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The market, held twice weekly on Thursdays and Sundays, is the busiest, bustlingest market in Guatemala. Half the market is specifically aimed at tourists, with the sale of handicrafts typical of the region, from indigenous masks, wooden flutes and handmade jewelery, to the countless ways to work the colorful Guatemalan textiles: shirts, tablecloths, notebook covers, bookmarks, you name it, you can buy it at the market in Chichi. Because the majority of tour operators lazily promote the market as the town’s only tourist attraction, the majority of visitors make only a short day trip here, loading onto cheap shuttles from any of Guatemala’s main tourist centers. Thousands of shoppers shuffle at snail speed through the streets, and between negotiating through the massive crowds and endless bartering, at least one the five hours will be spent recovering from the intensity at one of the cafes or restaurants in the town center.
Do this short day trip, and you might miss things like a rooster sacrifice (which we saw, see below) or the other half of the massive market, where locals trade everything from fruit, vegetables, eggs and flowers, to limestone to make tortillas, kittens, live cattle, chickens and turkeys. Plus you might miss the chance for a quiet moment in incredible Santo Tomas church, a hike in the incredibly green hills, the feeling of a truly indigenous Mayan town and for you true capitalists out there – the deals are much better on ‘down’ days too.
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Come the day before the market and marvel at the Maya people descending on the town, carrying more on their heads than you could in your car, setting up the intricate maze of wooden beams that hold the market together. Since there is not much to do in this traditional village at night, wake up with the roosters (literally) and start the shopping spree before the shuttle bus invasion.
Stay a day or two longer and discover even more. The town center is essentially a permanent market, anchored by two churches. The main white church, Santo Tomas, is crammed on market days, sometimes employing a one-in-one-out policy at the side entrance like a trendy NYC night club. The line is at the side entrance because the steps leading up to the front entrance are actually considered holy, and the locals burn piles of incense on its steps. On an off-market day, you can sit and watch the locals without cringing every time a pack of camera-toting ‘gringos’ clambers up the holy steps to the front entrance.
Because the majority of the 49,000 inhabitants are indigenous, Maya tradition is very much alive in Chichicastenango, and Santo Tomas church, although constructed as a Catholic church, is ruled by Maya rituals inside: pine needles and candles cover the floor, as do offerings of sodas or liqueur to the gods. Sitting opposite the Santo Tomas church is the equally intriguing Calvario church. To reach the Calvario, pass the mural painted along the entire wall on the east side of the plaza (completely masked by stalls on market days), which presents a clear, if simplified, understanding of how the civil war was perceived by the indigenous population here.
On a hike through the hills outside of town during our visit, we walked upon a private ceremony of a traditional rooster sacrifice taking place to the Maya sacrifice stone, Pascual Abaj, a shrine to the Maya Earth God Huyup Tak’ah. Made of a large black rock surrounded by stones, the shrine is said to be thousands of years old. Here the Mayans hold sacrificial rituals to pray for health, good fortune, and women can ask for a ritual to find a sober and good husband. Though as two veteran vegetarians we wouldn’t usually endorse cutting off of innocent rooster heads, the scene was fascinating to watch. (Have a look for yourself below!) Along with the ceremony leader and his two daughters/assistants, there was a man, around 20 years old, who was the focus of the ritual. We were the only visitors. No one had a problem with our presence at all, though we would recommend asking permission to film or take pictures.
Even without the live ritual, the site is littered with items from past sacrifices, such as flowers, liquor and Coca cola bottles, pine needles and thousands of candles which were lit on the site. Because Chichi is so open to foreign guests, you too can search for a sober husband or health or good fortune by booking your own ritual for $7.
While on the road to town from Pascual Abaj, stop by La Academia de Arte y Cultura Maya Pop Wuj, a gallery/project space bursting at the seams with Maya art. Sponsored by Project Guggenheim, the cultural space seeks to provide courses for Guatemalans of Maya Quiche descent, in order to increase pride in their heritage and modern day identity. Brothers Juan and Miguel Leon Cortez are incredibly welcoming, so step inside for a chat, and even learn about all about your Mayan astrological sign. Both of our signs were scarily accurate, down to the smallest details of our personalities.
For spectacular views of Chichi and the surrounding mountains, head to the cemetery up on a hill on the western side of town. Filled with colorful mausoleums, including a pyramid-shaped tomb, and simple Mayan graves, the cemetery is rich with history and culture. Some say the cemetery can be dangerous. We avoided this by befriending six of Chichi’s finest young street vendors. The boys protected us through the cemetery, taught us how a bit of the local Quiche language, and provided us with their very own, very interesting, semi-fabricated history of Guatemala.
Fast Facts: Chichicastenango
- When to go: The Sunday market has more stalls than on Thursday, plus processions and parades are also held.
- Accommodation: Chichicastenago has a range from budget to luxury accommodation. All room rates spike on market days, discounts are often available for two nights or more, since most only stay the one night.
- Budget options: Hotel Tuttos and Hotel Belen have double rooms for around $15/£9.50.
- Splurge: Hotel Santo Tomas has double rooms for $128 /£83, the Maya Inn for $160/£103.
- Key Celebrations: In addition to Thursday and Sunday markets, festive days in Chichicastenango include November 1st, All Saints Day, and November 2nd, the Day of the Dead, when hundreds of families gather on the cemetery to drink and eat together, celebrating and mourning the dead, and kids let their kites soar.
- On December 7th, the Burning of the Devil, garbage is burnt in the streets to release evil spirits, and on December 8th, there are dances to celebrate the ‘Feast of the Immaculate Conception’.
- From December 13th to 21st, the town’s church, Santo Tomas, is celebrated with dances and voladores.
- Transport: Antigua, Lake Atitlan, Xela or Guatemala City for roughly $5 each way.
- Location: Chichicastenango is located roughly 3.5 hours from Antigua, 3 hours from Guatemala City, 3 hours Xela and 1.5 hours from Lake Atitlan.