Find out about the Tz’utujil people of Guatemala

Jürg Widmer Probst - Tz'utujil people

Guatemala may be a relatively small country, but it’s home to 24 different Mayan ethnic groups. Among these groups are the Tz’utujil people and together with the Ladinos, Zinca, Garifunas and many more, they make up the indigenous Native American people of the country.

Around 100,000 Tz’utujil (also sometimes spelled Sutujil, Tzutuhil or Tzutujil) live in a region surrounding Lake Atitlán in the Sierra Madre mountain range in the highlands. The lake is famous for being the deepest in Central America and one of the most beautiful in the world.

Tz’utujil people live on the banks of the beautiful Lake Atitlán

At its deepest, Lake Atitlán reaches down more than 340 metres and stretches for more than 50 square miles. It’s also the most important and most visited tourist attraction in Guatemala, famously praised by German explorer Alexander von Humboldt who dubbed it “the most beautiful lake in the world” in the 19th century. And when Aldous Huxley wrote a travel book in 1934 (Beyond the Mexique Bay), he compared it favourably with Italy’s Lake Como, saying: “Atitlan is Lake Como with additional embellishments of several immense volcanoes – it’s really too much of a good thing.”

As well as being beautiful and picturesque the lake is a central point for a number of Mayan ethnic groups, including the Tz’utujil people. They’re known for continuing to live traditionally today, and generally stick to the religious and cultural practises that have been practised in the region for centuries. They still speak the Tz’utujil language, which is one of the 21 Mayan languages formally recognised in Guatemala.

Mayan languages are a family of languages spoken in north Central America and across Mesoamerica by around six million Mayans. They’re mostly spoken in Honduras, Belize and Mexico as well as Guatemala. We are lucky to know so much about Mayan languages as they are among the most documented in the world. Modern Mayan languages derive from Proto-Mayan, which was spoken more than 5,000 years ago, before splitting into six branches:

  • Mamean.
  • Ch’olan Tzeltalan.
  • Yucatecan.
  • Qanjobalan.
  • Quichean.
  • Huastecan

Retaining cultural and traditional Tz’utujhil practises

Tz’utujhil people go back to what’s called the post-classic period of Maya civilisation, which was between 900 and 1500. In 2020, they live in towns around Lake Atitlán called Panabaj, Santiago Atitlán, San Pedro La Laguna, San Juan La Laguna, San Pablo La Laguna, San Marcos La Laguna and Tzanchaj. A very few Tz’utujhils also live in San Lucas Toliman.

This sounds like a vast area but compared with the much wider region they used to occupy, it’s small. They lost much of their land in 1523 when the Spanish headed by conquistador Pedro de Alvarado teamed up with the Kaqchikel people to fight against the Tz’utujhil in Panajachel. Not only did they lose a lot of their land in 1523 but the Tz’utujhil also lost control of the lake itself.

Fast forward to today and the Tz’utujhil, while at the centre of Guatemala’s tourist trail, stick to traditional cultural and working practises. Those not working within tourism still work in farming using traditional methods. They still farm staple crops that have thrived in the region for centuries: maize, coffee, squash and beans. Others are using the tourist trail to gain recognition for local art and creativity. A number of Tz’utujil communities use art to express traditional ceremonies, traditions, beliefs, history and daily life of their indigenous culture.

The people live in communities that centre around a village. They’re called municipios, and each have slightly differing customs and traditions. Each village or town around the lake is renowned for something different, whether it’s art, ceramics, textiles or holistic medicine. There are also many Spanish schools in the region, and visitors are encouraged to live with local families while they study.