Guatemalan Arts and Crafts

You won’t waltz away with a souvenir ancient Mayan ceremonial headdress—it would be illegal to take such an item out of the country anyway—but Guatemala does have some unique answers to the “What did you bring me?” question you’re sure to hear upon your return home. First-time visitor? You’ll probably make it to the famous Thursday/Sunday market in Chichicastenango in the highlands, but don’t forget about lesser-known weekly or twice-weekly markets around the country. And if you prefer your shopping inside walls and under a roof, fine shops abound in Antigua and Guatemala City. Although it may seem more authentic to buy items at their out-country source, any and all of Guatemala’s best known souvenirs are available in Antigua and Guatemala City if you’re pressed for time and need the efficiency of one-stop shopping. No matter where you make your purchase, quality is high, variety is amazing, and prices are reasonable.


Palm, wicker, and bamboo get woven into simple or elaborate basketry in an age-old process that, unlike other artisan work, has never been industrialized. As with leather, think not just the primary basket-weaving materials, but frequently coverings or accents to the basket with woven yarn. Many small baskets purchased in souvenir shops give you a two-fer, and contain bags of coffee, spices, or yarn doll collections.


Momostenango, in the highlands near Quetzaltenango, is Guatemala’s center for traditional woolen blankets, but you’ll find momosteco products sold in markets all over the country. It gets cold up here, and the town anchors a sheep- and goat-raising region. Their wool gets turned into chamarras (blankets) on foot looms, with or without designs.


You’ll have to decide how and whether a colorfully embroidered huipil and corte (blouse and skirt) worn by Mayan women might fit in back home. (The traditional clothing worn by indigenous men might look out of place on a street in the United States.) But many visitors do go home with traditional ponchos and caps and pashmina-like shawls. The tight weave on foot looms (for woolens) and back-strap looms (for cottons) gives clothing made here a fine, durable quality. A word of warning: indigenous people find it offensive when visitors go native. Try on your clothing purchase in the market or shop, and then pack it away and don’t put it on again until you get back home.


Recycling is in its infancy in Guatemala, but several glassblowing cooperatives in and around Quetzaltenango happily collect discarded bottles and jars and turn them into decorative pieces, your purchase of which keeps glass out of landfills. Religious figures, vases, and goblets make up most of what is for sale here. Ornaments are a particular favorite, and make nice additions to your Christmas tree.


Guatemalan jewelry runs the gamut from inexpensive yarn bracelets and beaded necklaces—many of the pieces are quite decorative—to jade, mined in the eastern part of the country, and one of the signature souvenirs here. If you shop for the latter, the sky can be the limit in price, so stick to a reputable store that will guarantee your purchase is indeed jade. (The open-air markets sell some cheap knock-offs.) Antigua is Guatemala’s jade central, with fine shops, many of which do the workmanship on-site.


Belts, sandals, handbags, and wallets are among the leather products prized by Guatemala visitors. Think not just leather, though, but leather combined with woven cotton. Fabric covers the leather—belts are a particular favorite that employ this technique—giving the same designs and colors unique to each community. Remote Todos Santos Cuchumatán is one of the country’s premier leather-crafting centers. Fortunately, you can find such products all over Guatemala.


Though not usually lumped in under the “handicrafts” heading, Guatemala does produce T-shirts of fine quality. Two broad categories seem to predominate: shirts with decorative Mayan hieroglyphs are sure to please the history-minded traveler or person on your shopping list; and the ubiquitous Gallo beer–logo shirts are well constructed, but do include sayings in Spanish, frequently borderline bawdy. If you don’t speak Spanish, ask for a translation before deciding whether you want to purchase one.


The tight loom weave also imparts durability to non-clothing Guatemalan textiles. Colorful table settings are particular favorites, and a matching set of table runner, placemats, and napkins against a plain-color tablecloth adds pizzazz to any dinner party. Whimsical matching pot holders and oven mitts can spice up your kitchen. Wall hangings portraying Guatemalan scenes can adorn your home, although some of the scenes for sale look suspiciously Andean rather than Central American.


The highlands’ Totonicapán is Guatemala’s toy center, although they fall into more of the enjoy-as-a-work-of-art-while-it-sits-on-the-shelf category, rather than something a 4-year-old child will actually get down on the floor and play with. One toy-like item that’s always a hit with kids and adults is the Mayan worry doll, tiny yarn figures, usually sold in a cloth sack in groups of six. Traditional belief holds that if you confide your concerns to the dolls before bedtime—keep it to one worry per doll—by morning, your cares will disappear.

Wood Carvings

Wood-carving workshops dot the country, but you’ll find the most in the heavily forested Petén. That’s where most of the wood comes from, too, and it gets turned into religious figures, Nativity scenes, and chess sets. Mahogany, walnut, the dense hardwood cocobolo, and the greenish-grayish zircote are favored woods used for carvings. Alas, all are becoming more scarce in Guatemala. Many of the carvers in El Remate tout that they use only wood from fallen trees, yet some debate whether or not that disturbs the ecosystem, too.

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