If that isn't enough to convince you, consider that Zunil is set in a valley surrounded by beautiful lush mountains and it is the place to jump on pick-up truck to climb the breathtaking road to the famous hot springs of Fuentes Calientes de Georginas. What more can you ask, after visiting the markets of Almolonga and Zunil, than to relax in hot water pools surrounded by jungle while sipping a beer or fresh-squeezed juice. You might decide not to return to Xela and rent one of the cabanas with fireplaces. But instead of using the restaurant, you should come prepared and bring your favorite food to barbecue.

"Help A Village" donation project !

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Almolonga

One of my favorite villages, less than three miles away from Xela is Almolonga. If you don't find it in guidebooks it's because writers don't visit it. But if you like non-touristy produce and flower markets with vibrant colors and fresh smells you should not miss the Wednesday, Friday or Saturday markets. It is one of the few places in Guatemala where people although shy, do not mind photos. If you like taking photos, you won't be disappointed. Women wrap their heads with colorful hand-woven belts called cintas and might even pose for you.

 

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Nahuala

Another place close to Xela, or Antigua and well worth a visit, is the small village of Nahuala. You won’t find it in any guidebook, and it is just a small dot on the map. In spite of its easy access from the main road, tourists never go there. If you visit the village during its Tuesday or Sunday market, you will see both men and women still wearing traditional clothes. Men wear an orange-striped jacket and a brown skirt held with a thick leather belt. Along with Todos Santos and Solola, it is one of only three places I have seen where most men still proudly wear their traditional clothes.

"Help A Village" donation project !

 

 

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Todos Santos Cuchumatan

One of the most distant and remote places that can be visited in Guatemala is the rugged Cuchumatanes mountain range in the department of Huehuetenango. A winding dirt road climbs steeply from the city of Huehue into the mountains. It passes by isolated houses and fields of cactus the size of palm trees that look like giant asparagus. It takes three hours to reach the village of Todos Santos, hidden in a valley well above 2500m and surrounded by mountains covered with pine trees. During its famed market, Todos Santeros come from all surrounding settlements. Its inhabitants, of Mam-mayan origins, still use the 260 day Mayan calendar and all wear their traditional clothes. Women dress in red or blue huipiles while most men still prefer their beautiful red and white-striped trousers and white or multicolored shirts with a broad, embroidered red collar. It is a place that I keep coming back to not only for its beautiful and quiet setting and brisk, clean air, but also for its kind and candid people. The weeklong annual festival of Todos Santos draws crowds of tourists. It ends on November first with the “skack koylEwhich means wild horse race. The men mount horses and race back and forth along a track outside of town, pausing to drink beer between laps. Eventually riders become so drunk they cannot stay on their horses. When a horseman cannot ride anymore, he is often replaced by another member of the family. It is not unusual for at least one rider to die before the end of the day. In the afternoon you may see dozens of riders mingling in the crowd with their faces crusty with sweat, dust and blood. . 

I have met travelers in Todos who had come for a day and were still there two weeks later. It is easy to be charmed and if you have the time, why not choose Todos Santos to study some Spanish and Mam-Maya in one of the two language schools, or learn weaving or medicinal plants with the friendly villagers. The only thing you risk in going to Todos Santos is that you might be so charmed that, like me, you will have to return and visit this village time after time. 

Lodging: Hotels are basic but very cheap. The most popular place (the only one mentioned in the guide books) is Casa Familiar. I have never stayed there, but this is where I go eat my breakfast or go relax with a drink in the middle of the day. To stay I prefer the smaller guesthouse next to it (narrow street on the left before Casa Familiar when you go up from the plaza). It is usually quieter and the owners are very friendly. If you want to stay for a few days you might choose to live with a family. Ask one of the schools to introduce you. 

Restaurants: I found the best local food at Comedor Katy (just before Casa Familiar). It is simple but good. You usually have the choice between two or three dishes. There are also two places making pizzas in the main street (before reaching the plaza). One doubles as a bar and is the place to hang-out in the evening. You can even ask them to play salsa or merengue and dance (bring your partner, or for female travelers, invite one of the boys working in the bar, they are great dancers).

The Spanish and Mam-Maya schools show videos on the history of Todos Santos and the civil war, and organize interesting cultural events. Make sure you visit them.

