A small town near Antigua Guatemala boasts a craft industry devoted to handmade leather cowboy boots. A skill set greatly appreciated by a foreign clientele.
First things first : getting there! I recommend catching one of the brightly coloured, shiny chicken buses out of Antigua that are the pride and joy of their owners. Deciding which bus to catch can be a bit of headache, but I was given a tip by a helpful passer-bye, who yelled out “el Amarillo”, and I found myself on a crowded bus, wedged in between a rather surly young woman and a stocky individual with very wide thighs. After 10-min of road-rage, the conductor, a wad of quetzals in hand, suddenly shouted out “Pastores”, but I was too late off the mark and missed the stop. However, the bus screeched to a stop further on and I was practically ejected out the back door by the other passengers and then had to trek back to the town. Guatemalan public transport is, hopefully, a once in a lifetime experience…
To be quite honest, the village itself isn’t all that charming, depicted by the usual square, home to a pastel-coloured church, and a very long main street, both characteristic of Central America. Except this main street stands out by its curious Wild West allure and string of little stalls (tiendas), whose painted facades depict cowboy boots covered in ads for “botas”, “botinas”, “articulos de cuero”, etc.
Pastores is where the region’s best leather hides are painstakingly handcrafted into high-quality cowboy boots. This 100% traditional handicraft dates back to the 1960s, when a handful of young villagers trained in leather-working in Antigua Guatemala, decided to open their own stalls in Pastores. And just like that, a decades-old tradition was launched.
“Slowly but surely, we have gone from 5 or 6 shops to nearly 60 today, which makes for a lot of competition,”
sighs Senor Gomèz, head of “Botas G”, one of the tiendas on main street.
Imported from neighbouring Salvador and Honduras, the hides are tanned in Guatemala before reaching Pastores. You will also see articles made from crocodile or ostrich skins, (the latter are imported from Australia), which are rarer and thus more expensive. Most of the articles on sale are embellished and decorated by people working from home and the result is truly a sight worth beholding. For example, the irresistible kiddie booties in one tiny stall or the black and yellow-tipped cowboy boots on sale in the Durango store, owned by Jorge.
“Here, everything is handcrafted, and each article is unique, unlike Mexico where the workshops are all filled with machines,”
he reminds us.
Pastores’ reputation has spread by word of mouth and foreign visitors come from far and wide to buy made-to-measure boots from its tiendas. These tourists now represent the majority of clients, who often go for the flashy, colourful models.
“We manufacture for Costa Ricans, but we also have buyers from California and Texas,”
says smiling Jorge. Prices vary between Quetzals 350 (around €40/£35) for the basic models up to Quetzals 3,000 (€360/£320) and more for “special orders” made out of ostrich leather. The Guatemalans themselves seem to prefer round or square tipped boots with rubber soles.
Even if you don’t buy a pair of boots, the town is well worth a detour, due to its proximity with Antigua Guatemala, and the opportunity to get an insight into genuine, if a tad bling-bling, Guatemalan handicrafts.
Getting there : You can fly direct (providing you are flexible about dates) to Panama from most European cities (avg. 11hr-flight), from where you will need to take Copa Airlines flight to Ciudad Guatemala (2hr). Starting at €540/£480 return. airfrance.com
Antigua Guatemala and Pastores are an hour’s drive west of the capital.
Finding out more : visitguatemala.com - official tourist site of Guatemala.