Chichicastenango: Vibrant Market Town & Home of Unique Religious Traditions

Located in the mountainous Quiche heartland, Chichicastenango, is famous for its enthralling bi-weekly market which sprawls throughout the city on market-days Thursday and Sunday. Chichicastenango means “Place of the Nettles” and was the name given to the region by Nahuatl soldiers serving the Spanish Conquistadors.

Chichicastenango market days are a feast for the senses. Narrow cobbled-stone alleyways are crowded with tiny stalls festooned with textiles of dazzling colours. Vendors and hawkers announce their wares in a variety of local languages, attempting to entice the wandering masses to their particular stall.

In addition to the Maya community which predominates the town, a multitude of other people come to Chichicastenango to trade their wares, among them the Mam, Ixil, Qaqchikel and Q’eqchi. Vendors bring their merchandise to the main square during the evening before market day and ready their stalls. After spending the night in town, most vendors are set-up by dawn to begin selling their wares.

Among the crafts offered for sale throughout the market are vibrant textiles and clothing, embroidered huipiles, woven bags, jade stonework, jewellery, pottery and ceramics. Prominent among the countless stalls are great columns of hand-carved wooden masks similar to those worn by dancers during Saints’ feast days and other religious celebrations.

There are many informal restaurants and street-food vendors which fringe the Main Square, all offering a variety of delicacies from barbecued meat and traditional blue-corn tortillas to freshly steamed corn-on-the-cob and hearty soups.

Adjacent to the Main Square is the whitewashed 16th Century Church of St Thomas which is accessed by climbing eighteen steps – a significant number, corresponding to the number of months in the Mayan lunar calendar. The stairs are constantly enshrouded by billowing clouds of incense smoke and are all that remain of the original Mayan temple razed by conquistadors.

Chichicastenango is known for its religious syncretism of Mayan and Roman Catholic beliefs, evident from the iconography and ceremonies of the church and nearby Pascual Abaj.

To the southwest of Chichicastenango is the sacred hill, Pascual Abaj, named after an ancient stone representative of an indigenous goddess of fertility. Flanked by crucifixes, the stone is inscribed with the history of Mayan king, Tohil. A confraternity of Mayan priests and healers perform ceremonies by the open-air altar. Nearby is an extensive cemetery whose slopes are dappled with brightly coloured tombs and mausolea.

Chichicastenango is also famous for being the place where 18th Century friar Francisco Ximenez translated and transcribed the only extant copy of Popul Vuh, “The Book of Counsel”. The narratives recount creation myths and early history of the Post Classical Quiche kingdom. Popol Vuh is significant for being one of the few surviving texts of the early modern era detailing pre-Colombian mythology.

On December 21, Chichicastenango celebrates the Feast of St. Thomas which is thought to have evolved from pre-Colombian Mayan festivities of the Winter Solstice. Religious congregations from neighbouring communities parade the image of their patron saint through the city streets for blessing in the Church of St Thomas. These processions are a colourful spectacle accompanied by religious songs and the narrow streets of Chichi reverberate with pounding drums and firecrackers. Traditional dances El Torrito, El Palo Volador and Los Mexicos are usually part of the festivities.

As a perfect day trip from Antigua or Guatemala City, combine Chichicastenango with an excursion to Panajachel on volcano-fringed Lake Atitlan.