Guatemala home stay: Local artisans weave their magic on you

"Where do you live?" asks Miguel. I write the answer on a scrap of paper and he gets to work, deftly threading a piece of white cotton through a web of dark green yarn stretched across a wooden loom. When he gets to the end, he presses a pedal that raises half of the yarn, creating a gap through which he can pass a wooden shuttle containing a spool of thread back through. 

He doesn't need a pattern; he knows exactly how many threads to gather up to create every letter off by heart. Even more impressive is that he's creating the word back to front and upside down.

Miguel Hernandez started weaving when he was 10 years old – taught by his father on the loom he's sitting in front of now. His family have been weavers for six generations and he hopes his 11-year-old son, Eliah, will continue the tradition.

Five minutes later he turns the cloth over and there spelt in neat white letters is "SYDNEY". It's all I can do to stop myself from applauding.

Miguel and his family regularly host tourists at their home in Totonicapan​ in the highlands of Guatemala, 180 kilometres west of Guatemala City. It's part of a community home-stay project that started in 1998 and which now involves 30 local families. For visitors, it's a chance to see some of the area's craftspeople in action and get an immersive insight into rural Guatemalan life. For hosts, it's an additional source of income and an opportunity to interact with people from all over the world. I'm a little disappointed to learn I'm not his first Australian guest. Although clearly my forerunners were a little vague about where they hailed from. When I ask Miguel what he knows about Australia, he replies, "Is it in Europe?"

Miguel speaks a little English but for anything complex we need the translation skills of Julio, my guide. Despite the language barrier, we still manage to cover a surprisingly varied range of topics, from religion to the country's civil war to how he met his wife Raquel (through his church).

The house is a simple, single-storey concrete home that Miguel built by hand 32 years ago. The lounge is almost entirely filled by two large wooden looms. Adjoining it are two sparsely furnished guest bedrooms, a basic bathroom with an electric shower and a cosy, pot-crammed kitchen.

In the corner of the lounge is a selection of Miguel's handiwork – ranging from delicate pastel scarfs to heavy shawls to colourful tablecloths. On average, it takes him a day to make a scarf, which he'll sell to an online retailer for around 200 quetzales. To produce an intricately patterned tablecloth might take him three weeks working 10-12 hours a day. 

Raquel works as a nurse in a community clinic and also teaches cookery. For dinner last night she whipped up a delicious feast of homemade potato soup followed by chicken with garlic, thyme and peppers. This morning's breakfast was similarly lavish – homemade tortillas with scrambled eggs followed by warm pancakes with pineapple and melon. "I never get tired of tortillas," declares Miguel with a smile. Like many of his countrymen, he eats 10-15 a day.

Before breakfast I joined Miguel on a walk to a nearby lookout. Days here start early and at 6:30am the countryside is alive with activity. We pass a woman washing clothes in a stream and a pair of machete-wielding men strolling to work in the fields. 

From the lookout we bask in a sweeping panorama of undulating cornfields and verdant mist-filled valleys. On the horizon is Central America's highest mountain, 4220-metre-high Volcan Tajumulco​.

In addition to an overnight stay with a family, the project also includes visits to some of the region's other craftspeople. After bidding a fond farewell to Miguel and Raquel, we drive to the workshop of Julio Federico, a diminutive clay-splattered 63-year-old potter straight out of Santa's workshop.

He gives a demonstration, expertly transforming a lump of clay into a dish, a bowl and a jug in a matter of minutes. He's worried the skill will die out – he has no family and he says the younger generation aren't interested in learning traditional crafts anymore.

Our next stop is the workshop of Rafael Garcia, a fifth-generation potter who specialises in making pre-Columbian whistles. Fashioned out of clay, these simple one-holed instruments produce a haunting, mystical note. It's thought they were used by tribes to communicate and gain favour from the gods.

We finish the tour with lunch on the shaded verandah of another home, where we're entertained by two dapper older gentlemen playing Guatemala's national instrument, the marimba.

For a while it looked as if this age-old musical tradition might also fade away as youngsters turned to more contemporary instruments. Thankfully, there's been a resurgence and Julio tells me that all three of his cousins play in a marimba band. "For a while it wasn't cool," he explains, "but it's changing. Young people are starting to appreciate our traditions again."

TRIP NOTES

MORE

traveller.com.au/guatemala

visitguatemala.com

FLY

Air New Zealand flies via Auckland to Houston. United flies direct from Houston to Guatemala City. See airnewzealand.com.au; united.com

TOUR

Latin America specialist Chimu Adventures can create a tailor-made Guatemala itinerary including flights, accommodation, transfers and tours. Phone 1300 773 231; see chimuadventures.com

Rob McFarland was a guest of Air New Zealand and Chimu Adventures.

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