The must see market town in Guatemala’s western highlands, Chichicastenango, is rammed full of local produce and artesanial products, aimed primarily at the influx of tourists that arrive every Thursday and Sunday morning from the surrounding towns. We headed there on Saturday morning on our first Guatemalan chicken bus from Panajachel, on Lake Atitlan – it was one of our shorter bus rides. Our biggest concern was our backpacks being tossed on the roof of the bus, totally out of sight as the bus barreled down the hairpin turns of the Panamerican Highway. We are still amazed how the bus assistant knows when people get on the bus, and how he makes his way through the mass of people standing in the aisle to take their fares. Sometimes he goes out the front door, runs across the roof and jumps in the back door, incredible at the speed the bus is traveling.
There were two fancy hotels in Chichicastenango, both out of a backpackers reach, so we opted for Chalet Hotel which was only a few blocks from the Parque Central. ChiChi could use a good backpackers hostel – it would be packed on the nights before a market! Chalet Hotel was plain but sufficient for our single night. As well as being a renowned market town, Chichicastenango also has a very important church for the local Mayans and a colorful cemetery on the edge of town. We visited both of these on the Saturday afternoon when we arrived as Andrea was not feeling so well.
We had an entertaining night watching a bunch of shoe cleaners and ice-cream sellers from the balcony where we were having dinner. Shoe cleaners playfully stealing ice-cream and the ice-cream boy throwing slices of oranges at the shoe cleaners. This doesn’t sound so exciting but it made our evening. Many of the market traders tend to set up late the night before in preparation for some early sales, and also due to the overwhelming amount of produce that needs to be racked, stacked and hung.
We knew we had a 3 hour bus ride to our next destination so we planned on leaving Chichi by midday, and for this reason we hit the market super early. It had been alive for some time and the market traders, mostly Mayan’s came at us in full force. Buy this, buy that, what about this, special price, blah blah blah, came at us from every stall on every aisle. I was dying to take photos of the beautiful men and women in traditional clothing! I’m not insulting or brave enough to thrust a camera in someone’s face, unlike some of the tourists, but by being discreet I wasn’t getting what I wanted. Fortunately there was a far easier way, so I pulled out the GoPro, set it to take a photo every 2 seconds and just walked around with it for an hour. Surely there were going to be a couple of great photos in the hundreds that it would snap!
We spent close to 5 hours walking around aimlessly, up and down the same aisles, back to the church, back to look for some hats we’d seen earlier and could no longer find. We decided that this stuff must have been mass produced somewhere outside of Guatemala and so were unlikely to purchase anything anyway. It was all so neatly packaged and in such quantities that it could have just come off a shipping container, but we also know that Guatemalans are extremely hard workers and with such big families who knows what could be made. I did buy a pair of orange striped pants that must have been made for a Guatemalan as they are size large and still a bit too short. They do make great pajamas and are ideal for hanging around hostels in.
By midday we were worn out and ready to make a run for it so we hunted down the ‘Parada de Autobuses’ and waited for the direct bus to Qetzaltenango. We had a lot of fun and were very happy to leave with minimal extra baggage, at least from this market.
San Francisco el Alto
A very early start on Friday, still feeling crappy from a recent stomach bug, I went to the weekly market at San Francisco el Alto. This market is renowned for being the largest market in Central America and for its animal section located on a large plateau at the top of the town. I wish the market had been on the weekend so Andrea could have come too.
Another chicken bus ride and I was in the town about 16km from Xela on a hillside. I headed straight for the plateau to see the craziness of the animal trading – I wasn’t disappointed – there were areas with no real segregation for cows, goats, sheep, plenty of pigs, dogs, cats, chickens and other poultry, with lots of potential buyers hanging them by their legs to inspect them. I could hear pigs squealing like crazy as buyers would force a piece of wood into their mouth to hold it open whilst they checked out the tongues, and as the piglets were tossed into sacks for transportation home by their new owners! Other animals were being wrestled into some uncomfortable positions, I assume to be inspected for disease, and general overall health.
I really didn’t care for the rest of the market as I was enthralled by what I was seeing here, with the smells, colors, overall excitement of everything going on around me, and total lack of tourists. Some things were not so pleasant, such as seeing dogs, cats, rabbits and chicks in cardboard boxes with pleading looks in their eyes, although overall the animals looked healthy and well treated. Andrea and I were definitely not in a position to be carrying around a pet dog or cat with us for the duration of our travels anyway!
The markets of the Western Highlands are certainly alive and vibrant, and with markets throughout the region on every day of the week there is plenty of choice, from blankets and woolen wear at Momostenango, animals at San Francisco el Alto, and the huge variety of almost everything at the tourist oriented Chichicastenango market.
Mayan Market Days of the Western Highlands, Guatemala:
Chimaltenango, San Juan Atitlán, Zunil
Chajul, Olintepeque, Patzún, Salcajá, San Marcos, San Lucas Tolimán, Santa Clara la Laguna, Sololá
Almolonga, Chimaltenango, Cotzal, Huehuetenango, Momostenango, Palin, Patzicia, Sacapulas
Aguacatan, Chichicastenango, Chimaltenango, Nebaj, Panajachel, Patzún, Sacapulas, San Mateo Ixtatán, San Miguel Ixtahuacán, Santa Cruz de Quiché, San Juan Atitlán, San Lucas Toliman, San Mateo Ixtatán, Solomá, Tecpán, Totonicapan, Uxpantán
Chajul, Chimaltenango, Palín, San Francisco el Alto, San Lucas Tolimán, Santiago Atitlán, Sololá
Almolonga, Antigua, Cotzal, Patzicia, Santa Clara La Laguna, Santa Cruz de Quiché, Todos Santos, Totonicapán
Aguacatán, Cantel, Chichicastenango, Chimaltenango, Chupol, Esquipulas, Huehuetenango, Joyabaj, Momostenango, Naualá, Nebaj, Panajachel, Patzún, Rabinal, Sacapulas, San Cristobal Totonicapán, San Lucas Tolimán, San Mateo Ixtatán, Santa Eulalia, San Juan Ostuncalco, Santa Cruz de Quiché, Tecpán
January 5th – January 6th 2013