Chichicastenango, a town in El Quiché, has built a reputation for being the tourist market in Guatemala. Twice a week, hundreds of vendors set up their shops, anxiously waiting for busloads of visitors to arrive to buy colorful textiles, jewelry, and masks. From 10am-2pm on Thursdays and Sundays, the town is a bit of a madhouse, full of Americans, Australians, and Europeans all anxiously waiting for a vendor with “a good price for you”.
For every beautiful display of handcrafted items, there was another full of mass-produced replicas, losing all the charm and gaining twice the popularity so that tourists could buy a knock-off most likely made in China and save a few quetzales by doing so. Other vendors disregarded Guatemalan heritage entirely, offering souvenirs that weren’t authentic at all.
Luckily, there are two sides to Chichicastenango, and even on market days, you can escape the souvenir madness. Chichi’s market days really have nothing to do with tourists and more to do with local needs as mountain villages congregate to buy and trade necessary goods. Hidden inside the town’s basketball court is where the real shopping goes on.
While tourists may find the produce tucked away, few stumble upon the animal market just a few short blocks away. It’s interesting enough to watch the haggling over next month’s dinner, but I found myself continually wondering just how some of these animals got to or from the market on public transportation…
Chichicastenango is hardly unique for its markets, though, which you’ll find all over Guatemala. The true appeal to making the trek to Chichi is to witness its strong Mayan traditions. The 400-year-old Iglesia de Santo Tomás overlooks the market and on Sundays, you can observe how today’s Catholic masses are interwoven with Mayan rituals due to the fact the church was built over an Mayan temple platform. On the front steps to the church — one step for each month of the Mayan calendar — incense is burned and flowers and candles are sold for elaborate ceremonies. Inside, some locals chant in the K’iche’ language overlooking Mayan offerings in the back while others kneel in pews and recite the Nicene Creed in Spanish.
Outside of town, traditions become even stronger, and two commonly active worship sites include the town cemetery and Pascual Abaj, a Mayan shrine. Unfortunately, both of been locations of previously-reported crimes against tourists, and so I hired an Inguat guide to accompany me, overpaying to make my point clear: no shopping, no commissions, and no kickbacks. I just wanted to observe the local culture.
Huffing and puffing my way up the hilltop to Pascual Abaj, thanks to the altitude and my under-acclimated body, I hoped there may be a ceremony going on when we reached the top. Sure enough, there were several locals praying and making offerings. My guide explained that the gods were pleased by incense, flowers, candles, food, and alcohol. We stayed back so as not to interfere with ceremony or prayer.
The cemetery is an easy hike from town and an interesting place to visit even when shamans aren’t practicing traditional rituals. Tombs are typically above ground and are elaborately painted, the different colors representing purity, protection, and the age of the deceased.
While there’s no specific time to visit to guarantee you’ll come across a family praying for their loved ones or making requests to the gods, there are signs of how important this area is no matter when you go.
Chichicastenango is on every tourist’s radar but for all the wrong reasons. Shop in any town you’re visiting anyway — prices and selections of goods aren’t that different. Instead, spend your time learning about Mayan traditions, many of which have been unchanged for centuries. The colors, sounds of prayer, and incense will enchant you more than any souvenir you could possibly take home.
If you go…
Chichicastenango is most typically reached on a day trip from Antigua or Lake Atitlan, giving you about four hours to shop, eat lunch, and visit the Mayan sites on the outskirts of town. In my opinion, that’s actually plenty of time for all but the most dedicated shoppers. If you want more time, or if you simply want to be there when it’s less crowded, I can recommend the Hospedaje Giron ($10 for a private single) for its clean rooms, hot water, and great location.
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Learn more about traveling to Guatemala.