Monday, April 15, 2013

Chichicastenango - Guatemala’s Largest Market

March 16, 2013

On the way to Chichi, I admire the outfits of the vaqueros standing on the streets of Solola - pants striped with so many bright colors, an intricately embroidered shirt, and a thick swatch of fabric tied around the waist, all topped off with a cowboy hat.

From the hotel, it’s only a few blocks to the church and market square. Mothers and daughters tear chunks of purple or white dough from large mounds, then slap-slap-slap them to form small, round tortillas that cook on a sizzling metal surface. There is plenty of street food for sale, which I am so curious about, but my fear of food poisoning is stronger. (It’s a bit of a health risk to eat street food, sometimes resulting in bellyaches and/or developing an intimate relationship with the nearest toilet. This may be due to cleanliness, or that our bellies are sensitive to local, unpurified water.)

In a compromise, I buy a plastic bag filled with juicy pieces of mango; fruit that requires peeling is deemed safe. Then, I make one of favorite discoveries when traveling abroad - a new variety of fruit! These are small and round, with a bright red skin that isn’t eaten. The juicy, yellow flesh of the jocote fills your mouth with a sweet and tangy flavor.

Other than the tempting baskets of produce or hot-off-the-grill tortillas, it’s mostly products for the locals - plastic dishware and knock-off DVDs and shampoo and secondhand American clothes. What little selection of Guatemalan goods I see are not all that impressive; the selection in Panajachel was much better. After yesterday’s shopping spree, I don’t manage to find a single item to buy.

A crowd of young boys dressed in purple robes descend the church steps, followed by many men and boys bearing the burden of an immense structure on their shoulders. The thick wooden base forms the foundation for Jesus and two other religious figures. A band trails behind, infusing the air with solemnity. We watch from the crowd, and Nick urges me to move. “Why?” I ask, perplexed. I turn around, and reality slowly dawns - I’m taller than all the Guatemalans standing behind me. Oh dios mio! Oh my god! I’ve never blocked someone’s view - it’s always me getting my view blocked. I can immediately empathize, and I move toward the back, scrunching my head between my shoulders and hunching down. The procession continues down the street, the structure swaying in the air.

A raggedly adorable girl notices my bag of jocote and walks by my side. “You want one?” I ask, and she replies, “Ci.” I give her two, and she runs off. A minute later, she is by my side again. “Uno mas,” I say with a smile, and I give her two.

Back at our hotel, religious music is blaring from an outdoor speaker at the comedor on the corner. People are in the street creating large rectangles out of grass or sand. Bundles of white flowers wrapped in purple are hanging upside down on the building walls. A woman is assembling an altar for Jesus, complete with his image, flowers, candles, and incense. I am curious about what’s happening, but no one can tell me because I don’t speak their language. I am in the midst of a community event, yet I am stuck on the outskirts.

Little boys and girls keep laughing at Nick, and we think it’s because he’s carrying around a Guatemalan purse intended for women. When we get back to the hotel, we realize that it might have been because there’s a huge rip in the seat of his pants.

I am lulled to sleep by somber religious music and the scent of incense creeping through the cracks between the window and the wall.

March 17, 2013
We are out on the streets at 8:00 am.  The market has grown overnight, the stalls reaching out like vines along the streets surrounding the square. Some stalls are ready for business, but many are only just beginning to stir. I’m slowly learning that there’s not much point to getting an early start in Guatemala; even the sun waits until nine o’clock before heating things up.

The market morphs into a bustling, thriving, crowded sort of chaos. It is difficult to walk down the streets and nearly impossible to navigate the narrow corridors. Men and women carrying large bundles on their backs or heads, tourists shopping, children hawking keychains and bookmarks push and prod their way through. The tourists are a major presence, but they are not the only ones shopping; this is where the Guatemalans purchase produce and meat, eat lunch, replace worn shoes, and get a new pot. I last four hours, walking many of the streets twice, before I am ready to escape. It’s overwhelming, and shopping has lost its allure (especially for someone that doesn’t have a penchant for shopping in the first place).

Hotel Chalet - This hotel offers a room with a private bath for Q150 per night for two twin beds on the first floor. If you want a better view, you can pay Q240 per night for a room on the third floor. Since I wasn’t planning to spend much time in the room, I opted for a cheaper first floor room. (It was right next to the road, though, which I think made it louder.) The room is clean, simple, and nicely decorated. Towels are provided, and there’s hot water, but it takes about three minutes before it gets warm. Filtered water is available to refill your water bottles. Only two-prong outlets are in the room, so if you need to charge something three-prong, like a laptop, you’ll need an adapter. Wi-Fi is available, but only in the common area.
3 Calle C 7-44
(502) 54822100 OR (502) 30845691

Market - I bought a small bag of sliced mango for Q3 and a bag of jocote for Q5.

Restaurant Don Pascual - We eat lunch at this upstairs restaurant on one of the streets circling the tented market area (there is a large sign hanging from the second story). I have the Plato Vegetariano (Q50), which includes fresh, sauteed vegetables (not frozen and steamed!), refried beans, sliced avocado, rice or french fries, and salsa. It’s served with a simple broth soup. The small corn tortillas are thick and fresh, probably just made by the women in the market. It’s probably one of the best meals I’ve had in Guatemala so far. Nick orders the Plato Mixta (Q62), which has pork, beef, chicken, rice, and refried beans. I find the beef and pork a little tough, but the chicken is good.

Two tourists I meet recommend Poi Wha Cafe, an upstairs cafe next door to Restaurant Don Pascual, and Las Brasas Steakhouse, which is recommended in Lonely Planet.

Chichicastenango Market - This is the largest and most famous market in Guatemala - and therefore the most touristy. The market occurs every day, but the official market days are Sunday and Thursday, so plan your trip accordingly. In my opinion, it’s not worth visiting on other days, unless you’re seeking a quieter, everyday atmosphere where most everyone you see is a local and the market is confined to the square. (While I enjoyed my time in Chichi, getting to see its “other side,” it’s still not a city I recommend visiting as a destination in its own right - but perhaps my view is limited.)
It’s the largest market in Guatemala, but it has a lot of what you probably aren’t looking for, unlike Calle Santander in Panajachel, which caters mostly to traveler interests. I preferred the market at Panajachel more - both the quality of items and experience (more relaxed and less intense). If you want to experience the hustle and bustle of a Chichi market, a day trip will be more than enough time. My recommendation: Take a day trip from Panajachel, San Pedro La Laguna, or San Marcos La Laguna. Buses leave at 8:00 am and return at 2:00 pm or 4:00 pm.
Here is what I bought (with the asking price in parentheses):

  • Small cloth trivet - Q20 (Q30)
  • Three small coin purses - Q30 (Q150) - A young boy was running the stall and vastly overpriced his merchandise.
  • Small purse - Q30 (Q70)
  • Large slice of pineapple - Q3 - Yum, this was delicious!
Even though this is the largest market, I found much more in the smaller market of Panajachel.

Traveling here from...Panajachel
There is a shuttle service called Eterna Primavera near Mario’s Rooms. To get there, turn left and it’s on the other side of the street a short distance down. We paid Q125 each for a noon departure. Our shuttle ended up being a four-door sedan, which was a pleasant change. The ride took one hour. Round trips shuttles are offered on market days (Thursday and Sunday) for a much cheaper price.

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