Indigeneity and Nature in Guatemala

Published 05/14/2024 in Scholar Travel Stipend
Written by Roslyn Rivas | 05/14/2024

In February 2024, I traveled to Guatemala and explored the relationship between the country's natural environment and its Indigenous peoples, not only in Native communities' conservation work, but also in how nature influences Guatemalan culture.

Guatemala has the largest percentage of Indigenous peoples in its population of any Central American country, with 43% identifying as Indigenous according the 2018 Guatemalan census. Twenty-three Mayan groups make up about 42% of the Native population, and approximately 2% and 0.1% are constituted by the Xinca and Garifuna peoples respectively (Resultados Censo 2018). However, the true estimate of Guatemalans who identify as Indigenous may be at least 60% (Refworld 2013), making Guatemala the only Central American country with a majority Indigenous population (Minority Rights Group 2024).

After plane delays, three flights, and 26 hours of travel, my partner and I finally made it to Guatemala. While we landed in Guatemala City, our first stop of this trip was the neighboring city, Antigua Guatemala (Antigua). Immediately upon entering, it was evident that nature is a big part of the country’s cultural identity. Murals of wildlife, nature scenes, and Mayan figures covered almost every public wall, especially illustrations of the quetzal, Guatemala’s national bird, and the jaguar, another significant animal in Mayan culture. I was pleasantly surprised to see so many local Guatemalans walking about wearing their traditional Indigenous clothing and speaking Mayan languages, such as K’iche’ and Kaqchikel.


Murals, often depicting wildlife, Mayan symbols, and prominent historical figures, can be seen everywhere you turn in Guatemala.

Nature was all around us in Antigua, from trees lining the cobblestone streets, to great-tailed grackles making every sound imaginable, to some of the most impressive natural phenomena: volcanoes. Volcanoes are a constant presence in Guatemalan life, especially in the southern part of the country. With 37 volcanoes lining the nation from east to west, Guatemala has the largest concentration of volcanoes in Central America. In Antigua at least three volcanoes can be seen (and felt): Volcán de Agua, Volcán Fuego, and Volcán Acatenango. Volcanic plumes of smoke and eruptions are a part of daily life. Walking the streets of Antigua, I noticed an ever-present layer of dust coating cars and bagged snacks from conveniences stores that left their doors open. At first I thought it had just been a while since these things were cleaned, but as I later learned, the ash came from the constant eruptions and emission of smoke from the volcanoes!

On our second day in Antigua, we had the amazing experience of climbing a volcano ourselves! A few short hours away from Antigua is Pacaya, home to a national park containing the active Volcán Pacaya (Pacaya Volcano). After about two hours hiking up the incline with our guides, several other tourists, and stray dogs who joined us along the way, we reached the top of one of Pacaya’s peaks, where we were treated to a gorgeous view of the smoking volcano as the sun set. The trek back down was also exciting. Standing in a crater of Pacaya, we could spot steam rising from a couple of air vents in the ground, which we used to roast marshmallows!

After several days in Antigua, we then headed towards our next destination, the Lake Atitlán area. Lake Atitlán is surrounded by small towns, in which many Indigenous communities live, especially the Tz'utujil and Kaqchikel peoples. Walking by the shore, we would see families use the lake to swim, bathe, and wash their clothes nearly every day. One could travel within and in between towns via tuk tuks, or motor taxis, but the main and fastest way to get to the different towns around the lake was via public motor boats called lanchas. For only 25 quetzales (approximately US$3), lanchas would stop at every town around Atitlán to pick up and drop passengers off. We were sure to make use of this thrilling form of transportation for the remainder of our trip.

Lake Atitlan

Guatemalans use Lake Atitlán in many ways, including traveling, bathing, and doing laundry.

One of the most meaningful places to visit was San Juan La Laguna, another town on the shores of Lake Atitlán. Along with its beautifully decorated streets, San Juan is home to a number of women’s weaving collectives. Women and girls would hand weave various items, from table runners to placemats, dresses, pants, earrings, and more, and sell them to support themselves and their families. Their textiles were incredibly intricate and often depicted patterns of birds (including the quetzal), jaguars, flowering plants, and other wildlife.


