Chichicastenango (Chichi, for short) will provide an opportunity to take in a unique highland market experience. There are certainly other, more authentic markets in highland Guatemala, at least one of which is larger, but Chichi’s popular Sunday and Thursday market is unique in that it includes allowances for the very strong foreign presence here.
It is the only highland market where you’ll see large tour buses packed with camera-toting tourists negotiating the hairpin, dizzying mountain switchbacks along the road from Antigua and Guatemala City.
The market, and Chichi’s status as a bona fide tourist attraction, got their start in the 1930s when enterprising Alfred S. Clark opened the Mayan Inn and started busing folks in from the capital for a look at an authentic highland Mayan village.
Chichicastenango, originally known as Chaviar, was an important Kaqchikel trading town long before the arrival of the Spanish. The Kaqchikel went to war with their K’iche’ rivals based in K’umarcaaj (near present-day Santa Cruz del Quiché, 20 miles north) in the 15th century, moving their capital to the more easily defended site of Iximché. Spanish conquistador Pedro de Alvarado would play the K’iche’-Kaqchikel rivalry to his advantage, using the latter as allies in his final push against the K’iche’, who comprised the only real opposition to Spanish conquest.
Chichicastenango got its name, meaning “place of the nettles,” from Alvarado’s Nahuatl-speaking Mexican allies after the town’s reestablishment here after the defeat of the K’iche’ capital in 1524.
Today, Chichi is still very much a K’iche’ town with strong adherence to the old ways. Its traditional fiesta, the Fiesta de Santo Tomás, takes place December 14–21. There are plenty of loud fireworks, traditional dances, moonshine, and the fascinating palo volador ritual in which men spin from ropes attached to a 20-meter pole.
Getting to Chichicastenango
Chichi lacks a bus terminal, though bus arrivals and departures are centered around 5a Avenida and 5a Calle. There are buses to Guatemala City leaving every 30 minutes between 4 a.m. and 5 p.m. (three hours, $2), eight daily buses to Panajachel (1.5 hours, $1.50), and seven daily buses to Quetzaltenango (three hours, $1.75).
Adrenalina Tours (www.adrenalinatours.com) offers shuttle service from Chichi to Panajachel, Antigua, Quetzaltenango, and Guatemala City on market days. Chichi Turkaj Tours (5a Avenida 5-24, tel. 7756-1579) offers departures to the above cities plus Huehuetenango, the Mexican border, and others.
© Al Argueta from Moon Guatemala, 3rd Edition. Photos © Al Argueta www.alargueta.com