West of La Ventosa, the road steadily descends and you’ll soon start to see the explosively coloured traditional costume of the Todosanteros.
Spectacularly sited in its own deep-cut river valley, the small town of Todos Santos Cuchumatán is strung out along an elongated main street plotted with some venerable old wooden houses. It’s a pretty settlement, with a small plaza and a colonial-style whitewashed church, but the village is totally overwhelmed by the looming presence of the Cuchumatanes mountains which insulate Todos Santos from the rest of the world.
The depth of tradition evident here is startling. Men fill the streets with colour in their red-and-white-striped trousers, black woollen breeches, brilliantly embroidered shirt collars and natty straw hats; women wear dark blue cortes and superbly intricate purple huipiles. Todos Santos is one of the few places where people still use the 260-day Tzolkin calendar which dates back to ancient times. Highland traditions and the epic surroundings have long captivated visitors, and photographers in particular, though you should be wary of taking pictures of people – particularly children. In this isolated community rumours persist that some foreigners steal babies.
Todos Santos is a great place to simply hang out but it would be a shame not to try a traditional sauna (chuc) while you’re here – most guesthouses will prepare one for you. Note that Todos Santos has declared itself a dry town, so no alcohol is sold (except during the fiesta); Casa Familiar guests are exempt.
Hispano Maya (hispanomaya.weebly.com), opposite the Hotelito Todos Santos, offers four to five hours’ instruction a day – plus accommodation and meals with a local family for around US$150 a week. Excursions and activities are run too. As Spanish is the second language here (after Mam), it’s as much about the cultural experience as the studying.