Chichicastenango Market is one of the must-visit places in Guatemala. This is the largest outdoor market in Latin America and while with time it has become much of a tourist destination, with lots of stalls selling souvenirs and items that are of interest to travelers, it still very much is a local market where people from the region go to buy and sell their goods – from vegetables and fruits to live animals and much more.
But there’s so much more to this mid-sized city perched in the mountains of Guatemala. Indeed, this is a great place to get a better understanding of the culture of the country, and of a way of life that is still very much traditional. Get out of the market, and you’ll be able to observe some interesting Mayan rituals too!
I have been to Chichicastenango three times already – so continue reading, because I will share everything you need to know about it.
The Best Guide To Chichicastenango
First of all, where is Chichicastenango?
Located in El Quiche department, southern Guatemala, Chichicastenango is approximately 140 kilometers (87 miles) to the northwest of Guatemala City. Sitting at an altitude of almost 2000 meters (6,447 feet), this town is an important center of trade and has been for generations. Also nearby is the town of Quetzaltenango as well as Lake Atitlan.
Why should you visit Chichicastenango?
Chichicastenango has long been an important trading post and significant town in Guatemala, evidenced by its sprawling market that still exists in the modern day. It was one of the largest trading areas in the Maya world and remains one of the largest markets in Latin America. Today, it’s still home to the Quiche Maya people, who continue to visit the market to trade.
Though tourism has found its way to Chichicastenango, it remains one of the most traditionally Mayan places in all of Guatemala. This is probably helped by the fact it was able to conserve its indigenous customs – religious rituals are practiced here on a daily basis, and the residents of town (also called Masheños) are famed for adhering to pre-Spanish traditions.
In fact, there are many cofradías (religious brotherhoods) that can often be spotted in small processions carrying shrines in devotion of local deities, from Catholic saints to ancestor spirits.
Not only is there an interesting market to visit in Chichicastenango, but there is also a handful of fascinating cultural and religious sites to explore in the town itself. This will help you learn about the history of this small, but not insignificant, mountaintop town which is often referred to simply as “Chichi”.
This place isn’t an everyday, run-of-the-mill market. It may be popular with tourists today who often stop here on the main tourist route through Guatemala, but Chichicastenango market is truly a local affair.
Chichicastenango is quiet throughout the week, but comes alive on market days. Stallholders come from far and wide to fill the city with an array of local products. Here you’ll find livestock, fresh food, fruit juice stalls, clothing, fabric, jewelry, phones, vegetables, tortilla vendors – you name it, it’ll be here.
Surrounded by mountains and sweeping valleys, Chichicastenango – with its narrow cobbled streets and red roof tiles – is enigmatic. Crowds of market-goers, tour groups, and stallholders mingle together, all adding up to the atmosphere.
When to visit Chichicastenango Market
While you can visit Chichicastenango any time of the week and still be charmed by the quiet, mountainside atmosphere of the place, if you are looking to visit the market you should go on market days – Thursday and Sunday.
For the full effect of the market, you should come on a Sunday – that’s when it’s busier, with Guatemala City residents coming for a weekend trip.
Even though Chichicastenango town is at a high elevation, depending on the time of year you visit, it can get pretty hot. Make sure to visit early if you want to miss the hottest part of the day. I visited in November and December and it was actually quite cold!
What to buy at Chichicastenango Market
When you first arrive at Chichicastenango Market, it may seem like there is no order to the place at all. But after taking some time to wander around, you’ll gradually realize that there is some kind of organization to the way the stalls are laid out.
You’ll find fruit and vegetables in one section, fresh meat in another, handicrafts in the next section. Women sell flowers on the steps of Santo Tomas Church, while you’ll find live chickens in baskets in another part of the market. It’s most definitely not for show – this is an authentic Guatemalan market.
Some stalls may sell two things at once – cooked chicken and electronics, for example. Part of the fun might be taking note of who’s selling what!
One of the main parts of Chichicastenango is the huge fabrics section. There are some amazing quality, handmade (usually) materials to buy here – handbags, dresses, bracelets, shawls, or just pieces of fabric themselves. The textiles are super colorful which is very pretty, but there’s actually a point to the different colors and embroidery patterns – people wear different designs and colors depending on where they’re from.
Guatemalan fabric is usually handmade from start to finish, using Guatemalan cotton and hand-dyeing processes too. Guatemalan weaving is not something new – it’s actually an ancient art that is estimated to have originated around 1,500 years ago.
