Ben and I are on Lake Atitlan in the Western Highlands of Guatemala. It’s the deepest lake in Central America and has small indigenous towns around its perimeter and between mountains and volcanoes that also surround the lake. After being in the beautiful, clean, to good to be true, colonial walls of Antigua, we were excited to see what the rest of Guatemala looked like.
We made one eventful stop before arriving at Lake Atitilan. While we were in Antigua we heard a lot about a town a few hours north called “Chichicastenango” (ChiChi for short) which had the largest indigenous market in Guatemala and decided to check it out.
The term indigenous in Guatemala refers to people of mainly Mayan decent. Mayan people are generally thought to have disappeared or died out, but that’s not the case considering there are over 6 million Mayan people living in Guatemala, Belize and Mexico. In Guatemala they are mainly concentrated in the Highlands and still retain the term indigenous because they have strongly held on to their roots. Their language, traditions, religion, dress, food, and working lifestyle are drastically different from the rest of the population. In many small towns in the Highlands, the people only speak traditional Mayan languages. There are about 20 different indigenous languages spoken, depending on the region and the majority of these people know very little Spanish, if any at all.
When we arrived in ChiChi we entered a Mayan society drastically different from Antigua. After finding a cheap hostel, we dropped off our backpacks and headed for the market. From a side alley we stepped into the heart of the market and were swallowed into its chaos for a couple hours.
In Chichicastenango Market days are on Thursday and Sunday. The indigenous vendors descend to Chichi from dozens of different small villages surrounding town. They arrive the night before by way of bus, pickup truck, horse, donkey, or by foot. After the several hour journey from the villages to ChiChi (usually carrying all there merchandise on their back) the merchants get a couple hours sleep huddled together in small fields and then wake up around 3 am to start setting up their stalls and sprawl out their merchandise. Around 4 pm the day is winding down and the merchants start to pack up their products, disassemble their stalls and try to get a head start on their arduous hike home before dark (merchandise and tents on their back). They repeat this process twice a week in hopes of making enough money to feed their family. If they only sell one item during a market day many merchants consider this to be a success.
These vendors sell traditional clothes, jewelry, rugs, wall tapestries, medicinal plants, pottery, pigs, chickens, machetes, and leather goods.Food stalls are filled with people eating cheap tamales and tacos. The air smelled like corn tortillas – a standard in Guatemala that I really appreciate.
The stalls selling clothes were traditional clothing worn by all Mayan women. Their clothes are so striking – really bright, handwoven shirts called “huipiles” with long skirts. The skirts are held on by flower embroidered belts that tie at the waist. Some women wrap brightly colored scarves in their hair with streamers called “chalinas“. Each item of clothing is handmade and takes weeks of extreme skill and patience to intricately sew.
We bought a few gifts and after we couldn’t shop anymore, we took refuge on the steps of a big white church at one end of the market. The church ended up being a significant religious site and another reason ChiChi is an important town among the Mayan people.
The steps we were resting on belonged to the Church of Santo Tomas and it was built 400 years ago over a Mayan temple. The 18 steps that led into the temple were preserved, each step representing one month on the Mayan calendar. Although these steps now lead into a Catholic church, they are the site for many Mayan rituals. Every Sunday Shamans gather on the steps and burn incense and candles for their gods. On special days, they will sacrifice a chicken. By the time we arrived, the ceremony was over but the embers of incense were still smoking on the steps.
We went inside the church and sat in the back for a while to observe. Some people were in the pews praying, others were kneeling in the main aisle to light candles, and colorfully dressed Shaman in headdresses were up front swigging cans on burning incense. A couple of people were on their hands and knees praying while slow crawling towards the main alter. With a Catholic alter and their Saints painted on the walls, this was a rare site where Indian and Catholic religions mixed. (Although many are considered Catholic, the Mayans have maintained traditional rituals and their reliance on the spiritual guidance of Shaman.)
All of a sudden everyone started to get up to leave and the day’s religious concession was over. As we stood outside, quietly watching everyone leave, a woman approached us and asked if we wanted to see a ceremony taking place at the top of a hill, another religious site in town. We said yes and she escorted us to a “Pascual Abaj”, an ancient stone that the Maya believe is a sacred place to worship the Earth god, for happiness and prosperity.
After a 30 minute hike we got to the site where a Shaman stood burning candles and speaking very softly. Our guide explained that he was communing with the God on behalf of a family, who was seeking help in some way. It is not customary for the family to speak to the god directly, it must be done through a Shaman. Sometimes the family attends the ritual and sometimes the Shaman is alone. The family does provide sacrifices for the Shaman to present during the ceremony. Everything from incense and candles to chicken to alcohol to Coca-cola is considered an acceptable sacrifice. We watched in silence as he pulled out the sacrifices and presented them in front of the stone and poured various liquids into the fire. We watched respectfully and openly to what we were seeing and everything the guide was telling us. For a second or two the smoked formed a skinny tornado and moved rapidly over the fire, and then turned back into a normal puffy cloud. Our guide quickly got our attention and said that happens when he makes contact with the God. I got chills and for a moment believed it.
He was on his second sacrificial bottle of liquor when a family and another Shaman arrived. They patiently waited for him to finish and then began their own ritual. The family knelt down with their Shaman and began chanting softly, while a little boy started setting up candles to burn. We watched a few moments longer, but didn’t want to be disrespectful by intruding on what seemed like a private event, so we headed back down the hill.
Ever since the Spanish arrived in the 1500s, the Mayan people have been pressured to abandon their culture and assimilate into modern society. They have been treated like second-class citizens for centuries and have experienced discrimination and oppression even in recent times. Coming to Guatemala, I had no idea what a major force the Maya still had in society. I think its incredible that they have been able to keep their culture alive through all of it.
Today, the new government is trying to create more tolerance between the diverse groups of Guatemalan people and they are finally experiencing greater equality in this post-civil war, society. One example is that it is mandatory for all Spanish speaking children to learn Quiche (or some other Mayan language that is prominent in their region). This is done with hopes to bridge the language gap and preserve Mayan culture.
We spent the night in ChiChi and the next morning took 3 different chicken buses to the town of Panajachel on Lake Atitilan. It was a really intense ride. The bus was packed with 3 or 4 to a seat and it felt like a roller-coaster as we whipped around the mountains, slamming into one another with each turn. We prefer the chicken bus to the shuttles – which unlike the chicken buses, usually entail a peaceful ride with a bunch of other Gringos. Taking the locals form of transportation always makes for a way more interesting and fun travel experience.
We arrived to the Lake a few days ago. Although there are mostly Mayan people here, there are also expats and tourists. Right now we are looking for a place to volunteer, so today we are heading to a town called Xela to connect with an organization that has projects either around the Lake or somewhere else in the Highlands.