One of the largest and most well-known markets in all of Central America can be found in the small indigenous Mayan town of Chichicastenango, located in the western highlands of Guatemala. Chichicastenango is a charming, traditional and authentic Mayan town located high in the lush jungle-covered mountainous region of Guatemala and I felt like I had seen the “real” Guatemala after visiting there. The town’s main attraction is its massive market! The market is held every Thursday and Sunday and this is when locals travel from villages throughout the countryside and gather at this market to sell their beautiful handicrafts, colourful textiles, fresh produce, traditional clothing and more at this bustling and vibrant local market.
If you love to visit local markets when you travel and immerse yourself in the culture, Chichicastenango is the ultimate market to explore and shop and it provides you with a unique market experience in Guatemala.
I visited Chichicastenango on a Sunday – my last day of three while staying in the peaceful hippie village of San Marcos La Laguna on Lake Atitlan. I purchased a round-trip ticket for Q75 on a shared shuttle van leaving from San Marcos the day before my day trip, from a local travel agency in town along the main pathway in town. Although Chichicastenango is still largely a local market, it sees a good amount of tourists and as a result, it is easy to get to via shuttles from popular destinations around the country for a day trip.
The next day, I walked to the basketball court in the centre of the village where the travel agent had said that the shuttle would pick me up. There were a few other young women around my age waiting there as well. Shortly after 8 in the morning, the shuttle van stopped to pick us up and we were on our way!
The roads leading from San Marcos to Chichicastenango were absolutely TERRIBLE. Leaving San Marcos, there were steep switchbacks meandering through the lush jungle-covered mountains on narrow roads with lots of twists and turns. The roads were also in horrible condition and appeared like they hadn’t been maintained in a long time, with crumbling pavement, deep potholes and uneven surfaces – and these roads were considered to be major routes! I suddenly felt very grateful for our well-maintained highways at home in Canada! It also didn’t help that our driver was slightly speeding along roads with steep drop-offs on one side and no railings. The drive was nauseating and I was so glad that I had brought some Gravol with me (I love this natural ginger version) and it definitely helped. After getting through the mountains and driving through some small towns, we finally reached a busy main highway which was a welcome relief from the constant bumping up and down in a van packed full of people. Unfortunately, the highway driving didn’t last long and soon enough, we were back on more bad roads as we climbed higher and higher into the mountains. It was fascinating to drive through small villages and get a glimpse at the local life there. As we got closer to Chichicastenango, the scenery became more and more beautiful. The landscapes were simply breathtaking, as we were pretty high in the mountains with gorgeous lush vegetation all around.
After about two hours on the shuttle van, we finally arrived in the bustling town of Chichicastenango! The shuttle dropped us off along a side street next to a parking garage and we were free to spend the rest of the day exploring the market and town before heading back to San Marcos at 2 pm. It was a gloomy day and there were lots of dark clouds, but thankfully it didn’t rain at all. The landscape around Chichicastenango was gorgeous and there were beautiful rolling hills, valleys, mountains and lush tropical vegetation.
Exploring The Market
I stepped out of the van and began walking down a random street in search of the market. The town was bustling and there were people everywhere – mostly locals dressed in their traditional colourful outfits, but also some tourists. It didn’t take too long before I found the market.
Before arriving to Chichicastenango, I had pictured the market being inside a building for some reason. I was so wrong!
The market was HUGE and it took over the entire central area of town while being completely outdoors (with protective tarps hanging over the vendors and the streets). The small cobblestone streets had been transformed into narrow aisles and hundreds of vendors lined the streets on both sides, selling a variety of traditional Mayan handicrafts and textiles. The streets also featured colourfully painted colonial buildings.
I started wandering the aisles/streets in the market. It was overwhelming, fascinating, chaotic, colourful and bustling. It felt like a maze, as every street looked the same and I got lost a few times, walking by the same stalls multiple times, but it was all part of the adventure. Navigating the market was confusing and there was no organization whatsoever. Local vendors packed both sides of the streets. There were lots of smells, sights, people and colours. All of my senses were absorbing everything at once and it was amazing.
