A few weekends back, Shon and I hopped in a motorboat and crossed Lake Atitlan to visit San Pedro and San Juan, two towns separated by two kilometers of rugged, hilly terrain. While San Pedro gets the most press—it’s the larger of the two, has myriad Spanish schools, and is the base for hikes to San Pedro volcano—it was San Juan that left me smitten.
Small and quiet, San Juan is more a village than a town. It doesn’t get as many foreign visitors as other places around the lake, so it has fewer hotels, restaurants, and souvenir shops vying for U.S. dollars. It’s a welcome respite from touristy Pana.
We were the only two passengers in our boat when we arrived. The dock itself was empty, save for two boat drivers and a boy who crouched on the wooden planks, transfixed by whatever crabs and fish danced in the water below.
From the dock, we made our way up a steep road toward the center of town, stopping in the many Tz’utujil art galleries and textile-filled shops along the way. Tz’utujil is the name of the Mayan people who live on this side of the lake, as well as the language they speak. San Juan’s Tz’utujil art galleries are packed with Technicolor oil paintings that depict traditional life, such as men and women working in fields of flowers, corn, and coffee. The paintings are lovely, and we considered buying at least one, but they’re not unique to San Juan. You can easily find them in other Tz’utujil towns on Lake Atitlan, so we postponed our purchase for another day.
What is unique to San Juan, though, are the many textiles that fill shop windows, that hang from walls, and that blanket tables.
Of course, Guatemalan textiles are not hard to come by. Walk down Pana’s main street, Calle Santander, and it’s guaranteed that someone will offer you a scarf, purse, bag, or tablecloth. Unfortunately, I rarely see anything I like, and not because these items lack in quality or authenticity. It’s simply personal preference. Just as I like things that have a rustic-chic feel over things that are stark and modern, I much prefer muted color palettes to items with bold, bright hues. And Guatemala’s all about bold, bright hues. Artisans use rich shades of teal, fuchsia, scarlet, and chartreuse to form the the animal, floral, and geometric patterns that appear on blouses, bags, and belts. These intense splashes of color are part of what make the clothing here típica (typical or traditional). And while I love these vibrant displays of eye candy on others, they just don’t suit me. I wish they did, but they don’t.
San Juan’s textiles are different from the Guatemalan norm. The dyes that are used to make most of the items here are natural: They come from things like carrots, beets, and flowers, and produce hues that are more earth-toned and warm.
The natural dyes give everything from bedspreads to baby shoes a light, summery look. We bought a beach bag in a shade slightly darker than baby blue and a pale russet scarf that could easily pair with any wardrobe.
What’s more, most every shop we entered was run by a group of women who had combined their efforts to start the business. Many items had tags that listed not only price, but also the name of the senora behind the creation. It was a personal touch that I loved.
San Juan was lovely for other reasons, too: We had breakfast while seated on a sidewalk’s steps (for Shon, a tostada; for me, a sweet drink made from oats). For a mid-morning dessert, we had chocolate- and nut-covered bananas. The lake views from town were stunning, and the streets were clean, sunny, and friendly.
That said, what made me happiest of all were San Juan’s gorgeous textiles. It may seem like a small thing, but as a foreigner with what often seems like very foreign tastes, it was a treat to find a town with a style that I loved. I can’t wait to go back. My closets are excited, too.
The shops that we visited were small operations without an online presence, but Glocal Connection, a New Jersey-based company that specializes in selling luxury items produced by indigenous groups in Guatemala, is bringing products from areas like San Juan to the U.S. market. It just recently launched, so the current selection is limited, but it’ll be adding many more items soon. Check out Glocal Connection here.