Hunting for textiles in markets that have been held for centuries; working with third-generation boot makers to design your own custom pair of cowboy boots; hopping by boat between lakeside villages to learn backstrap weaving and natural dying…
How Guatemala isn’t crawling with global creatives is a mystery. But, for savvy travelers who seek design and adventure, this is a blessing. You’ll bypass manufactured experiences, and instead uncover genuine encounters. From taking over a restored villa in the heart of Antigua to sourcing vintage keepsakes alongside a serious collector, these are the in-the-know experiences not to be missed in Guatemala.
A hush-hush restored villa & illegal mescal
Touch down in Guatemala City and immediately head for Antigua, a UNESCO World Heritage Center. It’s only an hour drive from the capital but couldn’t be more different. You’ll rumble down narrow cobblestone streets lined by low, colorful houses with terracotta-tile roofs and bougainvillea window boxes. Vintage cars wait for photo ops around every corner and towering volcanoes peek over the rooftops.
Where to Stay
Just opened to the public and managing to fly under the radar (you can’t even find it online yet), Villa Las Pilas is a restored private villa dead in the center of Antigua. It’s owned by the family behind Casa Palopo, Guatemala’s top luxury property. Until now the home has been for the family’s private use. After a complete restoration, the three-bedroom villa can be fully reserved or booked on a by-room basis.
You may not notice its heavy wooden doors if you were to walk past on the street, but behind them is a lovely little world. The home is built in the traditional style with all of the rooms opening onto a central garden courtyard. Each of the rooms is decorated with artifacts and art from the family’s collection, sourced from across Guatemala. You can help yourself anytime to the gilt-topped bar, cozy up in the sitting room with its enormous fireplace and baby grand piano, host a dinner party catered by an Antiguan chef in the dining room, take dips in the garden plunge pool, and order local deserts (the caloches, tamarind sweets, are addictive) from the kind, attentive staff (they’ll be your friends by the end of your stay).
Where to Eat & Drink
Angie Angie is an unsung favorite with a lot of atmosphere. Antigua’s stylish locals gather in the lush back garden to listen to live music, dine on brick oven pizza (pizza is a novelty across Guatemala and this is the best), and convene for leisurely drinks around the roaring fire pit. Go as you are—most restaurants in Guatemala are a casual affair—and snag a table with its own lamp beneath giant palm fronds in the garden, or a low-lit table for two next to the tiny acoustic stage. When we were there an Argentinian group was on for the evening.
After dinner, head next door to Café No Se. This one-time secret speakeasy is now known by locals and visitors alike, but it still maintains its charm. You’ll know it by the vintage yellow cab parked out front. They’ve updated its original in-service roof sign to read “illegal mescal.” Illegal mescal, “smuggled” across the border from Chiapas, Mexico, is the bar’s claim-to-fame. If you want an introduction to Antigua’s arts crowd, this is where to find it.
A speck of a town dedicated to making
the world’s finest cowboy boots
If you’re heading from Antigua to Chichicastenango you’re going to drive right past Pastores and not even know it’s there. It’s a teeny-tiny little town of practically a single street. But, it’s amazing. The town produces Guatemala’s finest cowboy boots. Workshops that double as store fronts line the street. From olive green and finely embroidered to oil black and refined, there is a cowboy boot for practically everyone. Most of the cobblers are multi-generation artisans who have learned techniques passed down through their families.
Design & Make Your Own Cowboy Boots
Pastores is also home to Teysha. Teysha creates stylish handcrafted leather boots with vintage textile inserts sourced from markets all over Guatemala. They work directly with artisan communities, including boot makers, weavers, and market vendors, helping establish infrastructure, market access, and sustainable employment. By incorporating textiles into the boots, their model bridges the artisan gender divide as traditionally men are boot makers and women are weavers.
Their workshop is an airy, petite, two-floor building up a quiet lane just off the main road. We passed the entrance several times before a group of kids kicking around a soccer ball eagerly helped us find our way. Visitors can design and even help with the process of making their own pair of custom boots.
The shoe molds they use are old military stock they got at an auction. The textiles are part of an extensive collection they have been curating over four years. Those who are really eager can go to the markets in Antigua or Chichicastenango with Hanna, Teysha’s textile hunter, to unearth their own vintage find. Some visitors even bring pieces of weaving they have done themselves with weaving collectives on Lake Atitlán (more on this later).
You can stay to learn about the whole process from–molding the leather to shaving down the stacked heel. Or, you can choose your design, have them fitted precisely to your foot, and then have them delivered to your hotel in Antigua a couple of days later.
A labyrinthine market held since Mayan times
Make sure you save a Thursday or a Sunday (the market is in full effect these days) to visit Chichicastenango market. Sprawling around a four-hundred year-old Mayan church, this is the place to find colorful woven fabrics, heaps of seriously spicy dried chilies (be warned, we tried them), and carved wooden masks. The center houses the food court with women flipping tortillas over huge burners. Flower vendors claim space on the church steps, seeking shade behind their giant bundles. At the church doorway you’ll see men and women giving offerings, swinging smoking censers and lighting candles. It’s a moving sight as they appear and disappear amid the smoke.
Village hop by boat around a volcanic lake
Lake Atitlán is Guatemala’s showstopper and a cultural stronghold. The lake is expansive and surrounded by three towering volcanoes. Quiet towns dot the rim. Locals and visitors alike get from village to village by hailing one of the metal-bottom taxi boats and bumping along to the next dock. It’s completely idyllic.
Where to Stay
The prize property of Lake Atitlán is Casa Palopo. The hotel is perched above the lake on a hill with magnificent views across the water to the cloud-covered volcanoes. The hotel is dedicated to incorporating local arts and crafts like vibrant pillows and colorful paintings.
Learn Artisan Traditions
Each village around the lake is known for something different—some are master weavers, others harvest coffee, others make traditional pottery. In recent years there has been a major initiative to help preserve these crafts. In the past Guatemalans wore entirely handwoven clothing. You could identify where someone was from based on the colors and patterns in their clothing. Today, mass produced factory clothing, which is easier and less expensive to purchase, has mostly replaced traditional woven garments.
To combat the extinction of artisan crafts, local non-profits are harnessing engagement tourism to help keep them alive. Visitors can connect with collectives and spend a day (or longer) learning backstrap weaving, wandering the hills around the lake to collect pine needles and learning to weave them into baskets, spinning wool and learning the dying art of embroidery, meeting women who maintain medicinal gardens and learning how to use the plants to make natural dyes and remedies for common ailments.
We spent a day with a group of women from Mayan Traditions. When the women aren’t caring for the households and families, they use every spare moment to weave intricate pieces of fabric on backstrap looms. It takes careful mental concentration to follow the patterns and physical strength to keep the loom taught (the tightness is created from a strap that goes around the weaver’s back). We had a crash course in the whole process: dying the raw threads with natural colors, warping the balls of yarn, preparing the loom, and actually weaving.
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