Perched on the mountainside on the shores of Lake Atitlán in Guatemala, San Antonio Palopó is a small town that has remained fairly unspoiled. Unlike Panajachel, you will not find many tourists here, there are few hotels or restaurants and the town’s life centers around it’s ceramics and textiles, with it’s small and picturesque church acting as the focal point. Since we where traveling with kids and they where visiting Guatemala for the first time it was important for me that they got a get a real sense of life in Guatemala. I had been to San Antonio before and thought this would make a great half day trip for us and a great opportunity for us to get away from the tourist hustle and bustle of Panajachel.
San Antonio is just a short boat ride away from Panajachel or neighboring Santa Catarina Palopó. You can also take a pick up truck that will take you there for just $1 or $2 or opt for a taxi that will charge you around $10. A boat ride, however, will provide you striking views of the lake and of the beautiful private houses that dot the lakeshore.
We where staying at Villas B’alam Ya (amazing place!), about 5 minutes away from Santa Catarina Palopó from where we took a private water taxi. I paid $25 which might have been a few dollars too high but Jorge, the 12 year boy who offered us the ride was so charming that I did not do much haggling.
Both of my kids loved the boat ride not just because of the beautiful views but also because they got along really well with Jorge and another boy who rode along with us. I loved to see them interact with the local children. I was really impressed with Jorge who new a lot of English and also spoke Spanish, besides his native Maya Kaqchikel tongue. He even taught the kids some Kaqchikel words.
As we arrived at the dock I had to snap a picture of an adorable pair of twin boys, both of them wearing the traditional clothing. In Guatemala many mayan boys and men no longer wear traditional garments and you don’t see many men in traditional clothing in Panajachel, so I was really thrilled to see that in San Antonio most men and women still wear their beautiful blue hued traditional garments.
We started by visiting the quaint little church, the path there was steep and there where lots of steps but you can also take a tuk-tuk from the dock if you don’t want to make the steep climb. From the church you get a beautiful view of the lake and the volcanoes.
It was a weekend and a lot of people where gathered around the church selling food or flowers or just chatting. A mayan woman approached us and invited us to her house to show us how she weaves the beautiful blue scarves she was selling and she also offered to take us to the pottery workshop.
We followed the steep and dusty path to her home, a humble cottage made of adobe where she showed us how she prepared the threads for weaving on a backstrap loom using a wooden warp board.
She then took us through more packed dirt paths zigzagging through back yards until we arrived at the pottery workshop. Clay mugs, plates and figurines where laid out on the patio to dry on this warm sunny morning. Even my kids where really interested in finding out how the beautiful pottery from San Antonio Palopó is made. We watched men painting the pottery by hand and also saw the ovens where the ceramic pieces where baked which where made from what appeared to be clay or adobe bricks.
Origin And History Of The San Antonio Palopó Pottery
In the highlands of Guatemala years of volcanic eruptions and Guatemala’s geology have contributed to creating exposed channels of clay in the rivers: this clay is of very good quality and perfect for making high quality ceramics. Hundreds of years ago the ancient mayas made use of this clay. Starting in the Red Pottery period (AD 1200) mayans used the ceramics they created for utilitarian purposes and also for religious ceremonies, burials and as a means of telling stories.
The unique pottery at San Antonio Palopó has evolved from the ancient Maya pottery influenced by modern techniques. One of the greatest influences came from the renowned American potter Ken Edwards who’s search for good quality clay brought him to San Antonio in the 90’s. Entranced by the beauty of Atitlán he stayed for many years and set up a workshop and when he left his apprentices continued making pottery using the same techniques among them the use of molds to create pottery more consistently and efficiently. Ken Edwards also introduced modern high firing techniques that allow lead to burn out of the glazes, thus the San Antonio pottery is lead-free and microwave safe. All of the pottery is hand painted and no two pieces are alike.
I bought a beautiful piece of pottery and a scarf from the Mayan woman who gave us the little tour and we hurried back down the dirt paths and the steps to the main dock where Jorge and the lancha camptain where waiting for us.
Next to the dock, right on the edge of the lake, there is a small playground where some local boys where playing. My kids ran straight for the swings and I would have too if there had been one available. I can only imagine the amazing feeling of swinging up into the sky while looking at the beautiful lake. This is my favorite picture of my son from our trip to Guatemala, even though I tried to convince him to swing looking at me with the lake on his back just to take the picture he refused and I do not blame him! It was truly a magical moment.
On our way back both of my kids got the opportunity to drive the lancha for short periods of time and they where ecstatic. The sun was shining bright and the water looked like it was covered in silver. In the distance fishermen doted the lake on their wooden canoes with the volcanoes looming behind them.
The tranquility of the lake and it’s magic had taken full effect over us by now and we where all smiling and feeling like there was nothing in the world but this moment: our family, the lake, the sound of the lancha as it crossed the blue waters and the laughter of the kids as they splashed water on the side of the boat. We spent 3 weeks in Guatemala and this was definitely one of my favorite moments.
Back at the dock in Santa Catarina Palopó we bid the boy and the boat captain goodbye but Jorge decided to tag along as we bought some gifts to take back home and got some toys for the kids. He had seemingly taken an interest in my 9 year old daughter: he chatted with her half in English half in Spanish, complimenting her and teaching her words in Kackchiquel. For my daughter, who struggles with social interactions getting all this attention from Jorge was really something special and surprising, she said: “Mommy Jorge is still here, he really likes me”. When my daughter asked me to take a picture of her with a friendly local pooch Jorge jumped at the opportunity! Jorge even helped us haggle as we shopped and at some point my husband and I joked about taking him home with us.