Chichicastenango and lake Atitlan

We left Guatemala City at 7AM for a three-hour ride to the Sunday market at Chichicastenango (a mouthful of a name!). We rode up the mountains, constantly overtaken by yellow school buses in their new incarnation as “chicken buses”, named so because that’s where the shoppers take their chicken home from the markets. Some of the buses remained yellow, others were painted in rainbow of colors. The tops of the buses are loaded with packs and packages, and occasionally you see men hanging off the back of the bus, they aren’t freeloaders – they haul the packages up on the roof and then back down when their owners disembark. Other riders fill the backs of pickup trucks, some holding what seems to be a tightly-packed crowd of 20 people or so. We rode through Mayan villages. The villages are primitive and very poor, made up of adobes or houses of corrugated steel, but the population is quite colorful! Back during the Spanish conquest, the Spaniards enslaved the Maya and made them work the fields. To distinguish between their slaves, the owners ordered their Indians to wear clothes of certain colors. The Maya complied but elaborated on the styles and created intricately embroidered outfits they still wear today. It’s mostly women now, but once in a while you see a dandy in an embroidered shirt, fancy pants, and a skirt worn over.
After what seemed like an eternity, we entered the town of Chichicastenango and suddenly we were in the midst of it all, in the melee of people, cars, motorbikes, and occasional pigs and chicken. The market is held twice a week: Sundays and Thursdays, and attracts vendors from all nearby villages as well as tourists from all over the world.
I have been to a number of indigenous markets, but this one is up there, among the best I’ve seen. Women in brightly colored and intricately embroidered outfits mill around, many with a babe or two in their papoose carriers. The weavings and embroidered goods for sale are colorful and eye-pleasing, and some wood carvings are of high quality. In the middle of the market is the Church of Santo Tomas – a mystical white church with dark wood carvings, the place where the Mayan Bible was first found. The Mayan bible contains a story of its own immaculate conception; this virgin, though, gave birth to twins, one of whom became the moon, and the other – the sun.
The Mayans are officially catholic, but Catholicism here peacefully coexists with ancient Mayan beliefs. Thus, this church has the main altar dedicated to Jesus, and several minor altars dedicated to local deities. So some people were kneeling in front of Jesus, while others lit candles and prayed to their preferred gods.
The church had an eerie and mystical feel and wasn’t too hard on the eye either. So wasn’t the only hotel in town, opened for guests only on the nights before the markets – two nights a week,that’s all. All that Spanish splendor, the whitewashed walls, the balconies, the courtyard with a fountain in the midst of lush vegetation and live parrots perched on the branches, – all that is for the well-off market goers, two days a week.
From the market, we drove on the dusty roads, through impoverished villages to our hotel on the shores of lake Atitlan. This hotel has gotta be one of the most (if not the most) charming hotels we ever stayed at! Perched on a hill, which once was the crater of the volcano that erupted and died, creating the lake, the hotel is a multilevel structure of tastefully decorated rooms, adorned by local crafts, tiled floors, wooden ceilings, terra cotta walls, luscious colors, and best of all – a spectacular view of the lake and the three volcanoes from a private balcony. Both tranquil and exhilarating – the view, the decor, the library filled with books and stacks of old magazines, a chess set by the window, and a total absence of tv sets anywhere on the property – complete and total relaxation!
We sat on the balcony for over an hour watching the sun setting behind the volcanoes. Paradise lost.


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