Todos Santos sits on the dry western slopes of the Cuchumatanes. Remote and largely retaining its traditions, it is a fine place to take in Mayan culture, do some hiking, and shop for unique weavings.
It is one of only a few places in the highlands where you’ll still see men wearing traditional attire, consisting of bright red pants with thin white stripes paired with a zany striped shirt featuring oversize, elaborately embroidered collars. The costume also includes a straw hat with a wide, blue, grommeted ribbon.
The women wear equally stunning purple huipiles and embroider many items with the town’s signature designs. Contributing to the remarkable preservation of local customs and dress is the intense local pride of Todos Santos’s Mam-speaking residents, who stand a full head taller than most other Mayan indigenous peoples.
The village first gained notoriety after social scientist and world traveler Maud Oakes spent two years here starting in 1945 and wrote two books about her experiences, The Two Crosses of Todos Santos and Beyond the Windy Place. The local Mam hold four local mountain peaks sacred and some of her neighbors reputedly believed the foreign-born female shaman to be the guardian of one of these.
The main market day here is Saturday. Don’t be surprised to find inebriated men (mostly) stumbling through the streets or passed out on the sidewalk, an unfortunately common sight throughout the highlands.
As in the Ixil Triangle , the population here suffered greatly during the civil war. The army marched on the town in 1982 in the days following a brief occupation by EGP guerrillas, carrying out the torture, disappearance, and murder of suspected guerrilla sympathizers. Many villagers fled to the hillsides to wait out the troubles or went north to Mexico.
Todos Santos certainly remains very poor. Many of its residents have traditionally made ends meet by traveling to the Pacific lowlands to work in the annual harvests. Many Todosanteros now have family in the United States, a fact that becomes readily apparent as you walk the town’s streets and see new construction funded with dollars sent from abroad by expatriate relatives.
Despite its remoteness, it’s not uncommon to see groups of villagers in their distinctive attire at Guatemala City’s international airport waiting on the arrival of a returning family member. Huehuetenango supposedly sends more of its inhabitants abroad than any other of Guatemala’s departments.
As always, you should be careful not to photograph Mayan people (especially children) without permission, nor should you show undue interest. It can be tough at times, because Mayan children (and Mayan people in general) can provide some wonderful opportunities for portraiture. In 2000, a Japanese tourist and the Guatemalan tour bus driver who tried to protect him were lynched in Todos Santos by an angry mob after the tourist tried to photograph a child.
The incident was certainly an isolated one and was attributed to a rumor about satanists who were supposedly in the area snatching local children at the time. If anything, it serves as a grim reminder that the old photographer’s rule contending that it’s easier to apologize (for taking a candid photo) than to ask permission doesn’t really apply in Guatemala.
There are seven daily buses to Huehuetenango  (2.5 hours) that leave from the plaza, the last one leaving at 4:30 p.m.