Francesca Kennedy is many things—an environmentalist, Project Runway winner, TED talk host, and business owner, to name a few. But first and foremost, she is Guatemalan and more than happy to make the love of her roots known. Though born and raised primarily in Pennsylvania, Kennedy grew up traveling to Antigua and Lake Atitlán. There, she spent time with her family—who still lives there today—and developed a deep pride in her country and heritage from an early age.
In 2009, an environmental disaster struck Lake Atitlán; an algae bloom caused by runoff covered the lake in bacteria, rendering its water supply toxic to living beings. Witnessing a young girl drinking from the lake was Kennedy’s call to action, and she set to work developing a plan to help. Using “Ix,” the Mayan word for “water,” as the project’s namesake, Kennedy formed Ix Style in an effort to provide clean water to the population around the lake and support local female artists in the process.
Through Ix Style’s environmentalist efforts and new host program, which invites celebrities and influencers to tour Guatemala, Kennedy is both giving back to her roots and showing them off to the world. Here, she shares all the best places to celebrate the country’s history, culture, and beauty.
A pair of Ix Style huaraches at Lake Atitlán. Photo by @ixstyle
What is it like to split your time between New York and Antigua? How do the two cities differ, and what do they have in common?
For the last few years, I have been spending winters in the “Land of Eternal Spring”—aka Guatemala—which works out perfectly, as it's the non-rainy season there from November to March. It depends what projects I'm working on, but I typically stay in Guatemala until spring and then head back to NYC. Both NYC and Guatemala have their unique identity and culture, and the moment you land at either place, you feel a strong energy. Although Guatemala is a third world country and NYC is in a first world country, both places have been the epicenter of creation at certain points in time, and you can see that when you visit either place.
The contamination in Lake Atitlán, as seen from space in 2009. Photo courtesy of NASA
What sparked the creation of Ix Style?
In 2009, Lake Atitlán in Guatemala, which was once considered the eighth world wonder, almost died. This lake is where my grandparents lived, where I was baptized, and my second home. Overnight, toxic blue-green algae covered almost every inch of the lake; NASA called it one of the worst natural disasters to occur in our lifetime, as you could see the contamination from space. I saw little girls collecting the contaminated water to drink, and I was inspired to help.
Ix Style works with over 1,000 female Mayan artists across Guatemala. Photo by @ixstyle
How did you begin working with the female artists who create Ix Style's accessories?
I initially worked with a woman I met in the local market by Lake Atitlán. I was then introduced to a co-op of women weavers. There are over 1,000 women who work for the co-op, which has existed for over 30 years. They all weave the fabric and materials for our bags and shoes. It's so important to support females artisans, as women invest 90% of their income back into their communities versus 30% for men. If we want to see change in the world, it starts with women.
Los Tres Tiempos is known for its traditional Guatemalan food and incredible rooftop view. Photo by @lostrestiempos
What dishes does Guatemala do best, and where are the best places to find them in Antigua?
If you want traditional Guatemalan food, I recommend eating at Tres Tiempos. It has a great outdoor, upstairs patio with views of Antigua. For no-frills, delicious tacos, go to Cactus.
Dulces Doña María Gordillo sells traditional (and addicting) Guatemalan treats. Photo by @ajmirabito
Best places for each meal of the day?
Take Hotel Casa Santo Domingo's free shuttle up to Tenedor Cerro de la Cruz for the best views of Antigua; enjoy breakfast there and wander the grounds of endless outdoor sculptures and art made by Guatemalan artists. Go to San Pedro la Laguna and have a healthy lunch at Zoola, a hippy-ish Mediterranean hookah place. For dinner try Panza Verde. It’s a romantic restaurant in Antigua. Make sure you walk up the small staircase outside and take in the view of the stars above. Insider tip: go on a Thursday when they play Cuban music. Stop by Doña María Gordillo Candy Store. You’ll want to try everything, and you should. My dad has had me hooked on this candy shop since I was a little girl. Our favorites are colochos de guayaba, espumillas, and canillitas de leche.
