Perhaps one of the most intriguing aspects of Guatemala is the vibrant, yet shy, indigenous population that makes up around 50% of the country’s total inhabitants. Twenty-one different groups of people from Mayan descent live throughout the country and are concentrated in the western highlands.
One of the most intriguing towns that reveals the wealth of this rich cultural heritage is the market town of Chichicastenango, located in the mountains at nearly 2,000 metres above sea level.
In 2006, I had the fortune of visiting this historical treasure on a backpacking trip through Guatemala. From the serene lakeside town of Panajachel on the shores of Lake Atitlan, I hopped into a shared shuttle and we began our drive up into the highlands through winding roads lined by pine trees and scenic landscapes.
As I stepped out of the van in Chichicastenango, I felt that I had travelled back in time to an ancient Mayan town, where nothing had changed. It was as if time had stood still and the local K’iche’ Maya population, that constitutes 98% of the town, continued selling their vibrantly decorated textiles, hand-carved wooden masks, copal incense and medicinal plants as if nothing had changed in the world around them.
I walked through the market stalls, brushing elbows with women wearing impressive hand-woven indigenous clothing selling everything from chickens to heavy wool blankets that they transported atop of their heads or wrapped carefully in a bundle on their backs. The hunched posture and slow steady pace of these women revealed the weight of their bundles as they manoeuvred carefully through the crowded aisles.
The crisp mountain air smelled of copal incense, fresh pine trees and mystery. Much of the history of Chichicastenango has been mixed with Spanish Colonial influences like the Catholic religion. The marketplace is located directly adjacent to the unmissable 400-year-old Santo Tomas church which was built atop one of the Mayan culture’s most important temples. The 18 stairs leading up to the original temple have been preserved and represent the months of the Maya calendar year. It is said that the Popol Vuh known as the Mayan Bible dating from 1550, translated literally as “The Book of the People”, was translated into Spanish by priest Francisco Ximenez in the 1700’s in Chichicastenango.
I wandered the aisles of the marketplace in awe of the hard work and superb craftsmanship of the artisans who were selling their goods here. The colours of the textiles and warm smiles of the locals who had come to make a living jumped out at me from every corner. After an invigorating afternoon, it was time to head back to the van and return to Panajachel. Leaving the vibrant Chichicastenango marketplace was a sobering feeling, as if I had only experienced a tiny part of this incredible culture. I wished that I was able to stay longer and will make it a priority to go back whenever I get the chance!
You can easily get to the Chichicastenango Marketplace with Bamba Experience:
from Antigua: Chichicastenango Market Day Trip (Antigua – Antigua)
from Panajachel: Chichicastenango Market Day Trip (Panajachel – Panajachel)