Here we are up in the Guatemalan highlands. First stop for two nights was Quetzaltenango, “Place of the Quetzal.” (The resplendent quetzal is a big, colorful bird – I’m sure if I ever saw one I’d assume it was a parrot – that is the national bird of Guatemala and the name of the country’s currency.) Sitting at 7,700 feet above sea level, Queztaltenango is Guatemala’s second largest city and over the last 20 years or so something of a boom town. Prior to the 16th century Spanish conquest the city, already some 300 years old, was known as Xelajú; thus today many people still refer to the city as Xela (shay-lah) which is a heckuva lot easier to write or say than Quetzaltenango.
Why go to Xela? To be honest, there’s not a great reason unless you have a lot of time. It’s a chance to see Guatemala sans significant tourism, sort of the real Guatemala. There’s a nice central park, a few good restaurants, a cool highlands climate, and … not much else. A nice place to stop for two days but unless you want to study Spanish – there are seemingly hundreds of Spanish language schools here – or hike up some serious volcanos, but otherwise not much reason to stick around long.
Next stop was Chichicastenango, “Place of the Nettles.” It’s not too long a drive from Xela, but we decided to be a little adventurous and take the secondary route on Google Maps, as opposed to the main route recommended. It’s worth saying upfront that we survived, but there were moments we weren’t so sure how it was going to turn out. All was going just fine on this secondary route when the pavement ended. And then we were in a pretty remote part of Guatemala unsure how many miles of rough gravel roads were in front of us. A bunch, it turns out. And while we considered turning back, fortunately we didn’t and instead got to see a part of the countryside that’s really off the beaten track. Eventually, a bit later than anticipated, we made it to Chichicastenango.
There is one good reason to come to Chichi, a huge market that occurs on Thursdays and Sundays. So we pulled in Saturday afternoon as they were starting to set up and spent a couple hours Sunday morning wandering through the market where they sell pretty much everything you can imagine. Masks and textiles, fruits and vegetables, hardware, toiletries, rocks and plastic toys, beans and rice and soap and belts and on and on. Chickens, live and dead. Pigs, big and small. Candles. No Apple products, but it seemed like pretty much anything else you could want.
My favorite part to wander in was the “food court,” an area where dozens of Mayan women were cooking … stuff. I recognized the fried chicken, but lots of other stuff that I really didn’t recognize. And dozens and dozens of women making tortillas, patting them into discs and cooking them over wood fires. I loved the smells and sounds of the food area, but the main reason I liked it was that it was the one place in Chichi that, because of the altitude, was warm. (OK, not the only place. Our room in the Mayan Inn had a fireplace, so Mark’s parents joined us for Happy Hour drinks before dinner in front of the fireplace. Sweet!)
Chichi was an intriguing place. Nearly all of the population is indigenous Mayan K’iche, with only a tiny Latino population. While most locals are bilingual Spanish and K’iche speakers, as you go through the market you overwhelmingly hear K’iche rather than Spanish. (To be clear, I don’t speak or even recognize K’iche. I was certain, though, that they weren’t speaking Spanish so it’s safe to assume they were speaking K’iche.)
Walking through the market is an almost otherworldly experience, but oddly we have no pictures from inside the market; I know I took some but somehow they’ve disappeared from my iPhone and the computer. I do have a theory, though. On Saturday, the day before the market, Mark & I walked into the Church of St. Thomas. As I took a picture a local woman waved me off, pointing to a sign that bans photography. Although that turned out to be a picture I really liked, she may have put a spell on my phone causing subsequent market-related pictures to disappear. [Ed. note: A couple weeks after posting this I found the lost photos; they’re added below.]
The church is pretty interesting. It was built in the mid-16th century atop an old Mayan temple platform and locals still use it for Mayan rituals. The 18 steps leading up to the church represent the 18 months of the Mayan calendar and Mayan incense is a nearly constant presence. Apparently Mayan priests occasionally sacrifice and burn chickens there, but we were spared that scene. Catholic, yes, but in some cases just barely.
One other very cool part of Chichi was the cemetery. Now, Mark & I are often fans of cemeteries which can be delightful places to wander. This was a cemetery to remember, simply the brightest, most colorful cemetery you’ve ever seen, like a shimmering Oz sitting across a valley from the main town. Somber is not a word you would describe here; while the buildings in town are subdued, the (smaller) buildings in the cemetery are brilliant and lively. Makes you kind of look forward to death if you could hang out in a place this fun.
So after a quick stop here, it’s off to Lake Atitlan, a big volcano-surrounded lake an hour or two south of here. Mark & I were there four years ago and we’re pretty excited to go back!