One of the best things about visiting Guatemala is exploring its vibrant markets, which are packed full of colourful Mayan textiles, traditional wooden handicrafts and intricate jade jewellery. Chichicastenango, home to one of the largest outdoor markets in Latin America, is not only Guatemala’s biggest and best market, but also its most historic. And as you’ll discover, there’s definitely more to this place than just stalls and vendors.
Chichicastenango – nicknamed Chichi by locals and visitors alike – is located in Guatemala’s Western Highlands in the department of El Quiche, about 90 miles from the capital, Guatemala City. Surrounded by mountains and pine-swathed hills, Chichi sits at an altitude of 1,965 meters and has a population of around 42,500. But every Thursday and Sunday, thousands more flood into the town from all over the world.
Chichicastenango has been a main trading centre since before the conquistadors arrived in the Americas. For hundreds of years vendors and buyers throughout the Quiche region met to trade at Chichi, and now groups from much further afield come here too. The K’iche’ Maya of the neighbouring region use Chichi as their main market, and many of Guatemala’s other ethnic groups such as Kaqchikel, Mam, Ixil and several others are also regulars on market day.
With a deserved reputation as the most colourful native market in the Americas, Chichi comes alive twice a week. Portable stalls are set up in the central plaza and the surrounding blocks, usually continuing into the early hours, in preparation of bus loads of tourists and locals pouring into the streets to explore this vibrant symphony of colours and costumes, smoke and smells.
The market here is most famous for its textiles, in particular huipils, traditional garments worn by indigenous women and girls in Guatemala. Usually decorated with colourful and intricate designs, every huipil takes between 3-12 months to make. Different regions of the country use different tones and patterns, but arguably the best quality huipils are found in Chichi, and are popular with both locals and tourists.
Chichi is also known for its wood carvings, especially the wooden ceremonial masks used in traditional Mayan dances, and leather goods like shoes, boots, belts and hats. Colourful fabrics are piled up at stalls and can be bought as raw material or as tablecloths, place sets and wool blankets. Other popular products include handmade jewellery (particularly jade and silver), pottery, incense and candles, medicinal plants, fruits, vegetables and various other knick-knacks and souvenirs.
For hundreds of years Chichi has welcomed buyers from far and wide and there is no indication that they will stop coming any time soon.