Indians Create Market Color in Chichicastenango

<i> Hyland is an Altadena free-lance writer. </i>

They come the night before along moon-lighted lanes, down winding forest trails, across fields of maize. Graceful women from Tononicapan, with elaborate silk pompons dangling from their hair, carry bundles of tie-dyed woven skirts.

Men from Santa Catarina Palopo balance rush mats on their backs, their red-and-purple kilts decorated with colorful insects. Wagons full of clay cooking pots wrapped in straw are wheeled from Santa Maria Chiquimula, and nests of square-lidded baskets from as far away as Patsun.

All night and into the early morning they come, dressed in the ancient and highly individual costumes of their particular villages.

They are the noble and creative Maya Quiche Indians of Guatemala--descendants of the builders of the temples of Tikal--come to sell their wares at the open-air market of Chichicastenango, a market that has been held every Thursday and Sunday for hundreds of years.


Known for Its Carnations

Fresh flowers are wheeled in on wooden carts from San Juan Sacatepequez. The women arrange white calla lilies, tulips and ferns. The men unload armloads of long-stalked crimson gladioli and golden chrysanthemums. Children stack bags full of rose petals blessed by Mayan priests. And everywhere are the particular carnations San Juan Sacatepequez is known for.

When the market opens early the next morning, visitors are dazzled by the crowded rows of brilliant ceremonial sashes, luxurious skirts woven on ancient hip looms and slender silver necklaces made in designs found on Tikal ruins in the jungles of Peten. Racks of sightless, wooden Mayan masks of monkeys, jaguars, tapirs and priestesses leer down upon the crowds.

Squatting vendors, in deerskin sandals, sell baskets of avocado, red peppers, mangoes, cacao beans and plantains from the rich volcanic earth of Santiago Atitlan, and sweet onions from Solola. Children beg for pumpkin-seed cakes, candied roots, spun pastel candies and the small, round Guatemalan tortillas kept hot wrapped in embroidered cloths.


Brocade blouses from San Cristobal, geometrically woven hangings from Zacualpa and huipils (poncho-like tops each representing a separate village) hang everywhere in the stands. The mysterious meaning of each huipil is never told to the tourist and there is always a secret difference between the one made for the market and the one made for village wear. Still, the vivid colors and unique designs are irresistible.

The music of the chirimia flute is heard here and there, and the resonant tone of the marimba seems always just around the corner.

Momostenango Blankets

Often visitors go to the marketplace just to buy the bright wool blankets from Momostenango. Bundles of them are heaped on tables and massed against the back walls of booths on the market days. The raw wool is bought from statuesque Santa Maria Chiquimula shepherdesses and dyed with colors extracted from barks, herbs, mollusks, flowers and insects.


It is then woven on foot looms, shrunk tight in hot sulfur springs and spread to dry in the sun on the streets of Momostenango. Each Guatemalan town has its own blanket patterns, so the assortment at the Chichicastenango market is always varied.

And up and down the rows, children, in the modified dress of their villages, sell their own handiwork--clay whistles, wool tassels, beads of coffee beans and shells, and, most especially, packets of Guatemalan dolls called “families.”

Young girls dress the cardboard dolls in scraps of woven cloth from their mother’s sewing, and so the families usually reflect the costumes of the villages where they were made. Generally, the father doll carries firewood on his back, his wife a swaddled infant on hers, and a son and daughter stand by their sides.

Catholic, Mayan Rites


Arrive if you can on a Sunday early enough to attend mass at the church of Santo Tomas, built in 1540. There the Roman Catholic and ancient Mayan rites share the church in unique coexistence--the Christian God of the Bible, inside his house, is worshiped along with Mayan gods of the Popol Vuh--the old gods of nature and the out of doors.

At any mass, while a Spanish priest bows his head in silent prayer to his Christian God, a Mayan priest, wearing black breeches and jacket elaborately embroidered in magenta, a handsome, tasseled, brightly colored tzut tied round his head, may face the same altar. In a loud voice, he scolds one of his gods for an oversight or misinterpretation of a request.

And, at the same time that a Spanish priest reads an Epistle or Gospel, a Mayan priest may be seen to sprinkle rose petals and burn white candles on primitive wooden altars that line the center of the aisle.

The parishioners--Indians on the right, Ladinos (any non-Indians) on the left--solemnly follow the Roman Catholic Mass while the Mayan priest clouds the church with the heady, sweet-smelling incense billows out the arched doorway, down the worn steps and over the marketplace to intoxicate all with its fragrance and add to the romance of the lovely place called Chichicastenango.


Guatemala is called the Land of Eternal Spring for good reason--the mean temperature is 72 degrees. Guatemala City is 4,877 feet above sea level, and a cool breeze is always blowing.

Chichi is 145 kilometers (90 miles) west of Guatemala City, north off the Pan American Highway (called the Roosevelt Highway in Guatemala).

Comfortable Rooms

Stay, if you can, at the 30-room Mayan Inn. A short walk brings you right down to the marketplace and church. The rooms are comfortable and up-to-date. You’ll sleep well under warm Momostenango blankets on carved Spanish beds. If you request it, a boy will build a fire in your fireplace.


The dining room waiters wear Mayan dress, the food is Indian/Spanish and excellent. Spanish antiques and silverware grace the elegant lounge. Rates are about $30 single, $36 double.

Accommodations in Chichi are also available at the Santo Tomas Hotel ($26 single, $32 double) and the Posada Maya Hotel (single to triple rooms ranging from $2.60 to $7).

The quetzal, the currency of Guatemala, is named for the national symbol of love of liberty--a brightly colored jungle bird believed to die in captivity.

Lacsa (the airline of Costa Rica), Taca (El Salvador) and Mexicana fly to Guatemala City from LAX. All stop in Mexico City. Pan Am flies directly in from Miami.


Lakes Atitlan and Amatitlan, with their spectacular views of Guatemalan volcanoes, are close by, as are the Indian villages of Solola, Pananchel and Santiago Atitlan.

As they have for centuries, the people of Chichicastenango graciously welcome visitors to their marketplace.

For further information, contact Aviateca Guatemala Airlines, 6595 N.W. 36th St., Suite 100, Miami, Fla. 33166, phone (800) 327-9832 or Dalatur, tour company, at (800) 858-8787.