So you’re interested in visiting the Chichicastenango market, but you’re not sure how to get to Chichi or what other things you can do there. In this Chichicastenango travel guide, I’m going to share with you all that you need to know to have an unforgettable experience in this beautiful city in the Guatemalan Highlands.
You’ll get info on the following things:
- What things can you do in Chichicastenango besides the market?
- How can you get to Chichicastenango from Lake Atitlan?
- Is the Chichicastenango market even worth it?
- Should you hire a guide and how much should you pay?
- Should you stay in Chichicastenango?
- Where can you stay in Lake Atitlan?
- What are the most instagrammable shots you should get in Chichicastenango?
- How can you get to the cemetery?
If you have any other questions that I didn’t answer for you, you can ask them in the comment section at the end of this guide.
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Is visiting the Chichicastenango market worth it?
Besides having a kick-ass name, Chichicastenango has the best market I’ve been to. Held every Sunday and Thursday, the market is where the indigenous people from the Guatemalan Highlands come to buy and sell their wares–food, clothes, handicrafts, etc.
The beautiful Highlands are home to many of Guatemala’s 22 indigenous people such as the Tzuztujil, Izmil, K’achakil, Mam, and K’iche’. Chichicastenango is home to the most interesting of all the Maya groups: the K’iche’ (Quiche). They are the main people that you will see at the market.
The K’iche’ like many Maya groups hold onto their pre-Hispanic traditions and beliefs–religion, language, clothing, etc. The most obvious custom that sets the Maya apart from the Ladino, the mixed European and Maya Guatemalansis the women’s clothing. The K’iche’s clothes are particularly beautiful–probably more beautiful than any other group I’ve seen in Guatemala.
The K’iche’ women wear a colorful embroidered blouse called a huipil and a black tight-fitting skirt called a corte that is marked with colorful vertical stripes. You can even find vendors selling the material for these clothes.
Another interesting aspect of the K’iche’ Maya culture that you can observe around the churches and the cemetery near the market is their religion. The K’iche’ practice both their traditional pre-Hispanic religion and a form of Catholicism or Evangelical Christianity. Some people refer to it as folk Catholicism or hybrid Catholicism. I’ll tell you exactly how you can see their rituals being performed later in this post.
Please wear your face mask while in the market so that if you are sick with COVID (or any respiratory illness) that you are less likely to infect the local people. Locals have expressed frustration at the foreign tourists who walk around the market without face masks, but they are reluctant to say anything for fear of losing business. Health care in Guatemala is too costly for many people and many of the locals cannot afford to go to a doctor if they get sick. The native population of the Americas has suffered greatly over the past 500 years from diseases brought by outsiders to their shores. In fact, between fifty million and seventy million native people, around 90% of the population, died from smallpox, measles, and influenza brought to the Americas from Europe.
How to get to Chichicastenango from lake atitlan
The easiest way to get to Chichicastenango from Lake Atitlan is by a shuttle van. The shuttle leaves at 8:00 am and returns at 2:00 pm. This gives you enough time to see most of the main sights. Also, the market can be overwhelming, so by the time 2:00 pm comes along, you’ll probably be ready to go.
You can buy a ticket for the shuttle from any of the travel agencies on Calle Santander in Panajachel or from travel agencies and/or your hotel if you’re staying in other villages on the lake. My hostel in Santa Cruz, La Iguana Perdida, was selling the Chichicastenango market shuttle tickets.
I bought my shuttle ticket from Lago Aventure Travel Agency (Google Maps) and paid Q150 (US$20) for the round-trip tour. They’re open until 7:00/7:30 PM.
You can also do a one-way shuttle and stay in Chichi or arrange for transport to another destination such as Antigua. If you’re going on to another destination, you’ll keep your luggage in the van while you explore the market.
The shuttle picks you up from your hotel in Pana. Pick-up times start at 7:50. I was the last one to be picked up, which was 8:20 am.
My shuttle was very comfortable, clean, and relatively new. The driver spoke pretty good English, and he was very friendly.
We arrived in Chichi at 9:45 am and parked in a parking garage a block from the market (Google Maps).
Our driver told us to return to the van at 1:45 pm. The shuttle would leave at 2:00 pm.