Pottery is also a big part of Chichicastenango. Here you can find handmade terracotta vases, jugs, bowls, candle holders – all manner of different household items. These vessels have been part of Mayan culture for thousands of years. You’ll find these laying out on tables or on the ground, and come in all range of sizes, from tiny cups to huge bowls. These make for a nice souvenir to wrap in your luggage and take home to always remember your trip to Guatemala.
If you want to buy jewelry, you’re in luck. Here you can find traditional necklaces, rings, and bracelets. There’s a lot of jade on offer as well, and Guatemala is known for its jade production – particularly in unusual colors – but be careful if you’re not sure about the authenticity of such necklaces. It’s best to stick with less expensive but equally authentic things such as carved pendants, wooden bead necklaces, and leatherwork.
Of course, you can also pick up Guatemalan coffee all over the country. But in Chichicastenango you get a chance to select an array of different coffee beans ground straight from the source. Head to the indoor covered market area and you’ll be hit with a strong aroma of coffee beans. Spilling from bulging sacks and overflowing from baskets, these are so fresh that you won’t be able to help yourself and you’ll have at least buy a small quantity (a great gift for any coffee-lover you might know).
And for when you’ve had enough browsing the various stalls, you can grab a fruit smoothie, ice cream, or something more substantial – a blue corn tortilla, for example. There are countless food stalls – just choose one that smells good, is cooking food freshly, and has a queue (popularity usually means it’s good).
Tips for visiting Chichicastenango Market
It’s a good idea to plan your trip to Chichicastenango Market and not arrive simply on a whim. This market truly is huge and it’s very easy to get lost. But your planning can start before you arrive.
To begin with, tourist buses usually get to the market around 10:00 am, so if you want to avoid those crowds make sure you go early. You can hop on a chicken bus and visit independently – you’ll also save money this way, too.
Bring small change
Another issue is paying for any goods you want to buy. You should ensure that you have small denominations of bills and coins before you get there. This will enable you to haggle in smaller quantities, and it means you don’t have to worry about people having no change to give you.
On the subject of money, don’t rely on ATMs in Chichicastenango – on market days, these are known to run out of cash, or may not even work. So if you don’t want to be left without any money to buy souvenirs (or even some food), don’t forget to bring cash with you.
Prepare to haggle! Bargaining is very normal here, and you’ll be expected to knock down the original outlandish price offered to you. Come back with around 50% of the asking price, and negotiate from there – generally, 70% to 75% of the original figure is ok. But if it’s just too much, walk away.
Be prepared for the crowds
One important thing you should do is know what to expect beforehand. While Chichicastenango is an authentic local market that’s incredible to visit, some may find it overwhelming and even quite touristy. It’s a really busy place, crammed with crowds, sights, smells, and sounds. Vendors can be quite pushy for sales, and items are often more expensive than you may find elsewhere in Guatemala. As long as you know this before you visit, you should be better prepared for the sensory overload of the market!
Watch out for pickpockets
Unfortunately, being a busy tourist destination, there’s always the chance of petty crime. Pickpockets aren’t unheard of. Since the market gets super busy, it might be difficult to even notice someone trying to pick your pockets. There are many distractions in the market, too, making it even more easy for petty thieves to work.
- Don’t take valuables with you (including your passport), and they won’t be stolen.
- Don’t keep anything in your pockets, and opt for a concealed wallet or money belt.
- Pay attention to your surroundings at all times.
- Avoid the most “touristy” or busy sections of the market if you can.
Last but not least, be careful of photography. Being a visually interesting place, Chichicastenango Market really lends itself to taking some great pictures. But you should be wary of taking pictures of people in the market. Generally speaking, Guatemalan people don’t like their picture being taken without their permission. It’s all about being respectful. So if you want to take someone’s photo, either ask them if it’s ok, or take it from afar so you’re not invading their personal space.
Other Sights In Chichicastenango
While the market is definitely the main event, there’s more to this city than the stalls and crowds. These include:
Santo Tomas Church
In the heart of the market, you’ll find Santo Tomas Church. Built on top of an ancient Mayan temple, this 400-year-old Catholic church is a representation of the Spanish colonial architecture in the area. Eighteen steps lead up to its entrance, one for each month of the traditional Mayan calendar.
