Undoubtedly the most colorfully costumed people in the Americas are the Highland Maya of Guatemala. While traditional native dress has disappeared in many parts of the world, Guatemala remains a place where a high percentage of the indigenous people still proudly wear their traditional dress called traje. Moreover, in Guatemala, Maya traje is village-specific or language-group related. Thus, with dozens of Indian towns and villages, and 21 different Mayan ethnolinguistic groups represented, the variety of indigenous costume is truly dazzling. The photos on this website will give you an introduction to a few of these astonishing and beautiful modes of native dress in Guatemala, and the fascinating and dignified Highland Mayan people who wear them.
NEBAJ, Departamento de Quiché
Nebaj is a town high in the Altos Cuchumatanes mountains. The people of Nebaj, and neighboring Cotzal and Chajul speak Ixil, one of Guatemala's smaller ethnolinguistic groups. The three towns define the "Ixil Triangle", an area very hard hit by army and guerrilla activity in the early 1980s.
The Nebaj woman's costume is one of the most striking in Guatemala, and has won top awards in international pageants of traditional costume. A red corte or skirt, with yellow stripes, is held up by a woven faja (belt or sash). The huipil (traditional square-cut blouse) is heavily decorated with embroidered designs, and worn with an all-purpose shawl draped over one shoulder or used to sling a baby. The ensemble is topped with an elaborate headdress skillfully wrapped into the hair. (Photo 8/86.)
In this family group standing in the plaza of Nebaj the father wears the distinctive chaqueta or open jacket, and a locally made hat of plaited palma (palm straw), plus a western-style sweater and pants. As is common in Guatemala, the man has adopted some western dress, as factory-made clothing is practical and much cheaper than the traditional handwoven and decorated clothing. Women are more faithful to tradition, and weaving skills are highly desirable attributes in a young woman seeking a husband. Here the daughter is dressed similarly to her mother, but in this somewhat unusual case, with a huipil more elaborately decorated than that worn by the mother. Commonly, little girls' huipiles are simpler than those of adults, and become more intricately decorated as the girls become practiced in weaving and sewing skills. (Photo 8/77.)
Four young girls at a Nebaj street corner (8/77).
SANTIAGO ATITLÁN, Departamento de Sololá
Santiago is a Tz'utujiil Maya town built on a lava flow on the south shore of Lago Atitlán. The town is a popular day trip for tourists who boat across from Panajachel on the north side of the lake, to see its ancient church and the unusual indigenous costume of Santiago. (Photo 2/74.) The men of Santiago, as is typical of villages and towns around the lake, wear short calzoncillos (pants), practical for men who spend much of their time fishing, boating, gathering reeds, and other activities related to the lake. (Photo 8/88.) The women of Santiago wear a huipil of purple-striped white cloth, embroidered with fanciful figures of animals, birds and flowers. (Photo 2/74.) But the most striking feature of their costume, illustrated on the Guatemalan 25-centavo coin, is the headdress made of a long cinta wrapped around and around the head to form a disc. Traditionally, the women of Santiago weave the cloth for their huipiles themselves, on a backstrap loom as seen here. (Photo 2/74.)
Near the town docks three little girls from Santiago, and a playmate from another town, greet tourists with smiles and giggles. (Photo 6/88.) Here, 3 men of Santiago paddle by in a typical Santiago boat, a dugout canoe with nailed on freeboard of sawn lumber added, and a tipped-up prow to break through the waves that come up on windy days. (Photo 7/79.)
SAN JUAN SACATEPÉQUEZ, Departamento de Sacatepéquez
A Kaqchikel woman sitting in the plaza of San Juan, in front of the cabildo (city hall). The mauve and gold huipil of the women of San Juan is unmistakable. (Photo 8/69.)
AGUACATÁN, Departamento de Huehuetenango
The headdress is an important article of women's clothing in many Highland Maya towns. One of the most beautiful is that worn by Aguatecas, who, although they have largely given up weaving their own huipiles and skirt material, still take great pride in making their headwraps. The Aguateca headwrap consists of a 2-3 inch wide cinta richly decorated with brocaded designs, and terminated at each end with large tassels. It is worn wrapped around and around the long hair, which is pulled across the forehead, with the full width of the cinta exposed across the top of the head, and the tassels dangling at each side. (Photo 5/93.)