When the shuttle returns to Panajachel, you get dropped off at your hotel or at the boat docks if you’re going to another village on the lake.
Can you get to Chichicastenango by Chicken Bus?
Yes, you can. It’s going to be much, much cheaper to get to Chichicastenango by chicken bus, but it’s going to take much longer than the shuttles.
First, you need to take a chicken bus to Solola (15 minutes). Get off at the main bus stop on Calle Principal. Then cross the street and take another bus going to Encuentros (30 minutes). When you get to Encuentros, look for vans heading to Chichicastenango (1 hour).
Remember where you got dropped off so you know where to get on the bus to take you back to Encuentros.
Why not stay overnight in Chichi?
I was originally going to stay overnight in Chichi, but when I went to Booking.com to book a hotel room, there were only 2 hotels. Neither hotels were all that great or affordable.
I met a French guy who booked a room in a local’s home through Airbnb.
Do you need a guide?
When you get off the shuttle, you’re probably going to be surrounded by guides trying to sell you their services. They were quoting me Q200 (US$26). I had such a bad experience with a guide’s terrible English at Lake Atitlan that I was wary of hiring one for the Chichicastenango market, so at first I didn’t.
However, later while I was walking around the market, I was approached by a woman wearing an official-looking tour guide outfit and carrying an official tour guide license. She offered to guide me around for Q200 and I countered with Q100. We settled on Q150 (US$20).
My guide’s English turned out to be not all that great, but I think hiring her was still worth it. If I hadn’t had a guide, I would never have been able to find the vegetable market, understood what was happening in the church of Santo Tomas, or been able to take photos of the shamans at the cemetery. She also helped bargain with a shaman for a lower price to take her photo. I also liked the fact that she was a woman. I felt much more comfortable and safer being guided around by a woman than a man.
Best Books to Read about Guatemala
Bitter Fruit – Want to learn about the U.S.-led coup of Guatemala’s second democratically elected president? Bitter Fruit is an eye-opening book that will make you angry, sad, and disgusted. (Amazon | Bookshop.org)
I, Rigoberta Menchu – Want to learn more about the K’iche’? This book is by the Nobel Peace prize winner, Rigoberta Menchu, a K’iche’ woman. It’s about her life growing up in the Guatemala Highlands and how she and her family got involved in the Guatemala Civil War. (Amazon | Bookshop.org)
The Art of Political Murder: Who Killed the Bishop? – A fascinating book on the murder of Bishop Juan Gerardi, Guatemala’s leading human rights activist. (Amazon | Bookshop.org)
What to do in Chichicastenango
There are 3 fabulous Instagram worthy shots that you should get at the Chichicastanenango market:
(1) the photo from the second-floor balcony of the indoor vegetable market—you’ll get a birds-eye view of the greens, reds, yellows, and whites of the vegetables, flowers, and the women’s colorful clothing without being so conspicuous.
(2) a shot of the front steps of Iglesia del Santo Tomas – filled with people praying and just sitting around on the steps, vendors selling their colorful flowers, and shamans waving their incense around.
(3) the pic of the city’s cemetery – full of colorful tombstones and mausoleums and shamans performing some rituals
Be respectful when taking photos of the Maya. If you want to take a photo of a person up close, ask first. The people do not like it when outsiders take photos of them without asking as they see it as another form of white exploitation. You are also not allowed to take photos inside the churches.
1. The Chichicastenango Market
The first thing to do in Chichicastenango is to head to the market. You can’t miss it! This thing is HUGE! The center of the market is Plaza y Mercado (Google Maps). It then radiates out to the surrounding streets, going all the way to 7a Avenida and 3A Avenida.
The Plaza y Mercado area is permanently covered. Part of it is an actual two-story building and the other part is covered with a tin roof.
On the streets around the Plaza, vendors set up make-shift stalls covered in tarps to keep out the rain and sun.
The market is like a maze. It’s easy to get lost and turned around as there’s no point to orientate yourself. You’ve got to just plunge yourself into the first street you see and just wander around.
It’s also packed with people so it can be overwhelming and a bit chaotic.
What can you find at the market?
You’ll find things for both tourists and locals.
There are fruits and vegetables. Don’t be afraid to buy some fruit and take it back with you.
And ducks, turkeys, and chickens,
And rat poison.
