Travellers wanting to see the Mayan culture alive and well in the present day can’t do much better than the town of Chichicastenango. As 95% of the population of the town is recognized as indigenous, you’ll find it difficult not to be surrounded by native culture! Apart from being a mouthful of a name, the town (also known as Santo Tomas Chichicastenango) is surrounded by mountains which gives it a secluded feel even though it is only about 140 kilometres outside Guatemala City.
The handicrafts market
Every Thursday and Sunday, thousands of vendors and visitors descend upon Chichicastenango, attending what is said to be the largest native market in North America. Since pre-Hispanic times, the town has been one of the largest trading centers in the Maya area. Not much has changed; despite plastic sheeting for shelter and greater attendance, visitors will hear Quiche predominantly spoken and native dress is commonly worn. The vendors represent many of Guatemala’s linguistic groups such as Mam, Ixil and Kaqchikel.
The night before the big market, vendors can be seen setting up their booths in the main plaza and adjacent streets and continue in the early daylight hours. In announcement of the event, firecrackers start being let off early in the morning and continue sporadically throughout the day.
Rich variety of colours in the wide range of traditional dresses worn by the women attending the market. Those knowledgeable in the designs can even tell which part of the country the wearers are from, as the designs are unique to each community or group. The women wear the traditional multi-coloured Huipile (blouse) and a skirt, otherwise known as a corte, composed of a striking selection of natural dyes.
The sprawling labyrinth of stalls may seem chaotic, but the market is highly organized, with traditional areas designated for specific types of goods. Visitors can find a huge selection of goods, including textiles (particularly women’s blouses), hand carved masks, handicrafts, food, flowers, medicinal plants, pigs and chickens, machetes, and much more.
Adding to the chaotic racket of the firecrackers is the scent of the incense which is burned in abundance on the steps of the church, drifting over the bustling throng of traders and visitors. On Sunday, travellers will have the added delight of watching the cofradias (local members of the religious brotherhood) have processions in and around the church.
Forming the centre of the community, the 400 year old church of Santo Tomas demonstrates the strong Masheno (local townsfolk) beliefs in pre-Christian religion and ceremony. Each of the 18 church steps represents one of the 20-day months in the Mayan calendar. There is a strong sense of shamanism and ritual in Chichicastenango, with the church used for shamanic rituals, burning incense, candles and, on special occasions, even chickens!
Around Christmas time in the 3rd week of December, the town hosts the added excitement of the masked and costumed dancers of the Dance of the Conquest, a satirising carnival pageant on the conquering of the Americas. The streets of the town are filled in a riotous cacophony of color, dialects and costumes, smoke, and smells that challenge the realms of imagination. Images of the patron saint Tomas are paraded through the streets, strong smells of incense pour from the church and the sounds of firecrackers, rockets, drums and brass bands assault your senses from all directions.
Those looking for evidence that the Maya are alive and well in the present day need look no further than the mountain town of Chichicastenango. Be sure to include a visit to the market or festival in your Guatemala vacation.