North from Los Encuentros junction, the road drops down through dense pine forests into a deep ravine before beginning a tortuous ascent around a seemingly endless series of switchbacks until reaching CHICHICASTENANGO. Dubbed Guatemala’s “Mecca del Turismo”, Chichi is a compact and traditional town of cobbled streets, though the charming old adobe houses are now outnumbered by modern concrete structures. Twice a week the town’s highland calm is shattered by the Sunday and Thursday markets, which attract many tourists, traders and Maya weavers from throughout the central highlands.
The market is by no means all that sets Chichicastenango apart, for it’s an important centre of culture and religion. Over the years, Maya traditions and folk Catholicism have been treated with a rare degree of respect. Today the town has an important collection of Maya artefacts, parallel indigenous and ladino governments and two churches that make no effort to disguise their acceptance of unconventional pagan worship.
Locals adhere to the ways of traditional weaving, the women wearing superb huipiles with flower motifs. The men’s costume of short trousers and jackets of black wool embroidered with silk is highly distinguished, although it’s very expensive to make and these days almost all men opt for Western dress. For Sundays and fiestas, however, a handful of cofradres (elders of the religious hierarchy) still wear the traje clothing and parade through the streets bearing spectacular silver processional crosses and antique incense-burners.