There are countless authentic Mayan villages in Guatemala and many of them are amazing to visit. The feelings you take away are pleasant and warm. They give you the chance to see the daily life of Mayan and rural Guatemala. Pieces of my heart are still in these places. In this post you will find my selection of the 10 most authentic Mayan villages in the country.
Some of them cannot be reached by shuttlebus because they are not tourist spots. So, you need to rent a car. As I said: they are the most authentic! Another way to reach them is by connecting chicken buses, the retired school buses from the United States that in Central America have found a second life, decorated with an abundance of colors and lights. They are the most popular collective transport in Guatemala to travel from village to village. We Guatemalans call them “camionetas, burras or canasteras”. In this article I also explain their routes and whether they are safe to use.
Map of the most authentic Mayan villages in Guatemala
Patronal festivals of the Mayan villages in Guatemala
The best time to visit these villages is when their patronal festivals take place. There are dances that represent the deities of Mayan Spirituality, parties, coronation of Mayan Princesses and typical street food. Below you find the dates so that you can take them into account in your itinerary.
|San Gaspar Chajul
|Santa Maria de Jesus
|Santa Cruz La Laguna
|San Juan del Obispo
San Juan La Laguna
San Juan Cotzal
|San Cristobal Totonicapan
|Santa Maria Nebaj
|Todos Santos Cuchumatan
|24th – 26th
|Santa Catarina Palopo
|San Andres Xecul
|Santo Tomas Chichicastenango
1. San Juan del Obispo
Imagine Antigua Guatemala, but truly authentic and without the invasion of tourism. Well, that would be San Juan del Obispo. It is a historic, picturesque village with a colonial touch. Its cathedral is one of the first built in Guatemala in colonial times. From the Central Park you have a wonderful panoramic view of the nearby volcanos.
In Guatemala we call San Juan del Obispo “Cuna de Artesanos” (Cradle of Artisans) and “Tierra del Níspero” (Land of the Loquat). There are more than 400 local families that dedicate themselves to planting this fruit. The loquats, subtropical fruits also known as “Japanese plum”, are harvested on the slopes of the Agua volcano to produce wines, desserts, jams and mixtures with artisanal chocolate.
Visit the Museo del Níspero (Loquat museum) where the whole process and the history of the arrival of this fruit to the village is explained. In fact, the locals have a legend about it, but I will not tell you, so you can ask during your visit. They will be thrilled to share their magic story.
You can also go to the San Juan del Obispo Museum. During your visit you will get a guided tour and hear all about the history of the building and the village. Admission and guided tour are free, but a donation is appreciated.
How to get to San Juan del Obispo
It is located 5 km (3 mi) south of Antigua Guatemala. You can take a chicken bus from the Antigua Guatemala bus terminal. The bus should display San Juan del Obispo on the front. The one-way ticket will be 3 GTQ (0.40 USD). The route is safe, so you can travel without any worries. The buses leave every 10 or 15 minutes; there is no fixed timetable, but they depart regularly.
Local languages: Spanish and Maya-Kaqchikel.
Patronal festival: June 23rd & 24th
2. Santa Maria de Jesus
Santa Maria de Jesus is the most authentic Mayan village and it is close to Antigua Guatemala. Its population is of Mayan-Kaqchikel origin. The village was established by a few families from Quetzaltenango during the early years of Spanish colonization. Its location on the slopes of the Agua Volcano gives an imposing background to the landscape, seen from its central plaza. Santa Maria de Jesus is visited by mountaineers since it is the place where the route of climbing this volcano begins.
On its market days, Tuesdays and Fridays, you can appreciate the sense of community among the residents. For many years in Guatemala, we called it “Pueblo Chiquito” (Little Village). I recommend you visit this village when its patronal festival takes place. If you are in Guatemala during the second week of January, consider taking a walk and experiencing the ambience of a patron saint festival without going far from Guatemala City or Antigua.
How to get to Santa Maria de Jesus
Santa Maria de Jesus is located 10 km (6 mi) from Antigua Guatemala. The best option to get to Santa Maria de Jesus is to take a chicken bus or microbus at the Antigua Guatemala bus terminal. The vehicle must say Santa Maria de Jesus on its front. The one-way ticket will be 10 GTQ (1.25 USD) approx. You will be charged during the journey or when getting off. It is a safe, direct route.
