Flowers at the church in Chichicastenango, Guatemala. Photo by Madelyn Given.

Chichicastenango Mayan Market

Chichicastenango is an interesting place to visit, because it was in the center of ancient Mayan civilization, and it is still an active, traditional, native town. It has the largest outdoor market in Central America. Actively in existence since 1,200 BC, it is still selling some of the same things: vegetables, flowers, limestone for tortillas, leather goods, beadwork, hand woven textiles, live chickens, ducks, and turkeys, and so much more. It is situated in a hilly valley void of forests from years of civilization, and the market is on dirt between Santo Tomas church and the large community cemetery that includes a number of acres. The market is held every Thursday and Sunday and people come from miles to buy or sell. We found people carrying goods on their backs, or on their heads, coming from all over Guatemala by car, truck, and buses.

Chichicastenango, Guatemala. Photo by Madelyn Given.

Chichicastenango, Guatemala. Photo by Madelyn Given.

The Mayan descendants in this area have kept to traditional ways. They are very small in size: men and women are less than 5 feet tall and small framed. Their way of life ages them. They have not easily adapted to modern technology. They dress in wipile Mayan traditional clothing. The mother carries her baby in a brightly-colored, hand-woven shawl knotted and placed on her back.

The market was filled with local people walking the narrow aisles and children running around, while venders were asking you to buy their wares. Young toddlers sat on the ground all day while their mothers were selling crafts or food at the market.

On the church steps were people selling fresh flowers. There was also a pagan alter on the bottom step, lit with firewood, and there special herbs giving off smoke in all directions. A shaman was walking up and down the steps while chanting. He stepped slowly and cautiously between the women and their many buckets of flowers, which covered almost every space on the narrow steps leading to the front doors of the church.

Rafael and I walked carefully up the steps, trying not to step on the women or the flowers, and went into Santo Tomas Roman Catholic Church. The outside steps, front wall, and wooded doors of the white church were blackened from the soot and smoke of this ongoing pagan ritual. Inside was just as bleak: the walls and ceiling were darkened from years and years of candles being burned. There were pagan alters in the center aisle where people would come and sit or kneel and chant or pray. On the ceiling above the high altar is a painted sun, as the Mayans who were Christianized when the Spanish Conquistadors came worshiped their sun god and God at the same time when attending church. Rafael and I went to the church while Mass was being held the previous evening. It was quite an interesting scene.

Nearby and within walking distance is the large Christian cemetery. Family lots are varied with creatively designed vaults. The ancient Mayans buried their dead as they still do today, with bodies in caskets. Today they are encased in cement above the ground, placing one on top of another when space is limited.

We kept walking. I was learning so much about the culture of the people. This cemetery was so large it just seemed to go on and on, like a miniature city, up and down little hills until we came to a pagan altar covered with a simple tin roof. There was a family of about 20 people gathered there while a shaman was performing a ritual by the burning fire. Some people were standing, others were sitting on the graves, and some were drinking some sort of brew. One young man who appeared to represent the family was smoking a cigar, deeply inhaling then exhaling over the altar, then passing the cigar around to each person. No one was talking except the shaman. It was very solemn. I asked Rafael what he was saying. He said he couldn’t understand him as there are 19 different dialects spoken by people in Guatemala. It was a very interesting, simple ceremony, so ancient, still being carried on in the same place after thousands of years.

Rafael and I walked back to the market where I could buy a few items and several little tag-a-long kids caught up with us to ask us to buy what they were selling. Begging is not seen and bartering is not very common. People are friendly, with venders accepting US currency or the Guatemalan quetzals.

It was fascinating to be in this country setting dating back to pre-Columbian people and have a taste of Guatemalan culture.

(posted June 6, 2017)