Also known as "Chichi," Chichicastenango, Guatemala, is a usually-sleepy town with cobblestoned streets 90 mi/145 km northwest of Guatemala City. On Thursday and Sunday, however, it wakes up and hosts a well-known market that attracts thousands of Amerindians and large crowds of tourists. It's the most crowded, hectic and noisy market in Guatemala, but that's part of the fun of attending, and there's likely nowhere else in the country—or elsewhere in Central America—where travelers will have such easy access to traditional culture. Plan on spending at least a couple of hours there.
The market starts at the steps of the 400-year-old Santo Tomas Church and covers a large area in front of it. Shop for such local handicrafts as pottery, weavings, chalecos (brightly embroidered vests), musical instruments and wooden masks—and be prepared to bargain. The vendors are not circus barkers, though. They bargain quietly and politely in order not to disturb the people praying and lighting candles.
In fact, we found the religious activities taking place on Sunday more interesting than the buying and selling. In the morning, costumed prayer men perform religious ceremonies on the church steps while white clouds of copal incense fill the air. (You can use the side entrance to the church, where locals light candles on the floor and pray, but do not take photographs there.)
You can visit Chichi as a day trip from Guatemala City or Antigua, but we suggest you arrive the day before the market and spend the night. If you get up early, you can watch hundreds of families pouring into town from the surrounding villages, bringing their produce and wares. And you'll get to watch the show before the tour buses roll in and the crowds get heavy.
Chichi's other big attraction is the Shrine of Pascual Abaj, on the outskirts of town. It's another place where local people regularly make sacrifices and give offerings. (According to a legend, Pascual was a poor hunchback who brought good fortune to a man who aided him.) If a ceremony is taking place while you're there, you can observe and take pictures, but you may be asked for an offering (a few quetzals will usually suffice). Even if there is no ceremony, the walk to this site is pleasant and the views of the city are lovely.
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