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Savvy Travel: Market Day in Chichicastenango

Oh Maya! The Budget Babe's International Travel Advisor Fifi LaMode continues her journey through Guatemala with a stop in the mystical town of Chichicastenango. —TBB

by Fifi LaMode
Sometimes you get lucky. Most tours arrive in "Chichi", as they call Chichicastenango here, the morning of the market day. But if you arrive the day before, as we did, you will see the throngs of people coming in from the countryside, all dressed up in colorful traditional Mayan clothing, setting up their stalls in anticipation of Market Day (every Thursday and Sunday). We got to Chichi in the afternoon and marveled at the clean mountain air and the colors around us.

Our hotel, the Mayan Inn, had no TV or phone in the room. What it had was loads of character, lovely woodwork, a wood-burning fireplace in each spotlessly clean room, a flower-filled courtyard complete with colorful macaws, and friendly and efficient service. It's also right in the middle of town.

The first thing that hits you about the market in the morning is the panoply of colors - rich, vibrant textiles embroidered and woven by hand. Though the market is thriving, there's only a din, a quiet din, no loud hawking. The only ones whose voices you hear are the tourists who start pouring in around 10:30 and are mostly gone by noon. But to be in Chichi on market day in the morning is special, very special.

Go to the church of San Tomas, where a shaman is burning incense at the top of the stairs, which mixes with the morning mist. You go inside and see people making paths with white flower petals surrounded by two rows of lit candles, the "white way", or passage to the next world. Mayan traditions are fused with Catholic beliefs to create a rich faith passed on through generations. There are 18 steps to the church, representing the 18 months of the solar calendar.

Across the square is a smaller church with 13 steps, representing the lunar calendar. In the smaller church, to the right of the alter, is a small room where a seer makes offerings in order to tell people whether they will have good crops, whether a relative will get well, whether a wife will deliver a healthy child. This combination of Catholic and Mayan ritual (much the same as the Europeans adapted pagan rituals to give us the Easter bunny and the Christmas tree) reminds me that sometimes the old ways are not bad. The traditions which have existed in their families for centuries continue. It works for them and their faith is a vibrant and active one.

According to Mayan belief, man comes from corn, the different colors of corn representing different races. So when they decorate statues and altars, especially in preparation for Easter, a lot of the decorations are with corn husks and vegetables. It's rich and beautiful and obviously made with love and care.

If you want to shop for gifts, this is the place, but you must bargain, even though the prices are more than reasonable. When you bargain, take the time to talk to the people, whether they're adults or youngsters, and get to know a thing or two about them. It will enrich your experience. This is a mystical place and will fill you with wonder.

Last week's post:
  • Part I: The Faces of Guatemala

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