Left: A collection of embroidered textiles, placemats, bags, and various other items at Asociación de Mujeres en Colores Botanico, a women’s weaving collective in San Juan La Laguna.
Right: The level of detail in these beautiful textiles is incredible. I loved the colors and patterns of the one I hold here. (Photo Credit: Katerina Voegtle)

We visited several of these collectives within San Juan, including one named Casa Flor Ixcaco. Immediately noticeable was the explosion of color from the different textiles and strings of yarn lining the walls, all dyed from natural sources like turmeric, oak bark, avocado, hibiscus, and more. At the back of the store, we caught the last half of a weaving demonstration led by one of the collective’s members, Delfina. She explained the process of dying the yarn and using the looms. Delfina showed us how one end of the loom would connect to a rope that would usually be tied around a tree, signifying “the connection to Mother Earth, because here you’re creating a new life.” She went on to explain that “the connection from the tree passes through the rope, and the rope works as the umbilical cord through [which] you’re creating the life. So everything is about energies for us. We need to be respectful of Mother Earth.” It was clear that nature was fully embedded in these weavers’ art.

Casa Flor

Delfina from Casa Flor Ixcaco women’s collective demonstrates how to use the loom to weave a textile.

 Because of the number of travel mishaps cutting our trip a bit short, we were not able to visit Tikal in the northeastern part of the country, famous for being an ancient Mayan city with archeological sites. Tikal is also near the Selva Maya (Maya Forest), one of the richest biodiversity sites in Central America and another spot I was hoping to explore. However, the shortened trip still worked in our favor as we were able to stay in the Lake Atitlán area for another day and explore more of its surrounding towns. One of those towns was San Marcos La Laguna, found in the northern edge of the lake, and home to the Cerro Tzank’ujil Nature Reserve. As a wildlife conservationist/biologist, I was excited to visit this site. I was absolutely enthralled by all the wildlife I saw throughout the country, and within the reserve, I could see so many more species of birds, mammals, insects, and plants.

View from Cerro Tzankujil

View from a high point at Cerro Tzank’ujil Nature Reserve overlooking Lake Atitlán and volcanoes in the background.

Another fascinating part of Cerro Tzank’ujil was that it contained several Mayan altars (or Altares Kab’lajuj Ee). While Roman Catholicism is huge in Guatemala—we happened to arrive shortly after Lent had begun, and the purple banners of the season were on prominent display—many Guatemalans practice Mayan religion. At Cerro Tzank’ujil, the altars were covered in ashes from earlier burnt offerings. One sign within the reserve explained the significance of the altars best: “[…] burning of resins, candles, and offerings in sacred places, as is this place where we are, is of the utmost importance for the community because it gathers the energies of the cosmos and is at the same time an important element of the Kaqchiquel culture.”

Whether it be art, work tasks, or religion, the environment is ingrained in every aspect of Guatemalan life. I learned so much during my short time about the Indigenous communities in Guatemala and about the local wildlife. My partner and I fully intend to visit the country again, and visit the spots we couldn’t hit the first time, such as Tikal and Selva Maya, as well as Quetzaltenango and Sololá, cities with large Indigenous populations.

Integrating Indigenous knowledge into our (Western) environmental practices is crucial to maintaining and improving the world's environmental health, which in turn benefits our physical and mental wellbeing, causes the Milken Institute and Milken Family Foundation stand for. Indigenous communities are often overlooked in global discussions, even though they care for 80% of the Earth’s biodiversity (Australia State of the Environment 2021). Native rights must be respected, and learning from their world views can help us lead more satisfying lives, which is the core of the Milken Family Foundation's mission.

Mayan altar

A Mayan altar with flowers placed around it. The center is filled with ash, indicating that an offering was burnt here not too long ago.

Australia State of the Environment. 2021. Accessed April 23, 2024. involvement

Instituto Nacional de Estadística Guatemala. 2019. “Resultados del Censo 2018.” 1: 10.
Minority Rights Group. 2024. “Guatemala.” Accessed December 28, 2023.

Refworld: Global Law & Policy Database. 2013. “State of the World's Minorities and Indigenous Peoples 2013 – Guatemala.” Accessed December 28, 2023.