Last updated: 01:00 AM ET, Tue June 09 2015

Opinion Home | Far-Sighted Field Notes

  • Rosalind Cummings-Yeates | June 9, 2015 1:00 AM ET

    Market Day in Chichicastenango, Guatemala

    Market Day in Chichicastenango, Guatemala

    Photos by Rosalind Cummings-Yeates 

    The beauty of Guatemala seeps out everywhere you turn, from the volcanoes and rolling landscape, to the colonial architecture and cobblestone streets. But aside from this and the warm spirit of the Guatemalan people, the country is most noted for the beauty of its multicolored textiles and traditional garb.

    There's no place better to view this than at the twice weekly (Sunday and Thursday) Chichicastenango market. Considered the largest and most colorful native market in Central America, Chichicastenango is located in the highlands two hours north of Guatemala City and supplies an essential glimpse into traditional Maya culture.

    When I arrived in Chichi, as it's called by locals, I was overwhelmed by the endless stalls, the crowds of Maya wrapped in vibrant woven cloth and the crush of vendors calling out to me as their “amiga.” Fortunately, I was joined by Jose, a guide from the Institute of Guatemala Tourism (INGUAT), who broke down the market's particulars for me.

    There are 22 indigenous ethnic groups represented in Guatemala, and most of them travel to Chichi to sell handicrafts. The distinctive traditional clothing that the locals wear is called traje, with the intricately woven, rectangular tops called huipiles and the wrapped skirts called corte. Each town has a specific color and clothing design, decided by Spanish colonialist to differentiate the groups. The Ki'che Maya represent Chichi and their color is a burgundy shade, with birds and roses incorporated into the designs.

    The Chichi market is best tackled in short spurts of time, with breaks in nearby cafes to rest from the sun and intimidating array of goods. I always find that it works better when you have something specific in mind when shopping, that way you're not so distracted by goods that you don't intend to buy.

    The market carries everything from fresh produce to handcrafted instruments and pottery so your interests will lead you to the stalls with the most possibilities. Although it doesn't initially appear to be, the market is very organized with a section for each type of item. I set out for handwoven fabrics and a wooden flute, with an eye for the most vivid colors.

    Although a few of the big stalls accept credit cards and most accept American dollars, I recommend bringing the local currency of quetzales for the best deals. Bargaining is expected and prepare to be quoted a tourist price at first. After a few minutes of friendly haggling, I snagged a flute painted with the bright wings of the national quetzal bird and a densely woven violet scarf.

    For non-shoppers, the market serves as a wonderful way to learn about local customs. Inside the covered vegetable and fruit section, you'll find plants for medicinal remedies such as ruda for stomach problems and strong copal incense for ceremonies. You'll also see women preparing the popular black flour tortillas and stalls piled high with bombas, the firecrackers you'll hear and smell throughout the market.

    For a brief history lesson, head to the pearly splendor of Iglesia Santo Toma's on the east side of the market. Climb the church's 18 stairs, representing each month of the Mayan calendar, and weave past the women selling flowers for the altars. Built in 1540, the church displays a fascinating blend of Spanish and Maya traditions. Photos are not allowed inside, but you'll find traditional Catholic paintings and statues as well as a maze of Maya altars covered with candles and offerings of flowers and food.

    Cap off the day's adventure with a visit to the nearby Hotel Santo Toma's for an elaborate buffet lunch. I was enthralled when I entered the hotel's courtyard filled with flowers, tropical plants and several friendly parrots. It felt like a relaxing oasis after the hectic pace of the market. The buffet features local specialties including caldos or meat stews, refried beans and stuffed pepper or chiles rellenos. Sit back in this tropical refuge, admire your treasures from the Chichi market and absorb the many layers of Guatemala's Maya culture.

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Rosalind Cummings-Yeates Far-Sighted Field Notes

Rosalind Cummings-Yeates Rosalind Cummings-Yeates is a journalist, author and blogger who specializes in travel and culture topics. She loves guiding readers through the richness of various cultures and discovering the essence of a destination. Her travel and culture blog, Farsighted Fly Girl, offers travel insights through the music, food, art and history of various countries and cultures. Join her on the journey at www.Rosalindcummingsyeates.
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