We aren’t usually big souvenir shoppers, but with the amazing textiles and crafts in Guatemala, we couldn’t help but come home with a swag of lovely mementoes and gifts. Call it research if you will, for this list of ideas on soulful souvenirs from Guatemala. In case you’ve forgotten or you’re new to Duende, “soulful souvenirs” is how we refer to beautiful, useful, meaningful mementoes that have a positive impact on the community we’re visiting. Now let’s go shopping!
Today we say “diamonds are forever” but for the Maya, it was “Jade is forever.” To the Maya, the very dense, hard mineral, the colour of nature, was symbolic of the eternal cycle of life. Jade was therefore highly revered, being incorporated into rituals and worn by the elite.
There are two types of jade – jadeite and nephrite. Jadeite is the harder, denser and more brilliantly coloured of the two forms. Jadeite is also rarer and more valuable, being found only in Myanmar, Russia and Guatemala. It’s ties to Guatemala’s cultural history and physical geology make it a great soulful souvenir to take home from Guatemala.
Be wary when shopping for jadeite, similarly green serpentine, soapstone and malachite are all being passed off as the gem. That’s not to say there are no genuine stones sold in marketplaces, but unless you are an expert at differentiating real from fake, I would recommend shopping at one of the reputable retailers such as Casa del Jade or Jade Maya who have stores in Antigua. At Casa del Jade you can take a free tour of their museum and learn more about the jade, its cultural significance and history in Guatemala.
Did you know that the Maya invented the hammock? Anthropologists believe the swinging cot dates back at least 1000 years to the indigenous people of Central America who wove them using tree bark and plant fibres. The Spanish conquistadors liked the idea of being off the ground, away from rodents, insects and snakes, so they took it back to Europe—the rest is history! You will see colourful hammocks for sale all over Guatemala.
Guatemala provides the fertile volcanic soils and tropical climate perfect for growing sugarcane, the key ingredient in rum. Guatemalans also have their own unique recipe for rum, using virgin cane sugar honey rather than molasses as the base.
What’s the difference? Virgin cane sugar honey is produced by heating and evaporating sugar cane juice to concentrate the sugars to 72%. Guatemalans use this to make their brew. However, other rum makers then extract sugar from the honey for other money-making purposes, which reduces the product to molasses with a sugar content of 48-50%–the basis of their rum.
The use of virgin sugar cane honey sets Guatemalan rum apart and somewhat ensures it remains an artisanal, small batch process. So why not pick up a bottle? Ask any rum connoisseur Guatemala’s Ron Zacapa makes one of the best rums in the world, or go for the more affordable Quetzalteca with its iconic bottle.
No one does chocolate like the Maya, and their descendants today are doing a good job at keeping their tradition alive. For more details on the history and art of making amazing chocolate, see my recent post. Then go pick yourself up some delicious artisanal chocolate made the Maya way.
All over Guatemala, you are likely to notice bundles of tiny dolls for sale. These are not just an adorable way to make use of textile offcuts, these dolls have a long history in Maya culture. Worry dolls or Muñeca quitapena in Spanish (translating to “trouble dolls”) originated in the Guatemalan highlands and are symbolic of the Maya princess Ixmucane. Legend tells of a special gift presented to Ixmucane by the sun god. This gift would allow her to solve any problem a human might worry about.
In Guatemala, children who are prone to anxiety or nightmares are given the dolls to tell their worries to before bed. The worry dolls are then placed under their pillow and by morning are said to take their concerns away. Worry dolls are traditionally kept in a wooden box or cloth pouch, but you can see them today in many different forms including necklaces and decorating hair combs. They are a thoughtful gift for the worry-wart, anxiety sufferer or nightmare-haunted person in your life.
There are many talented naïve artists producing beautiful oil paintings in Guatemala. “Naïve” meaning they have no formal art education, often these artists are families that pass their technique from generation to generation. The Santiago Atitlan area is a great place to find art representing local scenes such as farmers at work in fields, marketplaces and festivities.
