Thirty minutes north of Los Encuentros, you’ll find historic Chichicastenango. “Chichi” is filled with history, impressive handicrafts, and a tangible indigenous culture. Its name means “place of the chichicaste”, a nettle-like tree with leaves that irritate the skin. On Thursdays and Sundays, the town’s market fills with vendors selling goods from ceremonial wooden masks and traditional Guatemalan clothing to mass-produced bookmarks and key chains.
Unfortunately, market day also attracts camera-toting tourists seeking cheap souvenirs. As a result, Chichicastenango has gotten a little weird. Oblivious to local culture, visitors always seem to find a way to offend someone. They snap pictures of private ceremonies and knock over sacred offerings. Bartering becomes a screaming match, because the obvious key to bilingual communication is volume. Pick-pocketing is a risk, but only if you allow yourself to slip into a vacation state of mind. Chichicastenango makes for a great day trip from Lake Atitlán, but it has definitely lost some of its magic. An excellent time to visit is during the annual festival, celebrated December 14-21, in honor of Saint Thomas.
A Little History
Once an important trading post of the Kaqchikel, Chichicastenango was abandoned after constant pestering from their K’iche’ rivals forced them south to Iximché. Chichi eventually became a cultural and religious center for the K’iche’, and the subsequent arrival of the Spanish led to the creation of intriguing and still-present traditions that mix Catholicism and pagan Mayan beliefs. The gradual transformation of Chichicastenango into its current state began in 1930, when Alfred S. Clark of Clark Tours founded the Mayan Inn and started busing in foreigners to see an authentic indigenous village. Chichi gradually adapted to the visitors, and the artisan market steadily grew to meet the demand. Today, Chichi remains an important cultural center for the K’iche’ people in spite of, not for, its foreign guests.
Getting Here, Around, and Away
In Los Encuentros, direct micros to Chichicastenango wait on the north side of the fork and leave whenever full (Q5, 30min, 18km). You can also catch a Quiché bus and get off half-way. On Thursdays and Sundays, numerous tour operators run private shuttles between Antigua and Panajachel, stopping in Chichi long enough to check out the market. Chichi’s impromptu bus terminal is near the colorful Arco Gucumatz at the corner of 5a Avenida and 5a Calle. From here, you can catch buses north to Santa Cruz del Quiché (Q5, 30min, 18km) or south through Los Encuentros to the capital, Lake Atitlán, or Quetzaltenango.
See the Sights
Established in 1540, the iconic Iglesia Santo Tomás is Chichicastenango’s largest and most important church. Overlooking the plaza, this church is a prime example of Guatemala’s Catholic-Mayan blend of spirituality. Its steps are lined with incense-swinging locals and ceremonial offerings including candles, pine boughs, liquor, and flowers. Inside are more offerings and more locals, often deep in prayer to pagan or Catholic altars. Feel free to step inside and observe this awesome display of devotion, but always enter via the side door. The main entrance should not be used by visitors, and pictures are strictly prohibited.
Next to the cathedral is a small monastery, famous for being the site where the Popol Vuh, the holiest of all Mayan texts, was found. In the early 1700s, the teachings of the Popol Vuh were fused by Francisco Ximénez, then Chichicastenango’s priest, into local religious traditions. Across the market is the El Calvario Chapel, a mini version of Santo Tomás where powerful rituals occur on its steps and within its doors. On the south side of the square is the Museo Rossbach, a small archaeological museum displaying a wide variety of ceremonial artifacts including incense, jewelry, masks, jade, and carvings. Hugo Rossbach was a German who served as the town’s Catholic priest until he passed away in 1944. The museum is open everyday except Monday and admission costs Q5. Also of interest is the Galeria de Arte Pop Wuj, a local academy responsible for promoting artistic expression among K’iche’ youth. The academy is responsible for the large mural in the entrance to Chichi, and you can visit their gallery to see more of their beautiful work.
Finally, removed from the chaos of town, the Cerro Pascual Abaj shrine is frequented by indigenous devotees. Locals come to honor it, complete with all the goodies of a typical Mayan ceremony – candles, flowers, and booze. Make sure to ask before taking pictures if you happen to witness a ceremony, and don’t be offended if the answer is a resounding “no.” To get there, walk down 5a Avenida and take a right on 9a Calle. Walk past a series of morerías (mask shops) and continue straight up the hill. Occasional robberies happen at night, so plan to finish your trip before it gets late.
Be sure to check out the travel guide for more information on places to sleep, eat, and shop!
Photo Credit: Linda Champagne, Rosa Vazquez