The town of Chichicastenango is an absolute must, not only for the twice-weekly market, but as a destination in itself for a couple of nights. There is not a lot to do, but the atmosphere here is truly mystical.
I was advised to arrive the night before the market, a challenge in itself, as there are no organised trips into the town outside of market day. I took what was advertised as a tourist bus from Antigua heading to Panajachel and changed at Los Encuentros. It turned out to be a curious journey--tourists up the front, locals at the back as the bus proceeded to stop on request all along the route. Soon it was a complete mix of farmers, indigenous women in full costume, their children, and anything else they could carry. We had reverted to a chicken bus. This, of course, made the journey far more interesting, and I shared a seat with a mother and two children, one slung over her back in the traditional way.
We made our way down the Transamerica highway, full of colour, as this is a very traditional area. At Los Encuentros, I became the only gringo changing buses and felt quite vulnerable. The town is nothing more than a collection of roadside snack bars and none-too-healthy-looking local cafes. This is real Guatemala. I was soon offered a ride in a local collectivo and within half an hour had arrived in the heart of ‘Chichi’.
This is the heart of indigenous Guatemala, the sights, sounds, colours and smells deliciously overwhelming. There a limited number of restaurants and snack bars geared to a western pallet. For the more adventurous, there are countless street food stands. The town is centred around a plaza, with a number of very good-value shops selling the full range of local wares at very reasonable price on most days.
Beware the guides offering trips to Maximon and the local altar. I was asked $60 for a tour. The altar is mapped, signposted, and perfectly safe to walk to, without paying rip-off prices for a guide.
Late night before market day, the church of Santo Tomas becomes a blaze of incense as local shamans chant their rituals for a successful trading day ahead.
Market day itself, it’s a good idea to tour early, before the tourist buses get in, to decide what you would like, need, and absolutely must have. Get a fix on prices and quality of the goods. Some items are at every stand, and some are completely unique. Set a limit on what you are going to spend and step forward to enjoy the show.
Tu Café is a nice spot for a cooling beer and for people-watching. For dinner, try ‘Casa San Juan’, a lovely candlelit venue where mains, coffee, and a couple of glasses of wine can be had for Q70. Both are on the main plaza.
I stayed in the Hotel Santo Tomas--see the individual review for details.