SACAPULAS, Departamento de Quiché
Narrower headbands tipped with fat round pom-poms are the style in Sacapulas, a town well off the normal tourist routes. Viewed from the front, the pom-poms are the dominant feature, even to the point of hiding the actual headband of this Sacapulas market woman selling fruit and black salt from a roadside stand. (Photo 7/00.) Another friendly woman took great delight in weaving a Sacapulas headdress into the long blonde hair of an unusual visitor. (Photo 6/87.)
SANTA CATARINA PALOPÓ, Departamento de Sololá
Santa Catarina is another of the villages perched on the shores of Lago Atitlán. Legend has it there are 12 Atitlán villages, one for each of Christ's disciples, but of course many of the villages pre-date the conquest and introduction of Christianity. Here a young girl of Santa Catarina demonstrates her weaving skills on the backstrap loom, while a second, probably her sister, watches the photographer. Note that the weaver is working with red cloth, but that her huipil is almost completely covered with embroidery in pink and other colors. The huipil of the second girl is mainly blue. Both huipiles are covered with small embroidered geometric figures. Since this photo was taken in 8/77, red Santa Catarina huipiles have been largely replaced by huipiles completely dominated by deep blue, enlivened by geometric spots of other colors, including hot pink, a distinctly modern touch.
SAN PEDRO LA LAGUNA, Departamento de Sololá
Not all the cloth used in traje is woven at home. Much is produced commercially in well-known weaving centers such as Totonicapán and in large factories such as that at Cantel, near Quetzaltenango. Stores and travelling merchants sell commercially produced cloth all over the country by the vara (approx. 33 inches) cut from bolts. It is used mainly for skirts, but also for huipiles in some towns. This woman from Totonicapán offers a wide variety of cloth for sale in the plaza of San Pedro La Laguna on the southwest side of Lago Atitlán. (Photo 6/89.)
TODOS SANTOS CUCHUMATÁN, Departamento de Huehuetenango
Snuggled in a valley high in the Altos Cuchumatanes, well off the usual tourist routes, lies the Mam town of Todos Santos. This town was the site of a famous anthropological/ethnological study by Maude Oakes, described in her book The Two Crosses of Todos Santos (1951). Here we see a young Mam man standing by the two crosses, located in an archeological site on a knob above the town. (Photo 8/77.) He wears the bold red and white-striped calzoncillo worn by all the Todos Santos men, complete with a dark blue-black wool sobrepantelón (literally "overpant") split up the front so that it hangs loosely and serves little actual body-covering function. Todos Santos is the only village in Guatemala where the sobrepantelón is still commonly in daily use; in 1977 its use was near-universal among Todos Santos men, but today it is in decline. In other villages it is used only for ceremony, if at all.
A camisa (shirt) with narrow vertical stripes and a wide, heavily embroidered collar, topped off by a western-style straw hat, and a wool jacket completes his outfit. A few decades back the men's pants tended to be more white with red stripes, and some white pants with a red plaid striping were worn. But in recent years the white has become reduced and the pants are more red with white stripes today. In contrast to some Indian men from other towns (who may wear their traditional costume in their home town, but switch to western-style clothing for travel outside) the men from Todos Santos travel to Huehuetenango and further, to Guatemala City upon occasion, still decked out in full traje, proudly proclaiming their origins.
A Mam woman of Todos Santos shows off her weavings in her house to a visitor, in hopes of a sale. Her huipil is made of a red- and white-striped cloth, but the exposed portion is so heavily covered with brocaded designs that the basic cloth is hidden; the white collar ruffle is decorated with rickrack and/or braid. The women of Todos Santos weave the cloth for the clothing of their men and children, and the children of Todos Santos are dressed just like their elders. (Photos 8/77.)
Here's a view along the main street in Todos Santos on market day (every Saturday). Note one man with the overpants along with another who has dispensed with this traditional garment, as have many young men of Todos Santos. (Photo 6/01.)
SAN JUAN ATITÁN, Departamento de Huehetenango
Another mountain village where both men and women dress in traje is San Juan Atitán. The red camisa and flat straw hats show that this man and his son, photographed 5/93 in the departmental capital, Huehuetenango, are from San Juan.