There were so many stalls where local men and women were selling beautiful handmade items like intricately handwoven purses, backpacks and wallets, brightly coloured textiles, wood carvings, handicrafts, traditional clothing, scarves, blankets, jewelry, pottery, fresh produce, and so much more. They sold pretty much everything! The market was confusing and I walked down the same streets multiple times, just trying to find my way around but it was fun to simply wander with no destination in mind. I was in awe at my surroundings and the market was bustling and full of activity. The aisles were packed with people and some areas were so crowded that I was touching shoulders with everyone around me, with absolutely no empty spaces.
My only annoyance about the market were some of the vendors who were constantly trying to pressure me to buy something or persistently calling me as I walked by their stalls. Pushing through the crowds of people just to get anywhere was also exhausting. The second that I took any interest in an item by looking in the direction of a specific vendor or stopping at a stall just to browse and take a look, the local sellers were persistent in trying to convince me to buy it. I felt a little bit uncomfortable at first when this happened, as I enjoy just looking at something before I buy it and not feeling pressured to purchase it before I have fully decided. There were also lots of local women who would follow tourists like myself around the market while attempting to sell their scarves or table runners. I found that the best way to deal with this was to say “no, gracias” and then ignore them and keep walking. It was slightly annoying but I quickly got used to it and didn’t feel bad in rejecting them. These were my only somewhat negative experiences at the market but they didn’t take away from my overall experience.
After walking around the market countless times, I figured out some ways on how to sneakily check something out without the seller noticing and thus convincing me to take a closer look. My first technique was to find a sidewalk to sit on or to stand along the side of the street somewhere and just take a look at what was around me, without making specific eye contact with any of the sellers. I also enjoyed stopping at stalls where the seller was already preoccupied explaining their items to other people, so I could browse in peace.
I spent hours walking along the narrow and crowded aisles through this massive market countless times and just soaking up the atmosphere and culture. Even though there were a good amount of tourists there, there were still more locals and the market felt authentic. The town was very traditional and it was fascinating to see the indigenous Mayans dressed in their traditional and beautifully coloured outfits, even the men. There was a lot of culture in Chichicastenango and I spent some time just sitting on sidewalks in between my wanderings and explorations and just observing the locals’ daily life and their multi-coloured traditional outfits. There were some very skinny and sad-looking dogs and cats around the market and it broke my heart to see them. I found a tiny kitten crying on a side street and felt compelled to sit on the sidewalk and comfort it.
Before arriving in Chichicastenango, I had a specific list of items that I was looking to purchase and I was very successful in finding everything on that list – a beautiful multi-coloured backpack with detailed weaving, two handwoven wallets, and three purses. I had so much fun shopping at this huge market and it felt really satisfying to support the local women and artisans who made these local products. For all of my purchases, the seller had a huge smile on their face and they seemed so appreciative for the support, which just warmed my heart knowing how much the money meant to their lives and that of their families. All of the items being sold at the market seemed authentic, original and unique – unlike the mass-produced touristy souvenirs elsewhere in the country – and Chichicastenango was the perfect place to find some amazing local, handcrafted and homemade products and souvenirs to remember your trip by!
I wasn’t very skilled at bargaining and I was scared of suggesting too low of a price, as I knew that the sellers made their livelihoods from these markets and I wanted to support them. However, I never took the first price that I was quoted after asking the seller, “Cuanto cuesta?” and I ended up getting a decent deal on everything that I bought, while still paying them a fair price for the items. It was a win-win situation and everybody was happy. I found that a lot of the vendors were selling similar items, so if one of them isn’t giving you the price you would like, I recommend finding the same item at a different vendor and trying your luck there. As for bargaining, I had rread before going to the market to suggest half the price that you were initially quoted, but I felt like that was too low so I went a little more than half. You can do whatever feels comfortable for you.
Around midday, I took a break from exploring the market to escape the crowds and ate lunch at a small local restaurant called Los Cofrades, which was situated on the second floor balcony of a building (at the corner of 6a Calle and 5a Avenida). There were great views overlooking the entire market from my table, and I enjoyed spending some time relaxing and observing all of the activity from a unique vantage point. The outdoor seating on the balcony was pleasant and relaxing and I enjoyed a delicious plate of freshly made guacamole with chips and an ice cold Coca Cola for lunch, while doing some people-watching from my unique vantage point.
