Chichicastenango market is an exciting event at any time of year but at Christmas time, it’s surreal.
Long before dawn every Thursday and Sunday, traders flock to Chichi to set up their stalls by torch and candlelight. It’s the most popular market in the Western Highlands and steeped in Mayan traditions and customs.
Traders carried enormous loads on their backs, offloaded from chicken buses, microbuses, pick up trucks and makeshift trailers. Many had slept under their stalls to get the best positions. They laid out their wares – textiles including woven fabrics and huipiles hand embroidered with quetzals, dogs and horses. Musical Christmas lights were piled high, flashing and playing against each other like a dozen out of tune choirs.
Carved masks, neon coloured popcorn balls, live chickens, eggs and cheap kitchen ware were on sale. A couple of entrepreneurs displayed carefully guarded artificial Christmas Trees. Reindeer and sheep shaped from straw filled another table. I bought a red banana with soft, sweet baby pink flesh. It cured constipation as promised. The smell of Guatemalan fried chicken and freshly cooked chips was a welcome break from beans and tortillas, though I don’t eat chicken. Mangy, skinny dogs crept under tables scavenging for morsels.
Closer to the church of Santo Tomas, the candle and incense sellers vied for business. Men wandered about, carrying nets crammed with striped football sized balls, although I never saw anyone buy them. By night, a few grungy backpackers, with dreadlocks and vacant stares lined up at food stalls, drinking coffee and wolfing cake. We sat close by with a warm drink of chocolate and rice not really to my liking. I sipped hot fruit punch, into which I slipped a shot of rum.
In the week running up to December 21st, the town celebrates its patron saint with the Fiesta de Santo Tomas.
Flower sellers sat on the steps of the 400 year old church. The air was thick with the sweet smokiness of pine-scented incense. Sacrificial candles smouldered on an altar rock in front of the church.
Visiting the Church at Chichicastenango market
Brought up as a catholic in Ireland, I felt the urge to light a candle. There were bundles of long slim candles in red, white, green, blue and yellow slung over a clothes line of sorts, so I bought a bunch of white ones. I had no idea what the colours meant, if anything.
I climbed the steps to the front of the church and noticed that all the churchgoers entered through the side door. I followed their lead. Inside was as far removed from any Irish church I could have imagined . Platforms and beds of lighted candles lined the central aisle. A man lay prostrate chanting near one of them. There was no way I was going to lie down flat on my belly beside a burning candle, so I slithered along the side wall, where a small side table had three burning stubs of wax. The candles were in pairs, joined by a single wick. There must have been twenty candles in my bundle. It was a job getting the ends melted so they would stick to the surface. I singed my nails and the hairs on the back of my hands.
Buying and Bartering at Chichicastenango market
If you’re a woman, not wearing a colourful woven skirt and an embroidered huipile, then you’re fair game to be the trader’s new best friend. Equally, if you’re a man who looks like a foreigner, you too will have your very own personal shopper. “Hola Amigo! I give special price.” A cute six year old girl said. Her nose was plugged with mucus. She fluttered long dark eyelashes and carried a hundred carved wooden keyrings. The miniature masks looked like they’d been carved with a blunt axe and painted by a blind monkey. Needless to say, my partner Dan fell for the doe eyes and spider trimmed eyes and paid well over the odds for a key ring. I bought some Jade jewellery for myself at a ‘special’ price. Dan’s new best friend followed him everywhere in the hope of extracting the last dollar from his wallet.
Chichicastenango Festival – Santo Tomás
In true festival style, parades, traditional dances and non stop firecrackers carry on for a week creating a riot of colour and sounds. Dancers wore masks and brightly decorated costumes, a musician played the marimba with one hand, his mobile phone in the other. On December 21st the excitement built to a climax.
A 30 metre pole, erected in the plaza, was the site of the dance of the “palo volador”. Two ropes hung from a rickety twirling contraption on top of a pole. Pairs of masked dancers dressed in heavily embellished tunics reached the top by climbing a ladder that would give any Health and Safety Officer palpitations. To the beat of the marimba, they took a death defying leap and twirled round and around the pole as the rope unwound. It unwrapped slowly, lowering them to the ground. Mesmerised by their grace, I could have sat there all day.
Chichicastenango market – Fireworks
Do not sit beside anything resembling a metal pipe. Massive rockets burst out with ferocious velocity. In all my life, I’ve never been so close to a fireworks display. I was nearer to the display than a pyrotechnic specialist would dare. Close up and personal. Thousands crowded around the fireworks structure. Every inch of the church steps was filled. Sparks flew, screamers flew in every direction from a giant wheel. Another boom, something rose slowly skyward hovering and spinning like an alien spaceship above the revellers. I pulled a hood over my head to save my hair from catching fire. I understood the reason women wore woven blankets on their heads and kept long flowing tresses in plaits. The spaceship fizzled out and the teenage pop band hit the stage.
We returned to Posada el Arco, to our room with a blazing log fire for a glass of rum.