Todos Santos Cuchumatan, Guatemala
Learn to Speak Mam and Stay with Mayans in Todos Santos
By Sheila Mary Koch
Located at 9000 ft. in the Cuchumatanes Mountains, approximately 8 hours from Guatemala City, Todos Santos Cuchumatan is a very Mayan city.
The majority of area inhabitants are of Mayan lineage and the predominant language spoken is Mam, a Maya dialect. It is one of the places where most people still wear the traditional dress called Tipicos and practice the ways of their ancestors.
Some of Guatemala’s best weaving is done here. And most locals don’t speak Spanish or English.
People are the main attraction of Todos Santos. Throughout Guatemala and beyond, postcards and tour books feature the faces of Todos Santeros (males) wearing their distinctive red pants, dark blue chaps, and striped shirts with ornately embroidered collars.
Buses leave the Huehuetenango (Huehue) bus station between 11:30 am and 3:00 p.m. daily. The fastest bus leaves at 12:15. Buses back to Huehue start leaving Todos Santos at 6:00 am. On market day, the schedule shifts to suit whoever is driving that day and most of the buses are busy carrying people to and from the local villages.
The market day every Saturday attracts people from all over the region who come down from the mountains to sell their goods from chicks and vegetables to yarn and fabrics. Many tourist groups come from Quezaltenango (known as Xela) and Antigua for market day.
The area is also excellent for hiking. Torre, the highest peak in Guatemala, is a three-hour hike. From the top, you can see five of Guatemala’s volcanoes and even Mexico. Both language schools do weekly hikes there. The trailhead is reached off the highway 15 minutes outside town by bus.
You can ask the driver to point it out. The quaint mountain village of San Juan Atitán is a 5-hour hike from the center of town. Continue down the town’s main road past the soccer field for a couple of miles to reach the river.
BEST UNUSUAL ATTRACTIONS
Dia de Todos Santos on November 1 is famous for its horse race and traditional dancing. In the race, participants ride bareback from one point to another, taking a drink at each stop. The winner is the last person to fall off his horse. See below for more about the horserace.
By foot, you can reach the Tuj Qman Txun Mayan ceremonial ruins located 10 minutes from the town center. Compared to other archaeological sights in Guatemala, Tuj Qman Txun is humble but worth the uphill trek.
The chuj bath is one of the simple pleasures of life in Todos Santos. You will notice that all the homes in the village have a small, low-to the ground mud-brick structure outside. This is the chuj where family members clean themselves.
Like a sauna, a wood fire is built under the pile of rocks inside. When the smoke has cleared, the chuj is ready for the bather to crawl inside. A cauldron of water is placed in the fire to heat. Another cold pot of water is placed inside along with an empty vessel to mix the two to a comfortable temperature.
Language Schools in Todos Santos
There are two major language schools in Todos Santos that teach Spanish, Mam, and coordinate weaving classes with local women. These schools are actively involved in the community and use a portion of their profits for social programs such as reforestation, educational scholarships, purchasing library books, and women’s collectives.
The teachers teach in the local elementary school during the mornings so language classes start at 2 p.m.
Both schools are similarly priced, offer the same subjects, and come highly recommended by former students. If you are interested in studying in Todos Santos, visit both schools to see which one best suits your taste. Even if you don’t enroll, take advantage of the daily and nightly cultural programs that are available at a small cost to non-students.
Language schools also provide wonderful opportunities to meet people who practice Mam traditions. They facilitate visits with medicine people, shamans, videntes, and talks with community elders who share about the past.
For example, one 80-year-old gentleman spoke of the days when everyone traveled for days by foot to work in the fincas (plantations). The schools also provide informational programs about the more recent history made by the country’s tragic civil war in the early 80s.
Since danger still exists for people who speak out against the government’s actions during that time, you might notice conflicting stories coming from different sources. Keep in mind that Guatemalans outside their country have more freedom to speak than people still living there.
Best Lodgings in Todos Santos
By far, the best lodging is in the homes of Mayan families. Simple meals are provided with lodging. Such homestays can be arranged through the language schools. It is also possible to stay with Spanish speaking or Ladino family. (Ladino is the commonly-used term for mestizos.)
Of course, there is a great range of possibilities when staying with a family depending on the size of the family and the location of the house. Generally, running water isn’t available in the homes. There is no luxury lodging available in Todos Santos.
Four simple guesthouses called hospedajes with shared baths are also available. Private rooms can sell out so be prepared to share. Children greet the buses and will guide travelers to accommodations. Some homes are available for long-term rental. The language schools and information center as you come into town are good resources for such alternatives.
Comedor Kati serves very tasty fresh vegetable soup, chicken, beans and rice.
Comedor Karen on the other side of the main road likewise has a fixed menu.
The town’s only bar (also information center as you come into town) serves pizza and hot sandwiches. The women’s bakery collective outside town bakes fresh bread on Thursday mornings. Ask at Nuevo Amanecer for details.
Market day on Saturday and Thursday. The cooperative (across the street from Proyecto Linguisitco) and Supertienda de Tipicos (next to Comedor Kati) sell woven goods and traditional embroidered clothes. Supertienda shoppers are invited out to the back porch for a beautiful view of the village.
COMMUNICATIONS AND MONEY
There are no telephone lines in Todos Santos, and you’ll have trouble getting a signal on your cellphone. There is a post office in the town center. Huehue has the closest Internet access, ATMs and Western Union offices. Note that cash can be hard to get from ATMs in Guatemala if you don’t have the PLUS symbol on your card.
It gets really cold after the sun goes down. Bring a sleeping bag and warm clothes including a winter hat especially in January and February. Expect rain and mud from May through October. Take photos after asking (an adult) if it’s okay. They may ask for payment.
Read a feature story about Todos de Santos from the Globetrotter Girls. Here is how she described the town’s famous horse races.
“The Fiesta is actually a drunken horse race during which the men in village race between two points, binge-drinking at each turn, all day long. The goal is to stay on the horse all day, and the winner – if you can call it that – is the one who stays on the longest.
“While seeing the men’s colorful indigenous outfits fly in the wind while they race sounds like fun, several injuries, some deadly, occur each year, and at the end of the race, the streets are lined with men so drunk they can no longer stand.
The horses must also be scared out of their mind. Even so, hundreds of tourists, both Guatemalan and international, flood the town to take part in the debauchery each year.”