Aside from the shopping, and town and market of Chichicastenango also had lots of wonderful photo opportunities! I enjoyed photographing the crowded aisles and colourful handicrafts and it interesting to observe and be immersed in the traditional Mayan culture that was very prominent in this town. I loved walking around the market and it was so lively!
There were a few public washrooms located in random buildings along the market aisles. I stopped to use one of them during my wanderings and it was one the nastiest and sketchiest washrooms I’ve ever used! The bathroom stalls were situated in a dark and dungeon-like basement of this building. The stalls were super tiny and I was completely alone. I got out of there pretty fast!
Church of Santo Tomas
During my wanderings around the market, I discovered the Church of Santo Tomas, which was situated on the town’s main plaza and in the centre of the vibrant market. The cultural traditions and religion in Chichicastenango were quite distinct in that they combined both traditional Mayan religious practices with Roman Catholic ones. It was fascinating to witness these traditional Mayan rituals being practiced at this church.
Smoke filled the air as the locals were burning incense on the steep and uneven stone steps leading up to the white church. Lots of locals wearing their beautiful traditional outfits sat and gathered on the steps – praying, selling their colourful handicrafts and huge bundles of white and yellow flowers and plants. The steps were filled with these beautiful flowers and candles which were left there as offerings before the locals entered inside the church.
The area around the church was congested with people and I was crammed shoulder to shoulder with everybody around me. I slowly made my way through the crowd and climbed up the steps of the church to the top, where I sat and observed my surroundings. There were hardly any tourists at the church and it felt amazing to have such an interesting local experience. The vantage point from the church stairs was fantastic, with great views overlooking the market and all of the stalls and people! It was an amazing spot to do some people-watching. When you visit this church, I highly recommend finding a space on the stairs and taking in the views of the crowded market and colourful stalls below!
Chichicastenango was a really interesting town that felt very authentic. The majority of the local population was indigenous Mayan K’iche. Unlike Antigua, Chichicastenango was not polished or clean and did not cater to tourists. It was a local town and of all the places that I visited in Guatemala, this one felt the most like the “real” Guatemala.
After spending most of my day wandering around the market area in the centre of town, I had some spare time to check out the town a little bit before having to head back to the shuttle.
At two o’clock in the afternoon, I waited at the same parking garage where the shuttle had dropped us off and it arrived shortly after that time to pick us all up. We drove back to San Marcos along the same bumpy, winding, narrow and terribly nauseating roads and I was so relieved when we finally made it back!
Safety at Chichicastenango
I visited Chichicastenango as a solo female traveler and didn’t experience any issues. I also never felt uncomfortable or unsafe. Because the market is crowded and busy, there are plenty of opportunities for incidences of robberies and pickpocketing. Here are some tips to protect yourself and your belongings as you walk through the market:
- Be aware of your surroundings.
- Hold your backpack in front of you and never let it out of your sight.
- Don’t advertise your valuables or flash your cash around.
- Keep most of your excess cash stored away in a money belt (I have this Eagle Creek one and love it) underneath your clothing and only have what you need for the day within easy access to you.
- Don’t keep your phone in your pant pockets.
- Don’t take photos of the local Mayan children. Mayans do not like to be photographed. Make sure to ask for the parent’s permission before taking any photos.
Exploring the Chichicastenango Market and observing the fascinating Mayan culture was such an amazing, unique and exciting experience and I loved walking around this crowded, colourful and lively market. The town was traditional and authentic and the Mayan culture was fascinating to observe and immerse myself in. There were also plenty of amazing photo opportunities there and Chichicastenango was an amazing place to go shopping for authentic, unique and handmade local products for souvenirs.
I loved spending the day at Chichicastenango to do some shopping and people-watching and spending time in an authentic and local Guatemalan market! It was an amazing and unique cultural experience and I would definitely go again. During my next visit to Guatemala, I would love to stay overnight in Chichicastenango and watch the town’s streets being transformed as the market is set up on the previous day. I think that it would be a fascinating to spend more time there and experience more of the unique culture and I can’t to return there again one day.
