Chichicastenango and the local Maya people

Wednesday 20 to Friday 22 May

The drive from Panajachel to Chichcastenango was on good roads. We wound our way out of the volcanic terrain of Panajachel to a ridge which was a rich farming area. Crops of cabbages and carrots were abundant. We were in an area that was 2000+m above sea level so although in a tropical region, the air was cool and the humidity low. 

It was another climb through volcanic gorges to reach the small town of Chichicastenango. This town was made famous by a travel agent called Alfred S Clark. His tourists enjoyed the raw Mayan culture and the colourful market so much, that in 1932 he built the Hotel Museum Mayan Inn here, and went about collecting colonial pieces for it. The hotel was soon full to overflowing, so annexes were added. This is the hotel we stayed in, and although quiet in this out of season period, it was delightful. The rooms were set around beautifully maintained gardens. A few macaws, the big red variety and the smaller green variety had taken up permanent residency. We have seen quite a few tropical birds in hotels, it seems this is a good refuge for injured animals or those caught up in illegal export operations.

Our visit to Chichicastenango was the closest we came to seeing the Indian lifestyle. The local people here are Quiché. Their origin has been recorded in the sacred book Popol Vuh, which is preserved and has been translated to several languages giving a valuable insight to the culture and rituals before the Spanish arrived.

There were a number of vendors at the entrance to the hotel. One, called Jose, insisted that he could give us the best guided tour of the town.

We took his offer and certainly received a good understanding of life in the town, including religious ceremonies, death rituals and how the famous market operates.

The people of Chichcastenango have managed to assimilate many of their religious traditions and culture with Spanish Christianity. The churches are a strange mixture of Catholic and Mayan altars. The front of the church is dedicated to Christ but the central aisle in the Nave has stone tablets where candles and flowers are dedicated to the Mayan culture.

The central park is really a market place with the Mayan temple of ‘Calvario de Sr Sepultado’ at one end and the Christian church ‘Iglesia de Santo Tomás’ at the other end. 

The front steps of both churches looked ‘burnt’ and we realised that part of the Mayan ritual is to swing censors (often just a tin can) of incense at the front door, while chanting magic words in honour of their ancestors.

Candles of various colours are used, for example white for a request, yellow represents commerce and so on. There were stores that specialised in selling the coloured candles.

We were also taken to visit Moreria Santo Tomas Miguel Ignacio. It is a craft shop where Miguel Ignacio and his family make masks for the Mayan ceremonies, particularly in December of each year. The house-shop is also home to Chichi’s famous smoking man, San Simón, the God of cigarettes & booze.

Chichicastenango is famous for the coloured tombs in its cemetery. Once again, Mayan culture dominates, using the same six colours as the candles. The colour of the tomb represents the day of the week that the first person died, who was interred into the tomb.

We were also able to watch, and photograph some rituals at the cemetery, where an offering was made and burned.

A new Mayan temple has been built close to the cemetery. It was inaugurated on the first day of the new Mayan calendar, which occurred in December 2012. The Mayan calendar is complex, there are actually three different calendars used for different purposes, but this one has a cycle of about 394.5 years.

Chichi (as the locals call it), is well known for its market days on Thursdays and Sundays. Our itinerary made the Thursday market most suitable, although the Sunday market is said to be bigger. 

When we arrived on Wednesday afternoon there was much activity as stalls were being erected and goods laid out on display. Apparently the stall holders will sit with their stalls for all of the preceding night. 

We wandered out of our hotel before breakfast on Thursday, particularly to see the flower stalls which are set up in the cooler morning air. Sales were slow as the day trippers had not rolled in as yet. 

As the day progressed, more shoppers arrived – a mix of western visitors and locals. There were stalls of beautiful handiwork and stalls of produce and livestock. The market is a mix of souvenirs and necessities.

The local women and even young girls were dressed in their very colourful national dress. The handicrafts were also colourful – I really was regretting my ‘no buy’ policy as there were many items I could have brought home with me.

By 4pm the market was winding down, goods were packed up and stalls were brought down. 

Many of the vendors simply packed everything in to bags, which they lugged on their back, with the market stall table balanced over the top.

During the day we also toured the Museo Arquelogico Regional, where some interesting artefacts were displayed. This museum and the municipal buildings are alive with murals, depicting life and battles. Some of the art was contemporary whilst others belonged to the indigenous style

When we toured the town the next day we found a number of stalls still operating but focussed on the local’s needs of fruit and vegetables and hardware. The craft stalls will have to wait for Sunday.