Local languages: Spanish and Maya-Kaqchikel
Patronal festival: January 15th
3. Santa Catarina Palopo
Santa Catarina Palopo is the most instagrammable indigenous village on Lake Atitlan. The houses and small buildings are painted in the colors and patterns of the huipil (blouse) of the women’s traditional costume. Although it is touristic, it has not lost its mayan-indigenous essence; all inhabitants identify as members of the Maya-kaqchikel ethnic group. The word “Palopo” was added to its name by the Mayans. In the Kaqchikel language it means “Amate tree”. This tree is native to Guatemala and widespread throughout Central America.
It is a picturesque and peaceful village, so wandering through its alleys is very pleasant. The cafes surrounding the central square are a great place to have a coffee or hot chocolate with a view of the cathedral. Close to the square is the Santa Catarina Palopo Cultural Center, where you can take textile and cooking workshops and learn about the history of the village.
In Santa Catarina Palopo you can also treat yourself to one of the most luxurious and romantic stays in Guatemala. Casa Palopo hotel and the Tzampoc Resort are the best-valued accommodations in the country. From their rooms and pool areas you can enjoy the impressive view of Lake Atitlan and the three volcanoes.
How to get to Santa Catarina Palopo
By tuk tuk from Panajachel: If you are staying in Panajachel, from any street in town you can take a tuk tuk that will charge 5 GTQ (0.60 USD) to take you to the center of Santa Catarina Palopo. It is a 4 km (2.5 mi) ride so in 10 minutes you will be there.
By boat from any other village around Lake Atitlan: Santa Catarina Palopo has a dock where boats arrive and depart to the other villages in the area. Depending on where you are coming from, one-way fees will be between 15 GTQ (2 USD) and 25 GTQ (3 USD). Take note that, as in most public transportation in Guatemala, only payment in cash, in local currency, is accepted.
Local languages: Spanish and Maya-Kaqchikel
Patronal Festival: November 24th to 26th
4. Santa Cruz La Laguna
Santa Cruz La Laguna is definitely one of the most authentic and least tourist-touched Mayan villages on Lake Atitlan. It is peaceful and well-preserved. The daily life of its inhabitants consists of working in fishing, agriculture and handicrafts. There are two ethnic Mayan groups, Kaqchikel and Tz’utujil They have lived together for so long that their languages have become a mix between the two.
From Santa Cruz La Laguna you can visit the small villages of Tzununa and Jaibalito. These are places with an even more rural life and an authentic ambience. If you are adventurous, you can reach them by hiking a little less than 5 km (3 mi). The difficulty of this hike is intermediate-advanced. It is mostly flat terrain along the shoreline of the lake, but at times it gets steep and can be challenging if you are afraid of heights.
How to get to Santa Cruz La Laguna
By boat from Panajachel: At the Tzanjuyu dock in Panajachel you take the collective boat that makes several stops. Tell the boat driver that you want to get off at the Santa Cruz La Laguna dock. Make sure you tell him, so that he lets you know when you are there. This way you will not get confused. You will be charged 15 GTQ (2 USD) for the one-way trip.
By boat from any other village around Lake Atitlan: No matter where you arrive in Santa Cruz La Laguna from, any boat with continuous stops will take you. Depending on where you take the boat it costs between 10 GTQ (1.25 USD) to 25 GTQ (3 USD). Don’t forget to tell the boat driver your destination so he can announce it.
Local languages: Spanish, Maya-Kaqchikel and Maya-Tz’utujil.
Patronal Festival: May 10th
5. San Juan La Laguna
San Juan La Laguna is the best organized Maya-Tz’utujil village when it comes to welcoming visitors. The warmth and openness of its inhabitants will make you never want to leave, so much so that I fell for their charms and lived there for several years. The nostalgia will remain with me for the rest of my life. Its inhabitants are well-known for being excellent painters and weavers. Walking through its streets is walking through a museum of murals on the walls of their houses. The paintings are even on the pavement in the main street that leads to the pier.
The theme of the paintings is completely Mayan-indigenous. They show an explosion of colors and patterns of the indigenous costumes of the locals. I recommend that in addition to visiting during the titular fair, you visit San Juan La Laguna during Semana Santa (the week leading up the Easter and starting the Sunday before Easter, Palm Sunday). For the catholic processions the main streets are decorated with colorful carpets. They are made of different kinds of fruits and flowers and they are true pieces of art.
You can visit cooperatives of women weavers, where you can see the whole process of creating mayan textiles and their symbolic meaning and also take part in workshops. Casa Flor Ixcaco and Tinte Maya are the best places.
Another good option in San Juan La Laguna is to participate in a Mayan Ceremony or enjoy a Temazcal or Mayan Sauna. I recommend Centro Terapeutico Maya El Nuevo Sol.
