Days 114-115 – Sunday August 12th- Monday August 13, 2007
Chichicastenango, Quiche and Joyabaj, Guatemala
Sunday morning we awoke very early with the annoying sound of our alarm. We dressed quickly and headed over to the travel agent’s office to catch our shuttle. The shuttle left San Pedro destined for Chichicastenango at 8am sharp. Chichicastanengo is home to the largest outdoor market in Guatemala. This fact certainly hasn’t escaped the gringo population here and on market days, this sleepy little mountain town comes to life with locals and tourists alike.
As a tourist in Guatemala it is almost impossible not to go to Chichi at some point on your trip. On Thursdays and Sundays, a nonstop caravan of shuttles and buses from all over Guatemala bring tourists to Chichi to shop for local merchandise. Most people who visit, end up staying for all of about four or five hours before they get back on their comfortable tourist bus to return to their hotel. Of course we couldn’t do what everyone else does, so we decided to stay for awhile. Our ticket aboard the comfortable tourist shuttle only read one way. We weren’t sure what to expect in Chichi, but we definitely felt that it would be different than the laid back atmosphere of San Pedro La Laguna.
Perhaps the main drawback of taking a one way tourist shuttle to Chichi, is the arrival. Since most tourists arrive in Chichi without any baggage, it doesn’t seem to be a problem that they are dropped off in the middle of about a million people. When we got off the shuttle with our overly heavy backpacks it did prove quite difficult to maneuver our way through the narrow streets. After a few minutes, I figured out that I had to push my way through the crowds just like the locals did. With my new attitude of do as the locals do, we finally made some progress towards getting a hotel.
Now that we were moving, I pulled out the guidebook and started to look for a hotel. The plan was to get a room, drop off the baggage and quickly get back down to the market. After checking out a couple of slums, we finally settled on a room (not much better) and locked up our things. Like school children (well one of us actually is), we ran down the hill from our hotel towards the enormous market.
Chichi’s market definitely lives up to its reputation. Stalls of every shape and size literally pour out into the streets. The market goes on for several blocks and just about every type of merchandise imaginable is on display. The atmosphere also makes for a great day of people watching, one of my favorite activities! While walking from street to street, we realized that the time was flying by. Before we knew it, it was 2PM and all of the tourist buses drove off, leaving just a small group of devoted travelers (yes that includes us) and the locals. It was really amazing, as we rarely laid eyes on another westerner for the next two days.
Once everyone was gone, the market slowly began to wind down. We watched the children help their parents tear down the stalls that it must have taken hours to build. It was only after watching this spectacle, that I really gained appreciation for how much work they go through twice a week to sell their merchandise at the market.
Chichi is a small town, so after the market closed we didn’t have much else to do but eat dinner. I only mention this because of the conversation that Jasmine and I had in the restaurant. We were talking about not seeing enough culture and that we were a little bored. Someone must have been listening, because at that moment, a man walked into the restaurant, which was only occupied by us at the time. It turned out that he was an American who was helping some of the local Mayan communities write books about their culture. After he gave us a little more insight into Chichi’s unique religious customs, Ed invited us to go to a neighboring town to take in their fiesta the next day. Since we didn’t have any real plans anyway, we accepted his offer and agreed to meet on Monday morning at 7am.
Our talk with Ed opened our eyes to the differences of the local culture in Chichi. Besides having more drunks sleeping on the streets than anywhere else I have seen in Guatemala, most of the residents of Chichi practice a hybrid form of Catholicism that is different than anywhere else in the region. This religion consists of a mix of Catholicism and ancient Maya beliefs. In front of their church, they constantly burn incense and during the market, a group of church elders walks through the streets blowing up fireworks every few minutes. While I don’t know the significance of these things, they are pretty interesting.
On Monday morning we met Ed as agreed and headed over to the makeshift bus terminal in Chichi. Our destination for the day was about an hour and a half away. The trip would be split amongst two different camionetas (buses). Up to this point in Guatemala, we had only traveled on comfy tourist shuttles and were anxious to travel as the locals do. Camionetas are the staple of Guatemalan transportation as they provide the only link for most people between the many cities and towns in the country. They also provide transportation for the merchants as they go from market to market to sell their wares.
Shortly after arriving at the terminal, the bus headed for Quiche pulled up and we got on board. As we boarded the reality set in that no amount of passengers are too many. What do I mean by this you ask? Well, to start they wouldn’t even think of only having two people per seat. The formula for properly filling a camioneta goes something like this: three people per seat and one or two in the aisle. Basically, what it amounts to is seven or eight people across a row, in a space designed for four children. Since the bus was pretty full when we boarded there were no seats available and we stood the whole time. Luckily, the first trip was only about thirty minutes and the time quickly passed. We changed buses in Quiche and the second bus to Joyabaj was a lot less crowded.
At around 10am, we arrived in Joyabaj, our final destination. Unfortunately, the story of this particular day was to be the rain. It was raining in every town in the area and the weather was absolutely miserable. After getting off the bus and walking around a bit, we went to get some lunch with the hopes that the rain would die off. After killing an hour in the comedor, it was raining harder than ever and we were forced to make a decision. In lieu of standing outside in the now pouring rain, Jasmine and I decided to head back towards Chichi. Ed opted to stay in Joyabaj in order to see a ritual dance later in the day.
While getting ready to switch buses in Quiche, we learned that they were having a festival of their own. It looked to be somewhat shaded from the weather, so we decided to look around a little. They had several types of carnival games and a nice little selection of children’s rides. One of the rides appeared to be three quarters of a ferris wheel and I never found out what it was! Unfortunately, we couldn’t stay very long as the rain proved to be too much for us. After thirty minutes at the almost abandoned fiesta, we boarded the bus for Chichi.
The miserable weather forced us to spend the rest of the night in our room in Chichi and during that stint, we decided to move on to Quetzaltenango on Tuesday. Quetzaltenango or Xela as the locals call it, is the second largest city in Guatemala and has a nice selection of Spanish schools. Perhaps this will be the place we finally settle down for a little while. After a couple of weeks in Guatemala, we are finally ready to see what a Guatemalan city has to offer.
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The Coomer Family