The market of Todos Santos attracts people from all the communities living in the mountains and is always fascinating. 

"Help A Village" donation project !

Photo Gallery
Coming Soon !

 

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San Mateo Ixtatan

Far away from Huehue and the tourist masses, you can follow the road out to the rustic and scenic mountain town of San Mateo de Ixtatan. On the way, you pass through the village of Soloma, distinguished by its women wearing long, pristine white huipiles and necklaces made of gold-painted beads. San Mateo, at 2600 meters, is cold and often shrouded in mountain mist and is set on a point of land overlooking a long, rugged valley. This Chuj-maya speaking town is as isolated linguistically as it is geographically. Most of its neighbors speak the more pervasive Kanjobal Mayan language. The inhabitants still worship nature and consider the sun as their father and the moon as their mother, thus explaining the red sun patterns found on the traditional huipiles worn by women. Collectors prize the multi-colored, star-shaped designs woven in San Mateo. Adjacent to the village is an old mine still producing a black salt highly praised throughout the Cuchumatanes and Huehue for its medicinal properties. San Mateo is one of the most distant marketplaces reached by chicken bus in the Cuchumatan Mountains.

 

 

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Chichicastenango

From Antigua, an AC mini-van will take you to Chichicastenango and its market, one of the largest, most colorful and lively and the best place to buy local hand-woven textiles, or wood masks, as well as crafts custo-made to tourist tastes. Don't let the flock of tourists change your travel plans. You will be rewarded with sights such as the picturesque church that San Tomas built in 1540. In front you will see believers burn copal incense as an offering to the souls of loved ones while others sit on the surrounding stairs to sell their flowers and produce. Market days are every Thursdays and Sundays, but the best days of the year to visit Chichi are November 1st, for "el Dia de Los Muertos" (days of the dead). All the families go to the cemetery to burn incense and cover the tombs with flowers while kids and teenagers fly kites following a traditional belief that kites reaching to the sky help people communicate with the souls of their dead. At a few tombs you will see people cry, but for most it is a happy celebration. Many families spend the day there, picnicking among the brightly decorated graves, and their children wander around freely, painting their faces with melting ice cream from the vendors.

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Santa Cruz del Quiche

I don't consider the modern town of Quiche a choice destination. Yet it is close to Chichi and is the place to catch a direct bus to Nebaj, so you might stop there for a few hours or to overnight. You will notice that women wear embroidered shirts there instead of the common woven huipiles.

 

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Aguacatan

This small village doesn't appear in the guidebooks and you probably won't want to overnight there, but if you spend a few hours at the market you will see the most unique cintas in the country. Cintas are headbands in which women roll their hair and then wrap them numerous times around their heads. Many villages have their own variation of colors, patterns and shapes that distinguish them from others, but none stands out as much as the cintas from Aguacatan. There, original cintas are made of a red base in which blue, white and yellow patterns are woven. Today blue base cintas are also commonly seen. The center piece is a wide strip of woven fabric set to cover the middle of the head, while the rest of the narrower band is wrapped around the neck and forehead and the two ends, with fluffy pompoms, are draped next to the ears.

 

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Nebaj

A long dirt road from Huehue crosses through the villages of Aguacatan and Sacapulas and winds its way up to Nebaj, another of my favorite towns. A faster way to get there is from Chichi via Quiche. Although a bit out of the way, the buildings in Nebaj are made of brick and concrete and are not particularly appealing, but its people are very friendly and women wear one of the most beautiful and distinguished huipiles in the country. The base color of the weave is white and like those of other villages features blues, blacks and reds, but the dominant highlight is a stunning green. They wrap their long hair into green cintas, which they then tie around their heads. On cold days they cover their shoulders with a green shawl. Their huipiles can cost up to $80 and represent a month of daily work. Although Nebaj offers few other points of special interest, the beauty of its huipiles alone is worth the visit. As well, it is the base from which to get the bus to Chajul, one of the most remote Mayan villages I have visited.

"Help A Village" donation project !

