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Chichicastenango Market: Was It Worth It?

Beautiful handcrafted wood masks at Chichicastenango market.

You don't need to like shopping to make this an amazing day trip!

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We spent a day visiting Chichicastenango in Guatemala with our three teenagers (14, 15 and 17 years old). Our home base was Lake Atitlan. We booked three days there. However, we decided that we wanted to take one of our days to go see Chichicastenango market. Was this a good decision? Would we do it again?

The short answer is “yes”. We would, but not because we love shopping. Don’t get me wrong. The shopping at Chichicastenango market was amazing. There was stall after stall of spectacular Mayan handicrafts. However, as a family, we don’t have endless stamina to look for hours to find that perfect souvenir. Rather, it is because the town of Chichicastenango, including Chichicastenango market, was very interesting and different from other places that we explored during our 10 day trip to Guatemala. Our time in Chichicastenango added another layer to our understanding of Maya culture, Guatemala and the day to day lives of Guatemalans.

 

Chichicastenango market
There is a lot to see and eat at the market.

 

Chichicastenango Market

Chichicastenango is a town in the Guatemalan highlands, 140 km or 87 mi northwest of Guatemala City.  It is 38 km from Panajachel, the main village on Lake Atitlan, or about a 1h 20 min drive. Originally, Chichicastenango was a holy Maya site until the 17th century, when the Spanish destroyed Maya buildings and used the stones to build churches.

 

 

Chichicastenango market is hundreds of years old. It runs every Thursday and Sunday and is the largest market in Central America.  Its primary purpose is to service the locals who come far and wide to buy and sell products. There are vendors who sell handicrafts and souvenirs targeted to tourists, but for the most part, the vendors sell to the locals food, fruits and vegetables, condiments, medicinal plants, candles, pom and copal (traditional incense), cal (lime stones for preparing tortillas), and grindstones. Chichicastenango market has a separate area for live animal transactions and another for flowers.

Chichicastenango market
Different flavoured and coloured tortillas made from different corn.
Chichicastenango market
Animals for sale at the animal market.

 

Our Visit To Chichicastenango 

We hired a driver and guide from Sin Fronteras (an excellent tour operator out of Antigua) for the day. It certainly isn’t necessary to do either to enjoy your time in Chichicastenango. I found it quite pleasant meandering around the stalls. However, I liked having the convenience of our own car and driver. Further, our guide was excellent. He explained the history of the town, took us directly to the key areas in Chichicastenango market that we shouldn’t miss, and also took us to other parts of the town.

From our experience, I would recommend doing three things when you visit Chichicastenango.

 

1. Explore Chichicastenango market

If you love to shop, you will love walking through the the stalls, looking at and purchasing goods. For that reason alone, a visit to Chichicastenango market is a “must do” on your visit to Guatemala. However, if you don’t want to shop, here is why you should still spend a good chunk of time exploring Chichicastenango market.

 

a) You will be able to people watch respectfully

As we walked through the market, we were totally surrounded by locals. There was hardly another tourist in sight. What’s more, the municipality in which Chichicastenango is located is almost 100% indigenous Maya. Accordingly, as we walked, we saw women and children in traditional Maya clothing everywhere. Most men wore cowboy hats, blouses, and jeans. They were all really small and looked very different from us. The best was finding very old locals sitting by the side or manning their stalls. Their lined and weathered faces, often with toothless grins, were amazing to see.

 

Chichicastenango market
A typical male Guatemalan and his clothes from this area.
Chichicastenango market
A young mother and child in traditional Maya dress.

 

b) You will better understand how people live in Guatemala.

It was fascinating to see different facets of the traditional way of living in Guatemala. We arrived late morning and caught the last of the live animal market. {If this interests you, I would recommend arriving by 9:00 am to get the full experience}. Nevertheless, we saw pigs, lots of chickens, and domestic animals being sold in various places in Chichicastenango market. It was cool to watch women choose their half dozen live chicks out of a pen of hundreds and then, see how they “packed” them up in “to go” containers.

 

Chichicastenango market
Pigs at the animal market.
Chichicastenango market
A young women purchasing chicks at the animal market.

 

We saw lots and lots of fruits and vegetables being sold by many different people – both men and women. I noticed that everyone seemed to sell what they grew. No one had a super large stall. Instead, dozens of people had little piles of fruit and vegetables in front of them in one large room. I am not sure what made one person purchase something from one person, but not the next. But, it was interesting to watch.

Chichastenango market
Fruit and vegetable stands at Chichicastenango market.

 

There were lots of stands selling snacks and meals all over the market. I loved watching the women make tortillas on large flat stones. These were by far the busiest of all the stands whenever I looked.

 

c) You will learn about the Maya culture.

As mentioned above, Chichicastenango market also offers many traditional Maya handicrafts that are either exceptionally crafted or are steeped in Maya history and tradition. Three items that caught my eye were:

1. Textiles – This included traditional garments worn by indigenous women and girls in Guatemala. In addition to colourful fabrics that can be bought as raw material or as tablecloths, place sets and wool blankets were available.

