Guatemalan crafts, locally known as artesanías, are very much a part of Maya culture, stemming from practices that in most cases predate the arrival of the Spanish. Many of these traditions are highly localized, with different villages specializing in particular crafts. It makes sense to visit as many markets as possible, particularly in the highland villages, where the colour and spectacular settings are like nowhere else in Central America.
The best place to buy Guatemalan crafts is in their place of origin, where prices are reasonable and the craftsmen and -women get a greater share of the profit. If you haven’t the time to travel to remote highland villages, the best places to head for are Chichicastenango on market days (Thurs and Sun) and the shops and street hawkers in Antigua and Panajachel.
The greatest craft in Guatemala has to be textile weaving. Each Maya village has its own traditional designs, woven in fantastic patterns and with superbly vivid colours. All the finest weaving is done on the backstrap loom, using complex weft float and wrapping techniques. Chemical dyes have been dominant in Guatemala for over a century now, but a few weavers are returning to use natural dyes in some areas, including Lago de Atitlán where San Juan La Laguna is something of a hot-spot.
One of the best places to start looking at textiles is in Antigua’s Nim Po’t, a huge store with an excellent collection of styles and designs, and myriad other crafts too. Guatemala City’s Museo Ixchel is another essential visit.
Alongside Guatemalan weaving most other crafts suffer by comparison. However, if you hunt around, you’ll find good ceramics, masks, basketry, blankets, mats, silver and jade. Antigua has the most comprehensive collection of shops, followed by Panajachel.
For shopping – or simply sightseeing – the markets of Guatemala are some of the finest anywhere in the world. The large markets of Chichicastenango, Sololá and San Francisco el Alto are all well worth a visit, but equally fascinating are the tiny weekly gatherings in remote villages like San Juan Atitán and Chajul, where the atmosphere is hushed and unhurried. In these isolated settlements market day is as much a social event as a commercial affair, providing the chance for villagers to catch up on local news, and perhaps enjoy a tipple or two, as well as sell some vegetables and buy a few provisions. Most towns and villages have at least one weekly event, particularly in the western highlands and also the Verapaces.