If you are looking for a fascinating cultural experience where you can immerse yourself in the local culture, wonderful photo opportunities, and a place to shop for unique and handmade souvenirs, I highly recommend checking out the Chichicastenango Market during your Guatemalan travels. It is truly an incredible and authentic experience that should not be missed.
Getting There and Away
Chichicastenango is easily accessible via shared shuttles from most of the popular tourist destinations in Guatemala, like Antigua, various towns around Lake Atitlan, Guatemala City, Quetzaltenango (Xela) and others. Most travel agencies will offer a day trip to Chichicastenango on market days where you will arrive sometime in the morning and have the entire day to explore the market and town before leaving Chichicastenango at around 2 pm. You can also choose to arrive in the town the day before the market days to experience the setting-up of the entire market and stay overnight, leaving on the market day.
You can visit any local travel agency where you are staying in Guatemala and ask them to book you a seat on one of their shuttles to Chichicastenango. These shuttles are reasonably priced, fairly comfortable vans that seat around 2 passengers. They have a much better safety record than the cheaper local public transport called “chicken buses.”
I have personal experience using both Adrenalina Tours and Atitrans for booking shuttles around Guatemala and they were fantastic! They were professional, had excellent service, were prompt, and employed friendly and safe local drivers. I would recommend both of these shuttle and tour booking companies for your transportation needs in Guatemala.
Tips For Visiting the Chichicastenango Market
Here are some tips for you when you visit the Chichicastenango Market:
- Bring extra cash – I recommend bringing a little more cash than you think you need to the market. There are lots of beautiful things to purchase and it would really suck to run out of money and then fall in love with an item. There are a few ATMs located on the streets in the around the market, but they often run out of cash on market days or simply do not work. I tried using two different ATMs inside banks and neither of them gave me any cash. Thankfully, I still had some extra but I wished that I had taken more. Make sure to withdraw enough spending money for your shopping before heading to the market.
- Be prepared to haggle – Bargaining is definitely expected at the market. The advice that I had read online said to suggest half of the initial price the vendor quotes you. If you don’t feel comfortable doing this, you can counter with any price you would like and try to get the best deal for yourself while still respecting the amount of time and effort that the local seller put into their product.
- Bring motion sickness pills – The roads leading from Lake Atitlan (and probably from Antigua as well) to Chichicastenango are bumpy, winding, narrow and nauseating and consist of some steep switchbacks as they make their through the mountainous landscape. I don’t normally get motion sickness but my stomach felt really upset driving on these roads and I was so glad that I had brought some natural Gravol pills.
- Protect your belongings and cash – The Chichicastenango Market is busy and crowded and pickpockets and opportunistic crimes (like theft) are common in environments like this. I always held my small daypack to the front of my body with the straps around my shoulders and kept my DSLR camera inside my bag, only taking it out when I wanted to snap a photo and then putting it away again. I kept my extra cash in a money belt hidden underneath my clothes and just had the cash that I needed available to me in my wallet. When I needed to use more cash, I popped into a public washroom and took more out of money belt.
Planning Your Guatemalan Travel Adventure?
Here are some helpful links if you are currently planning your next travel adventure!
Compare prices and book your flights using Momondo. I love the user-friendly design of this website and how easy it is to filter your flights by price, duration, etc. It’s a great place to find the best flight deals!
Use Hostelworld to book a private room or dorm bed at a budget-friendly hostel and browse through listings across the globe. Use Booking.com to find a huge inventory of independent hotels, guesthouses, bed and breakfasts, hostels and chain hotels around the world and for every budget. And if you’re looking for a more authentic and unique experience of staying in a local’s home at your destination, then book your stay using Airbnb (sign-up using my link and get a discount off your first stay).
Disclaimer: This post contains affiliate links. If you make a travel booking on any of the websites I have recommended, I will receive a small commission at no extra cost to you. I use all of these websites for booking my own travels and would never recommend something that I don’t already love.
Click here to read more posts from my explorations in Guatemala.
Have you visited the market in Chichicastenango? What did you think of it? What’s your favourite market that you’ve been to?
Let me know in the comments below!
Thanks for reading!