2. Wood carvings – In particular, intricate wooden ceremonial masks used in traditional Mayan dances were crafted and sold in Chichicastenango. We visited a store and artist studio that has been creating these masks for decades.

 

Chichicastenango market
Handcrafted wooden Maya masks.

 

3. Leather goods – My husband purchased a beautiful belt, but we also saw some stunning leather shoes, boots and hats.

 

Download my personally crafted 11 day Guatemala travel guide with my hotel and restaurant recommendations, tours and activities that I enjoyed.

2. Go to Church of Santo Tomás

Next to the Chichicastenango flower market is Santo Tomás, a 400-year-old church built by the Spanish. It was built on top of a sacred Pre-Columbian temple platform, so even today, the site is considered a sacred Maya site. The steps that used to lead to the temple are now the steps climbing up to the church. Each of the 18 stairs stands for one month of the Maya calendar year. Today, the locals use the steps and the church for their Maya rituals, making offerings to the gods by burning incense and candles.

 

Chichicastenango market
Santo Tomas church.

 

Chichicastenango market
The sacred stairs leading up to the church of Santo Tomas.

 

Like Chichicastenango market, spending time by the stairs watching Guatemalans honouring their traditions was an amazing opportunity to see another facet of the Maya culture. The stairs were covered in little piles of flowers, candles and incense – offerings to the gods – and people on their knees praying.

 

Chichicastenango market
Two Maya ladies praying in front of Santo Tomas.

 

In addition, the church is right in the heart of Chichicastenango market. I loved experiencing the chaos of the locals walking through the narrow paths in between small stalls, or selling their goods, against the serenity of others in prayer in front of the church. It is definitely worth spending some time in this area.

 

3. Go to the cemetery

We walked about 15 minutes from Chichicastenango market to Chichicastenango cemetery. This was an interesting side excursion that I wasn’t expecting when we booked to go to Chichicastenango market.

I have to admit that I love visiting cemeteries, especially in foreign countries. I think that it is fascinating to learn how another culture honours its dead and what traditions they have around the after-life.  Having said that, I would never walk into a cemetery without permission or at least confirming that I will not be insulting anyone’s beliefs by my presence. Our guide told us that we were welcome.

Chichicastenango cemetery was very, very beautiful. Every tomb and cross were painted in bright pastel colours. Many colours are symbolic. Tombs painted white represent purity; turquoise to protect mothers; and yellow for grandfathers to indicate the sun would protect humanity. I saw graves in other colours as well. Apparently, they broke tradition and simply celebrated the favourite colour of the deceased.

 

Chichicastenango market

 

Chichicastenango market
The colourful graves of young girls and babies.

 

Maya tradition

According to Maya tradition, honouring the dead encourages the living to make peace with the inevitability of death. To this extent, one could view this cemetery as a beautiful commemoration of life. However, a closer look at many of the graves brings a more somber observation. I saw countless graves of young mothers (teenagers) and babies. It was very sad and hard to contemplate. According to our guide, girls are just too young in this part of Guatemala when they give birth and it takes a toll on their body. As for the babies, the water isn’t good enough. If they can make it to 6 months old, they will have built up enough resistance and should survive.

While we were there, a young Maya was honouring his dead. He was burning flowers, candles, and incense, and chanting. He welcomed us to watch and take photos. It was pretty incredible.

Chichicastenango market
Maya offerings at Chichicastenango cemetery.
Chichicastenango market
A place for Maya rituals at the cemetery
Chichicastenango market
A young Maya celebrating the life of his deceased relatives.

 

Conclusion

Chichicastenango market is a fantastic market to not only purchase beautiful Maya crafts, but also to observe Maya traditions and culture. Even if you have no interest in shopping, I would encourage you to come to Chichicastenango on market day to stroll through the stalls, appreciate the beautiful Maya crafts, and to learn a little bit about the day to day lives of the locals.

 

Chichicastenango market
The market can be pretty crowded.

 

The town of Chichicastenango offers visitors similar benefits through Santo Tomas church and the cemetery- a unique opportunity to see ancient Maya traditions in today’s world.

While we were in Guatemala, we also spent time in Antigua, Lake Atitlan, Tikal National Park, and Lake Peten. All of them were fascinating, beautiful and very different from one another. If you would like to see yet another facet of Guatemalan life, then I would highly recommend adding Chichicastenango to your destinations while in Guatemala.

For more information about our time in other parts of Guatemala, please refer to the following blogs:

Download my personally crafted 11 day Guatemala travel guide with my hotel and restaurant recommendations, tours and activities that I enjoyed.