The courtyard of the Hotel Palacio Doña Leonor. Photo by @natalianachon_
Best hotels in Antigua?
Hotel Casa Santo Domingo, a large, beautiful old monastery that has been converted into an incredible hotel. Wander the grounds, typically filled with blooming orchids and squawking parrots, and peek into the onsite museum and secret catacombs. Their spa CANNOT be missed—it's simply a must. Palacio Doña Leonor is my friend Maria's hotel (if she's there, tell her I sent you). This boutique hotel is in the heart of the historic center of Antigua, steps away from everything. It's set in a beautifully restored colonial mansion, originally built in the 1500s for the daughter of the Spanish conquistador Don Pedro de Alvarado.
There are plenty of locally-made crafts available at Antigua's Mercado de Artesanías. Photo by @uxibal
Best places to purchase locally-made art, clothes, and accessories?
Near the Arco de Santa Catalina, you can buy vintage huipiles (Mayan tops) at Nim Po't Centro de Textiles Tradicionales. It's my favorite secret. Everything is steeply discounted in their vintage area, and you can get Mayan artwork and gifts here. For a typical Mayan market of handcrafted souvenirs, you can go to the local market called Mercado de Artesanías. The entrance is a bit hidden, so don’t be afraid to ask for directions (it’s to the left of the El Carmen ruins). Bring local currency, Quetzales, and negotiate—no one takes credit cards, and do not bring dollars, as most people no longer accept them.
UNESCO designated Antigua as a World Heritage site for its well-preserved architecture. Photo by @riooonma
Best way to spend a sunny afternoon?
Walking around every street in Antigua, getting lost in the shops and restaurants and parks.
What’s one thing that visitors to Antigua can’t miss?
Casa Santo Domingo, Arco de Santa Catalina, and Iglesia de La Merced, a yellow church built in the 1500's.
Café No Sé is run by the owner of Ilegal Mezcal. Photo by @gilbertmezcal
Great place for a night out in Antigua?
No matter how tired you are, you must go to Café No Sé. Walk in, open a small 1950s fridge to your left, duck your head, and emerge into this quirky speakeasy. Ask for John, the owner, and tell him I sent you. Make sure he recounts the amazing story of his brand, Ilegal Mezcal, while enjoying a flight of mezcal.
Try a sampler of craft beer while enjoying the view at Antigua Brewing Company.Photo by @sarah_elsewhere
Best place for drinks in Antigua?
Go to Antigua Brewing Company, Sky Bar, or Lava Bar (get the spicy mango drinks!) to have a sunset cocktail on the roof while mingling with expats, students, locals, and tourists alike. After the sun sets, Adra Hostel is a great spot for a drink around the fire pit. It’s a cool, new, upscale hostel. If you’re into rum, check out Botran for a rum tasting. You have to try Rum Zacapa before you leave Guatemala—it's been voted the best rum in the world.
What is the best place to learn about Mayan culture in Antigua?
The best place is Lake Atitlán.
What about Lake Atitlán makes it so special?
The lake is considered by many people to be the eighth world wonder and more beautiful than Lake Cuomo. It has been the inspiration for some of our greatest artists and intellectuals. Its fourteen surrounding villages are inhabited by a Mayan population who wear beautiful outfits with symbols and colors that identify them by their village. There are 26 dialects of the Mayan language in Guatemala, so it's interesting to hear the difference in languages from one area to the next.
Best experiences near Lake Atitlán?
For an authentic lake experience, head into the village of Panajachel, or “Pana,” as the locals call it. Start at Café Loco with a cup of the best coffee, then head to Calle Santander and check out the Mayan markets. Make sure to see San Juan, which is my favorite village, as you can buy Mayan artwork and clothing, and it's beautifully maintained. Before heading back to the hotel, wear a bathing suit under your clothes and bring a towel, and have your boat stop at the jump spot near San Marcos.
Kennedy leaping into Lake Atitlán. Photo by @francesca.m.kennedy
How do you get away, every day?
I get away every day with my morning run, guided meditation, time with my family and friends, and a spicy margarita on the roof to end the day!