One of the most fascinating parts of the market is the area where vendors are selling the material for making the K’iche’ blouses (huipils) and skirts (cortes).
Material for one huipil can cost over Q1,000 (US$130).
You can also get a bite to eat at one of the food stalls. For Q20 or Q25 you can get a piece of fried chicken, rice, beans, a salad, and tortillas.
You’ll also find lots of souvenirs. Chichicastenango is known for its wooden masks that dancers wear during ceremonies.
History of the K’iche’ People
The K’iche’ make up 11% of the population of Guatemala. They live predominantly in the Highlands of Guatemala, especially in the department (state) of El Quiche’.
During the height of the Maya kingdom (250 to 900 AD), when they were building their grand temples and pyramids, the Maya lived in the Peten region of Guatemala (this is where Flores is located). Then in the ninth and tenth centuries, the Maya kingdoms collapsed due to deforestation, drought, and overpopulation. The Maya dispersed, some making their way to the Yucatan, while others moving to the Highlands, where many are today.
In 1524, the Spaniards under Pedro de Alvarado arrived in Guatemala. At that time the most powerful state was the Kʼicheʼ Kingdom of Qʼumarkaj (not too far from Chichicastenango). The Spaniards followed the same tactic they used to defeat the Aztecs in Mexico: divide and conquer. They allied themselves with the K’iche’s main rivals, the Kaqchikel (another Maya group), and together defeated them. The K’iche’ then invited Alvarado to Qʼumarkaj. Thinking that it was a trap, Alvarado burnt the city to the ground.
The Catholic Church came in next to try to convert the K’iche’. However, they were never fully able to get rid of their pre-Christian beliefs. Today the Catholicism practiced by the K’iche’ is a mix of their own religion and Catholicism. Nowadays more and more K’iche’ are also turning to Evangelical Christianity.
Under Spanish rule and even more so after Guatemalan independence in 1821, the K’iche’, like most of the indigenous people of Mexico and Central America, lost their land and ended up as indentured servants (a.k.a. slaves) working on the plantations (fincas) owned by the Guatemalans of European or mixed descent.
In 1960, Guatemala’s 36-civil war began when left-wing guerillas attempted a coup against the President.
However, the Maya didn’t become involved in the civil war until the 1970s when economic conditions deteriorated drastically and a major earthquake killed 23,000 people and displaced many more. But instead of accepting their conditions, the Maya began to organize with Ladinos, workers, and student groups for better economic and social conditions and equal rights.
The government saw any kind of call for social and economic reform as communism. The military went into the Maya villages of the Highlands and arrested, tortured, and killed anyone who they thought was the enemy.
The period between 1981 to 1983 was the deadliest of the civil war with the Quiche region, where Chichicastenango is located, being the center of the violence. The military primarily targeted the Maya peoples living in the Highlands. They came into their villages and decimated the villages suspected of being communists and working with the guerillas. They burned down people’s homes and crops, raped, and killed the elderly, women, and children. The violence was so bad that the United Nations Truth Commission refer to this period as a “genocide” against the Maya people.
How many Maya died? Estimates range from 32,000 to 166,000.
2. Indoor vegetable market at Centro Comercial Santo Tomas
- COST: free
- LOCATION: Google Maps
Sssshhh! Don’t tell anyone else about this secret place.
The indoor vegetable market on the northern edge of the plaza is a gem!
Not many tourists know about it and it’s best that they don’t or else someone’s going to prevent foreigners from getting to it and taking photos of the vendors and their colorful vegetables.
Lonely Planet calls this place Centro Comercial Santo Tomas, but I couldn’t find a place called that on Google Maps. All I know is that it’s in the northern part of the Plaza y Mercado.
Look for an entrance to a building where you’ll see inside people selling vegetables. You should find stairs leading up to the second floor. If you see no stairs, you’re not in the right place.
The first floor looks like a basketball court (there are basketball hoops at each end. The floor is full of vegetable vendors. This is NOT actually where you want to go.
Instead, go to the second-floor mezzanine where you can look down upon the vegetable sellers and take photos.
3. Iglesia de Santo Tomas
- OPEN: 6:00 AM – 6:00 PM (it was closed at 1:30 PM)
- COST: free
- LOCATION: Google Maps
Even if you’re not into visiting churches, Iglesia de Santo Tomas is something you MUST NOT miss.
