There are 11 unique Lake Atitlan villages in the highlands of western Guatemala. There we found vibrant Mayan communities that will long inspire our design choices. As we wandered the narrow streets filled with colorful art and designs, we were overwhelmed with the sense of history and culture still alive there today. Spectacular art filled the alleys and doorways. We met with many exciting creators in our quest to stimulate our work.
Lake Atitlan Villages
Like the Hawaiian Islands, volcanic eruptions about 85,000 years ago created the Lake Atitlan villages. These UNESCO heritage villages range about 15 miles long and five miles wide. Here, the Mayan people are thriving around the lake where “Atitlan” means “the place where the rainbow gets its colors.”
It is among the most colorful series of villages we ever imagined. Each has its own art and craft community that features textiles, weaving, food, jewelry, leatherwork, and people who animate it. Each of the towns and villages has a distinct dress, dialect, crafts, and features. Tourism helps them secure their unique way of life and preserve their culture away from too many modern influences.
San Juan La Laguna
We adore San Juan La Laguna with its famous craftsmen and old-world weaving and textile-making methods. Here, the indigenous artisans create their own dye and gather fiber from local plants.
Among the lake Atitlan villages, this one is small, with only about 5,000 residents. It nuzzles alongside a cove on the southwest side of the lake. The Rostro Maya or “Face of the Maya” is the backdrop, and a collage of corn and coffee color the landscape and the textile fibers.
The village keeps traditional roots right down to their homes and kitchens. Many are still rustic, use an open fire for cooking, have dirt floors, sparse construction, and bare stone walls.
Art and handcrafted items fill the shops making up a vibrant marketplace. A maze of alleyways leads to various intriguing finds, including the art shop of Angelia Quic Ixtamer.
Our visit to Angelia’s studio art shop was enlightening in many ways. Besides creating unique oil paintings, she is also the first woman in the village to do so. Her “bird’s eye view” still life images, looking down as if from above, on the village’s people and activity, bring a new perspective to this colorful place.
In the streets, alleys, and buildings, brilliant and colorful murals showcase the Lake Atitlan villages’ Mayan history. The murals lining the landscape and scenes depicted in tapestries detail the day and history’s social, political, and environmental issues.
The murals across the Lake Atitlan villages are daily reminders of people’s history and the place they call home. They’ve adorned the very walls of their homes with their past symbolism, so they will never forget it.
The artists who create these scenes have learned their trade and developed their skills under family members’ teaching. Generation of Mayans has passed the artistic styles down. Their work is displayed in the Smithsonian museums and international art shows.
In San Juan La Laguna, among the free-spirited people, the women weaver stood out to us. Here, these empowered women have formed a weaver cooperative to sustain the tradition of their people and processes. As a result, the women still create and wear clothing native to their culture for thousands of years.
The women of San Juan La Laguna and other islands wear traditional clothing made by their own hands. The women cover their clothes in colorful and elaborate designs and unbelievable beadwork. They construct fabrics with organic cotton and natural dyes. The weavers create them on traditional loom waist with designs, unlike anything we’ve ever seen.
Maximón: The Local Saint
In Santiago village, we discovered Maximón: The Local Saint. Because it was so in keeping with these lake Atitlan villages’ unique culture, we weren’t surprised by his distinctiveness.
Maximón is unlike any saint we’d ever seen. Firstly, they often depict him with sunglasses and a bandana. Second, he’s a womanizing, chain-smoking, and excessive drinking saint. Ultimately, though he seems brutal, the people worship him with careful attention. According to legend, Maximón would sneak in and sleep with their wives when the village men were gone. As a result, when the men discovered him, they cut off his limbs—leaving him as a womanizing torso.
Now, every year the people choose a home for an effigy of Maximón. His limbless body leads a procession through the lake Atitlan villages. Additionally, worshipers cover his shrine in flowers, cigarettes, and alcohol, hoping he will not wreak any further havoc on them.
In conclusion, the folklore, craftsmanship, and vibrancy of the Lake Atitlan villages have inspired us in our craft. We can’t wait for the opportunity to apply what we’ve learned from these extraordinary people.