Our Living Maya Culture

The World of the Maya has many faces: some of them ancient as found carved on towering temples, other as modern as those of the people who live in Guatemala today. They are the descendants of a mighty Maya people whose customs and traditions are still part of the fabric of Guatemalan life.

Guatemala is a showcase of natural history and dramatic landscapes, yet its most distinguishing asset is the rich and colorful traditions of the various ethnic communities, such as K'iché, Kaqchiquel and Achi. Each group has its won language, its special folklore, yet they share a common ancestral heritage as expressed in religion, music, dance, foods and even social organization.

While Spanish and Indian cultures integrate into the country's "mestizaje", the purest of the Maya influences can be found in both the performing and design arts. The handicraft of textiles, in particular, is purely Mayan and a wonderfully colorful, part of the everyday dress.



This department, and the town of the same name, are located in the highlands 84 miles from Guatemala City. Market days are Tuesday and Friday, and it is the major market in the area. Its major festival, Nim Jij Sololá (Grand Day of Sololá) , is celebrated on August 15th.


The main tourist center of this region is Panajachel, located on the shores of Lake Atitlán. The town dates back to pre-Columbian times, and today is a lively resort community of hotels, restaurants and shops. It is also the hub where visitors can travel by boat to other villages around the lake shore. Among them are:

Santa Catarina Palopó

The main attraction of this village, located about two miles from Panajachel, is the colorful costumes worn by its inhabitants. The women's dress consists of three pieces, all woven on a backstrap loom. The "huipil" (the Indian lady's traditional blouse) has colorful embroidered geometric patterns which are repeated, in the design of the men's trousers.

San Antonio Palopó

Located five miles from Panajachel, the village of San Antonio Palopó can be reached by either boat or car. The inhabitants, of Cakchiquel origin, are mainly involved in agriculture and the production of "maguey" mats and fiber goods which are woven from reeds harvested directly from the lake.


Santiago Atitlán

This is the largest and most traditional of the lake towns. It is reached by boat from Panajachel. The inhabitants are of Tzutuhil origin with a demonstrated talent for the arts: oil and water paintings and carved sculptures. The women wear a distinctive halo-type headdress created by winding a long ribbon around the crown of their heads.

Other villages on the lake shore are San Lucas Tolimán, San Pedro, San Juan, Santa Ana, San Pablo, San Marcos and Santa Cruz La Laguna. The inhabitants of these villages engage mostly in agriculture and fishing as well as the production of textiles and woven baskets.



Santo Tomás Chichicastenango, known for its Indian market held every Thursday and Sunday, is only 87 miles from Guatemala City. It is the commercial center of the Department of Quiché.

Indians from throughout the region stream into town in the market days to buy, sell, socialize and worship. Add the tourists attracted to the market from all over the world, and you have the colorful outdoor spectacle which has made Chichicastenango one of the world's popular tourist destinations.

While buyers and sellers bargain for items such as produce, flowers and handicrafts (textiles, ceramics, carvings, basketry, wooden chests and traditional masks), Mayan-Christian rites are practiced by devout Indian on the steps of the Santo Tomás Señor Sepultado del Calvario churches which face on either end of the market plaza.

The Shrine of Pascual Abaj, where mystical and ancient rites dedicated to this stone idol are performed, is located on a nearby hilltop.


The Department of Totonicapán is due west of Chichicastenango. Its capital, San Miguel, is located 135 miles northwest of Guatemala City. Over 40 textile, wooden toy and pottery factories are located there.

The nearby town of Momostenango is a major producer of woolen blankets and the famous Momosteco poncho. The village of San Francisco El Alto also has a number of attractions. Friday is the market day in this village. Other towns of interest in Totonicapán are Andrés Xecul, where the church has a facade that reproduces the design in the huipil worn by the local women, and San Cristóbal, where the church is richly decorated with 17th and 18th century retables.


Quetzaltenango, Guatemala's second largest city, is 128 miles northwest of Guatemala City. Situated in a large valley surrounded by mountains and volcanoes, this highland city maintains the traditions of its Mayan-Quiché cultural heritage together with its colonial past and dynamic modern life.

Two principal Indian towns in the region are Salcajá and Zunil. Salcajá is the main producer of "ikat" (knot-tie dye), and is the site of the San Jacinto Church - the first church built in Guatemala. Zunil is famous for its textiles, and Almalonga, across the Samalá River, for its large orchard.



Further north, atop the Cuchumatantes mountain range, is the Indian village of Todos Santos Cuchumatán - about 31 miles north of Huehuetenango, the department capital city. The village is known for the brilliant colors in its costumes and the traditions centered around its annual festival held around November 1st.


Thirty-five miles northwest of Guatemala City is the Department and town of Chimaltenango, located in the highlands of the Sierra Madre. The surrounding terrain is broken with deep ridges, beautiful valleys and extensive plains. The villages here are of Cakchiquel origin. Santa Apolonia is a center for the production of pre-Hispanic type ceramic. Comalapa is an important center for popular Indian painting. Patzún is known for the Corpus Christi festivities the first week of June.


Alta Verapaz

The Department of Alta Verapaz is about 134 miles due north of Guatemala City. The descendants living there are of the Maya-Kekchí group. The town of Tactic and San Pedro Carchá are famous for their silver jewelry. The textiles produced in San Juan Chamelco utilize the "tzu'bil" technique of braiding or twisting. The designs feature figures of ducks, pineapples and butterflies. Cobán is the capital of this department.



In less than an hour, driving southwest from Guatemala City, you can reach the famous and fabled town of La Antigua Guatemala in the Department of Sacatepéquez. Some of the town has been restored to its colonial splendor while other parts show the devastation of the earthquake which destroyed the town in 1773. Handicraft and jade shops abound in the town also notable for its Holy Week celebration. Indian villages of interest surrounding La Antigua Guatemala include San Felipe, San Juan del Obispo, Santa María de Jesús, San Antonio Aguas Calientes and Santa Catarian Barahona.


The Handicrafts Market in the country's capital is located 10 minutes from La Aurora Airport and offers a great variety of crafts from the surrounding towns. There is a cafeteria and a parking area. Hours are 9:00 a.m. to 6:00 p.m. Monday through Saturday and, Sunday from 9:00 a.m. to 10:00 p.m.


National Museum of Popular Arts and Industries

10a Avenida 10-72, Zona 1, Guatemala City
Open: Tue/Fri, 9 to 4:30, Sat/Sun, 10 to 12 & 2 to 4

Ixchel Museum of Indian Costumes
4a Avenida 16-27, Zona 10, Guatemala City
Open: Mon/Sat, 9 to 5:30

Casa K'ojom
Calle de la Recolección, La Antigua Guatemala
Investigation and information center of the traditional Guatemalan music.