For many of the travellers who are drawn along the tortuous, swooping road for the famous market days Chichicastenango becomes one of the greatest landmarks in any trip around Guatemala. More than that: a few days in this unique highland town is likely to be one of the most enduring memories from an Central American trip.


‘Chichi’ is the market town of an estimated twenty thousand Quiche ‘Indians.’ Every week a large proportion of these swarm into the town to trade. The majority of tourists only make a daytrip to visit the bi-weekly market but Chichicastenango deserves much more. You should (at the latest) arrive on the eve of the markets and watch the trading families arriving. The men marching up the road from their remote highland homesteads. 


Their women following behind loaded with the bright woven textiles, carved masks or clucking hens that they hope to sell. By early morning the stalls are already being set up. The chill mountain mist that sits heavily in the cobbled lanes and only begins to rise when the tropical sun begins to warm up. Bent-backed porters stagger between the stalls, groaning under huge loads, or line up along the roads waiting for work.


This market is older than the history of Guatemala itself and the indigenous people were coming here to trade long before the arrival of the Spanish. The guttural tones of the Quiche language are the norm here. When you hear odd clips of Spanish spoken among the market traders it still jars on the ear and, even after five hundred years, seems out of place.


The steps of Santo Tomas church (one of Guatemala’s oldest) seem to have taken the place of the sacred steps that lead up the pyramids of the Mayan forefathers. Quiche shamen pray amid wafting incense on the steps and tribal elders hold meetings here. (In a shocking throwback to the rough justice of earlier days a couple of local gangsters were even bludgeoned to death on these steps by a mob of these seemingly quiet and peaceful townsfolk not so long ago).

Chichicastenango is timeless in many ways. At the height of the market day trading, when the tourist buses have arrived, it is true that it can feel like business revolves around the gringo dollar. But you don’t have to wander too far back into the canvas-covered maelstrom to see that Chichi is still functioning essentially as a working local market.

You find everything here from hand-woven cloth and blankets to turkeys, chickens and goats, to farm tools and local medicine. In one corner a man offered me a handful of live chicks for a dollar – each of the (once yellow) fluffy little balls of down had been died a different day-glo colour. There are stalls here selling magic potions and talismans that will bring money, love, success. You can buy bottles of blessed water that will place a curse on your enemies…or protect you from their curses.

Chichicastenango has more than its share of charm, in every way.