By Dianne Sivulka, Owner of Travel on Purpose™
My first visit to Guatemala took place in June of 2021. My friend Koreena and I explored Antigua, spent a day with our ministry partner Kids Alive International, and enjoyed a memorable stay at Lake Atitlan. It seemed that the trip was full of discoveries at every turn. However, we didn't know that our last day at the lake would reveal an additional treasure. We were about to discover a unique kind of pottery with a remarkable story of dignity and compassion.
It was a Friday morning, and we were wrapping up our visit to Lake Atitlan. Located in Guatemala's southwestern highlands, Lake Atitlan is a massive volcanic crater. This area is surrounded by steep volcanic cones and is known for its Mayan villages.
We stepped out of our water taxi and into the town of Panajachel. Standing there with our luggage, we waited for our driver. Then we noticed a small shop with beautiful blue pottery across the street, and since we had a few minutes to wait, we decided to take a closer look.
We lugged our suitcases across the street and stepped inside. Right away, we noticed that all the pottery in this small shop had the same tear-shaped pattern. In the back of the store, a man and woman were sitting and working together. They were painting plates, coffee cups, and dishes of various sizes. The woman jumped to her feet and joined us in the front of the store. We struck up a conversation as best we could. We used our best Spanish, and she used her best English, and somehow we got by. We selected a coffee cup for our friend back home and picked out a few more items. We counted out our Guatemalan Quetzals, and the shop owner carefully wrapped our selections just as our driver arrived.
Once I returned to the US, I unpacked my souvenirs. From bags of coffee to chocolate bars to handwoven textiles to pottery from Lake Atitlan, it was a beautiful display of vacation memories. I am a curious traveler through and through, so as I inspected the unique tear-shaped pattern on the side of the coffee cups, I had to know more. I wondered, "Why did most the pottery have the same design?" and "Could there be a story behind it?" It turns out, yes, there is!
And here's what I learned...
The pottery with the blue tear-shaped pattern originated in San Antonio Palopó, a small village on Lake Atitlan. In the '90s, a man named Ken arrived in Guatemala with his wife. They had been living in Mexico since the '50s, working in various ceramic workshops. They were searching for high-quality clay and a new place to call home. They found what they were looking for in the rich volcanic riverbeds of Lake Atitlan and the warm hospitality of the Guatemalan people.
When they arrived in San Antonio Palopó, everyone came out to help them move their heavy kilns and other equipment into their rental house. It didn't take Ken and his wife long to notice that many people in the small village were without jobs, and many children didn't go to school. So he asked the residents if they would like to learn the art of ceramics. Ken taught the men how to use molds in order to make their pottery more consistent and more efficient. He also introduced high firing techniques that allow the lead to burn out of the glaze. This is important as it ensures that the pottery is lead-free and microwave safe.
Ken taught them valuable skills and over time encouraged them to open their own workshops. Today there are four ceramic workshops in San Antonio Palapó and artisans are still creating ceramics in the same style that Ken taught them. The pottery of San Antonio Palopó is known throughout the region as Ceramics Maya Ke (named after Ken). All of the pottery is hand-painted and no two pieces are alike.
A few months after my first visit to Guatemala, I returned with a group of women. We visited the small village of San Antonio Palapó and met the artisans. The young women working in the cooperative do this part time, earning money to attend school.
Visiting San Antonio Palapó has now become a staple on every trip that T.O.P. plans to Lake Atitlan. Standing in the workshop, it's easy to remember Ken and the legacy he left. This pottery serves as a beautiful reminder of what's possible when one person sees the need around them and then steps into action.
Today the pottery of San Antonio Palopó can be found all over the world. But few people know its origin and the story behind its beginning. I'm heading back to Guatemala in a week. Any guesses on what I plan to buy? I think I'll add a few more coffee cups to my collection. And I also plan to purchase some gifts for friends and family.
Would you like to visit the village of San Antonio Palopó? Keep an eye out for future group tours. The Travel with Us page on our website lists the latest information on group tours. Or contact us today for a customized trip for your friends and family.