Dates visited: March 29, 2015
Chichicastenango, 28 miles north of Panajachel, was the highlight of my trip to the Western Highlands of Guatemala to see indigenous Mayans. We timed our day trip to get there during the famous Sunday market (largest and the most colorful in all of Americas) where Mayans not only from Chichi (yeah, that’s what the locals call Chichicastenango) but also from all of the neighboring villages come here to sell and buy goods. And “goods” means everything—fruits, vegetables, pots, medicines, spices, fish, knives, flowers, machetes, masks, belts, blouses, statues, footwear, handicrafts… …you name it and it’s available. And the beauty of all this is that the market is not set up for tourists; it’s a genuine and major hub for selling and buying merchandise that sustains the Mayan villages around here.
Set up preparations for Chichi’s huge market starts the previous evening and continues up until the wee hours of the morning (everything’s ready by 6 am) and there are several chicken buses or tour buses from Panajachel, Antigua Guatemala, Guatemala City and other cities that can bring you here. Just make sure that you visit Chichi on a Thursday or Sunday since those are the days when you will find the market buzzing with all the action—sights, smells and sounds. It takes little over an hour to make this trip through the mountains from Panajachel which was our home base. Chichi lies at an altitude of 1,965 m (6,447 ft) and the population is indigenous Mayan K’iche’. Add 15 minutes more so you can stop by at a pullout that offers a spectacular view of Lake Atitlán along with the Mayan villages that dot its shores and the grand mountains that surround the magnificent lake.
We reached Chici at around 9 am on a Sunday morning in a private minibus as we made our way though the busy traffic. After alighting from our minibus, the next challenge was to dodge the numerous tuktuks and chicken buses that sped through the streets as if they were driving on a F1 circuit. Fortunately, there was a traffic cop at one of the entry points to the market, and we managed to cross the street rather than get run over and find ourselves hanging next to the chickens sold in the market! We started our tour with visiting the huge fruits and vegetables market that was held inside a school gym. To be honest, it was Rohan who pointed out the basketball hoops since I was mesmerized by seeing so many Mayans here—vendors and shoppers. Since Mayans from different villages come here, you get to see different traditional outfits, each with their own colors, designs, patterns and themes. It was business as usual for them, but for an outsider like me, it was a festive atmosphere. Just walking through the crowds was an exciting experience as I heard their language and saw them haggle on the prices. From the jam packed fruits and vegetables markets, we ventured on to the streets (closed to traffic) to check out the rest of the market area that pretty much sold anything you wanted. We spent a lot of time checking out Mayan blouses and belts as the colors and designs were lively and vibrant. Our guide was our interpreter and helped us with the sale. I just found all these people to be so wonderfully polite and friendly… …the vendors would have a perpetual smile and motion us to buy their wares but knew not to be pushy.
The walk through this largest market in all of Americas led us to Iglesia de Santo Tomás (Church of St. Thomas), a Roman Catholic church built in 1545 on top of a 18-steps platform. While the specialty of these 18 steps is that each step represents one month of the Maya calendar, on market day, these steps are covered with numerous florists each selling flowers more colorful and beautiful than the other.
We also visited the cemetery in Chichi, and like many cemeteries in Guatemala, this one is known for its colorful tombs. Here, we were lucky to observe a Mayan ceremony… …an old Mayan woman with her daughter-in-law had come to pray and pay respects to her female ancestors. When I politely asked the old lady (through our guide) if I could take pictures of the ceremony, she replied in the K’iche’ language, flashed a toothless grin and held up an outstretched palm. As our guide explained, “she’s saying that for five dollars I could take as many pictures as I wanted”. I gladly obliged and paid her $10 instead and we watched the lady pray, sprinkle water on the praying platform, burn copal incense and candles, and offer flowers as she chanted prayers to her mother, sisters, aunts, grandmother and rest of the female kin. It was a very sincere and solemn ceremony, and after a while, I decided to stop taking any pictures.
We ended the fabulous day with a buffet lunch at a restaurant whose name I wish I could remember so I could recommend it. It was a delicious lunch and the setting was charming with a garden and a central fountain. It was a perfect day, and if you are in Guatemala, do not miss, and I repeat, do not miss coming to Chichi to see this amalgam of Mayan sights, sounds and smells.