Mayan village modesty: Why I show less skin in public these days

Maya people are modest. Women wear traditional outfits of long skirts and loose blouses with adequate coverage. Men wear long pants or jeans and closed shoes or boots, sometimes cowboy hats. Many Maya also are Catholics. It’s a melding of two different kinds of spirituality, and each one has conservative values.

I didn’t think about those values and dress etiquette when I donned my short running shorts and took off for some exercise. I must’ve been quite the site for the people who live in the small village of San Pablo la Laguna on Lake Atitlan.

San Pablo market day
A typical market day in San Pablo.

I thought nothing of how I was dressed when I set out – it’s what I always wear. Short shorts, jog bra, tank top. If I stuck out as a foreigner before, I really stuck out now.

Maya children and men wear shorts for exercise. Their shorts hit the knee, or just above. My shorts expose a lot more leg.

But before I could get into my exercise grove I felt too exposed. I went by women sewing on their stoops before preparing a family meal. They heard me coming, would look up, then quickly look away. I felt I was (unintentionally) disrespectful.

San Pablo is a place without many (if any tourists). There are no big grocery chains, only small, family-owned tiendas or stores. We go to the market on Wednesdays and Sundays for produce. We’ve been here nearly three weeks by now some of the locals know us. It’s the kind of place where shopping is an out and about activity and everyone seems to know everyone.

San Pablo tienda
A San Pablo tienda, or small store.

In San Pablo, there is only one restaurant – a chicken joint. It’s a chain and we’ve seen it in other villages. There are a few roadside stands. Sometimes the woman with the tortilla cart is out, with pots of beans and cabbage to make a taco for quetzal or two. Sometimes another woman with chicken legs puts her cart out on the street.

San Pablo's only 'restaurant'
San Pablo’s single restaurant, aside from a few street carts.

There are no restaurants in San Pablo because there are no tourists. Locals are not wealthy enough dine out on a consistent basis. There is one retreat-style, hermitage yoga place just outside the village proper, but I’ve yet to see gringos from there shopping in or milling about the village.

We are staying in a rental bungalow just outside San Pablo. I decided my exercise route should go through village  – up and down the hills – mainly to give my husband peace of mind. Crime can happen on the roads between villages, and there are packs of dogs.

When I relayed that first exercise experience through and around the village to my husband Tedly, he joked, ‘I wonder what they thought of the gringa running through their village wearing next to nothing.’ Ugh. ‘Just think – you are the woman streaking through town.’ Ick. (Tedly can be a clown.)

Of course, Maya people don’t expect tourists to dress like they do. But I don’t want to go running through their village wearing ‘next to nothing’ and I don’t want to feel like I’m ‘streaking through town.’ I’m not modest, but I am considerate. I won’t wear that outfit again.

The dress code of Maya women: no knees, no shoulders, no bare stomachs, no cleavage, no tight clothes. Flip flops are ok.

Usually when shopping, I’ve worn a conservative skirt at the knee, or mid-length shorts just over the knee, a tank top and flip flops. I can throw on a button down shirt to cover the shoulders.

San Pablo market day
Me, ultra-conservatively dressed on a market day in San Pablo.

San Pablo is where I will start to jog again following my minor surgical thing back in Mexico. I’m grateful I am healthy enough to do that. And out of respect for the people who call this beautiful place home on Lake Atitlan, I will not jaunt through their traditional, conservative village again in my skimpy duds.





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