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.
There’s been a market at Chichicastenango for hundreds, if not thousands, of years and despite the touristy side of the event, local people continue to come twice a week to trade their wares. On Sundays and Thursdays, Chichicastenango’s streets are lined with stalls and packed with buyers, and the choice is overwhelming, ranging from superb-quality Ixil huipiles to wooden dance-masks and everything in between, including pottery, gourds, belts and blankets, plus a gaudy selection of fabrics. You can still pick up some authentic weaving, but you need to be prepared to wade through a lot of very average material – and haggle hard. Your chances of getting a good deal are better before the tourist buses arrive at 10am or in the late afternoon once things have started to quiet down. Prices are pretty competitive, but for a real bargain you need to head further into the highlands – or to Panajachel, which is a better bet for típica clothing.
For a brilliant vantage point over the vegetable market, head for the indoor balcony on the upper floor of the Centro Comercial building on the north side of the plaza. You’ll be able to gawk at the villagers below (as well as take photographs without fear of being intrusive) as they haggle and chat over bunches of carrots and onions. It’s possible to pick out costumes from all over the highlands, including huipiles from the Atitlán villages, and even from as far away as Chajul; the “space cowboy” shirts and pants are worn by men from the neighbouring Sololá area.
Fiesta time in Chichicastenango
Fiesta time in Chichicastenango
Chichicastenango’s appetite for religious fervour is especially evident during the fiesta of Santo Tomás, from December 14 to 21. It’s a spectacular occasion, with attractions including the Palo Volador, in which men dangle by ropes from a 20m pole, a live band or two, a massive procession, traditional dances, clouds of incense, gallons of chicha and deafening fireworks. On the final day, all babies born in the previous year are brought to the church for christening. Easter is also celebrated with tremendous energy and piety.