Friday, February 12, 2016

Guatemala Journey: Chichicastenango – December 10, 2015

The musically-named town of Chichicaastenango and its famous twice-weekly indigenous market have long been signposts on the Guatemala Gringo Trail. We were a bit skeptical about making time to visit Chichi; we have seen a lot of markets, had already purchased two table cloths and found the “everyone must go” tourist literature hype a bit off-putting. But we did, and are happy to report: we are very glad we went! This market is truly a delightful swirl of color, activity and life – even if, like us, you buy very little.

We decided to see the Chichi market “tourist style” and arranged a day trip with a tour company in Panajachel. The market is held on Thursday and Sunday; we went to a Thursday market. Part of the fun of the trip was meeting our fellow day trippers, including two couples from Israel in search of gifts for grandchildren and a young couple from Portugal on a three-week backpacking trip through Central America (all of Central America – it sounded like forced march hell to us . . .).

When we stepped off the van at the central gas station/parking lot in Chichi we were approached by a young man who, in passable English, introduced  himself as a guide. We had not booked a tour guide for the market – only transportation – and decided that hiring someone to give us a couple-hour orientation tour would be a good idea since we were "experiencing on a schedule". He was a good guide as we define the term: he imparted information, helped us orient ourselves (the market is a bit souk-like) and didn’t rush us.

Molly in the Souk

Our one caveat about hiring guides at the parking lot is that our “bi-lingual guide” seemed very happy to lapse into Spanish when he realized that we could follow along (or, in Molly’s case, mostly follow along). We’re not sure how much information he could impart in English.

The market in Chichi is really two markets: a bright, clean indoor food market for local families and an outdoor market which is a combination tourist market and tianguis (an everything market – food, plastic bins, used shoes, pots and pans from China, hair products . . . ).

Shopping Indoors

We enjoyed the food market, in large part because, after looking around it became clear to us that the brightly dressed indigenous women had not put on costumes for us. They dress this way because they want to.

Dressed To Sell Tomatoes
Market Day Attire

We also enjoyed the indoor market because the food looked to fresh and colorful . . . 

Beans -
This Family Loved That Molly Wanted Their Picture!

Aerial View

. . . and smelled so good.

Lunch Available

 Upstairs in the market building we found shops selling thread and embroidery patterns –

Cool Colors

. . . just in case we might want to try and compete with the beautiful embroidery we would later find in the touristy portion of the outdoor market . . .



 And Shopping Outdoors

The tourist stalls of the outdoor market offered colorful crafts of all kinds . 
. .

Dance Mask, Anyone?

. . . but our purchases were limited to a few little zippered pouches for Molly to use in place of the billfold and cosmetic pouch stolen from her in Antigua.  

Our guide took us into a mask-carving shop hidden (at least to our eyes) behind various market stalls. In addition to carving masks, the shop built marimbas using traditional gourd technology. Bryce took a minute to see whether playing the marimba was his calling. 

Cool Marimba Bryce

He will stick to boat projects. 

[Side note: The marimba is the national instrument of Guatemala, but marimba music isn’t universally admired. We will never be able to hear a marimba again without recalling a comment by our Danish landlord at the Vulcano Lodge: “Ah, the marimba - fucking terrible instrument.”]

We mostly enjoyed the tianguis aspect of the market. Local people can find just about anything they might need there, including:

. . . shoes, new and used:

New - For Girls

And Used - For Boys

Shoppers can also find religious ornaments, modern and traditional:

Plastic Trees In The
Guatemalan Highlands

Candles and Swinging Jesuses

And Going To Church

Many visitors from outlying villages apparently combine their shopping trip with a visit to the church in Chichi to consult a shaman. On the steps of the church one may purchase flowers (yellow and white have particular significance which was explained to us . . . but which we have forgotten).

Flowers For Church

More Candles

There is also someone on the steps of the church busily removing bad spirits.

A Job for Smoke

Inside a visitor has the option of lighting candles placed on a raised alter in the "regular" Catholic way . . .

The Regular Catholic Way

. . . or visitors that practice Traditional Catholicism (aka Maya Catholicism) on an alter on the floor:

The Traditional (aka Maya) Catholic Way

Candles: Our Job Here Is Done

We watched surreptitiously as one man, in consultation with a shaman, arranged some produce (corn and tomatoes) among his offering candles. We assume he was asking for a good harvest. In a side room we watched from afar as a woman had her future read. Our guide offered to arrange readings for us but we decided that we might not really want to know . . .

These religious activities were very similar to those we had seen in Chiapas, though in Chichi there were no pine needles on the floor or chickens and eggs in evidence. And, unlike in Chiapas, our guide in Chichi made it clear taking pictures was acceptable. 

In Chichi we also met an entirely new saint / intercessor which we understand is uniquely venerated by the Maya of the Guatemalan highlands – San Simón or Maximón.

A Shrine to Maximón

The story of Maximón is interesting and in a way a mini tutorial on the establishment of a religious practice. As told to tourists, it’s as follows: In the 1800’s there was a wide-spread illness in the highlands; the symptoms sound a lot like cholera – very unpleasant. The shamans decided that the people needed someone to pray to in this dark time, and introduced Maximón – who for purposes of coordinating with the Catholic church, they also called San Simón (Saint Simon). Maximón looks a great deal like a late-19th Century businessman.


Apparently the plague dissipated and the idea of Maximón stuck. Today he is venerated by the Maya who practice Traditional Catholicism. Like other saints he is kept on a rotating basis by members of the town’s cofradia (a Maya Catholic brotherhood). Each year, following Semana Santa, there is a festival when Maximón moves house. The most famous Maximón on Lake Atitlán is in Santiago Atitlán. We met Maximón in Chichi in the back of the mask shop.

Note that many anthropologists suggest that Maximón relates back to the Maya god Mam. But we are just travelers – so we’ll share the tourist board version. 

Executive Summary:

We enjoyed our visit to Chichicastenango and would return, particularly at a festival time (Semana Santa and the Maximón festival sound very interesting) and stay a night in order to have a place to retreat to at the end of the festivities. A day trip was a good way to see a regular bi-weekly market and we were happy to return to relatively tranquil little Jaibalito after a day fending off vendors and fellow shoppers.

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