This is probably the most instagrammable church I’ve ever seen. It’s not the church per se that makes it so memorable.
It’s what is happening on the 20-steps leading up to the wooden doors of the white-washed church.
The flower vendors.
The shamans waving incense back and forth.
The locals in their colorful clothes resting or praying on the steps.
The leftover wax from burnt candles on the doorstep to the church.
Take some time to line up the photo. The church’s steps butt up right against the vendors and customers in the market, so it’s hard to get a shot of the church and steps without someone’s head ruining the shot. Don’t rush your photos as I did.
Make sure to enter the church of Santo Tomas
You don’t want to skip entering the church either. It’s not like your typical Catholic or Protestant church back home. Go early because when I passed by the church a second time at 1:30 pm, it was closed.
Like a lot of churches in the Highlands, the people practice a hybrid religion of traditional Maya rituals and Catholic rituals.
This is Maya folk Catholicism—a hybrid of Maya’s ancient beliefs and Catholicism.
There are pews like you’ll see in most churches but they have been pushed to the side so that there is a wide middle aisle
In the middle of the aisle are these low stone platforms.
Wait for a shaman to come along. Stand back and watch him or her sit (or kneel) in front of the platform and do their thing.
I saw a shaman sit down at the platform, sprinkle the platform with flower petals, light some candles and stick them in rows on the platform, and then dash a bit of liquor in front of the platform. You might even see one sacrifice a chicken.
The shaman then started praying. My guide said that someone probably hired him to pray for their health, financial success, love life, or whatever they needed. Shamans also offer protection against people who want to harm you, and they’ll also do harm to others on your behalf. You can also get medical advice from them.
Shamans can’t charge people for their service. Instead, people “tip” them.
The other interesting thing was the people on their knees praying (some are holding candles; others are holding babies) and making their way on their knees to the front of the church.
4. Capilla del Calvario
- COST: free
- LOCATION: Google Maps
As you stand on the top steps of Iglesia de Santo Tomas and look out over the sea of vendor tarps, you’ll see another plain white church in the distance. This is Capilla del Calvario, and like Santo Tomas it is another hybrid folk-Catholic-folk church.
Take some time to visit it as well.
The church is smaller than and not as photogenic as Santo Tomas, but you may see some interesting rituals going on outside the church.
You’ll also get the best view of the market and Santo Tomas in the distance.
As with Santo Tomas, taking photos inside the church is strictly prohibited.
5. The Cemetery
- OPEN: 8:00 AM – 4:30 PM
- COST: free
- LOCATION: Google Maps – just a couple of blocks from the market – very easy to get to
Graveyards are probably not high on your list of sights to see when on a vacation.
But holy crap!
Chichi’s cemetery is like a work of art.
What makes it so special?
It’s the colorful tombstones and mausoleums.
And the experience of seeing shamans perform their magic as they exorcise demons, cast spells on someone’s enemy, or provide protection to ward off one’s nemesis.
Watch them kill a chicken or blow smoke on someone’s photo,
or create a sugar design on the ground.
It’s a fantastic experience that you should add to your trip to the Chichicastenango market.
Getting the chance to take a photo of the shamans is probably where a local guide comes in handy. My guide negotiated down the price to take a photo of a female shaman from Q20 to Q10. Another shaman didn’t charge me to take his photo.
The colorful mausoleums are for the wealthy Guatemalans and house the graves of a whole family.
The simple mounds covered in pine needles and marked by colorful crosses with handpainted signs are for the less wealthy.
The oldest graves are found at the entrance of the cemetery. They date from the early 1900s.
6. Chichicastenango Regional Museum
- COST: Q5 (US$.75)
- LOCATION: Google Maps
For Q5 you can take a quick look at some history of the region and photos of the leaders of Chichi.
The museum consists of two not-very-well-lit rooms. The room on the right is filled with archaeological artifacts from the region. The other room looks like a meeting room. The interesting part is all the photos of the leaders of the local brotherhoods (cofradias). The cofradias are in charge of the processions of saints during the saint’s holy day.
Check out the colorful mural on the outside of the museum as well.