 

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Chajul

From Nebaj you can catch a bus to the end of the dirt road to the enchanting town of Chajul. The trail is very rough and during the rainy season, the bus doesn’t always make it. For this ride, more than any other in the country, you need to have a strong stomach and it will help if you close your eyes and pray until the bus stops. There you will feel what it must have been like to visit the villages around lake Atitlan decades ago. There is a striking contrast between the earth tones of adobe houses, the bright red and blue huipiles and the green vegetation surrounding the village. In front of each house are weaving lines where women sit every day constructing their tapestries by mixing bright yellow, green, orange, purple and pink threads into the base of red or blue. In the evening, men and teenage boys can be seen walking back from the forest with loads of firewood lashed to horses or carried on their backs with a strap over their foreheads. Throughout the Altiplano, firewood remains the principal means for cooking and heating.

There is one catch to visiting this charming place; you must not have a tight schedule. You never know if the bus will come from one day to the next, and it only goes as far as Nebaj. When you arrive in Nebaj, there will be no connecting bus for Quiche. If by chance a bus makes it up during the rainy season, on the way back down the bus will slip and slide on the muddy, narrow and steep path inches from the cliff, you might wish you had never made it up. This is the only place I recommend to go visit only during the dry season (November to April ).

 

Tikal

 

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Tikal

If you dream of visiting old Mayan temples hidden in lush jungle with giant Ceiba trees, colorful birds and howler monkeys, Tikal is the place. It enchanted me. I invite you to read my account: Tikal, the Ancient Mayan City of Guatemala

The easiest land access is actually from Belize. From Guatemala I recommend taking a flight to the town of Flores. From Flores many tour companies will organize guided visits or transportation in mini-van to Tikal. Make sure you plan on spending at least a full day. I think Tikal is worth two days for a complete visit.

 

 

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Antigua

Antigua is a colonial town with a rich history and impressive architecture. It is certainly worth a visit.

I normally do not like large towns, but I understand why Antigua is the most visited destination in the country. It was the most important city in New Spain until the capitol was moved to present day Guatemala City after the destructive earthquake of 1773. During the mid-1800’s, with the introduction of the coffee industry, a few of the colonial structures were restored. However, the city has remained isolated until recently. La Antigua was declared a National Monument in 1944 and a Monumental City of the Americas in 1965. In 1979 it was included in the UNESCO World Heritage Site list. Today cultural activities take place inside magnificent monuments and houses. You can feel old Europe while walking among the cobblestone streets and colonial architecture. Tourists from around the world mix with Indigenous people in traditional clothing who have come in from surrounding villages. Antigua is a lovely place to relax, and a much better place to wait for a flight out of the country than the nearby capital. Private mini-vans run numerous trips daily to the international airport less than an hour away. 

In Antigua a large cooperative sells examples of huipiles from most of the villages and has a nice display of the different designs. As well, the book stores near the central plaza have the best selection of titles on culture, people and art in the whole country.

Click here for recommended Spanish and dance classes

 

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Quetzaltenango (Xela)

Quetzaltenago, also known as Xela (pronounced “shaylaE, is the second-largest city in Guatemala. In spite of its size I like it because of its colorful markets, very friendly people and safety. There are many good Spanish schools to choose from. Prices are similar to Antigua and are the cheapest in all Central America. Most schools offer cultural activities and tours to surrounding villages and markets or hikes on volcanoes. If you stay in Xela, I also recommend taking dancing classes. Merengue and Salsa are the most popular. A popular bar called Casa Verde has a weekly Merengue/Salsa night. In Casa Verde you can take lessons from Erika (tell her J-Philippe sent you). She is the best Merengue and Salsa teacher I met.

The wonderful thing about studying in Xela is that there are so many interesting villages and local markets to visit on half-day tours from the city. Less than three miles away you can visit Almolonga, three miles further you reach Zunil and another five miles further, the beautiful hot springs of Fuentes Georginas (bus to Zunil, then pick-up to the fuentes). You can take a Sauna at Los Vahos,  5km and an hour walk from the "Parque Central" of Xela. Take the road or a bus toward Almolonga and Zunil and ask people to let you know where the dirt road starts for Los Vahos. The wet sauna is produced by natural water vapor coming out from the volcano. If you like this quiet place,  it also doubles as a simple hotel with a double room for less than $10 (and the owners are friendly). The walk offers a nice view of Xela. From the Sauna you can walk in the forest and surrounding mountains.

