photo of Chichicastenango

An outdoor market in Chichicastengo, Guatemala. (Peter Adams/Digital Vision)

What to do in Chichicastenango

Every Thursday and Sunday for more than 100 years, Chichicastenango, dubbed "Chichi" for short, blooms with nearly 300 Maya vendors from all parts of the country. Twisting mountain roads lead to Chichi through hamlets where fat pigs and feathery turkeys stand in the front yards of tin-roofed homes. Arrive by Wednesday night to roam the streets, observing the men hammering away at the maze of wooden stalls for tomorrow's market. The aromas of grilled chicken, fried potatoes, and sweet plantains permeate the air, punctuated by the quick slapping sound of women flattening tortillas between their palms.

On market days the town fills with people. Serious shoppers, including buyers for big department stores, flock to Chichi to purchase hand-woven floral wall hangings, embroidered tablecloths, area rugs, placemats, and carry-on bags, many of which journey stateside, where they sell for five to ten times the local price.

Not for everyone, Chichi appeals to those who get an adrenaline rush from bargaining and pushing through hordes. Women with stacks of woven tablecloths balanced on their heads elbow through shoppers and trios of little girls shove fistfuls of beaded necklaces toward tourists. Vendors stand in front of their stalls, beckoning and calling to browsers. Leave a booth and you may be followed by groups of women traditionally dressed in huipiles, embroidered tunics, unfurling more table runners, scarves, or wall hangings, shouting, "Buy from me, lady, buy from me."

Chichi's market appeals to locals too, as Maya women sell live chickens out of burlap bags and measure out sackfuls of black, white, and yellow corn. On Sunday, the cofradías (religious brotherhoods) lead processions through the streets.

Morerías, ceremonial mask workshops, also attract attention to this Guatemalan city. Colorful wooden masks line the walls of the workshop area, where you might get the chance to meet a carver and watch him patiently whittle the intricate details of a mask for a ceremonial dance.

The hill overlooking Chichi marks an important religious location. Every so often, at the summit, a weathered-faced shaman lights candles on an altar and kneels in front of Pascual Abaj, a blackened rock and the only shrine in all of Guatemala to the Mayan Earth god. Supplicants typically bring chocolate, sugar, and pastries as an offering to the god. The gray smoke of incense floats in front of the praying shaman, creating a vision of other-worldliness.

Tip: Because the mountain roads leading to Chichi are winding and often in rough condition, it's best to hire a car and driver or go with a reputable tour company.

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