The market town of San Francisco el Alto adopts its suffix for good reason. Perched at 2610m atop a rocky escarpment, it looks down over the plain of Quetzaltenango to the perfect volcanic cone of Santa María that pierces the horizon to the southwest.
But on Friday mornings, few of the thousands that gather here linger to take in the view; instead, the largest market in Guatemala’s western highlands commands their attention. Things start early, as traders arrive in the dead of night to assemble their stalls by candlelight and lanterns, stopping periodically to slurp from a bowl of steaming caldo broth or for a slug of chicha maize liquor to ward off the chilly night air.
By dawn a convoy of pick-ups, chicken buses and microbuses struggle up the vertiginous access road, and by sunrise the streets are thick with action as blanket vendors and tomato seekers elbow their way through lanes lined with shacks. There’s virtually nothing geared at the tourist dollar, unless you’re in desperate need of a Chinese-made alarm clock or a sack of beans, but it’s a terrific opportunity to experience Guatemala’s indigenous way of life – all business is conducted in hushed, considered tones using ritualistic politeness that’s uniquely Maya.
Above the plaza is the fascinating animal market, where goats, sheep, turkeys, chickens and pigs are inspected as if contestants at an agricultural show. Vendors probe screeching porkers’ mouths to check out teeth, tongues and gums, and the whole event can descend into chaos as man and beast wrestle around in the dirt before a deal can be struck.