Inside, the church is divided into sections, each enshrining a different saint or spirit. On market days the steps are busy with people, but on other days it’s a quiet spot. You may see people burning incense or leaving offerings for the gods.
Just outside of the town is Colina Turk’aj (“Sacred Hill”). Dedicated to Pascual Abaj, who is an important Maya god of the earth, this spot has venerated the deity for hundreds, if not thousands, of years. Today, the local Chuchkajaues people come to give offerings at the shrine, from cigarettes and alcohol to food and incense.
Situated to the south of Chichicastenango, it’s possible to walk here from the plaza. A path leads out from the back of the museum in town, and goes uphill, winding through trees, before arriving in this sacred clearing.
Fifteen minutes from the market you’ll find Chichicastenango Cemetery. Rather than being an eerie spot to visit after being in a crowded market, the cemetery actually makes for a fascinating tangent.
Here you can get a little bit of an insight into how the local Quiche Maya culture people honor ancestors, and the traditions surrounding death. It’s a surprisingly colorful cemetery and quite beautiful, contrary to many grey and sombre Western graveyards. Here, tombs and crosses are dubbed in a rainbow of bright pastels and adorned with flowers and other symbolic offerings.
Mourning and remembrance ceremonies here combine Catholic and indigenous beliefs. One way to understand the traditions is via the colors of the tombs – turquoise offers protection for mothers; for grandparents it’s yellow, representing the protection of the sun; pink and blue respectively for girls and boys; and white denotes purity for fathers.
Make sure you’re respectful when you’re walking around the cemetery – perhaps ask permission if it’s ok before you go in or go with a guide. If you see anybody making an offering or chanting, keep your distance or ask if it’s alright to stay and observe.
Practical Information For Visiting Chichicastenango
How to get to Chichicastenango
There are a number of different ways to get to Chichicastenango, all routes and modes of transport depend on where you’re starting. Most people visit from Antigua but you can also visit from Lake Atitlan.
You could try a chicken bus. They’re pretty easy if you’ve got some Spanish, but maybe a bit squashy for some, and be warned – they do make lots of unscheduled stops. It takes around two and a half to three hours to get there, but the cost is pretty low.
The shuttle bus is the easiest option. These are for tourists, they have AC, they’re safe and comfortable. From Antigua these cost between Q150 and Q200 (between $20 and $26 USD) – more than a chicken bus, but it’s for both ways and they’re more reliable. This takes around three hours.
You can book your shuttle from Antigua to Chichicastenango here.
You could also go on an organized day trip from Antigua. It’s bound to be pretty expensive in comparison to the above options, but it can be much less hassle since you’ve got your whole day organized for you – a good option if you’re strapped for time.
You can also get a shuttle bus from Atitlan – more specifically from Panajachel. This costs Q150 (around $20 USD) and takes around 1.5 hours. The price is for the roundtrip fare, so it’s not a bad deal.
You can book your transfer from Panajachel to Chichicastenango here.
Chicken bus is also an option, but note that it’s not direct and you’ll have to change – some Spanish comes in very handy with the transfers. From Panajachel you’ll have to get to Sololá. Once there, hop on a bus to Los Encuentros, where you’ll have to change again for a bus to Chichicastenango. The overall journey shouldn’t last more than 1.5 hours and cost no more than 10 or 12 Quetzales (no more than $1.50) one way.
An organized tour from Atitlan is also possible, combining not only transport but a guide to take you around the market. It’s more expensive, and you actually may not need this service.
How long to stay in Chichicastenango
You don’t need to stay overnight in Chichicastenango to get a good idea of the atmosphere of this place. Many people opt to swing by on their way to or from Atitlan, or simply opt to explore Chichicastenango on a day trip (even half a day may be enough for some).
Make sure to read my other posts:
- Everything You Need To Know Before Visiting Guatemala
- The Best Things To Do In Guatemala
- The Best Things To Do In Antigua, Guatemala
- The Best Things To Do In Lake Atitlan, Guatemala
- Everything You Need To Know To Hike Pacaya Volcano
- Everything You Must Know About Chicken Buses
- The Most Beautiful Mayan Ruins In Guatemala
- The Best Things To Do In Flores, Guatemala
- The Best Guide To Semuc Champey
- The Best Guide To Visiting Tikal
- The Best Itinerary For Two Weeks In Guatemala