One of Guatemala’s most well-known exports is traditional textiles, woven by Maya women, many who learn the craft from a very young age. As far as textiles go, the town of San Antonio Aguascalientes (translated as San Antonio Hot Springs, or “Hot Waters” if you prefer the more literal translation) has the best reputation for quality textiles.
The town of San Antonio – referred locally as just “Aguascalientes” – is actually very close to Antigua, about a 15-minute bus ride away. Antigua often gets dismissed as being too touristy, or “not Guatemalan enough”. Truth is, you can certainly make yourself at home in a very “Guatemalan” town without having to sacrifice the conveniences of living far away from Antigua, or far away from a major international airport, as is the case with Lake Atitlan, Rio Dulce, Xela, or Flores, which are nice in their own right, but inconvenient for some because of their distance to the city.
Getting to San Antonio Aguascalientes
San Antonio is nestled in a valley, away from the main roads, and is a safe, very picturesque town. As you approach, it’s easy to catch views of the village and its smaller, sister community of Santa Catarina Barahona.
The town of San Antonio Aguascalientes
There’s no need to pay an expensive taxi ride to get into town. For Q3.50, you can catch a chicken bus in Antigua, at the bus terminal, that will drop you off a block away from the central plaza. All buses have the name of the town they service on a sign above the front window. Catch the one that says San Antonio/Sta. Catarina Barahona. I’ve noticed that for some reason, San Antonio-bound buses have a green paint scheme. Don’t rely on that though, always check the name of the town the bus is headed.
San Antonio-Bound Chicken Bus
As soon as the bus descends into the valley, the driver will make an extended stop at the bottom of the hill. Get off the bus and walk one block, towards the yellow church in front of the bus.
San Antonio Aguascalientes Church
Becoming the Unofficial Photographer at a Maya Wedding
As my family and I approached the park, I noticed a group of people heading from the park towards the church. At first, I thought we were about to witness a religious procession, but it turned out to be a Mayan wedding! I quickly took my camera out of my bag and cautiously started taking pictures from a distance.
When I got closer, a man with the wedding party smiled and encouraged me to walk up to the bride and groom. I was also welcome to take pictures if I wanted to. I wasn’t sure it was proper for me to do it, but he motioned someone from the wedding party, and they smiled and waved me over to the entrance of the church, where they had stopped to have pictures taken. I walked up to the bride and groom, and timidly offered congratulations. The couple and the bride’s parents were very gracious and made me feel at ease, chatting me up about from where I was, how I liked Guatemala and similar small talk.
I noticed the groom had walked up to the church with the bride, instead of waiting at the altar. The bride’s mother explained to me that their wedding customs. The groom has to pick up his bride at her parents’ home – where she’s supposed to live until married. After the wedding, the now-husband takes the wife to his parent’s house, where they’re to live until the couple finally moves to their place, which the groom has been working and saving up for years before the wedding to move in with his wife.
I offered to send the couple the pictures I took via email. The bride promptly wrote down her Yahoo email address for me. I don’t know why I hesitated to ask for her email, maybe thinking they might not be up to speed with technology, but that was naïve of me. Technology is global, and there aren’t many places left that are that far-removed from its reach.
At first glance, a Mayan wedding dress is not very different from the typical every-day dress. But I didn’t have to stand very close to the bride to notice that her dress was no run-of-the-mill traje (outfit). Her huipil (traditional blouse) was not only obviously new, but the quality and craftsmanship were obviously much higher than that of huipiles I see every day. As such, it is more expensive – at about three times – than what a typical wedding dress costs here.
Mayan Wedding in San Antonio Aguascalientes
I thought briefly about taking more pics from inside the church, but they already had a photographer, and I felt I’d be intruding on their wedding even more. I took some last pics from the doorway and headed to my next stop.
Maya Bride Walks to the Altar with Her Mother, Father, and Groom
San Antonio Aguas Calientes Handicrafts Market
The handicrafts market is a two-story building that sits next to the church, diagonally across the park. It is a well-run place that sees loads of tour buses come and go every day.
San Antonio Aguascalientes Handicrafts Market
In fact, we walked in about five minutes before a huge tour bus of French tourists showed up. Vendors were milling about and when the tour bus pulled up, and everyone sprung into action to man their battle stations. Children took their positions at a display by the front entrance, as did a woman who later showed tourists how they ground coffee beans by hand. Sure, it was staged, but not far removed from what they do in real-life, even if it’s a lot more convenient for them to buy ground coffee at the local supermarket.
Maya Woman Demonstrating How Coffee is Ground By Hand
The market is clean, and the quality of the textiles and goods is very high. Greater than anything I’d seen in Antigua’s handicrafts markets anyway.
San Antonio Aguascalientes Textiles
Handicrafts Market is Well Stocked with Quality Goods
Maya Girl Learning the Trade
Now, something I have to point out is that each region in Guatemala has a particular design when it comes to traditional dress. In San Antonio, for example, their traditional dress (the huipil or blouse specifically) is woven with the same pattern on both sides – this makes weaving a San Antonio huipil harder than others, which is why they take pride in their weaving abilities. Their huipiles are considered by many the best in Guatemala.
In fact, I struck up a conversation with a vendor, who told me that young girls in San Antonio start learning how to weave using a back-strap loom from the age of eight – the age of the girls in the pic below – to become familiar with the traditional patterns that are incorporated into the design.
San Antonio residents are friendly to tourists
Additionally, the handicrafts market has a small museum that has traditional dresses on display of most major regions in Guatemala, and it’s very much worth a visit. By the way, vendors here are used to dealing with tourists, so be ready to haggle. Whatever price they quote you, they’ll probably sell it to you by half the initially quoted price.
Once we finished touring the market, we went out to check out the central plaza.
San Antonio Aguas Calientes Main Plaza
As far as squares go, San Antonio’s was small, but it was very well-kept, clean, and inviting.
San Antonio Aguascalientes main plaza
San Antonio Aguascalientes Fountain
San Antonio Aguascalientes Public Basin
I liked the vibe of San Antonio Aguas Calientes and would recommend it as a town to live in, although it is better suited for people with vehicles, and that can manage Spanish reasonably well.
As a place to visit? I highly recommend spending half a day there.
Have you visited Aguascalientes yet?