You’ve read about it in all the guide books, seen it advertised throughout the tourist offices and heard fellow travelers talk about it. But the Chichicastenango market isn’t all it’s hyped up to be. Apart from making you feel like a bigger tourist than a bus load of older Americans, it’s pricey, massively over rated and if you’re not passing through, can easily be missed. We can understand the draw to a spot like Chichi, but in our opinion there’s a lot better places out there to spend your valuable savings.
While traveling through Guatemala you’ll often come across markets selling an abundance of brightly colored and beautiful woven garments worn by the different groups of indigenous Mayan. Most tourists jump at the opportunity to buy a few memories of their travels, but when traveling on a budget it can often be difficult to shop for souvenirs. Room in your bag and your weekly beer allowance are factors that come to your mind straight away.
Looking for bargains becomes more than just a novelty, it becomes a necessity. In Guatemala you hold out because you’ve heard that Chichicastenago market is the best place to go on their famous Sunday market day, and what you’ll find could be completely different. Here’s what unfolded when we decided to head to Chichi to get our shop on…..
We arrive in Chichi from Xela on a gloomy Saturday afternoon and the ominous signs of a market are already beginning to show, as stalls work on setting up all over town. Men go through an all too familiar routine of constructing giant scaffolding stalls and covering them with protective plastic. Women delicately unfold garments and hang brilliantly patterned table clothes on the walls. Woven bookmarks, feather earrings and other small trinkets are carefully arranged around small wooden tables by busy hands. Smooth talking phrases in English, rehearsed to perfection, echo around us we made our way through the maze of vendors.
A small girl dressed in casual clothes greets us in the centre with a smile and a ‘welcome to Chichi’ in English. After our initial greeting we realize she doesn’t speak much English and the conversation switches to Spanish, where she has a lot more confidence in speaking. We make small talk and exchange names and stories before the hard sale comes on. After politely declining her sale she continues to follow us around the town for another 20mins asking for ‘un quetzal, un regalo‘ (one quetzal, one gift). She doesn’t take to our kind refuses and in the end we head to our hostel to shake her tail, as more people begin to join the cue looking for a hand out.
After catching our breath we decide to venture out again, only to be confronted by the same girl and more of her partners in crime. This is something that happened quite a lot to us in Chichi. People didn’t seem to take a polite ‘no’ for an answer, and instead persistently followed us around the town. Something tells me they have become pretty used to receiving the odd quetzal from fed up travelers and that usually their persistence pays off. Obviously they didn’t know us.
We walk around town for a while, but quickly realize Chichi isn’t a hub of activity. There’s an interesting cemetery to visit, with its collection of multicolored headstones and decorated graves, but otherwise it’s a pretty quiet town. As a result we head to bed early, and then rise early to beat the crowds. By the time we get to to the market in the morning it’s just after 8, yet already a circus of activity. More phrases in English, more stalls selling the same stuff and all at a much higher price than what you’d usually find around Guatemala. Within the first hour we’re already walking round in circles, tired of being hassled every time we stop to take a peek.
The idea of getting a few bargains has now well and truly been abandoned, and all we were thinking about is getting out. With a winding road up to Nebaj in the back of our minds we bid farewell to the hectic carnival atmosphere that Chichi has turned into and make a beeline for the exit. For us it was just too much of an intense concentration of vendors all trying way too hard to close a sale. Here is an classic example of where persistence doesn’t always pay off, as they hoped that after the 200th time that we would finally give in. If anything it just drove us further away from the place.
In our honest opinion, check the market out if you’re still really interested, but definitely save the shopping for the quieter spots. It’s a beautiful place, full of traditional Mayan culture, but so are many other towns in Guatemala. Many tourists that we’ve met share the same view, after hearing the same warning. You’ll find the exact same souvenirs in other markets throughout the country, so don’t worry about missing out on anything. And if you do go, be conscious of pickpockets, who are a lot more ballsy on Sunday.
Chichicantenango Market Basics
Where: Chichicastenango, Guatemala (north of Lago Atitlan)
Getting There: Chicken buses run from all directions, at all times and are easy to navigate. Most buses will pass through Los Encuentros before making a change up north to Chichi. Depending on where you’re coming from they’ll take between 2-4 hours and cost you a LOT less than organizing a tour to get out there. Tours are definitely not need.
Accommodation: Among the tourist hotels you can find some cheap accommodation for 30Q if you want to stay the night.