Blog posts of '2014' 'April'

Las Mujeres de Panabaj: Working Together to Rebuild


For indigenous women in the villages on the banks of beautiful Lake Atitlan, life is not always as picturesque as their placid surroundings. Although many of the villages in the Lake Atitlan region are renowned for their form of handicrafts, or artesania, earning a sustainable, living wage through sales of these handicrafts -- no matter how unique or well-made -- presents many challenges. The thousands of tourists who visit the region each year don't make it to every small village, and even if they did, competition for craft sales is fierce. It takes more than crafting skills to be a successful artisan. For the artisan group Mujeres Panabaj, working together as a cooperative instead of trying to make it as individual artisans has been the key to success.

Founded in 1996, Mujeres Panabaj, is a cooperative of women artisans in Santiagotwo Atitlan. The group started out as “Arte Indigena T’zutujil”, a name reflective of the T’zutujil Maya people who founded their village of Panabaj and that of nearby Tzanchaj, and whose culture and language are prevalent even today. The group has faced a long and sometimes arduous road to their current success. One of the most tragic times they faced was in October, 2005 when a mudslide triggered by the heavy rains from Hurricane Stan struck, leaving an estimated 600 of the 3,000 villagers dead or missing, and those who escaped with little more than the clothes they were wearing. Many of the artisan group lost their husbands, children, and houses.

threeAt the time, it seemed uncertain whether Panabaj would even be rebuilt. Many people were relocated to government housing in settlement further east, but despite the efforts of the government, the call of their ancestral home brought back most of the villagers to rebuild. Now the town looks much as it did before the catastrophe, although those who survived will never forget those they lost. In honor of their village, the group became ‘Las Mujeres de Panabaj’. Donations from Unique Batik and others provided the women with looms and materials to start working again, and a grant from another organization provided them with money to rebuild their workshop and store.

Today, Las Mujeres de Panabaj provides a regular, viable income for the twenty members, ages 25 - 40. The fourmembers only earn money through their artesania, and the group is run very democratically, with a legal board of directors that changes every two years. Their weaving and jewelry making allow the women who, as T’zutujil Maya, speak little to no Spanish, to support their families despite this disadvantage in the Guatemalan business world. The women can earn approximately $6.50 a day, which in the local economy is a fair price for their work. Artisans are paid promptly, every fifteen days. The group also helps those who want to pursue furthering their education; a few women have received scholarships to go to high school. The group is not limited to its original members, but accepts and trains new members, who are taught the beading and weaving techniques, making jewelry and products woven on a flat loom, such as belts.

Unique Batik purchases woven belts, geo and animal wallets, and Christmas ornaments from Las Mujeres de Panabaj. We are proud to bring their meticulously crafted and vibrant artesania to our customers in the U.S. When you buy these items, you are ensuring that the strong women of Panabaj are not only surviving their challenges, but thriving in the face of adversity.

guitar strap

Guatemala’s Beautiful Lake Atitlan, Part 2

Lake Atitlan

Picturesque volcanic Lake Atitlan is home to many Unique Batik artisans. This mountainous region is rich with Maya cultural traditions and handicrafts and has more to offer visitors than just its promise of beautiful vistas and eternally spring-like weather. The small villages that surround this huge body of water, formed in a caldera millions of years ago, are as captivating as anything the scenery can boast.

San Juan

San Juan la Laguna, located on the western shore of Lake Atitlan, is a quiet, clean village of about 8,000 residents.  Off the beaten (tourist) path, its resulting relaxed atmosphere allows visitors to get away from the bustle of the city and experience the genuine friendliness of the indigenous Guatemalan people. This charming village is renowned for its painting, and boasts talented oil painters and several street murals. There is also a women’s coop of weavers who use only hand-gathered natural dyes, keeping centuries-old traditions alive.


Across the lake, on the eastern shore is San Antonio Palopo, one of the oldest lake settlements and well known for its handmade majolica style pottery. Historically, each village has had its own distinguishing style of dress, or traje, and that of San Antonio Palopo features striped tops for both men and women. In this traditional village, it is not unusual to see people wearing this style of clothing even today. San Antonio Palopo also offers terrific views of the lake -- one can enjoy the vista as well as a completely unique view by hiking to the top of the village and the ancient terraced onion fields found there.

