Panajachel, Guatemala - You can't go to Guatemala and not become at least mildly obsessed with its textiles, from the long hand-woven skirts worn by Mayan women throughout the country to the huipiles, or loose-fitting tunics, vibrantly embroidered in every color of the rainbow.
For me, the love affair began the moment I walked into my friend Kristin's apartment in Panajachel, a little lakeside town in Guatemala's western highlands where she had come to teach English and I had come to visit. The colourful woven fabric was everywhere in her place, from pillowcases to purses to ponchos. I immediately regretted not leaving more room in my bag for shopping.
Although every corner tourist shop in Panajachel is awash in factory-produced textiles made from industrial cotton and synthetic dyes, Kristin steered me to a small village across the lake where it feels particularly gratifying to shop, not only aesthetically but also ethically. In the indigenous community of San Juan La Laguna, dozens of female-run weaving co-ops produce beautiful textiles according to time-honoured methods passed down through generations, often using organic local cotton and natural dyes. The best part? Profits are injected right back into the community, where poverty and illiteracy are still heartbreakingly pervasive.
San Juan is one of more than a dozen communities that surround Lake Atitlan, a stunning crater lake that formed about 2 million years ago. In order to get there from Kristin's, I had to board a small ferryboat at the Panajachel pier. As the boat thudded across the choppy water, I could see what made Aldous Huxley declare the lake one of the world's most beautiful, even more picturesque than Italy's Lake Como. Ringed by three extinct volcanoes and a ridge known as Indian's Nose (a hiking route that resembles a profile), Atitlan has attracted prominent intellectuals, such as Che Guevara and Antoine de Saint-Exupéry, who is said to have written part of “The Little Prince” here.
I got off the boat at San Pedro La Laguna, a backpackers' haven filled with cheap hostels and lakeside bars, and climbed into one of the waiting tuk-tuks, bright red motorcycle taxis that charge a dollar or two for the bouncy five-minute ride over the hill to San Juan. The atmosphere there was more low-key, with few hotels or restaurants and just a handful of tidy streets festooned with brightly coloured murals and a smattering of shops, cafes and galleries. Everywhere in town you see women weaving something intricate and beautiful on backstrap looms — traditional, portable devices that the weaver sets up by attaching one end to a stationary object and strapping the other around her body.
There are somewhere around 35 co-ops operating in San Juan, consisting of anywhere from three to 75 women each, most belonging to the Mayan Tzutujil people. At the first store I visited, Cultura Ancestral, I found Elena Delfina Ujpan Perez in her workshop, weaving a table-runner out of lilac-coloured thread.
Elena learned to weave at the skirts of her mother, Doña Dominga, as did her six sisters, all of whom belong to co-ops. Because Elena and 10 friends formally organised about five years ago, she says, they've been able to cut out the middleman and keep more of what they earn in sales. Before, a broker might have paid a weaver only 75 quetzales (about R120) for a purse that sold for more than twice as much. Now, that same purse, sold through the co-op for the same price, returns up to 90 percent of the proceeds to the woman who made it. The rest goes to overhead on the shop.
“It makes a difference in the kids,” says Noel Vasquez, Elena's partner, who notes that before the co-ops formed, most families couldn't afford to educate their children. “Now all the kids in San Juan go to school.”
Across the street, Elena's sister Francisca runs her own co-op, Asociación Ch'ejkeem, where seemingly every surface is covered in cloth. A rack of scarves turns one wall of the shop into a cascade of colours and patterns: peachy-pink diamonds and olive-green chevrons and periwinkle blue checked with white. Seated on a stool in a corner of the store, Francisca is dressed in a bright amber blouse and multicolored skirt cinched in with a wide sash, her slight frame almost hidden in the mountain of fabric that surrounds her.
“My mom made this thread by hand,” she says, demonstrating how puffs of raw cotton are spun into coarse threads using a wooden spindle.
At this, Doña Dominga, the 88-year-old matriarch, emerges from a back room, eager to talk about her lifelong trade. Standing about 4-foot-8, she's delicate but still spry. One moment she's sitting next to me on the floor with her legs tucked under her like a little girl, the next she's hopping up to show off some detail or other on a shawl or a purse, chatting all the while.
“When I was younger, women only cooked,” Dominga says. “Now they have freedom to weave and make finer work.”
She seems pleased to have given her daughters a semblance of stability and autonomy in a country where women are often marginalized. “I taught them the work that I do and now, gracias a Dios, they all have their own shops,” she says, proudly.
Another of Doña Dominga's daughters, Socorro, has led her co-op of 40 women since 1971. Called Botánica, it's housed in a workshop space not far from her sisters' stores. In addition to shopping the finished textiles, visitors can see the process behind the work. Large pots filled with dye sit atop a two-burner stove, and in the center of the room, huge baskets are filled with fluffy balls of cotton, most in shades of white and cream, and some a warm caramelly brown, from a different strain of the plant.
“We use fruits, vegetables, herbs, plants,” says Rosario Yac, a 26-year-old local woman who helps Socorro run the co-op. She walks me to a display in one corner of the workshop, where several baskets each contain balls of cotton thread dyed in shades of mauve and goldenrod and khaki, as well as a variety of leaves, seeds and roots. These are some of the sources of the natural dyes that Tzutujil women have used for generations. Indigo comes from the sacatinta plant, yellow from chipilín leaves, and ground-up palo de campeche makes bright blue.
Rosario tells me she and Socorro collaborate on the product design, but the actual weaving is mostly done in the women's homes: “It's perfect, because they have kids to raise.”
For those looking to support San Juan weavers beyond just cracking open the pocketbook, a Nicaragua-based German nonprofit group called Proyecto Mosaico coordinates “voluntourism” opportunities at a local co-op. Volunteers with relevant expertise who can commit to at least a month-long stay are invited to help with administrative tasks such as answering emails, updating websites, product design, teaching English or working at the seedling nursery.
Even if a longer stay is not in the cards, just day-tripping to San Juan from Panajachel, Santa Cruz, San Marcos or any of the other villages surrounding Lake Atitlan feels like a win-win. On my last visit, I picked up a striking scarf for my mom while putting money directly into the hands that made it — the hands of a woman who learned the craft from her mother, who learned from her mother, who learned from her mother. Next time, I'll bring a bigger suitcase.
IF YOU GO:
WHERE TO STAY:
- La Iguana Perdida
Santa Cruz La Laguna
With accommodations ranging from dorm beds ($6/night) to “luxury” suites with private baths ($43/night), this hostel attracts a friendly and diverse group of backpackers, couples and local retirees during nightly communal dinners ($8).
Laguna Lodge Eco-Resort & Nature Reserve
1 Tzantizotz, Panajachel 7010
This six-suite luxury eco-lodge comes equipped with an on-site spa, restaurant and lake-view yoga classes (from $180).
WHAT TO DO:
The German nonprofit group offers month-long volunteer opportunities with the Lema weaving co-op in San Juan. They can also arrange Spanish classes, airport transportation and lodging with a host family (not included in their nearly $280 fee). Volunteers are expected to work a full-time week, from 8 a.m.-5 p.m, daily.
Centro Maya Servicio Integral
A San Juan-based nonprofit group that provides therapy, nutrition counseling and employment training to local special-needs children. Volunteers with specialized skills, such as physical therapy, photography and Web design, are sought for stays of three months or more.
To arrange tours or for more information about textiles in San Juan La Laguna, visit sanjuanlalaguna.org.