Guatemalan Diary – Part 2 – Highlands (UPAVIM, Panajachel, Chichicastenango, Lake Atitlan, Panajab)

My first adventure out of the country continues.

After four days in Spanish school we joined other WARP members who were gathering for the annual meeting and a tour of sites of interested led by Deborah Chandler, the founder of WARP who is currently the Director of Mayan Hands. I have been a WARP member for several years.


Women working in the sewing workshop at UPAVIMThe first stop on our odyssey was UPAVIM, a coop run by women in a very poor section on the outskirts of Guatemala City. These women, seeing very little hope for their children, have banded together to form a viable business manufacturing handwoven products for sale. They now produce enough that many of them are now able to provide for their families and send their children to school.

The children's play room at UPAVIMDaycare is provided in the same building where the women work and gets the kids ready for school. Even Clifford, the big red dog seen in the mural on the wall, is famous in Guatemala–and is a personal favorite of mine.


A backstrap weaver picks up an intricate designFriday, Saturday and Sunday we stayed in Panajachel on the shore of Lake Atitlan where we learned about some of the projects in Guatemala that are striving to help Mayan families raise their standard of living by providing improved working conditions and markets for their work.

Mayan women in traditional dressSome of the Mayan women from the weavers’ groups were there to show us their work. Many speak one of the twenty-one Mayan languages still in use.

Although we could often communicate with actions instead of words, we had translators who could speak both Mayan and Spanish.

Albertina and her daughters

I had a chance to meet Albertina and her daughter Melissa again. I met them first in Los Gatos in 2004 when we had the WARP annual meeting here in the Santa Cruz mountains. Albertina’s youngest daughter was also with her this time. Albertina is coming back to California this May to teach Guatemalan weaving at the Mendocino Art Center.
A backstrap loom weaver uses an ergonomic bench developed by Synergo Arts

Karen Piegorsch, who has degrees in both engineering and public health, has designed an award-winning ergonomic bench for backstrap weavers which allow them to weave more comfortably for longer periods of time. This not only improves their health, it also allows them to produce more in order to increase their income. The benches are being made and distributed by Oxlajuj B’atz (Thirteen Threads), an educational project of Mayan Hands.

Karen’s company is called Synergo Arts and is dedicated to “exuberant application of ergonomics for artists and artisans.”


Every Sunday the small mountaintop town of Chichicastenango north of Panajachel is transformed into a huge market. This street runs down to the residential area below the central square at the top of the hill.

A steep and narrow cobbled street in Chichicastenango

People gathered on the steps of the Church of Santo Tomas

The 400-year old church of Santo Tomas is a cornerstone of the market. Each of the 18 stairs that lead up to the church stands for one month of the Mayan calendar year. The Mayan calendar has 18 months of 20 days each. It is built atop a Pre-Columbian platform, and here as elsewhere in Guatemala, the Catholic religion is simply an overlay to the Mayan traditions. These steps originally leading to a temple of the pre-Hispanic Maya civilization remain venerated. Shamans still use it for their rituals, burning incense and candles and in special cases offering a chicken for the gods.

A view of the people on the church steps seen through a cloud on burning incense

A vendor displays many colored beans at a stall in the marketplace

The famous market of Chichicastenango draws not only the local Maya of the surrounding region, but vendors from all over Guatemala.

Vendors start setting up their own portable booths in the main plaza and nearby streets of Chichicastenango the night before and set-up continues into the early daylight hours. Everything imaginable is available in the eight to ten square blocks of the market.

A woman sells warp yarn that has been dyed to make jaspé patterns in woven goodsThis woman is selling tied and dyed warps for traditional Mayan weaving (know as jaspé). I bought one.

A huge food court in the center of the Chichicastenango marketplace

The central section of the market is a gigantic food court with a variety of Guatemalan specialties and plenty of tables. Guatemalan fresh corn tortillas are exceptional and may be made from either yellow or blue corn. I became addicted to them. They are a cut above and unlike any others.

Lake Atitlan and Panabaj

A view of a volcano taken from a boat on Lake AtitalnOn Monday we took the hour-long boat trip across beautiful Lake Atitlan, the caldera of an ancient volcano. The Lake is ringed with small villages. Mayan women washed their laundry in the Lake against a backdrop of a few grand homes that occasionally dotted the shore. And over all loomed the volcanoes that have shaped and reshaped the landscape.

Dining room at the tourist hotel Susie and her husband own

A ride in the back of a pick up truck took us to the hotel and workshop of Susie Gunn Glanville, an artist who has lived in Guatemala for many years and who, with her husband, owns a tourist hotel on the Lake.

In 2005 Hurricane Stan triggered a mudslide that buried half of the nearby Mayan mountain village of Panajab. The women pictured here are some of the villagers who survived.

Susie realized that she needed to help. As makeshift housing was built nearby for the remaining villagers, Susie started helping the weavers in the village revitalize their weaving to provide income and continuity in their lives. With her art background she is helping them with new colorways and weave structures and is providing them with new hope.

Women of Panajab display their weaving at the hotel

Items woven by women in the Art Project

Susie (on the right) displays some of their work in the yard between the hotel and the storehouse.

It is hard to imagine the experiences these families have had. The light colored gash down the side of the mountain in the background is the scene of the mudslide. The village was located at the base of this slide and half of the houses and half of the inhabitants were buried by it.

This is the site of the new village that is being built by the government. Each unfinished cement block is for one family. Although they are not large, they often replace houses that were even smaller. But no one wanted to rebuild on what has now become a burial ground on the mountain. The wound on the mountain is where the mudslide buried the old village.

Cement block homes for refuges from the landslide shown on the mountain in the background

Plastic protecting a makeshift kitchen on the back of a resettlement home

While the new houses are being built, the families are living in corrugated tin enclosures. This family has built an add-on kitchen protected by plastic and blankets. Although the climate is moderate because the country is close to the equator, the elevation is over 5000 feet and the nights are cold. But a permanent structure that serves as a school and community center has been built. It is here that the village women and children congregate and do some remarkable weaving on backstrap looms constructed from the branches of the surrounding trees.

Women and children gathered on the walkway outside the public building

Woman weaving a wide backstrap fabric

A woman tends her small children while she works on a backstrap warp

A woman proudly displays the wide jaspé fabric she has woven on a backstrap loom

A woman seated on the ground winding a warp in the community center

2 thoughts on “Guatemalan Diary – Part 2 – Highlands (UPAVIM, Panajachel, Chichicastenango, Lake Atitlan, Panajab)

  1. Margie says:

    May I have your permission to use one of the great pictures on this page for a flyer to be used in a senior center in Oregon? We’re having a lecture on the Women of Guatemala and your picture would be perfect! Thanks?

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