Around 140 kilometers northwest of Guatemala City (and 65 kilometers northeast of San Marcos la Laguna) is the highland K’iche’ Maya town of Chichicastenango. Chichi, as it is often shortened, is essentially famous for one thing. On Thursdays and Sundays what is generally deemed the largest market in Central America transforms an otherwise forgettable town into a blur of the senses. Vendors construct a sprawling city of tents in the streets, reaching out over countless Chichi blocks. Sellers are grouped by product, creating an informal zone structure of produce, livestock, flowers, traditional medicines, incense, fireworks, furniture, pottery, handicrafts, musical instruments, machetes, clothing, and vibrant traditional textiles.
The assault on your senses can be overwhelming at first; splashes of bright colors surround you, the smell of smoke and incense and food come at you from all directions, young boys play flutes they hope you will buy, fireworks periodically detonate overhead, and vendors shout “hey lady” or “hey amigo” or “great price” in an effort to entice you into their tent. Indeed, after a quick and distracted walk-through we had to take a break in a quiet second story restaurant to make sense of what was going on below.
On our second attempt we were more prepared, both more focused and more relaxed. We wandered, browsed, “no gracias”-ed, haggled, and made a few completely necessary purchases (pan flute!). Somewhere in the madness we stumbled upon the Church of Santo Tomás, built in the 1540s atop (and utilizing the still existent steps of) a pre-Columbian temple platform. Like the church at Chamula in Chiapas, Santo Tomás is a rare place where Catholic and traditional beliefs melt together. Mayan priests still use the church for rituals, and when we passed by the stairs out front were full of elderly women burning large piles of herbs and incense.
In summary I don’t have time for a summary, I have to go practice playing the pan flute…