Woman carrying firewood on her head on the cobblestone street

Guatemalan Diary – Part 1 – Antigua

My first adventure out of the country – February/March 2007.

Passport Woes

I applied for my passport the first week of December in plenty of time for my trip the last week of February. But my birth certificate got lost somewhere in the process. I eventually got a replacement about the same time the old one was found. By early February, three weeks before my trip, I knew I would need to spend a long day at the passport office in San Francisco to be certified to leave the country.

After all this trouble you would think I would hold on to it. But no. The second week of my trip I left it in a bank in Xela where I was trying in vain to change a travelers check into quetzales. I blithely left the bank without it and did not discover the error until three days later when I tried to get out of Guatemala and into El Salvador.

My stay in Guatemala lasted an extra three days while I got a replacement. The process might have been faster but the airport and the U. S. Embassy were closed because of the arrival of President Bush. I thoroughly enjoyed my extra “found” vacation time.

Week 1 – Antigua

Man carrying a cross in Lenten paradeI did not arrive on Saturday as I had planned. My flight was canceled because the Dallas/Fort Worth Airport was closed because of high winds.

I missed the first Sunday of Lent which in Antigua is celebrated with an elaborate parade through the streets. Brian was there though and you can get a taste of it from his picture.

Language School

Brian studying Spanish with his instructor at La UnionWe attended language school at La Union for four days. My marginal Spanish definitely improved and Brian, shown here with his teacher, brushed up on his competency.

We both feel the school was excellent and would recommend it highly.


Coffee Plantation

Coffee plants growing in the shade of tall treesWhile we were in Antigua we visited the local coffee plantation. The shade grown coffee is raised organically under a canopy of trees. The coffee plants are around five feet tall and each year each plant yields a five pound hand-picked harvest which, after several steps of drying, hull removal, and roasting, yields about one pound of coffee. And you wondered why it is so expensive!

Young coffee plants growing in containersYoung coffee plants are ready to plant out after a year of initial growth

A red coffeeberry ready to be pickedEach coffee flower becomes a coffee berry… which is handpicked when it turns red.


Large areas of coffee spread out in the sun to dry Men turning the coffee beans in large bins to insure the dry evenly The coffee is dried in a huge yard behind the company and is frequently turned by hand in bins as it continues to dry.

The City

Antiqua has a number of now picturesque ruins that are the result of an earlier disaster. (Guatemala is plagued with disasters. More on that later.)

Ruins of a church destroyed in an early earthquake

In 1773, a series of earthquakes destroyed much of the town. The Spanish Crown ordered (1776) the removal of the capital to a safer location, where Guatemala City, the modern capital of Guatemala, now stands. The badly damaged city was ordered abandoned, although not everyone left.

Woman carrying firewood on her head on the cobblestone streetA large semi turns into the street in contrast with the woman carrying firewood








The “new” city is still reminiscent of an earlier time with cobblestone streets and people retrieving firewood from the surrounding mountains to cook their food. But the old ways are often overshadowed by the new. It is not only the smoke from thousands of stoves that dims the view of the nearby volcanoes and makes one long for a breath of clean air, it is the diesel belching from thousands old cars and buses.

Brian and I with our hosts Carlos and DeliaWhile we were in Antigua we stayed at the home of Delia Ramirez de Parada and Carlos Enrique Parada. They provided us with good food, fine company, and comfortable accommodations. We could not have asked for anything better.

The open courtyard in the middle of the house we stayed inThe entrance to their house is directly on the street (to the left in the photo of the courtyard). A covered tiled walkway runs along the side and back of an open courtyard. The bedrooms are off this side hall. This is a view from my room.

The back hall of the house we stayed inAt the end of the back hall there is a sink that serves for both the kitchen and the laundry. The door to the right is the bathroom. The next door is the kitchen and to the right (out of the photo) is the dining room.

The house has a tin roof. It is spacious, elegant and simple. It is the house Delia was born in. We would like to have stayed longer.

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

Guatemalan Diary – Part 3 – More Guatemalan highlands and El Salvador

My first adventure out of the country continues.

The next several days we traveled to the pueblos of Guatemala to visit local industries and weaving coops. During the final weekend we went south to El Salavador and saw the miraculous resurrection of a century old indigo plantation and the studio of a woman who is trying to reintroduce the weaving tradition lost during decades of political upheaval.

There follows a whirlwind tour that only barely hints at this remarkable journey.

San Andres Xecul As you drive across the valley and up the hill to San Andres and gaze at rooftops full of drying yarn, it is clear that this is the home of many dyers. Dyeing yarn for the weavers is the major cottage industry of this pueblo.


Young boy tending a dyepotAn extended family both lives and works in these multi-storied workshops with everyone, including the youth, contributing. The safety of working with the dyes and chemicals is overshadowed by the need to make a living. Guatemalan pueblos are not yet ready for OSHA.

From high on the third story roof you can see many such small businesses in this hilly mountain village as colorful yarns dry in the sun.




SanAndresXecul01The town is also known for its church which is a folk art masterpiece.





SanAndresXecul02And about a mile up the hill is another small chapel that can be seen from the church. It is up this hill that the Easter procession climbs in remembrance of Christ’s climb to Calvary.





Chirijquiac We drove across fields rutted with dirt to the tiny settlement of Chirijquiac to see the women of the area who have formed a coop to help them improve the marketability of their weaving.



Chirijquiac02The women, who only speak one of the Mayan languages welcomed us into one of their tiny homes. Through an interpreter who spoke Mayan and Spanish they told us about their work.




In the courtyard the women demonstrated how they worked and we had a lively discussion that included many hand gestures and a fair amount of laughter.

Workshop with large loom



We traveled to another pueblo where the standard of living was a little higher. There a workshop had been established at the home of one of the weavers who had a larger house. She had a larger loom and was better off because her husband, whom she had not seen for five years, was in the U.S. working and sending money back to support his family.


The youngest member of the coop, Angelique, still just a teenager, had joined so she could learn to weave better and sell enough to make money to go to college.




Clemente is a master weaver and so is Clemente’s father. For ten years Clemente has worked with the coops of UPAVIM to help weavers improve their work to attract a wider market. We visited his father’s workshop. And later the new workshop Clemente has started. He has left UPAVIM to start his own business and hopes to help make Guatemalan handweaving economically viable.

Young man weaving a wide piece of cloth
Clemente’s father has a separate building for his workshop. Men, some young, some older, work at about a dozen looms. Their young sons run through the workshop and sometimes help with warping the looms.











At Clemente’s new workshop he is developing more modern techniques for producing traditional textiles. Complex designs are worked out for production on the early version of a “computerized loom. Holes punched in the wooden slats move as the loom is treadled and indicate which shafts rise.

The main industry in Salcajaj is weaving corte, the lengths of fabric for women’s skirts. Many of these have intricate patterns that are made by tie-dyeing the threads before they are woven. In order to do this the warp threads, sometimes up to 100 yards in length, are stretched for a block or more down the streets.




After they have been tied and dyed, they are restretched and untied. Then through an intricate sorting process they are rearranged to form the pattern that appears in the cloth. Amazing !