Other Places to Visit in Chichi
There are a couple of other things to do that are a bit farther away than the market. I didn’t get a chance to see them.
- COST: 8:00 AM – 6:00 PM
- LOCATION: Google Maps
The mask museum is both a museum and a workshop. This is where they make the masks that the dancers wear in religious ceremonies.
- OPEN: 8:00 AM – 5:00 PM
- COST: free
- LOCATION: Google Maps
Located on the top of a hill south of the city, Pascual Abaj is a shrine purported to be thousands of years old dedicated to the Maya earth god, Huyp Tak’ah. People come here to pray and give offerings such as flowers, cigarettes, food, and liquor.
Outsiders are allowed to watch but ask first before taking photos.
Where to stay at Lake Atitlan
I spent nearly a month on Lake Atitlan and stayed in hotels, hostels, and Airbnb’s in San Pedro, San Marcos, Jaibalito, Santa Cruz, and Panajachel.
Finding a place to stay on Lake Atitlan can be quite frustrating. First, there are so many villages to choose from–some better than others. Second, my favorite booking site, booking.com, doesn’t have a good list of what’s really available. I recommend also checking out Airbnb and Hostel World.
Third, if you’re a solo budget traveler, you MUST book way in advance to get a private room at a decent price. I found that booking a month in advance will give you a lot of good choices.
Also, hotels raise their prices on the weekend as people from Guatemala City visit the lake.
Here is a list of some places to stay (and not stay) at Lake Atitlan:
Hotel Utz Jay
In the K’iche’ language, Utz Jay means “Good Place.”
I really like this hotel!
I got a clean, spacious, and comfortable room for US$30. Like all hotels in Guatemala, though, you need to book ahead to get a good deal.
I found the staff to be very friendly and helpful.
Hospedaje de Viajero
Based on a recommendation from another blogger, I stayed here during my first 2 nights on Lake Atitlan. They have really cheap single rooms, but you have to book way ahead of time to get it. I didn’t and paid way too much for a horribly dark, dingy, and ugly room. The room was right at the entrance and next to a kitchen and courtyard where people hung out. The curtains didn’t cover my windows completely so people could see into the room. I found the staff to be unfriendly.
Selina Coliving and Coworking Spaces
I never stayed here but I know people who did and loved it. For me, Selina’s private rooms are way too overpriced.
La Iguana Perdida
If you’re looking for a hostel with a great view and a fun community atmosphere, but you don’t mind not having internet, then La Iguana is an ok place. Just whatever you do DON’T get the private rooms with private baths. Those are disgusting and overpriced. Do the dorm rooms or the private rooms with shared bath.
Oh and double check your bill before leaving. They like to add things onto it that you never ordered.
La Casa del Mundo
I cannot say enough good things about this gorgeous hotel. It’s stunningly beautiful. The service, the rooms, and the location are perfect. It feels like you’re staying in a hotel on the Italian Riviera. I got a room with a shared bath.
The hotel also has a sauna and kayaks for guests to use.
If you’re in San Pedro, I have heard from friends that the Mikaso is a pretty good hotel. It’s right on the shore with its own dock so you can go swimming in the lake. If I visited San Pedro again, I’d stay here.
I stayed in an Airbnb in San Marcos. I’m not sure I can recommend it, however. They advertise views of the volcano, but my view was covered up by trees.
If you’re on a budget, then try Casa Ahau. They have dorm rooms as well as private rooms with shared baths for a great price.
For those with a bigger budget, you can try Lush Atitlan. They have mid-priced rooms with a shared bath but the bathroom is in the restaurant. Their rooms with private baths are over US$100 a night.
If you have any questions about the Chichicastenango Market or travel in Guatemala, please feel free to leave them in the comment section below.
I’d also love to hear from you if you’ve been to the Chichicastenango Market. Let me know if I’ve let anything out or if you’ve been to any of these places.
Finally, share on social media if you’ve found this info useful!
PRO TIP: No one likes to think about insurance, but accidents do happen. I highly recommend getting World Nomads. This is what I’ve used for short-term travel. When I quit my job to travel around the world, I switched to Safety Wings. They’re very affordable (less than US$100 a month depending on age) especially for those of us who are over 40 years old. They now cover COVID19.
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