The San Juan Atitán men's traje is really one of the most distinctive and elegant in all Guatemala. (Photo 6/01.) The shirt has a long squared-off collar, made of two layers of cloth stitched up around the edges, but with an opening that permits the dangling collar ends to be used as pockets. A black or dark brown wool capixay (a sort of pullover with partly open, short and mostly non-functional sleeves) is worn over the red shirt, and held in place by a sash. The pants are white, and plain. Some San Juan men still wear hand-cobbled caites (leather sandals) with high heel cups, very similar in overall design, though not as ornate, as the sandals worn by Classic Maya kings portrayed on stelae. In recent years many men have taken to modern footwear, probably reflecting some economic gains by the community. The men's ensemble is typically completed with a distinctive straw hat and a gaily decorated morral, i.e., utility bag with shoulder strap (an item that is popular among Mayan men from many other villages). Although some adaptation to western clothing is taking place, many men of San Juan still proudly dress in full traje. (Photo 6/01.)
School lets out in San Juan Atitán, and Maya children in traje like their elders in miniature pour jubilantly into the streets. Apparently the yellow straw hats of the Atitán men come with age, as only the older schoolboys wear them. Note the very strong preservation of custom in this town; only a few children are not in traje. This may reflect the fact that San Juan Atitán is a relatively inaccessible mountain town, in far western Guatemala, a long way from the capital city and major centers of tourism, i.e., outside influences. (Photo 7/99.) Which is not to say that traje is static, for even while maintaining their customs the Maya exhibit changing styles: by 2008 more purple was fashionable amongst San Juan men, as exemplified by this father and son. (Photo 10/08)
SAN MATEO IXTATÁN, Departamento de Huehuetenango
San Mateo Ixtatán is located in far northwestern Guatemala, near the border with the Mexican state of Chiapas. Like many of the Mayan towns in Guatemala, it is a site occupied since precolumbian times. The people of San Mateo speak Chuj, a language related to the Tzeltal-Tzotzil idiom spoken in parts of the neighboring Chiapas. The huipil worn by the women of San Mateo is unlike any other Guatemalan huipil. It is voluminous, made of two layers of white cotton cloth, extensively and heavily embroidered on both sides so that it is reversible, with essentially the same design inside and out. The embroidered area is a large circle, centered on the neck hole, mainly of red, and containing large bold stars. The huipil is very heavy, appropriate for the cool climate of this high mountain town. (Photo 1/74.)
Huipiles from San Mateo are often sold in well known markets such as Chichicastenango, but the buyer should be on the lookout for low quality huipiles made expressly for sale to tourists. These characteristically are relatively small, made of a single layer of cloth, and embroidered with large stitches on one side only. Tourists wishing to purchase higher quality goods might do well to consider buying used huipiles. In general, clothing that the indigenas have made for their personal use will be of better quality than work made for the tourist trade.
SOLOLÁ, Departamento de Sololá
Sololá, the capital of the department of that name, is an important Kaqchikel town in which much colorful traditional dress can be seen. Solotecos wear a striped camisa and differently striped pantalón, and Solotecas wear a striped huipil; red is the dominant color in these garments, with many other colors skillfully blended in. The jaspe or ikat technique is used in weaving the striped cloth. In ikat, some thread is tie-dyed prior to the weaving of the cloth, and then woven in to produce a distinctive "blurry" pattern. The finished clothing may be further embellished with embroidered geometric designs. In this family group the man can be seen wearing a rodillera or wool kilt-like wraparound worn over the pantalón. (Photo 8/69.) The man's outfit is commonly completed with a short white or brown wool chaqueta decorated with braid, as this man is wearing. (Photo 10/08) Today, most of the Solotecos wear factory made straw cowboy hats.
A vendor from Sololá hawks his wares at the Chichicastenago market. (Photo 8/69.)
A couple from Sololá selling vegetables in the produce market at Chichicastenango.
