Situated amidst scenic countryside at an altitude of almost 2,000 metres and located approximately 2 hours’ drive from Antigua, or some 30 minutes’ from Lake Atitlan, a visit to the small market town of Chichicastenango features on most holidays to Guatemala.
A sleepy, unremarkable town for most of the week, Chichicastenango (often referred to simply as Chichi) comes alive on market days, Thursday and Sunday, when local, indigenous K’iche Mayans flood in from surrounding villages to sell their wares. In addition to the town’s permanent shops, almost every spare inch of pavement is taken up by colourfully dressed outsiders selling everything under the sun.
From a tourist point of view, Chichicastenango is one of the best and cheapest places in Guatemala to shop for local handicrafts – masks, pottery, wood carvings, metalwork, jewellery, textiles, dolls, clothing and more are all available. Fortunately, Chichicastenango isn’t yet a pure tourist trap and the majority of trade is still locals buying and selling from each other; at the centre of the market there also a number of simple comedores (eateries) serving cheap, delicious local cuisine.
The heart of both the town and the market is the church of Santo Tomas. Over 400 years old, the church is built on top of an old Mayan temple and the set of 18 original steps (each one stands for one month in the Mayan calendar) that lead up the church are still venerated by local Mayan priests. On the one hand, the steps are home to Mayan women selling flowers, on the other hand they are also extensively used for ancient rituals involving the burning of candles and incense. Even if you have no interest in shopping, it’s worth visiting Chichicastenango just to witness this colourful and atmospheric spectacle.
Due to its location, most visitors simply visit Chichicastenango en-route to somewhere else, ie travelling between Antigua and the Highlands or between Antigua and Lake Atitlan. It’s generally best to arrive around 9 or 10am, have 2 or 3 hours to simple explore the town on foot and then have a bite to eat.
However, for visitors who wish to spend longer in Chichicastenango, the Hotel Santo Tomas is a great option. Located just a short walk from the market, this atmospheric hotel has 75 comfortable rooms and is built around 2 beautiful courtyard gardens that are bursting with colour. Throughout the hotel you will find local handicrafts and artwork as well as the hotel’s resident exotic birds. On market days the hotel also offers an excellent buffet lunch.
By staying at the hotel, visitors to Chichicastenango can arrive the night before and enjoy the market in the morning before the majority of visitors arrive. Alternatively, visitors can arrive on market day and then, instead of rushing off, enjoy a hearty lunch before taking to the gardens with a good book.