Adventures in Guatemala—Volcanoes, Huipils, and Lake Atitlan

Are we at the top of the volcano yet?

Guatemala, 2014. My girlfriend—now wife—and I were climbing Volcan San Pedro, a spectacular volcano residing above majestic Lake Atitlan

Visit Lake Atitlan, Now


Visit Lake Atitlan. Seriously, check out these photos; poetic words do no justice.

I am a travel snob. I believe your trip is timid if you are not severely jetlagged. I expected little from Guatemala, but Guatemala is fantastic, and Lake Atitlan is unbelievable. A pristine, shimmering blue tropical lake rung by volcanoes; it was majestic. The area also featured the rich culture of the Mayan peoples.  

So please put Lake Atitlan on your bucket list.

Back to the Volcano

I am an avid hiker; I love the process, rigor, sweat, and rewarding views, and I am particularly fond of one type of exotic mountain.


Ensure safety and maintain caution around volcanoes—they are no joke. In 2018 I devastatingly heard of the Volcan de Fuego eruption, an epic tragedy.

Danger aside, volcanoes have flair and temperament. They are unpredictable, erratic, and dangerous. 

My laid-back girlfriend reluctantly agreed to hike San Pedro, and we hired a guide. He was a pleasant, plump, and plain man in his 40s. He wore uneventful sandals beaten down by endless treks ferrying around gawking western tourists.

He Schooled Us

This challenging 4-mile climb gained nearly 4,000 feet. Despite being in our 20s, hiking up this volcano was miserable and embarrassing. My girlfriend was fit, but I was overweight due to craft beer and pastries. I overestimated our abilities. 

The hike passed by small family plots of tropical maize and fruits. Can you imagine hiking up a mountain to plant your crops? Not I, and we huffed and puffed past these little plots. Our cheerful and unfatigued tour guide offered to hold our backpacks, and we desperately agreed. My horrified and exhausted girlfriend wanted to turn back but stubbornly refused.

We entered a majestic cloud forest rich with verdant vegetation and mossy thickets. I would have enjoyed the beauty more if I didn’t feel the urge to throw up. We took frequent breaks and progressed inch by inch. Our concerned guide hadn’t expected such weak, slow tourists, and he said he needed to attend a funeral. I vaguely heard him through panting and would have felt guilty had I the emotional capacity. 

We progressed bit by bit. Our guide held our bags and prodded our butts. Miraculously, we made it to the top, and the crest greeted us with unparalleled views. We rested—thank God. Our disappointed tour guide said he could see the funeral from the top of the volcano. It had been spectacular, but my girlfriend was annoyed, and I was down for the count. We gave him a $200 tip to offset our guilt.

Despite our exciting experience, please do not climb San Pedro—bandits now frequent the trail, stealing money and electronics. 

Guatemalan Garb

Beyond this lovely hike, the highlight of our experience in Guatemala was the vibrant and enticing culture; I distinctively remember the clothing. Guatemalans wear clothing harkening back to ancestral Mayan roots—traje tipico. Mayans wear their personas, religion, and history. In a commercialized world, wearing traje displays cultural pride and resilience. Not to mention it’s gorgeous.

Mayan women have worn traje tipico for centuries. One renowned piece resides in the spectacular Museo Nacional de Antropologia in Mexico City. The controversial betrayer La Malinche perhaps wore this item—the famed Huipil de La Malinche. The design varies by ethnic group, so Spanish and Mayans have used them to identify people for unethical or horrific purposes. For example, the Spanish forced traje to identify groups for taxation; during the horrendous 36-year Guatemalan Civil War, sinister antagonists utilized traje to single groups out. Nonetheless, Mayans proudly wear traje, passing their methods from generation to generation. 

Traje consists of several items:          

Huipil and Backstrap Weaving

Let’s focus on the huipil. But, first, let’s pronounce it—“whee-peel.”

The huipil is a tunic worn by Mayan women. Design, material, and technique vary by ethnic group and tribe; Guatemala has nearly a thousand styles! This garment reaches from the shoulders to the legs, often falling below the knee. Loose and rectangular, backstrap weavers join one to five rectangular fabrics by sewing the sides and placing a middle hole for the head. Often colored white, weavers arrange playful and decorative motifs horizontally. They may show religion, tribe, or community identity. Women may wear slips or skirts under them. Most are common and daily, while women save elaborate designs for ceremonies. Length, color, and format vary by tribe.

How are huipil produced? 

The backstrap.

The backstrap loom is an ancient Mesoamerican art form that uses a rope, sticks, and a strap around the weaver’s waist. The name derives from the strap wrapped around the back. Flexible, portable, and simple, they allow for diverse production methods. Weavers primarily use cotton, occasionally wool or silk. Traditional dyes include bark, herbs, vegetables, and flowers. Sadly, conventional production methods have reduced backstrap looming, yet elders pass the tradition down to young women.

Designs and Motifs

Huipil and Mayan textiles are renowned for their rich tapestry of vibrant colors and designs. Communities are generally rural, so designs often relate to the natural world. Let’s chat about a few common motifs.

Guatemala san mateo ixtatan cosmos 1 0cec12a9e59a208ecfbf91dbb45a044d
Huipil from San Mateo Ixtatan.

Purchasing a Huipil

If possible, obtain an authentic huipil in the Mayan homeland—Guatemala or southern Mexico. Local weavers are plentiful, and they make exceedingly inexpensive and gorgeous pieces. Guatemala has an unsavory reputation but, in my view, is generally safe outside of Guatemala City and other areas. Do your research and take common-sense precautions if you go. If Guatemala is too adventurous for your tastes, consider the spectacular Oaxaca.

If travel is not in your budget, obtain a huipil from Etsy—look for an authentic Mayan vendor. If you seek a collector item, eBay is also suitable. 

CrossFit First, Volcano Climbing Second

As for us, we own many gorgeous Mayan textiles that adorn our abode and my office. They feature playful dancing Quetzals, fanciful red and black geometric patterns, energetic doves, and pastel flowers. We also own an extraordinary, massive quilt sewn from dozens of huipils. It tearfully resides in our basement—my wife says it is too dusty. I beg to differ, but I love my wife more than the quilt, so I will pick my battles. I aspire to visit Lake Atitlan again and perhaps climb another volcano in the future. Before traveling, I will consider diligently committing to a workout regimen to avoid embarrassment and maximize the chance of keeping my lunch.

Matthew Belsky is a higher education professional and map enthusiast who lives in Minneapolis. He works at a university disability services department where he supports students with mental health conditions, ADHD, and other disabilities. He holds degrees in Fine Art, Geography, and Education. He enjoys spending time with his family, hiking, traveling, mushroom hunting, and reading about history, geography, and macroeconomics.

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