Click here for recommended Spanish and dance classes

Huipiles
Photo Gallery

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Guatemala City

Although I do not recommend a stay in Guatemala city, if you are in town and are interested in Indigenous culture, visit the Ixchel Museum. This museum opened in 1973 as a non-profit, private organization. Its name was inspired by Ixchel, the Mayan goddess of fertility and weaving. It features information on the weaving techniques, Spanish influence, and the differences in design between indigenous groups of each region.

Museo Ixchel del Traje Indigena

You can view specific photo galleries by clicking on the photo icons in the left margins. For more detailed information and statistics on villages, including festival and market days  Click here


History

Native People


Lodging, Food and Equipment

Unlike guidebooks that try to offer a comprehensive list of  establishments, few of which the authors have ever visited, we only mention our favorite, highly-recommended places. Lodging in Guatemala is cheap but in most places very basic. Main cities such as Antigua have budget and luxury hotels (in spite of the large number of accommodation in Antigua, it is recommended to reserve a few days ahead for week-ends stays and weeks before festivals such as Semana Santa). Specific recommendation for Antigua, Xela and Todos Santos coming soon.


Eco-tours, Guides, Spanish Schools and Dance Teachers

Guides:

Traveling on your own is easy in Guatemala. You really don't need the services of a guide or tour company. If you do, most Spanish schools in Antigua and Xela (Quetzaltenango) offer various natural and cultural tours.

Spanish Schools:

To Study Spanish, the best places are Xela and Antigua. I personally recommend Xela. I found all the teachers at ICA (ica@xelaenlinea.com) to be excellent. Japanese travelers (or for those of you who want to brush up on your Japanese) like to study in El Quetzal (address below). For a cheaper alternative, I recommend taking private lessons with Erika Ziomara (ziomara@hotmail.com)

Academia de Español, El Quetzal
6 Calle 2-74 A Zona 1
Quetzaltenango, Guatemala, CA.
Tel/Fax: (502) 761-7823

Dance Classes:

Quetzaltenango (Xela)

If you are interested in learning Latin Dances such as Salsa or Meringue, in Xela I highly recommend classes with Erika Ziomara (ziomara@hotmail.com), or ask for her at CASA VERDE (best Salsa bar in town). Tell her Jean-Philippe sent you.

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Antigua

This recommendation comes from a friend. He has studied salsa and meringue in Cuba and in Xela and he was very positive about these classes in Antigua.

Aurora and Alexis Marina Luis Porras
Calle de San Luquitas #18
La Antigua, Guatemala
Tel: (502) 832-7540 

RitmoLatinogt@hotmail.com

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Recommendations and Information for Paddlers

The Caribbean coast of Guatemala is very short. We paddled from Belize (Punta Gorda) to Livingston in a day and then from Livingston via the Canal del Ingles to Honduras. The Canal del Ingles was pretty but is out of the way for kayakers hoping to do some paddling in Guatemala. Instead we would recommend that you start higher on the Rio Dulce  and make the trip down to Livingston. The river is spectacular. If you recall the movie "The Mosquito Coast", that's where it was filmed.

Livingston

Livingston is a colorful and friendly town. It is the only Atlantic port in Guatemala and has a distinctly Caribbean atmosphere with a population of mostly Garifuna and Creole people. You won't regret your trip down the Rio Dulce. Numerous hostels, restaurants and live reggae and punta music nearly every night are Livingston's big draw. If you go, ask for Maria the mexicana, her boarding house is comfy and her pizza is legendary.

Read about Health and Tropical Diseases: Click here and Malaria: Click here

Links to Recommended Sites

www.larutamayaonline.com

  • History and Politics
    MINUGUA (United Nations Mission for the Verification of Human Rights in Guatemala)

Adventures in Guatemala

The colonial charm of Antigua is well-known to travelers, yet the true beauty of the country lies tucked away in the highlands. Mayan communities retain their traditions, languages, and culture, and the vivid panoply of colors and designs in their clothing will leave you in awe. Our documentaries, photos and travel tips are all you need to discover Guatemala by yourself.

Return to our Main Page: Adventures in Guatemala

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