San Juan Spinners

The village of Santa Clara la Laguna offers a completely different experience; located high in the mountains among miles of coffee plantations and forest, it is home to the famous Rosto de la Maya overlook. Seen from below, Rosto de la Maya or ‘Face of the Maya’ looks like a face in profile; from the overlook itself one can see the entire lake, and on a clear day, all the way to the Pacific Ocean. In Santa Clara la Laguna, making baskets is part of the traditional culture of the town because the baskets were historically used during the coffee harvest. Now, basket weaving also brings in income from craft sales, and there is a cooperative specializing in different styles of cane baskets for export.

San Antonio Pottery

The craft traditionse Lake Atitlan region are directly tied to history both ancient and modern. Whether artisans create because it is an integral part of their culture that must be passed down from generation to generation, or whether their skills were imported along with the many expatriates who are drawn to this enchanting region, the value of handcrafting is embraced and celebrated. Clareños make baskets and San Antonio Palopo is the place to find pottery. Each village around Lake Atitlan is unique, seeped in its own special Maya language, dress, and traditions. It could take a lifetime to explore them all, and it would be a lifetime well spent.

Guatemala’s Beautiful Lake Atitlan, Part 1

Last week, we introduced artisan Diego Ravenal, who started his jewelry business selling his wares at a booth catering to tourists. Tourism is Guatemala’s third largest source of income, with its main attractions being archeological sites of Mayan culture, the colonial city of Antigua, and beautiful Lake Atitlan, where Diego and his family live and work.

Lake Atitlan 1Many of our artisans work in the region of Lake Atitlan, which is a huge volcanic lake in the Guatemalan highlands. Lake Atitlan is fifty square miles in area, and its thirty-one miles of coastline are surrounded by myriad villages, each unique. Famous travelers including writer Aldous Huxley and German explorer Alexander von Humboldt have described it as one of the most beautiful lakes in the world, and anyone who has seen its expanse of pacific blue waters reflecting the looming volcanic mountains that etch out its perimeter would have to agree. A three hour bus ride from Guatemala City, Lake Atitlan is a popular tourist destination with both local and foreign tourists, who come for the scenic beauty and the cultural interest found in its surrounding villages.


There are seven main villages surrounding Lake Atitlan, with Panajachel being the most easily accessible and the launching point for most visits. Panajachel, or “Pana” as it is affectionately called, may not be the most beautiful of the villages, but with its amenities and panoramic view of the lake, it’s the perfect base camp for a visit to the region. On Calle Santander, you will find cybercafes, a wide variety of restaurants, travel agencies, and plenty of handicrafts. All of the international visitors make Pana a somewhat cosmopolitan oasis in an otherwise rural area.

Louisa and her mom

                                                                             Louisa and her mom

Across the lake from Panajachel, you will find Santiago Atitlan, the largest of the lake communities. Santiago Atitlan is predominantly populated by indigenous Maya and there you will find strong ties to the Maya life, including women dressed in the traditional striped skirts and embroidered blouses, or huipils. Traditionally, each village in Guatemala had its own style of embroidery and dress, and you could easily recognize someone by their garb, but the younger generation of women simply wear what they like, regardless of their village. Santiago Atitlan is known for its handicrafts and for the shrine of Maximón, a folk saint venerated by Maya people.

Elena          Carmen and Carmalita

                                                                Elena                           Carmen & Carmalita

The village of Santa Catarina Palopo, two and a half miles south of Pana, is smaller and less visited by tourists. Those who visit enjoy the very pretty Santa Catarina Palopo Church, nestled at the foot of the mountain. Although the market is smaller than those of Panajachel or Santiago Atitlan, it is known for its exquisite handicrafts, especially for weaving. For the truly adventurous, a day hike from Pana to Santa Catarina Palopo and a return in the back of a pickup truck can be a fun day away from the tourist scene.



Just as one visit to Lake Atitlan could never be enough to enjoy all it has to offer, we can’t possibly describe it in once post. Next week, look for more on why so many visitors have fallen in love with this unique spot in Guatemala...

Lake Atitlan

                                                                                              village overlooking the lake