Looking for info on visiting the Chichicastenango market? Want to know what else there is to do in Chichi besides its famous market? In this post, I’m going to share with you all the things you can do in Chichicastenango. You’ll also find info on how to get there, why it’s such an important town, and whether or not to hire a guide.
Let’s get started!
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Don’t you love it when you visit a place and it turns out to be better than expected?
That’s what happened to me with my trip to Chichi (the local slang for Chichicastenango).
First of all, I went without knowing much about the city or the market. My guidebook said it was interesting. Travel blogs on Guatemala made no mention of it.
I heard there was a nice church. But beyond that, I was clueless.
Second, another traveler I met at my hostel in Lake Atitlan said Chichi was a tourist trap. Was this going to be a waste of time?
Finally, I don’t even like shopping, so markets are generally not my thing.
But then I got to Chichi.
At first, I was a bit lost. The market’s big. There are lots of people.
But after maybe a half hour or so, I just started to really enjoy myself. I loved the energy, the people in their traditional clothes, the stark-white churches, and the vibrant colors of everything around me.
Then this local woman approached me offering to give me a guided tour of the town. And what started out as a great day turned into the BEST day of my 3 months in Guatemala. She showed me places that I probably would never have found on my own, taught me about the Maya religion and culture, and introduced me to some shamans.
BEST day in Guatemala.
THAT’S how good Chichicastenango was.
So, I created this guide to help you visit the same places I did and to include some of the same things my guide told me. Hopefully, you’ll fall in love with it as much as I did.
Check out my 2022-2023 Guatemala Travel Guide for more tips, tricks, ideas, and inspiration for visiting the land of eternal spring. You’ll find over 15 travel articles to help you explore the history, culture, food, and natural beauty of Guatemala.
Table of Contents
You’ll get info on the following things (just jump to the section that interests you):
- What are the Chichicastenango market days?
- How to get to Chichicastenango from Lake Atitlan
- Should you stay overnight in Chichicastenango?
- Do you need to hire a guide in Chichicastenango?
- What to do in Chichicastenango besides the market?
- History of the K’iche’ People
- Where to stay at Lake Atitlan
About Chichicastenango Market
The Chichicastenango market is held every Thursday and Sunday. It opens at 8:00 am but doesn’t get hopping until 11:00-ish.
The market is a great place to experience the indigenous Mayan culture of Guatemala. It’s where the Mayan people of the Highlands converge every Thursday and Sunday to buy and sell their wares–food, clothes, handicrafts, etc.
The beautiful Highlands are home to many of Guatemala’s 22 indigenous peoples such as the Tzuztujil, Izmil, Kaqchikel, Mam, and Q’iche. Chichicastenango is home to the most interesting of all the Maya groups: the Q’iche (K’iche’). They are the main people that you will see at the market.
What’s interesting for the foreign traveler is that the Q’iche, like many Maya groups, hold onto their pre-Hispanic traditions and beliefs–religion, language, clothing, etc.
The Q’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.
The Q’iche practice a hybrid version of Catholicism or Evangelical Christianity and their own pre-Hispanic religion. Some people refer to it as folk Catholicism. You can observe their religious rituals at the cemetery and the 2 churches near the market.
I’ll tell you exactly how you can see their rituals being performed later in this post.
How to get to Chichicastenango
The easiest and quickest way to get to Chichicastenango from Lake Atitlan is by tourist shuttle.
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. 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 your hotel.
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 overnight 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 staying in 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 Los Encuentros (30 minutes). When you get to Los 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 Los Encuentros.
How to get to Chichi from Antigua?
The only way to do a day trip to Chichicastenango from Antigua is by driving your own car or joining a tour.
- Day Tour of Chichicastenango & Lake Atitlan – This full-day tour spends most of its time in Chichicastenango. There is a short stop in Panajachel at Lake Atitlan. RATINGS: 4.3/5 (34 Reviews) READ REVIEWS & BOOK TOUR HERE
You might be interested in these posts:
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 for Chichicastenango?
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 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).
Was hiring a guide worth it?
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 liked the fact that she was a woman as well. I felt much more comfortable and safer being guided around by a woman than a man, and I just like empowering women and helping them earn money.
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 Q’iche? This book is by the Nobel Peace prize winner, Rigoberta Menchu, a Q’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)
Read my complete list here of the 15 best books on Guatemala.
8 Things to do in Chichicastenango (Besides the Market)
There is actually more to do in Chichicastenango than just visiting the market. There’s an indoor vegetable market that makes for great photos, 2 beautiful churches, a colorful cemetery, and 2 museums.