How to get to San Juan La Laguna
By boat from Panajachel: From Panajachel you can take the direct boat to San Juan La Laguna or to San Pedro La Laguna at the popular Tzanjuyu dock. The one-way fee is 25 GTQ (3 USD). The boats depart approximately every 20 to 30 minutes. However, the captain waits until enough people have boarded before departing. Sometimes this can take over 30 minutes.
By boat from the other villages around Lake Atitlan: Again, depending on where you depart, you will be charged between 10 GTQ (1.25 USD) to 25 GTQ (3 USD).
By tuk tuk from San Pedro La Laguna: It will charge you 5 GTQ (0.60 USD) for the one-way trip. This is the village next to San Juan La Laguna, which is also worth visiting and is popular with backpackers.
Local languages: Spanish and Maya-Tz’utujil.
Patronal festival: June 24th
6. San Andres Xecul
San Andres Xecul is a place with Maya-Quiche inhabitants, one of the most widespread ethnic groups in Guatemala. Therefore, you can be sure that it is one of the most authentic Mayan villages in Guatemala and its atmosphere, traditions and people are proof of this. San Andres Xecul is known for its popular church, which is one of the clearest representations of religious syncretism between Catholicism and Mayan Spirituality. The facade of the church has details of the traditional indigenous Huipil (blouse) of the women of San Andres Xecul. These patterns are a mix of symbolic Mayan ornaments and Catholic saints. Their origin, according to the locals, goes back to an indigenous legend. I invite you to ask them on your visit because the locals will be happy to tell you about all it.
The patronal festival is one of the best in the country. So, if you are in Guatemala by the end of November or beginning of December, consider visiting this village! The fair takes place in the center and lasts five days. On the official day (November 30th) Mayan cultural activities and dances take place.
The most impressive to see are the Danza de los Micos and the Danza del Palo Volador. These dances consist of men hanging by ropes from the cross of the church without any harness or type of security. From above, the dancer dressed as a Mayan version of a monkey dances to the rhythm of the marimba. The origin is in the mythology of the Popol-Vuh, the sacred book of the Mayans. The hieroglyphs that narrate the Popol-Vuh were discovered on a mural from 200 BC inside the ruins of the ancient Mayan city of El Mirador. Knowing this, you can imagine the historical significance of these representations.
How to get to San Andres Xecul
Quetzaltenango is the closest city to San Andres Xecul where you can stay the night. It is located 10 km (6 mi) away and you can take a tour with transportation and guide in English included. Below you find the button to book. The route is safe and in good condition. So, if you have your car and your map you can also drive there without any risk.
Local languages: Spanish and Maya-Quiche
Patronal festival: November 30th
7. San Cristobal Totonicapan
San Cristobal Totonicapan is a Maya-Quiche town with a strong indigenous identity. It is not only popular for having one of the oldest Catholic cathedrals in Guatemala, but it is also known for the preparation of indigenous drinks and the creation of Mayan textiles. “Sancris” as Guatemalans call it, is the main town in this area. For this reason, it is pretty busy, especially on Sundays, the day of the local market.
Its market is extremely festive and colorful, and the central square is full of stands of typical Guatemalan street food: atoles, Guatemalan tacos, tamales and original desserts from the area. These food sales also happen every afternoon, from 4:00 to 6:00 PM. Treat yourself to some “rellenitos”: little balls of mashed plantain filled with sweetened black beans.
How to get to San Cristobal Totonicapan
By chicken bus from Quetzaltenango: If you want to experience the adventure of traveling by chicken bus, this is one of the safest routes to do so. You take a bus at the Quetzaltenango bus terminal that goes to Cuatro(4) Caminos. The one-way trip is 15 GTQ (2 USD). You get off at Cuatro(4) Caminos, the meeting point for the main buses and routes in the region. Here many men will approach you asking where you are going. Clearly say that you are going to San Cristobal Totonicapan. They will help you locate the chicken bus that takes you there directly. This journey will cost 5 GTQ (0.60 USD). Always make sure that the sign on the front of your bus says San Cristobal Totonicapan.
I recommend that you make your trip early in the morning and so will be able to return to Quetzaltenango early. The return buses will be the same: San Cristobal Totonicapan to Cuatro(4) Caminos and finally to the Quetzaltenango terminal. After 4:00 PM. it gets much busier and fees increase to between 3 GTQ (0.40 USD) to 5 GTQ (0.60 USD) each way.
