While we loved our home base of San Marcos, one village that stole our heart at Lake Atitlan was the textile heaven of San Juan la Laguna. It is really impossible to spend time in the entire country of Guatemala without becoming more than a bit obsessed with the stunning, hand done textiles.
The women of the country make a stunning sight in their long, woven skirts and huipile tops, vibrantly embroidered with all the colors of the rainbow. Along with their outfits, everywhere you look you are amazed by the beauty; colorful blankets, scarves, and purses abound. Hammocks, pillowcases and embroidered shoes will have even the most stalwart traveler wishing they had more money and luggage room for shopping.
The brilliant display of color immediately reminded me of our time in India, another country where the women are surely the peacocks of society. Each day I relished our walks wandering the narrow paths and seeing such great beauty. On occasion we would come across one of the local men a bit more spiffy than the rest, but this culture of attractiveness is all about the women.
Although textiles are sold at all of the villages, including the massive market in the commercial capital of Panajachel, San Juan la Laguna is the undisputed king for all things woven.
Around 35 or so women’s co-operatives exist in San Juan and the surrounding countryside. These women are mostly of the Tzutujil Mayan group. The co-ops range from well established shops that have been widely written about, to smaller and lesser known booths, many supporting single mothers. Regardless of the group we found the quality to be excellent at each and every stop.
The cotton is all locally grown, hand combed, naturally dyed. It is a painstaking process but results in some of the most stunning colors I have ever seen.
In our three months at the lake we often found ourselves in San Juan, whether eating our weight in meat and cheese at Cafe el Artesano, or simply wandering one textile shop after another, never fully able to get our fill of the beauty within each. We often went with friends, spending entire days there with Matty & Ingrid in tow, and later going back several times to find just the perfect wrap or blanket with John & Mandi and Annette & Marshall.
I am endlessly fascinated by artisans. Jealous of their ability to read color and design and incorporate their craft into something real, something I can take in my hand or wear. Intrigued by the quickness in their hands as they create elaborate designs, their movements a blur to my untrained eye.
I celebrated my birthday in San Juan, a day that will live long in my memory. Jim, Aspen and I had boarded the lancha and shopped to my hearts content, the most challenging part of the day deciding on just two scarves. Back later with friends I was “forced” to choose a pancho, something I had never before considered wearing but the sheer beauty drew me in. Made more magical was meeting the lovely woman who made it. This is not just shopping to me. This is helping sustain a people and feeling a part of a community. It is knowing the people, not simply consuming goods.
A very favorite moment in San Juan was Jim’s dress up day. The Guatemalan people are short. Remarkably short, especially in comparison to those of us tall even by US standards. While Jim spent multiple trips to the village negotiating for a woven shirt to call his own, these lovely ladies took upon themselves to fully dress him in the native style, a sight that caused more than a few outbursts of laughter. Between these little ladies, the surrounding tourists, and his personal shopper John, he ended up leaving San Juan the proud owner of his very own handmade shirt.
Sadly, our time came to an end. Dreams of an import store diminished as our expiring visas chased us away from the lake. But the memories of the women we met who shared their stories and their craft with us remain. San Juan… until we meet again.