Here is a list of the 8 best things to do in Chichicastenango. Just jump to the activity that interests you most:
- Chichicastenango market
- Indoor vegetable market
- Iglesia de Santo Tomas
- Capillo del Calvario
- Chichicastenango cemetery
- Chichicastenango Regional Museum
- Mask Museum
- Pascual Abaj
PRO TIP: 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 wander around.
It’s also packed with people, so it can be overwhelming and a bit chaotic. However, the morning is less so than the afternoon.
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,
Flowers 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 (US$3 – $3.50) I got a piece of fried chicken, rice, beans, a salad, and tortillas.
There are loads of souvenirs.
Chichicastenango is known for wooden masks. 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 made their way to the Yucatan, while others moved to the Highlands.
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, the Catholic priests were never fully able to get rid of the Ki’iche’s pre-Christian beliefs.
Today the Catholicism practiced by the K’iche’ is a mix of their own pre-Hispanic 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 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.
Instead of accepting their plight, the Maya began to organize with Ladinos, workers, and student groups for better economic and social conditions and equal rights.
The government and the United States 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 or who was aiding the enemy. Sometimes the army just killed and tortured anyone they saw.
The period between 1981 to 1983 was the deadliest of the civil war. This was also when the Quiche region, where Chichicastenango is located, became the center of the violence. The military primarily targeted the Maya people living in the Highlands. They came into their villages and killed and tortured the villagers who they suspected of being communists or of working with the guerillas. The military burned down people’s homes and crops, raped women, 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? It is estimated that 140,000 to 200,000 people died or disappeared.
The Civil War ended in 1996 with amnesty for both sides.
However, the Catholic Church and the Maya people have tried over the years to get justice for the victims of the war.
2. Indoor vegetable market
- 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 people selling vegetables inside a gymnasium. 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 first 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 take photos of the vegetable market.
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 is my favorite church in Guatemala.
What makes this church so beautiful is what is happening on the 20 steps leading up to the wooden doors of the 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 of 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.
Santo Tomas Church is also famous for being the location of the only remaining copy of the Popol Vuh, the Sacred Book of the Maya. It’s like the Christian Bible in that it tells the creation story and history of the Q’iche Maya.
Originally, these creation stories had been orally passed down from generation to generation. Then in the 1550s, someone wrote the stories down.
The Popol Vuh was hidden from the Spaniards until the eighteenth century when one of the parishioners of Santo Tomas showed the Popol Vuh to a Spanish friar named Francisco Ximenez. The Spanish friar created a new copy with one side written in Q’iche Maya and the other in Spanish.
The original text has never been found.
Father Ximenez’s document is important because almost all documents recording the history and way of life of the Maya were destroyed by Spanish missionaries.
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 that mixes Catholic beliefs and rituals with traditional Mayan ones.
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. This is where a shaman performs a ceremony.
I saw a shaman sit down next to one of the platforms, 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 a shaman sacrifice a chicken.
The shaman then started praying. My guide said that someone probably hired him to pray for his or her health, financial success, love life, or whatever was needed.
Shamans will 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.
There were also lots of worshippers praying and making their way on their knees to the front of the church. Some were holding candles; others were holding babies.
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 church where people worship a religion that mixed Catholicism and traditional Mayan beliefs.
Take some time to visit it as well.
A shaman was conducting a fire ceremony right outside the church. This is a ceremony where participants can ask the shaman to cleanse them of bad energy, protect them from evil or an enemy’s curses, or heal them from illness or ailment.
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 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 a fire ceremony as they try to heal someone from an illness, cast spells on someone’s enemy, or provide protection to ward off one’s nemesis.
This guy in the above photos had killed a chicken and was blowing smoke from his cigar on someone’s photo.
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 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.
7. Mask Museum
- COST: 8:00 AM – 6:00 PM
- LOCATION: Google Maps
The mask museum is both a museum and a workshop. This is where one family makes the masks that the dancers wear in religious ceremonies.
I did not have time to visit the museum. If you want to, you might need to stay overnight in Chichi or not spend so much time taking photos.
8. Pascual Abaj
- 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 dedicated to the Maya earth god, Huyp Tak’ah. It is supposed to be over a thousand years old. 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.
This was another place that I wasn’t able to get to.
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.
Check out this fabulous travel guide to the best villages as well as the best hotels and hostels to stay in at Lake Atitlan.
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 left 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 travel insurance. During my travels over the past 2 years, I’ve been using SafetyWing for my insurance. They’re very affordable for all ages, and digital nomads can use their insurance long-term.
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