NAHUALÁ, Departamento de Sololá
Although their town is right on the Pan American highway, the people of Nahualá, both men and women, have largely maintained the custom of wearing traje. The men of Nahualá and Nahualá's sister town Santa Catarina Ixtahuacán, wear a wool kilt instead of pantalones. The Nahualá man's camisa is typically dyed dark blackish purple or bright red, and finished with broad golden cuffs and collar of European origin. In recent times camisas of other colors, including bright orange and lime green, have gained favor. Western cowboy style straw hats have also become popular here. This Nahualense was photographed 6/01 in the market at Chichicastenango; perhaps his large wool morral is filled with purchases.
Manuela is an affable but shrewd Nahualá woman who very willingly poses for photos, all the while encouraging the visitor to come to her house to see what she has for sale. (Photo 8/96.) In addition to her native K'iche' idiom, she is fluent in Spanish, as are most of the better educated and economically successful indigenas. However, in backwoods parts of Guatemala, many of the Maya speak only their native tongue, whichever of 21 different Maya-derived languages this may happen to be.
CHICHICASTENANGO, Departamento de Quiché
Chichicastenango, a K'iche' Maya town, is an important regional market, and a good place to see a wide variety of traditional costume. However, "Chichi" has become so popular with tourists, that, much like Santiago Atitlán, it has lost some of the picturesque charm it had in the less hectic 1960s. Market days are Sundays and Thursdays, and the steps to the 400-year-old church of Santo Tomás are always crowded with vendors and worshippers. The market stalls crowd practically up to the foot of the steps, where these fruit vendors were photographed in 8/69. The huipil of Chichicastenango can always be recognized by a distinctive symbolic sunburst design around the neckhole. Men of Chichi are known as Maxeños, and the Maxeño traje, which is not worn on a daily basis by the majority, is one of the most elegant in all Guatemala.
ZACUALPA, Departamento de Quiché
One of the boldest colored of all the many huipiles in Guatemala can be see in Zacualpa, another Quiché Maya town. Here women wear a highly distinctive huipil that features a rich purple shoulder yoke of a soft thread woven in a zigzag pattern. Below the yoke, the rest of the huipil is bright red, accented with narrow white and green lines. (Photo 7/00.) Zacualpeñas commonly fold their tzutes (all purpose utility cloths) when not in use, and wear them on their heads as this Zacualpa woman at the Chichi market is doing. (Photo 8/99.)
The traditional Zacualpa huipil pattern has been adapted for the production of purple and red bedspreads, and further modified to other color combinations such as green and gold. The bedspreads are attractive, but wholly a modern product for tourism.
SAN MARTÍN SACATEPÉQUEZ, Departamento de Quetzaltenango
San Martín Sacatepéquez, more commonly known as San Martín Chile Verde, is home to one of the most distinctive men's outfits in all Guatemala. Consisting mainly of a shirt and three-quarter length pants in white cloth, the pants held up by a red faja (sash), this otherwise simple white garment is given bold dashes of color by heavily embroidered cuffs on the trousers, and even more strikingly colored sleeves sewn into the shirt. This young Maya man, whose name happens to be Martín, was carrying a heavy load of firewood down from the mountain and allowed himself to be photographed in exchange for a ride! (Photo 8/00.)
Unfortunately, the wearing of this costume is becoming less common in San Martín, and as this photo suggests, the younger generations may fail to carry on the custom. (Photo 8/00.)
The collection of photos on this website merely hints at the great variety of beautiful traje to be seen in Guatemala. If colorful costume, exquisite weaving skills and traditions, and fascinating people interest you, you should plan a visit to Guatemala.
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Altman, Patricia B., and West, Caroline D., 1992, Threads of Identity: Maya Costume of the 1960s in Highland Guatemala: Los Angeles, Fowler Museum of Cultural History, UCLA, 191 p. Deuss, Krystyna, 1990, Indian Costumes from Guatemala, 2nd ed.: Printed in the U.K., 72 p. Osborne, Lilly de Jongh, 1965, Indian Crafts of Guatemala and El Salvador: Norman, OK, Univ. of Oklahoma Press, 385 p. Schevill, Margo Blum, ed., 1997, The Maya Textile Tradition: Harry N. Abrams, Inc., Pubs., 232 p. Vecchiato, Gianni, 1989, Guatemala Rainbow: San Francisco, Pomegranate Artbooks, n.p.