Chichicastenango, Guatemala – A Delight for the Senses
A trip to Guatemala would not be complete without a visit to Chichicastenango in the highlands north of Guatemala City. The famous local market in “Chichi” is a treat for the senses. Plan your visit for a Thursday or Sunday, the regularly scheduled market days, and you will be immersed in a world of colors, sounds, and aromas. Crowds of people come from surrounding Mayan villages to shop and to sell their homegrown and handmade items. Some visitors may find the Chichicastenango market too noisy and chaotic. It’s better to view it as bustling and vibrant, a chance to interact with the local people and share a bit of their daily life.
As you near the market area you are surrounded by children selling their souvenir items. Their young voices fill the air with Spanish, English, and Mayan dialects as they compete for your attention. They follow you as you walk, shouting over each other to announce their bargain prices in quetzales, the local currency. These youngsters are charming and engaging and you will be hard pressed to resist their wares of woven bookmarks or handmade dolls.
The narrow aisles lead you along cobblestone walkways lined with stalls displaying a vibrant palette of goods. Textiles such as table runners, pillow covers, and tote bags hang from the crossbeams, their patterns woven in bright primary colors. Indigenous women vendors wear the customary huipiles, poncho-like coverings, the pattern and colors of each one indicative of a specific village or group. They approach you with arms full of the decorative huipiles, pressuring you to look through them. Each one is a work of art and a tempting purchase.
Other stalls display an amazing array of Guatemalan masks. Some are unpainted antiques intricately carved in various types of wood. Many of the masks used to celebrate Mayan holidays and festivals are highly decorative. The faces of animals and fanciful creatures are painted in an array of bright colors. Some have feathers, sequins or glitter. As you walk past the mask displays, the sun shines on the faces giving them an eerie fluorescence. It is easy to picture them worn in ceremonial dances, the painted faces shining in sunlight or highlighted by firelight.
Added to the colorful panorama of the market are the aromas filling the air. Follow the scent of incense to the Church of Santo Tomas. Villagers gather here on the front steps to light candles, burn incense and build small fires as part of their prayer ritual. It is traditional to say prayers aloud and the combination of many voices creates a spiritual effect. Bouquets of fresh flowers fill the steps for use in some of the ceremonies and prayers. Their fragrance mingles with all the market aromas. The steps of Santo Tomas are part of the original sixteenth century structure and are considered sacred. Tourists should avoid them and enter the church from the side pathway.
Some visitors may feel overwhelmed at the “Chichi” market. They may find the vendors overbearing and the crowds annoying. The streets circle back on each other and it’s very easy to lose your sense of direction. It’s uneven underfoot and can be difficult to walk. Yet your visit to Chichicastenango can be a memorable one if you approach it with a positive attitude. Allow yourself to enjoy the spectacle of the color and the warmth of the people. Your smile will be readily returned by the vendors who will happily engage you in the customary spirited bargaining. Purchase a few mementos to take home. They will remind you that the sights, sounds, and smells of “Chichi” were a delight for the senses.
By Diane Frances