It’s happened to the best of us. We’ve just finished negotiating an awesome deal for a beautiful textile, and minutes after the purchase we walk past an identical item being sold for $20 less. We’ve been cheated. And all we have to show for it is a cheap rug that’s falling apart in our hands and not as pretty as we remembered it.
When you first arrive in Guatemala, you are bombarded by souvenirs from the moment you step off to plane until you finally close the hotel room door behind you. And with so many brightly colored crafts at such affordable prices, it’s hard to know who’s really offering you a great deal for a high quality item, and who’s trying to pull a fast one. So I’ve compiled the Atitlan shopper’s guide to finding the quality you’re looking for at a price that’s fair for everyone.
Calle Santander: Kinck-Knacks / Christmas Presents for Your Second Cousin
Oops! You forgot that you’re supposed to get little souvenirs for your extended family, but your budget is tight. Calle Santander in Panajachel is the place for you to go! You’ll find journals, key-chains, jewelry, wooden trinkets, and more for between 8Q-80Q ($1-$10 U.S.). But remember – you’re getting what you paid for. This stuff makes awesome cheap souvenirs, but don’t expect it to be high quality or last a long time.
Author’s pick: I personally love the journals with woven textile covers. They usually sell for 30Q-50Q and are more personal than toys and key-chains.
While many of the vendors on Calle Santander do not sell quality unique items, there are a few leather stores on the street with hand-made items that are reasonably priced. These stores are dispersed up and down Calle Santander; they are official storefronts rather than stands set up in the street, and are also recognizable because they usually have the word “Artisan” in their store sign. These leather shops are great for purchasing belts, hats, shoes, backpacks, purses, and many other unique gifts that are more high-end than what’s sold on the street.
Chichicastenango Market: High Quality Textiles and Jewelry
Looking for a nice table runner for mom? Or a necklace for that special someone? Chichicastenango is the biggest market town in Guatemala – vendors come from all over the country to sell two days a week – and it’s only a short 90 minute chicken bus ride from Panajachel.
Chichi market days are Thursday and Sunday. This is my favorite market that I’ve visited in Central America – it has an incredibly large assortment of textiles, silver, jade, and wood-workings. Vendors at the market are experienced, and their products are usually much higher quality. But, of course, you can still find cheap chachkas here. If the vendors see that you are a tourist, they’ll probably try to hike up the price. Just do some friendly bargaining, keep telling them that their work is beautiful while you attempt to lower the price, and eventually you’ll walk away with a fair sale.
Just like on Calle Santander, at the Chichi market you get what you pay for. Higher quality textiles and hand-made goods will be more expensive, but I’d definitely recommend leaving Guatemala with at least one quality artisan souvenir. Don’t forget to haggle.
San Antonio Palopo: Ceramics and Pottery
San Anonio Palopo, just a short pick-up truck ride from Panajachel, is a cute little town near Santa Catarina that is famous for its ceramics and pottery. Similar to in Chichicastenango, the artisans here have been making their products for many generations – they are unique, high quality, and usually have interesting stories behind them.
If you visit San Anonio, be sure to ask people how they make the ceramics. The technique is incredibly complex, and most of the patterns and artwork painted on the pottery have ancient meanings.
San Juan La Laguna: Paintings and Textiles
San Juan La Laguna is famous for its many artisan co-ops – particularly women’s co-ops. Hop on a pick-up truck from San Pedro, and for 2Q you will find yourself in a quiet, dirt-road town with winding streets and art galleries on every corner. Many of the artisans in San Juan have studied art at the local universities, and it shows in their work.
Paintings are my favorite souvenir to purchase in San Juan. You can find stunning depictions of the lake, of Antigua, of birds, and of the human figure. Most are canvas paintings mounted for display, but the artists will roll the canvas up and wrap it in paper so that it is easy to carry home.
There are a handful of women’s weaving co-ops on San Juan as well. These co-ops are designed to help the local indigenous women enter the work force and share their talents with their communities – a task that is currently extremely difficult for indigenous women in Guatemala. Their textiles and clothing are very high quality; they are usually a bit more expensive than the textiles in Chichi, but by purchasing products from the women in San Juan, you are supporting a worthy movement.
Bargaining is the norm when shopping in Guatemala. However, it is important to be respectful and understanding while bargaining. The people selling need to make a living, too.
Therefore, my rule of thumb is usually to start at half their price and work my way up. If you truly reach a dead end and believe that they are charging you too much, you can walk away. If they are willing to sell the item to you for your offered price, they will follow you. If not, then you know that the price they offered you was truly the lowest they can go.
While bargaining is a norm in most stores, there are some stores and co-ops that have pre-priced their items with price tags. In these stores, it is expected that you pay the price on the tag without trying to bargain. Usually, these prices have been predetermined because they are fair for both the buyer and seller.
Congratulations! You are now an experienced shopper in Guatemala. Have fun, and don’t forget to get that Christmas present for your third cousin once removed!