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A Day in Chichicastenango, Guatemala

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A Tour of Chichicastenango

Today I took a tour to Chichicastenango.  It was a bit of a drive from Guatemala City and originally wasn’t in my plan. But it only cost me $15 more to do the whole tour than it did just to get to Antigua which is where I needed to be by dinner time for our volunteer project introductions.

Leaving Guatemala City

Mario picked me up at 5am.  As we exited the city on the four-lane road with a median, traffic was already mounting.  One of our two lanes was marked off by cones.  It wasn’t long before I saw cars driving on our side of the street toward us.  I gathered that this is the way Guatemala creates an HOV lane?  I’m not sure.

Meeting Our Tour Group

Upon leaving the outskirts of town, we climbed hilly and winding terrain to Antigua where we picked up Alex and four Argentinians.  Apparently Alex and I had unknowingly joined their “private” tour, and they were outraged.  I can understand being upset, as that happened to me once in Jordan, but I didn’t throw a hissy fit and hold up the van for over 15 minutes and shout at the guide for saying, “Hi, my name is Mario” in English.

I knew the tour was going to be in Spanish, and I was fine with that.  I figured I’d get the gist of about 75% of the information.  So I’m not sure why poor Mario greeted us all in English, but boy it was a rough start to the day for him!

The angriest lady shouted at the driver, “No es mi culpa que ella no entienda,” which means its not her fault she doesn’t understand Spanish.  The “she” in this sentence was referencing me as Alex is from Colombia, but lives in NYC.  I responded in English, “I understand.”  The four Argentinians got very quiet.

After about a three-hour drive on the two lane road with hairpin curves that passed through many towns with lots of traffic and speed bumps, we eventually arrived in Chichicastenango.

About Chichicastenango

Chichicastenango is a large indigenous town located in the mountains over a mile above sea level.  Its primary population is the Mayan K’iche of whom most are bilingual in K’iche and Spanish.  Chichi is known for its market that takes place on Thursday and Sunday, with Sunday being the busier of the two days.  Vendors come from all over the region to one of the largest trading centers in the Mayan world as well as one of the largest outdoor markets in Latin America.

The Market

Lucky for us, it was Thursday.  We found a car park just across the street from the market, met our quick walking, Mayan tour guide Tomás, and followed him past the variety of booths.  We caught a glimpse of the vendors’ Mayan crafts as he steered us to the indoor basketball courts where we climbed the stairs to the second floor and enjoyed a fantastic view of the every day life at the vegetable market.

We passed along the second floor to the outside where we could see Chichi’s two churches facing each other on the opposite sides of the expansive tin roofs covering all the market stalls.  According to Tomás, there is a church of life and a church of death.

tins roofs

Iglesia de Santo Tomás

We visited the church of life called Iglesia de Santo Tomás which is over 400 years old and is believed to be built atop an old Mayan structure.  On its 18 steps to the entrance, one for each month of the Mayan calendar, vendors sold flowers as Mayans burned incense and candles and prayed outside the church’s door.

The church recognizes a mixture of religions: Christians, Catholicism and Shamanism. The Catholics worshipped on the sides of the church in the pews while the Mayans worshipped at the altars on the ground in the middle of the aisle.

On the sides of the church were saints to which they prayed for different things like a good corn harvest.  I was surprised to find out there were four colors of corn: black, white, yellow and red.  The first three were prevalent in the market, but the red is only used for special occasion.

Ceremonial Mask Museum

From the church, we walked to the Ceremonial Mask Museum located at the base of the mountains on the outskirts of Chichicastenango. Here we learned about this beehive looking structure that I thought was an oven.  Instead, it was a place where Mayan women give birth with the help of a mid-wife.  The dome has nine steps for each month the woman is pregnant.

beehive for birth

Pasqual Abaj

Just behind the Ceremonial Mask Museum is Pasqual Abaj, a worshipping mountain. About half way up the mountain we stopped at an area where Shamans come on the behalf of the family to pray for someone who is ill. The altar includes crosses in the middle.  Square crosses are for Mayans while the non-symmetrical cross is for the Catholics.  On one side are three rocks for women and on the other are three rocks for men.  Smaller rocks are for the kids.

shaman worshipping area

Higher up on the summit of the wooded mountain is another worshipping area with a large altar and five small cross areas for certain prayers.  Each area is for a different need like health, safe travels, and fertility just to name a few.  There were also fire pits where Mayans light candles and Shamans sacrifice smoked cigars.  Catholics kneel on two knees, while those practicing Shamanism kneel on one.

Soon we descended the mountain, crossed the road, walked between some houses, and ended up on a hillside sidewalk which led us past more houses and a small farm on the way to a worshipping area just below the cemetery.

The Cemetery

The cemetery in Chichicastenango included both graves for the poor and mausoleums for the wealthy family. Graves painted in all white represent a Catholic burial.  All colored graves represent a Mayan burial.  A mix of white and colored graves represent a mixed person’s burial. Some of the graves were from the 1800s.

The Market (Again)

From the cemetery, we passed by the store of the last good-bye on our way back to the market with countless booths.  Items available at market include but are not limited to, leather goods, textiles,ceremonial masks, corn, chickens, ducks, turkeys, used shoes, and even CDs.  I didn’t know people bought CDs anymore.

Hotel Santo Tomás

By lunch time, Alex and I split from the Argentinians as we had to catch shuttles to Lake Atitlan and Antigua, respectively.  Alex wasn’t feeling well so she just rested in the lobby of the Hotel Santo Tomás which seems to be a meeting place for tours and also an excellent stop for the restroom for a 5Q fee.

Restaurante La Villa de Don Tomás

I wondered back into the market and grabbed lunch at Restaurante La Villa de Don Tomás.  I can’t say the food was fantastic though it wasn’t bad either.  The service was friendly, and it provided a place to sit and over look the market that had died down for the afternoon.

The 2pm shuttle service was just around the corner from the market.  Alex and I went our separate ways, and I ended up back in Antigua by 5:30 for my 6:30pm dinner with my volunteer group to learn about building a bottle school.  What a great day in Chichicastenango. ETB

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Beth Bankhead

Former public finance professional turned award winning travel blogger and photographer sharing the earth's beauty one word and image at a time.

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