I can't believe I've just been to Guatemala and back in under a week's time, but hopefully I can process and savor all the memories over the next couple months. I was invited by Karen Gibbs of By Hand Consulting to attend the New World Crafts Expo in Antigua, Guatemala for two days, which fortunately happen to be free on my calendar. Lucky for me, my friend Katarina Rost was also free and asked if she could come with me and help translate, as she is fluent in Spanish.

I had heard the historic town of Antigua was beautiful and the hotel where we would be staying, Casa Santa Domingo, was incredible, and both were true. Antigua was founded in the 1500's and experienced its share of earthquakes and volcanic eruptions, before being restored as an Unesco World Heritage Site historical town, attracting visitors from all over the world. The Casa Santa Domingo was built as a monastery and now serves as a luxury hotel, spa, exhibit space, museum and wedding site, and I can totally understand why. Katarina and I arrived late Monday night and were driven over cobblestoned streets, to the wooden gates of our hotel and led through candlelit stone corridors to our room, which had a patron saint statue on guard.

  The next morning we strolled the grounds before breakfast, discovering the landscaped jungle courtyards, complete with squawking parrots, babbling fountains, Gregorian chants and a couple of volcanos in the background. The hotel was full of visitors arriving for the craft exhibit, which was preceded by an official opening, filled with local politicians, ambassadors and a news crew. Katarina let me know they were speaking about the opportunities handcrafted products give to Guatemalan artisans, particularly women, and encouraged all of us attending to help support their community.

I had come to the show to look for new products for my website, 12 Small Things, and also to look for some products for some of the larger retailers I sell Keena products to, including Whole Foods, Cost Plus World Market and Williams-Sonoma. Once the ceremonies were over, we all filed into the exhibit which was beautifully displayed in one of the exhibit wings of the hotel, winding around the building and upstairs to the second floor. I made a point at stopping at each of the booths, even if the crafts were different than ones I'd feature on my site, knowing how much time, effort and investment each of the artisan groups had put into having a booth at the show. 

Some of the exhibitors whose products were of particular interest to me were Elohim, who made great looking totes and cosmetic bags that I think would be fun to sell next spring, and Corazon de Volcan who had heart pillows that my friend Darcy at Heartfelt in San Francisco, would really like for her store.  I was happy to see my friend Silvia Moreira again, representing the group Madiox, who make beautiful, contemporary designed pillows, throws, bag and accessories using traditional Guatemalan themes and weaving techniques. I met one of her many talented partners in the collaboration, Diego Olivero, who also has his own design business called The Mayan Store. The very last booth in the hall was the group Arte Comasagua from El Salvador, who make the fabulous cards of women's faces with hats made of flower petals. I bought samples of my favorite six cards and placed a small order to sell on 12 Small Things.

After the show ended for the day, we were invited to a lovely cocktail party at the top of a hill overlooking the city. The entrance to the party was lined with artisans dressed in their traditional clothing, holding candles to help illuminate the walkway. They all kept perfectly still while holding the flickering candles, which made for an ethereal presence along with some great photo opportunities. The party itself featured more contemporary exhibits of the crafts we'd seen at the show, plus a fashion show with young models, wearing contemporary handmade clothing and accessories.

  The next day Katarina and I explored the shops in Antigua and found so many beautiful textiles that we couldn't resist bringing home. I made it to La Casa Gigantes where I finally met Siggy, who'd previously  sold me wonderful carved spoons made from the roots of coffee plants. Her store was amazing with room after room full of undiscovered treasures, and I bought a bunch of spoons to show Williams-Sonoma, plus some more gifts for family and friends.

I returned to the crafts show to place an order for pillows and bags from Madiox, and was invited to their cocktail party that night, hosted in their friend Eric's home, which he designed and built seven years ago. The location was next door to an abandoned church, which gave the home a feeling of grandeur before even entering. Once inside, you realized this was no ordinary Guatemalan home, but an exquisitely designed gallery to house an incredible art collection, creating a delightful environment to live in and invite friends to. I tried to mingle as much as possible with all the young designers and other craft show guests, while also marveling at the thoughtfulness of the interior design. I was pleased to see the same pillows I'd just bought at the Madiox booth front and center on the lobby couch.

  Katarina and I could have stayed at the party much longer, but had to rise early the next morning to make the drive to visit one of the biggest outdoor markets in Guatemala. After a two hour car ride with four other guests from our hotel, we arrived in Chichicastenango and headed straight to the historic Hotel Santo Tomas to have a delicious breakfast of huevos rancheros, plantains, black beans and handmade tortillas. The hotel gardens feature colorful parrots that greeted you with "Hola" every time you passed by. 

Ready to brave the market crowds, we hired the help of two local guides who gave us the full tour and kept an eye out for our safety. They first brought us to the produce market center held in a basketball court that was cleared of players on market days. Next we roamed aisle after aisle of vendor's stalls selling brightly colored textiles, carved statues, handbags and shoes, and anything else you can think of. There was also a food court with women grilling tortillas and pots of beans and soups simmering. We toured the church where men and women were peddling offerings, along with the town's brightly colored cemetery, where a Mayan priest was burning candles to help two women absolve their worries.

  We all had fun bartering with the vendors for items we really liked but didn't need to have. More than any item I bought, I loved just seeing the faces of everyone at the market, from the young children running around their parents who kept a protective, watchful eye, to the older men and women whose weathered faces revealed their life's toil. There was a simple beauty to be found, despite the poverty, that didn't need manufacturing, that we all tried to capture on our cameras and phones to remember. We left Chichicastenango and hit a heavy rainstorm on the drive back, arriving in Antigua to wet, glistening streets under the setting sun.

Katarina and I had a delicious dinner at Hector's Bistro across from the church park, and got home in time for a leisurely swim in the rain before bed. I thought back to all I had seen over the past few days and lingered with my thoughts in the warm, salt water pool, in the jungle garden, with the fountains trickling, and the Gregorian chants drifting across the water, as we swam in the dark among the raindrops. I may need to come back to this colorful country again, but for now am delighted with the three memorable days I spent in this historic city with it's beautiful people under the volcanoes. 

November 02, 2015 by Kurt Elster