Chichicastenango is a small town in the western highlands of Guatemala, located some 6,500 feet high in the mountaintops and surrounded by valleys and slopes. Chichicastenango is a charmingly typical highland town with its signature stucco-white houses, cobblestone streets, and wide plazas. However, unlike other highland towns and villages, Chichicastenango has made a name for itself from its colorful indigenous market. Out of all the towns and villages in the highlands (or in Guatemala for that matter), Chichicastenango has the largest, liveliest and most exciting open-air market, with its town square overflowing with stalls and stands on the weekends. Tourists should and regularly do make their way to this town, if only to experience this street shopping extravaganza.
Long before the arrival of the Spanish, Chichicastenango was an important trading town for the Cakchiquel indigenous people. But the town was abandoned shortly after the Cakchiqueles went to war with the Quiché Mayans. Chichicastenango was re-settled, however, by refugees from Gumarcaj after it was conquered by the Spanish in 1524.
During the Guatemalan civil war from the 1960s to the 1990s, Chichicastenango and other highland towns were targeted by guerrillas and government armies. Many civilians in Chichicastenango and the neighboring highland towns were massacred during this period, especially in the 1970s.
Today, the days of warfare are a thing of the past and the people of Chichicastenango have gone back to living their traditional and religious way of life. The town has been seeing a steady increase in tourists in the last decade.
People and Culture
The people in Chichicastenango are mainly of Cakchiquel indigenous descent. Religion plays an important role in the town. The residents are known for their strict adherence to their pre-Christian Maya religious beliefs and ceremonies while also embracing the Catholicism imparted to them by the Spanish. The mix of Mayan rituals with the demands of the Catholic faith is strange and probably exists in few other places in Guatemala.
The indigenous people in Chichicastenango also guard so jealously their religion, traditional customs, and way of life that while the Guatemalan government appoints the town’s official priests and administrators, the indigenous people elect their own officials and set up their own councils and judicial courts to govern themselves.
Chichicastenango’s biggest attraction is no doubt its renowned open-air market known to westerners as the Chichi market. It is held every week on Thursdays and Sundays near the town’s main plaza, Parque Central. The cobblestone streets around this area are crowded with stands, stalls, booths, and stretches of wooden tables. Vendors from all over the highlands and even from all over Guatemala of every ethnic group (Cakchiquel, Mam, Ixil) flock to Chichicastenango on these days to set up shop and hawk their goods. They sell everything from traditional costumes, blouses, masks, cigars, boxes, pottery, handmade items, woodcarvings, flowers, fruits, vegetables, candles, plants, and tools, to pigs and chickens. There are also small eateries selling snacks and meals for hungry tourists and shoppers. Most of the goods sold are of decent quality.
The town offers other tourist attractions as well. The Iglesia de Santo Tomás is a 400-year old white church built on the site of an ancient temple. A few blocks of stones and steps from the original Maya temple still remain near the front door. While the church is used by Catholic worshippers, it is also the worship center for many Quiché people performing traditional Maya ceremonies. The Quiché still consider Chichicastenango their holy city and their shamans often burn candles, incense, and even chicken as ritualistic sacrifices to their gods at the church. Each of the 18 steps leading up to the church stands for one month of the Maya calendar year. And just across from the Iglesia de Santo Tomás, you’ll also find the Capilla de Calvario chapel. Its steep steps provide a nice view of the market plaza.
There is also an ancient Maya stone idol called Pascual Abaj, which is still used by the shamans to perform their rituals. This ancient shrine is perched on a hilltop south of the town, reached only by a narrow footpath. The idol receives numerous offerings of flowers, incense, candles, and sugar cane rums from the locals.
Chichicastenango also has some interesting museums, including the Museo Regional. Housed in a colonial-era building, the museum showcases pre-Columbian artifacts and religious collections of the indigenous people.