The Maya have been weaving elaborate textiles since ancient times. Traditionally, cloth and clothing production was the exclusive domain of women, and ladies became masters of techniques such as natural dyeing, embroidery, tapestry and brocade. The patterns and decorative motifs on Guatemalan textiles communicate a lot about the place a piece was made, and even the family and marital status of the wearer.
You can’t travel through Guatemala without finding an abundance of textiles for sale, from fabric by the metre to traditional dress pieces such as the huipil—women’s blouse. I recommend purchasing from a women’s weaving cooperative, where you can get a window into how the items are made—ideally by traditional methods rather than many of the mass-produced, machine-made, tourist quality product sold in the markets. You will have a new appreciation of what goes into a garment and the price will be fair for all those concerned. Also, there is often a discount for purchasing more than one product.
The Maya produced ceramics from at least 1000BCE. They created pottery primarily for use as food and beverage storage, tools for eating and vessels for offerings. The Maya didn’t use a potter’s wheel and sculpted their ceramics by hand. They developed new techniques over time, adding materials such as volcanic ash to vary the clay’s consistency and aesthetic. The Maya also experimented with painting their ceramics with dissolved minerals to achieve colourful results. Styles evolved adding ever more detail in the sculpting and surface decoration.
You will find many opportunities to buy ceramics in Guatemala of various shapes, sizes and quality. One distinctive piece you may want to look out for, are replicas of a screw-top jar found by archeologists in 1984, inside a Maya tomb. The vessel was decorated with various glyphs, two of which are the known symbols for cacao. The vessel is thought to have contained hot chocolate, and the screw top lid allowed the vessel to be grasped by its handle so as not to burn the carrier.
While Guatemala produces some of the world’s best and most in-demand coffee, unfortunately, it can be an ethical sticking point—we are shopping for “Soulful Souvenirs” after all. From the time the Spanish introduced coffee as an export crop to replace the withering market for natural dyes, coffee production forced indigenous people from their land and often made them indentured labour on plantations. Things haven’t improved much today as indigenous people working in the coffee trade face poverty, hunger, unequal land distribution and racism. Though coffee is Guatemala’s third-largest export after bananas and sugar, very few of the millions of dollars paid by consumers trickles down to these peasant farmers.
Fairtrade coops bring hope to farmers with small tracts of land that could never compete with the “big guys” alone. Fairtrade standards ensure a minimum price is paid to producers for their coffee in a volatile market and sets aside a certain percentage of profits to be reinvested into their community. Participants have minimum standards for labour treatment, environment and quality. Look for Fairtrade certified coffee to take home from Guatemala, and know you are helping families exit the cycle of poverty.
Where to go soulful souvenir shopping in Guatemala
If you’re spending time at Lake Atitlan, it’s likely you’ll be visiting some of the villages skirting its shores. San Juan and Santiago are just two fabulous places to shop for better quality goods than in the main tourist towns of Panajachel and San Pedro. You’ll find many co-ops including weaving and art, where you can buy direct from the artisans at fair prices, and learn more about the process behind the product.
The town of Chichicastenango hosts a huge market throughout the city streets. Unfortunately, stalls are not organized into sections by product, so you are likely to find fish being sold right next to woven belts. This makes it more difficult to compare products and prices, but fun to explore as each turn provides a new surprise. Market days are Thursday and Sunday, so time your visit accordingly.
There are several markets and permanent stores worth shopping in Antigua:
Nim’Pot stocks handmade products on consignment, with an emphasis on textiles and clothing. You will find styles representing all corners of the country and shelves of vintage traditional clothing.
Mercado de Artesanias is full to the brim of goods from the traditional handmade, to more of your mass-produced tourist pleasers. Keep a sharp eye on quality and negotiate!
El Carmen Ruins marks the entrance to another artisan Mercado which operates daily inside and spills out into the street on weekends.
Have you bought a soulful souvenir in Guatemala? Tell us about it below in the comments.
Peace, love & inspiring travel,