December 11, 2009

Chichicastenango, a colorful and cultural city

Chichicastenango is a small town at an altitude of 2070 meters in the department of Quiche. Ninety three percent of the population speak K’iche as their first language. Only three hours from Guatemala City, it’s one of the first destinations visited by tourists for its colorful market.

The chichicaste
The name of the municipality comes from the náhuatl word tzitzicastli, which was transformed in tzitzicastenango. That means “around the ortigas” or “the place walled by the ortigas”. Ortiga is a plant that grows up in the area and is known as chichicaste. It’s a medicinal plant, used by the eldest when they have pain in their bones.

A colorful and lively market
The life in Santo Tomas Chichicastenango takes place around the Catholic Church. It’s common to see indigenous people performing ancestral rituals on the stairs. The smoke and the smell of the incense cover the place. During the days of the market, the vendors of typical products, masks and religious images offer their products to the tourists. Just scroll around the stands and bargain hard! If you’re hungry, you can find anything to eat: fried or cooked chicken, chuchitos (corn pastry filled with beef or pork), jocotes (Red Mombin fruits) and peanuts. The smell of the tortillas of corn just out of the comales (cookware) will give you an appetite.
Between the antiques of the markets, you notice the crude images of the saints made of wood, some eaten by woodworms. The majority represent Saint Antony, Saint Thomas et the Virgin Mary. Vendors are asking between 400 and 600 Quetzals ($50-75)per pieces but at the end of the negotiation they could end up selling them half price.

The handicrafts made of clay, which look like pre-Columbian, are abundant too around the temple. Another vendor told me that he’s extracting the pieces from the ceremonial sites present in Chichicastenango. He showed, as an example, several pieces that came from a close site where they worship Pascual Abaj. They are sold around 150 Quetzals ($20) per piece.

Adobe y tiles
Chichi, as called by the majority of persons, is a small town with narrow and steep streets. You can see some houses in adobe and tile, surrounded by fields of corn, which make for a great picture. The life of the chichicastecos who live in the rural area is not very different from any other town, especially in the western part of the country. The patios of the houses are always full of chickens, dogs, cats, and in places more isolated there are others animals such as cows and horses.
The principal economic activities of Chichicastenango are the agriculture and the commerce, which take place every Sunday and Thursday, the days of the market. Due to the colors and quantity of transactions, this market is considerated, with San Francisco Del Alto market, as one of the most important of the Altiplano.
The black beans, eggs and herbs are the base of the alimentation of the diet of this K’iche town whose majority of inhabitants (85%) live dispersed in the 80 communities of the municipality. The structure of its center, type colonial, converted the town as the bastion of the international tourism. 

Traditions and religious rituals
Chichi has many traditions, one of them is to do the shopping for every day need on Sunday and Thursday.

The religious rituals are very important in the life of the K’iche. There is a small hill outside town named Turcanj where is the most important altar in the country. Doctors and Shamans from all Guatemala are coming to practice rituals. Its name means “sacred place” or “sacred stone”. This altar was built for the Maya God named Pacual Abaj who is the god of man, woman, fertility and rain. At the top, you will see some Catholic crosses which were erected during the earthquake of 1976. Before, the Catholics and Mayas were rivals, but the earthquake made them realize that they were committing  an error in front of God. So they decided to make an union and planted four crosses to symbolize the four cardinal points, to protect the place from any earthquake. People have a lot of respect for the doctors and Mayan shamans, who have power to do good and bad things. Rituals include burning candles, giving food and alcohol, and even killing a chicken. You can visit the place but don’t take any pictures of people or touch any objects used for the rituals.

In December, it’s the town fair in honor of the Patron of the town, Saint Thomas. The main day is December 21st when there is a large parade. The combination of the masked and costumed dancers of the Baile de la Conquista, a satirizing carnival pageant on the conquering of the Americas, transforms Chichi into a rainbow of colors that challenges the realms of the imagination. Now imagine the images of the patron saint being paraded through the streets, strong smells of incense pouring from the church, the sounds of firecrackers, rockets, drums and brass bands and your senses are stimulated as never before.

Typical dress
The typical dress of Chichicastenango can be considered as one of the most traditional and colorful in Guatemala. Women has preserved their dress but men are not using it anymore. Only the Cofrades (religious brotherhoods) and Chuch-Kajaws (Mayan priests) are wearing it during the festivals such as on December 21st. Men wear a short pant going under the knees and jackets. The back cut of the pant is unique, four pieces sewed in a form of a perfect cross. The jackets are embroidery with red silk, with fringes in the back, and elaborated with wool silk, which symbolizes the rain. And on their heads they wear a piece of fabric.

The women wear a blouse known in Guatemala as Guipil and in Chichicastenango as Pot, and a short woolen skirt under the knees supported by a belt in colors white and black. There are two types of Guipil, the sacred used for the special days by women having a relation with the Cofradia (brotherhood), and the Guipil of every day.

How to get there?
To get to Chichistenango on the days of the market, there are shuttles leaving Antigua, Panajachel and Quetzaltenango.

Pictures taken on December 21, 2008




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