One of the largest and well known markets in the entire Central America is the market of Chichicastenango, in Ki'che, the small homeland of the Mayas, in the west uplands of Guatemala.
Chichicastenango is a charming, traditional authentic town of the Maya's. Its name means "land of the nettles", in the language of the indigenous Nahuati. The town lies high in the verdant area of Guatemala; after my visiting it I felt that I saw the real, authentic Guatemala. Surrounded by valleys and mountains encircling the horizon, Chichicastenango seems removed, in time and space, from the rest of the country. When the narrow, gobβled streets and the red tiled roofs are enveloped in mist Chichicastenango is Really magical!
The most important sight of the city is its enormous market! Local people travel from neighboring rural villages and gather in the market, to sell pretty handcrafted articles and colorful weaved and knitted products, fresh produce, traditional costumes and much more. The market opens Thursdays and Sundays and the crowds of vendors, craftsmen and tourists that swarm in add a social and commercial atmosphere; but "Chichi" -the nickname for Chichicastenango- maintains its mystery.
If, while you travel, you like visiting local markets, in order to discover the local culture, Chichicastenango is the ideal market to explore and shop, and offers a unique experience of Guatemalan markets.
I visited Chichicastenango on a Thursday, coming from Panajachel, by lake Atitlan, one hour's drive away. It's a picturesque, charming town, whose modern, erratic buildings are well balanced, with traditional painted, colorful, colonial houses and the gobble streets. And right there on the hill, you can see the local cemetery with the most vibrant colors I have ever seen on grave monuments
It didn't take me long to find the market. A vast outdoor display of merchandise; it covered the entire center of the town. The small cobble streets had turned into small aisles with hundreds of little shops on both sides, many of them improvised.
I started my ramble in the market. Exciting, chaotic, noisy, colorful and crowded; a real maze! And as all streets looked alike I was lost several times, walking over and over again through the same streets, by the same vendor stands, but it's all part of the adventure!
All my senses were alert and savoring and absorbed everything at the same time; smells, sounds, sights, images, people, and colors. Colors galore!
There were so many stands, inside and outside of the shops, where local men and women were selling nice, handcrafted items, such as intricate, hand-made wallets, backpacks, vividly colored fabrics, woven tapestries, wood carvings, colorful paintings, traditional clothes, scarves, blankets, jewels, ceramic articles, traditional wooden masks, fresh produce, and much more. They were selling almost everything!
Naturally I shopped lovely mementos and beautiful gifts for my friends, after I bargained for each purchase, of course!
I spent many hours walking about the streets of the huge outdoor market, enjoying the atmosphere, the culture and the authentic character of the event, despite the tourist crowds walking around. The town is particularly traditional and authentic; it was fascinating to watch the indigenous Mayas, men and women, all dressed in beautiful traditional flamboyant costumes; and children, children everywhere with beautiful, carbon black eyes; the smaller ones strapped on the back of their mothers! There was a lot of culture in Chichicastenango and I spent a lot of time sitting on the sidewalks, to take a short rest between long exploration sessions, observing the everyday life of the local people; a unique and fascinating experience!
About noon time I decided to take a break from the exploration of the market, to let my senses have a pause in the relaxed atmosphere of a beautiful terrace, in the company of a parrot!
After my short pause, I continued my ramble in the crowded streets of the market enjoying the ambiance, experiencing the beat, while snapping photos and capturing, with my lens, unique images of the authentic life of the town!
Amidst the multitude of shops I found a smaller, closed market of farmers, with fruits and vegetables; one of the most beautiful markets I have visited. Lively, busy colorful, an extravaganza of colors, costumes and produce!
At the central plaza of the town, right at the center of the vibrant market, one of the two colonial churches of the town: the 400-year old church of St. Thomas, built on the substructure of a pre-Colombian temple. The Maya K'iche priests still use this church for their rituals. It was fascinating to watch the procedure!!! Macheños, the citizens of Chichicastenango are famous for their adherence to the pre-Christian faith and rituals; the various "cofradias" of the town (religious brotherhoods) organize processions, to honor their saints, around the church of St. Thomas. Cultural traditions and religion in Chichicastenango were quite distinct, as they combine the religious traditions of Mayas with roman-catholic such.
Smoke filled the air as the locals were burning incense, praying on the steep and dissimilarly shaped stairs that led to the white church. On the church staircase a crowd of flower vendors, dressed in beautiful traditional costumes, were sitting on the stairs, selling colorful handcrafted articles and huge bouquets of white and yellow flowers and plants. The stairs were full of these beautiful flowers and candles that remained there as offerings of the congregation before entering the church.
The area around the church was the most crowded of the market. With effort I managed to cut across the crowd and ascended the church stairs. I visited the inside and then sat at the top of the staircase and enjoyed the surrounding area. The top of the stairs was a fantastic look-out, an amazing vantage point, from which I had a wonderful view of the crowded market, the colorful stands and people! I let myself listen to the beat of the crowd and experience this amazing local event.
On leaving, later in the afternoon, I took home magnificent colorful images of an authentic event that took place in a small part of this gorgeous country of the Mayas, just as it is reflected in the eyes of the children of Chichicastenango that will carry on with the tradition...
If you look for a fascinating cultural experience where you can "sink" into the local culture, rare opportunities for snapping exceptional photos and a place for shopping unique handcrafted mementos, I suggest that you visit the market of Chichicastenango during your trip to Guatemala. It's an experience you can't afford to miss.