Local languages: Spanish and Maya-Quiche
Patronal festival: July 25th
8. Santo Tomas Chichicastenango
Chichicastenango is the village with the most manifestations of religious syncretism between Catholicism and Mayan Spirituality. The inhabitants belong to the Mayan-Quiche ethnic group and their sense of belonging is strong. In this place you can learn several interesting facts about Mayan history. One of them is that the Catholic church was built on a structure from pre-Hispanic times. It was here that the original sacred book of the Mayans, the Popol-Vuh, was discovered. The Communions are given in the Maya-Quiche language and are mixed with beliefs of the Mayan religion.
Another interesting fact is that on the steps towards the entrance of the church you can see Mayan Spiritual Guides making offerings and performing ceremonies. When you visit, be sure to go inside the church. The Mayan influence is very noticeable in its images and altars. It is undeniably one of the most authentic Mayan villages in Guatemala.
I bet you have seen the colorful pictures of its market, the largest in Central America. It is an excellent idea to visit on official market days, Thursdays and Sundays from early morning to early afternoon. I suggest that after touring the market you stay in the church area. By 12:00 PM a small procession with Mayan priests and native music leaves from the church.
How to get to Chichicastenango
There are plenty of tour operators that offer shuttles that leave from Guatemala City, Antigua Guatemala, Panajachel, San Pedro La Laguna and Quetzaltenango. Several of them have a pick-up service from and to your hotel. Below are the buttons to book your tour with a guide in English included.
Local languages: Spanish and Maya-Quiche
Patronal festival: December 21st
9. Ixil region (Nebaj, Chajul and Cotzal)
Santa Maria Nebaj, San Gaspar Chajul and San Juan Cotzal are the three indigenous villages that make up the Maya-Ixil region or the Ixil Triangle. Life in these places is peaceful and its inhabitants are an example of resilience. They belong to an ethnic group which was attacked during the internal armed conflict in the 1980’s. For the last 10 years the survivors have been in legal proceedings in search of justice and compensation. Part of their activities for economic recovery is the organization of community-based tourism in this area.
The region has impressive natural wealth. The green of its landscapes between mountains and meadows is overwhelming. There are people who call it “Little Switzerland in Guatemala” for its great scenery. The beauty of these three villages lies in their peaceful streets, small central squares and churches. In addition, the Ixil indigenous clothing is, without any doubt, the most beautiful in Guatemala. The patterns and colors in men’s and women’s clothing have a unique design in the country. They are works of art, charged with symbolic meaning.
How to get to Nebaj, Chajul and Cotzal
The place to start your journey along the Ixil route is Santa Maria Nebaj, which is the main village. The best way to get there is by car. The bus route can be slow and confusing because it is necessary to transfer several times. In addition, for some sections the buses are unsafe.
In Nebaj there is the best agency for Community Based Tourism in the region. They organize your stay with local families, meals, and guided hikes through the villages and natural areas. Contact Turismo Comunitario Maya Ixil to organize your visit. This will be an experience that will remain in your heart forever.
Local languages: Spanish and Maya-Ixil
Patronal festival: Nebaj: August 15th; Chajul: January 6th; Cotzal: June 24th
10. Todos Santos Cuchumatan
Todos Santos contains the essence of Guatemala. This is one of the few places where men still wear indigenous clothing on a daily basis. It is wonderful visiting the patronal festival on November 1st. The event consists of a non-competitive race of jockeys on their horses. The peculiar thing is that the jockeys must be totally drunk to run the race. It is popularly called “La carrera de la muerte” (The race of death). The locals believe that if someone dies during the race it is a good omen: the harvest will be good. The celebration begins a day before at the houses of the horsemen. The spiritual preparation begins 7 days earlier with Mayan ceremonies.
Walking through its streets you will experience a typical indigenous Guatemalan village. You will see that its local culture pervades everything. Todos Santos is located in a mountainous area. Its Central Square, the highest point, allows you to have a panoramic view of the village and the surrounding mountains.
The best option is to stay the night in Huehuetenango, the closest city to Todos Santos Cuchumatan. In the region you can visit some cenotes (natural cave systems filled with water where you can swim), lagoons, natural parks for hiking, rivers and villages. I suggest you stay a few days in the city to explore the area.
How to get to Todos Santos Cuchumatan
The best option to get to Todos Santos Cuchumatan is by renting a car. From Antigua Guatemala or Guatemala City the journey takes around 7 hours, and the road is in good condition. I don’t recommend going there by bus because it will take much longer and you need to transfer several times. In addition, it can be a bit chaotic.
Local languages: Spanish and Maya-Mam
Patronal festival: November 1st
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