Market day in Chichicastenango: Navigating our way across the rainbow
Despite centuries of colonization, a civil war rife with ethnic cleansing, and a tourism industry that has infiltrated nearly every corner of the country, Guatemala has preserved its indigenous roots with remarkable integrity. Nowhere is this more visible than the elaborate textiles the country is known for. Women and girls walk around in huipiles and skirts of indigo, magenta, crimson, emerald, lime green, bright pink, and violet woven with intricate designs that cover every inch of the fabric. These wearable works of art captivate the eye and make you revel in the genius of the color combinations and patterns.
We met so many people along our travels in Guatemala that asked about buying textiles. While our favorite place to shop for them is Asociación Maya de Desarrollo in Sololá, a weaving cooperative owned and operated by women Mayan weavers, no trip to Guatemala is complete without a visit to the Sunday market in Chichicastenango. Known as one of the most colorful markets in Latin America, head here to get lost in the rainbow.
How to get there
While it's possible to take a tour to Chichicastenango from Lake Atitlán or Antigua, we always prefer to figure it out on our own using public transit. Luckily, it's not just travelers who head to this market on Sundays, but many Guatemalans who go to buy fruits, vegetables, flowers, and weaving patterns. So if you want to save a lot of money and have a glimpse of the real Guatemala, get to Chichi like we did on chicken buses.
While it's possible to start from other towns on Lake Atitlán or even from Antigua, your best bet is to start in Panajachel. Since markets tend to be most active during the morning hours, it's best to stay in Pana the night before heading to Chichi so you can make the approximate hour and forty five minute journey early to make the most of your day. Though the market is open every day, the best day to visit is Sunday when it's at full capacity with all the vendors in their stalls.
To get to Chichicastenango from Panajachel, catch a chicken bus to Sololá at the main bus stop on Calle Principal across from Hotel Primavera. A one-way fare between Panajachel and Sololá is Q3 ($0.45 USD) per person, and the ride takes about 15 minutes.
Once you get off the bus in Sololá, walk across the street to the other row of chicken buses heading to Encuentros. Get on one of these buses. A one-way fare between Sololá and Encuentros is Q3 ($0.45 USD) per person, and the ride is about 30 minutes long.
When you arrive in Encuentros, there will be vans across the street and people shouting "Chichi." Hop on one of these vans. A one-way fare is Q5 ($0.75 USD) per person, and the ride takes about an hour. The van will drop you off at the market in Chichicastenango. Tip: make a note of the drop off point, as it's easy to get lost in the market and you'll eventually need to make your way back to this spot to catch the van back home.
What to do
Get lost in the maze of color! Look around at all the different huipiles, skirts, belts, bags, hats, pants, and blankets hanging from scaffolds and covering every inch of surface. Others sell thread and weaving patterns. Unfortunately, we didn't grab many pictures of the textiles themselves. Like many other works of art, people have copied Mayan prints and used them for non-indigenous purposes, and we didn't want to be mistaken for stealing artistic property.
Aside from textiles, the market at Chichicastenango is also known for its wooden masks. These carved and brightly painted animal faces can be found throughout the market and in some of the shops along the streets. Stop by the Iglesia de Santo Tomás where women scattered on the stairs sell fresh flowers. Peak into the Mercado Municipal and go upstairs to get a bird's eye view of the fruit and vegetable market.
If you need a break from the sensory overload, walk down 6a Calle and head towards the colorful cemetery. If you aren't interested in a close up view of the cemetery but prefer a little hike in the pine forest, head down 5a Avenida towards the shopping mall and turn right onto an unnamed road just past 9a Calle. Follow the road for about 450 meters until you reach the Museum of Ceremonial Masks, which is worth a visit if it's open. From the museum you can hike up the hill to Pascual Abaj, an important Mayan shrine that survived Spanish colonization. At the shrine at the top of the hill, you can see families praying at altars and a great view of the surrounding pine forest and cemetery. The serenity is a world apart from the crowds of buyers and sellers at the market.