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Chichicastenango market is the largest market in Central America. It sells important day-to-day goods to the locals, but also has beautiful Maya handicrafts. If you love shopping, you will love this market. Even if you don't like shopping, there are lots of reasons why you should include this town in your Guatemalan itinerary. #travel #familytravel #Guatemala |Antigua, cemetery, Central America, Lake Atitlan, Lake Peten, Maya, Panachajel, Santo Tomas, Sin Fronteras, street market, Tikal

22 Comments

  • I was in Guatemala a few years ago but I never made it to Chichicastenango market, it looks very cool and there’s offer sights to see there too! I bought loads of lovely stuff from the market in Antigua.

    • I looked through the market in Antigua as well. There was lovely things there too. This was just a bit more authentic. Usually, you were buying from the artist directly, there was more selection and it was cheaper, but still, buying in Antigua would be a good solution if you can’t make it to Chichicastenango market.

  • I always love visiting markets when I travel. You learn so much about local lives, especially when the markets are for the locals, like the market in Chichicastenango. I travel full-time so I sometimes get burnt out from sightseeing type activities, but one of my favorite things to do is people watch. I would love to soak up the local culture at this market and seeing the animal market and the local dress! It sounds like a fascinating place and you definitely made me want to visit!

    • Thanks Elizabeth. I love to people watch too. It is such a simple thing to do, but done respectfully, it is almost better than anything! Lucky you for travelling full time. I bet that creates different challenges than those that wish they could travel more.

  • This is my kind of place to visit! I’m a huge market fan wherever I travel in the world, so would love to visit Chichicastenango (!). I think it’s good to see how the locals live and work, away from the tourists too. That was sad to read about the graves of young teens and their babies; sadly it happens more often than we realise.

    • I agree. I think young girls and babies dying young happens a lot more than we realize when we travel to developing countries. It just isn’t something that tour guides normally highlight. I liked that we saw that in Chichicastenango. It was good to be reminded that this happens, and more needs to be done to make sure the water is better and girls are allowed to mature before marrying and having children.

  • This place looks fab! We spent a week at Lake Atitlan last year, but we never made it to Chichicastenango which is such a shame! It’s definitely somewhere we want to go back to, so will have to make sure we visit next time.

    • I loved Lake Atitlan and I completely understand why you would spend a week there. You would get to see a lot of Maya history and culture there as well. However, Chichi market gives another aspect of this so hopefully you can return to Guatemala one day and go.

  • Visiting markets like this, you can learn so much about the culture especially the type of food the people eat. I would definitely go here to explore and people watch 🙂 I might do some shopping too.

    • I agree. I loved the smell of the food and watching people cook. I also loved people watching as people just went about their daily lives. This is a fantastic place to do both.

  • Visiting markets are one of my favourite activities when I travel. I’ve never been to Guatemala before, but this looks like it’s a very enlightening experience. Also maybe somewhere I’d like to do some local shopping.

    • If you love to visit markets, then Guatemala is definitely the place for you. Chichicastenango is a large market but there are lots of smaller markets all over Guatemala.

  • I’ve never visited Guatemala and I know very little about this country. Needless to say, I’ve never heard about the Chichicastenango Market either but I love local markets! I love the surrounding their vibrancy and authenticity. If I ever make it to Guatemala, I would love to visit it!

  • I am struck by how colourful the things are in the photos but then it reflects the colourful culture which you amazingly captured in the article. Chichicastenango seems a good place to mingle and observe the locals going about their every day lives. A good nugget of information I picked up reading this is that a great percentage of Mayans live here. I would love to pay them a visit some day.

    • Thank you. It is a very colourful culture – from the tapestries to the lush landscapes. It is a lovely place to visit.

  • I know this is an odd thing to say about a cemetery, but it looks so colorful. Have you been to Recoleta in Buenos Aires?

    • No I haven’t. And I know what you mean. The cemetery is beautiful and feeling joyful when you look at it, kind of feels like you are being insensitive to how sad it actually is. But, I think that relates back to the Maya culture – celebrating death so you are ready to face your own. It’s a nice sentiment to understand.

  • I’m really amazed to see how indigenous Chichicastenango market is. Usually tourist places will have markets suitable for the needs of the tourists but you were lucky to find a local market you are in Guatemala. You got to learn so much about Mayan culture and tradition. I like the wood carving masks they use for their Mayan dances. And I also love the fresh fruits and vegetables market view.

    • Thanks Shreya. I think what is most exciting about Guatemala is how untouched it is. That there are so many opportunities to have authentic experiences there because the tourists come, but not many. So, yes, I feel like you do – lucky that we got to see real Maya culture and tradition.

  • A market that is hundreds of years old and one of the biggest in Central America definitely deserves a visit. I’d love to shop for souvenirs here but also observing what local life is like would be exciting. The town of Chichicastenango would be an amazing one to explore too. How can I let go of an opportunity to learn about the Mayan culture?

    • That’s exactly it. Chichi provides such a unique opportunity to learn about Maya culture. That is the biggest draw – that and the amazing shopping!

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