A visit to the market in Chichicastenango was one of the experiences I really wanted to include in your recent trip to Guatemala and it did not disappoint.
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What is Chichicastenango
Chichicastenango is known for what is possibly the largest outdoor market in Latin America and is certainly the most colourful market in the Americas.
Chichi is also home to the Maya group called K’iche. The K’iche people here practice a hybrid version of Catholicism and their own pre-Hispanic religion so you’ll see some things in the churches and cemetery that are recognizable as Catholic, and some things that are likely less familiar.
How to Visit
Although some of the stalls are open everyday, the big market at Chichi runs on Thursdays and Sundays so that’s when you’ll want to go. While there are places to stay in Chichi, it can easily be experienced as a day trip from Lake Atitlan so that’s what I’d recommend.
Here’s more information about how to get to Lake Atitlan, getting around Lake Atitlan, what to bring with you, where to stay, and more information about the different villages.
This tour offers transport from Panajachel as well as a guide to explain the market, church, cemetery, shaman rituals, and parts of Maya culture.
If you want to make your own way, a roundtrip shuttle mini bus from Panajachel should cost about 150 Queztales, picking you up in Pana around 8am, and dropping you back around 3:30pm. You should be able to book this through any travel agency or through your accommodations in Lake Atitlan. You’ll be greeted by tour guides as soon as you arrive in Chichi, and you can hire one of them for about 2 hours, or explore the market on your own. You will likely also encounter more guides at the church that will offer you a condensed tour, which I found to be an ideal option.
And if you weren’t planning on spending time at Lake Atitlan, there are also full day tours offered from Antigua or Guatemala City.
Pro tip: If you take any sort of bus or shuttle, sit as close to the front as possible to reduce motion sickness on the crazy mountain roads. Trust me.
What to Take With You
- Cash in Quetzales. You will find very few places in town that will accept a credit or debit card and may have a hard time finding an ATM that will work with your cards.
- Water, though you will have no trouble buying more while you’re there.
- Bring sun screen and anything else you might need to be comfortable and safe in the sun.
- Make sure your phone or camera have plenty of charge because there are so many colourful photo opportunities that you won’t want to miss out on.
What to Expect
The center of the market is Plaza y Mercado. It then radiates out to the surrounding streets, going all the way to 7a Avenida and 3A Avenida. The Plaza y Mercado area is permanently covered. Part of it is an actual two-story building and the other part is covered with a tin roof. On the streets around the Plaza, vendors set up make-shift stalls covered in tarps to keep out the rain and sun.
The market in Chichi is most well know for its textiles, particularly huipils, the traditional garments worn by indigenous women and girls in Guatemala.
Other things that locals need such as food, soap, clothing, sewing notions, and toys cluster in and around the covered Plaza y Mercado. Make sure you do find this two-story building as the second-floor mezzanine offers awesome photo opportunities of the fruit and vegetables being sold in the first floor basketball court.
Tourist-oriented handicraft stalls selling woodcarvings and ceremonial masks, textiles, pottery, leather goods, handmade jewelry (particularly with jade and silver) and various other souvenirs are also spread in every direction.
Iglesia de Santo Tomás
Before you enter the church, you’ll see the steps leading up to it, which butt right up against the market, so much so that many of the steps are actually filled with flower vendors. You’ll also see a number of locals resting or praying on the steps. And at the top of the steps, you’ll see shamans chanting and swinging incense back and forth.
Inside Iglesia de Santo Tomás, you’ll see pews lined up in the nave and facing an altar in the front, reminiscent of any Catholic church. But you’ll also see low platforms along a wide center aisle used by shamans. These platforms have candles on them in various formations, along with flower petals in specific colors, maize, or bottles of liquor wrapped in corn husks. The specifics of what each represents is beyond my scope of knowledge, but if it’s of interest to you, a local guide should be able to explain more.
Capilla del Calvario
Butting up against the the other side of the market is Capilla del Calvario, a whitewashed church that looks similar to Iglesia Santo Tomás, but smaller. There’s a good chance you’ll see a fire ceremony taking place here. As I understand it, participants will ask a shaman to cleanse them of bad energy or heal them from what ails them. Maya people still seek treatment from a shaman rather than a doctor and pay what they can as a donation since shamans can’t actually charge a fee for services.
A few blocks behind Capilla del Calvario, you’ll find the cemetery. I think I took more pictures in this cemetery than I did anywhere else in Guatemala, so consider it a worthwhile destination. It is incredibly colourful and sitting on the side of a hill. From what our guide told us, each colour used in the cemetery represents something specific. I’ve seen and heard what seem like different versions of what each represent, from each representing various positions within a family (father, mother, grandparent, boy, or girl), to each part representing a part of the body (teeth, skin, blood, bone, hair). If anyone knows more about this I’d love to hear it.
If you didn’t see a fire ceremony at Capilla del Calvario, you’ll likely come across several in the cemetery.
Where to Stay in Chichi
I recommend visiting Chichicastenango as a day trip from Lake Atitlan. That said, here is a hotel that includes free breakfast if you decide you’d like to spend the night.
Where to Eat in Chichi
Casa San Juan tucked beside Iglesia de Santo Tomás offers a combination of tasty Guatemalan and Western style foods. With indoor and outdoor seating, it has a slightly upscale vibe but extremely reasonable prices. I recommend any of the grilled meat plates.
There is also plenty of street food to be found in the market.
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