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Sunday 10 April 2016

Visiting The Craft Markets of Chichi, Guatemala (Chichicastenango)

I recently embarked on an adventure through Central America where I called in on Mexico, Costa Rica, Nicaragua, El Salvador and Guatemala. Although I was excited about all of my destinations, it was the last country on the list that I  couldn't wait to visit. I have long been a fan of colourful Guatemalan crafts, so when I heard Central America's biggest craft market takes place there, visiting it was on top of my vacation wish list. 

The market takes place on Thursdays and Sundays at Chichicastenango (know as ChiChi or Santa Thomas). The area has a strong Mayan heritage reflected by its population. Trade begins at dawn and as well as crafts, there is produce, livestock and flowers. But it was the crafts I came for, and I wasn't disappointed. 

Here are some photos I took of Chichi market to give you a flavour of what a kaleidoscope of colour it is.

Mayan women are so colourful and the market is flooded with stalls that sell traditional clothing, all made from colourful fabrics and embroideries.
Purses - the main gift I brought back for friends as they were small enough to fit in my backpack without adding additional weight. 
Top hats!
Belts are a key accessory for Mayan women 
A typical stall
Another typical stall - filled with colour and gorgeous things
Shawls - my one colour shawl that I brought from home paled in comparison to what women all around me were wearing
Well you can't have a market without handbags!
Womenswear - tops are all one size and get fitted after
More belts - so hard to pick which to buy!
Yet more belts but with a different look
I didn't realise beading was a Guatemalan craft but there were beaded creations everywhere...
...including these pen covers
Traditional Mayan womenswear - I also noticed that all female sellers had these lace aprons

Some stands were on the streets in tables, others inside a covered area and some were simply up alleyways laid out on the floor

If you want to make your own clothes or textiles from scratch, there was plenty of colourful fabric to purchase
Stripes were very popular!
As well as countless stores selling beautifully embroidered fashion, homeware and accessories there were also stalls selling embroidery floss - in every colour imaginable
At this stand dyed floss and yarns were sold by the weight
Shopping is thirsty work and there are plenty of places to enjoy a refreshment stop
The market is like a maze but this church surrounded by flower sellers is in the middle and it helps you find your way when you get lost among the hustle and bustle
If you do make it to the outskirts of the market the rest of the town is rather beautiful

Even the graveyards are spectacularly colourful
Locals queuing for the buses

The market was an incredible experience. I went on Sunday and it was such a colourful, vibrant and interesting place. However it's not so rare to find what was on sale. Guatemala is filled with crafts markets wherever you go and one thing I discovered was that at Chichi items were more expensive than other local markets and surprisingly, very few sellers were open to bargaining. Most came up with ridiculous figures they wouldn't budge on, but if you go to the quieter parts there are some amazing offers to be had. 

At the end of the this post I have listed some advice for surviving Chichi, but I also wanted to mention that not all crafts in Guatemela (i.e. the one's I photographed here) have a rainbow coloured and embroidered feel. 

I also visited a fair-trade community weaving project located on the lakes and these handwoven items were completely different to anything I found in the market. Cojolya has a fascinating gallery that explains the significance of weaving in Mayan life - I loved this Mayan belief:

'God spun the sky and drew out time like the thread weavers spin to weave cloth.'

The centre arranges weaving lessons and tours and can tell you who made every item that is for sale

As much as I loved Chichi, the best place I went shopping in Guatemala was in the colonial town of Antigua. Such a beautiful place. It's also home to a huge shopping fair-trade department store which feels like an art gallery called 'Nim Po't, filled with handmade items, but again with a community, co-operative feel. 

There is wall upon wall of masks
I wanted this rocking horse so much!
Gorgeous handprinted chair which I would have bought if I could have carried it home on the plane
Artisans are able to bring there stock into the shop and have it sold, and it's the biggest collection on Mayan crafts for sale in the world. The shop is epic, save at least an hour to rummage through it all. Prices are fixed but exceptional value. 

A taste of Antigua
If you're ever in Antigua I urge you to visit -you'll get lost in Nim Po't's world of wonders; thankfully there are sofas to sit down and take a breather in when the shopping becomes to overwhelming. 

If you're planning to visit Chichicastenango (which I recommend!) then here's my advice:

Getting there:
I boarded a direct bus from Antigua which left at 4pm on Saturday (picked me up from my accommodation) and then arrived at Chichi at 7pm. 

However I had to speak to several travel and tourist shops in order to book that bus. The main way tourists get to Chichi is the 7am bus on market days, it leaves at 7am, arrives at Chichi 10am and leaves around 2.30pm. This truly is a tourist bus packed with foreigners weighed down by cameras. As soon as it hits 10.30am the market is swarming with these visitors and their tour guides - most companies want you to take this bus but don't listen. 

Keep asking until you do find a bus going the night before so you can set off at dawn when it opens so by the time the other tourists arrive, you've already seen the market, got to understand how it works and know where everything is, so you can shop stress-freely. 

Staying there:
The guidebook said it's vital you must book accommodation in advance as it gets busy. I found no private Air B&B accommodation, nothing on the usual online accommodation sites like Expedia, Lastminute etc and general Googling also didn't throw up many options. The I came across a place called Hotel Giron and it was perfect. I phoned up and reserved accommodation - it was basic but located right in the heart of the market which has so many benefits, like when I needed a break, I came back and could put my shopping down. Accommodation was no where near as full as expected and I wonder if it's a scare story making tourists come on that morning tourist bus.

Generally prices were premium but still so much cheaper than if the items were bought in a UK store. As I mentioned bargaining isn't favoured on stalls, but there are aways to shop cheaper and it's down to who you shop from. Stalls in quieter parts of the market have such good prices there's no need to bargain - I recommend hunting those out. 

Also there are many informal sellers, women who simply walk around selling their wares - they are all up for bargaining so if you see one, don't run away, chat to them and if you see something you like, bargain until you're happy.

Length of time: 
1/2  a day is sufficient and in that time you'll be able to go around the whole market and have time to go back and find your faves to attempt some bargaining!

Finding it all too much?
Don't be afraid to take a break, walk away from the market to the quieter outskirts, or book a tour guide to help you navigate your way through the markets. 

So there's my memories and advice about Chichi, if you have an appreciation for crafts than visiting is essential, and if you simply want to immerse yourself in the Mayan community then hang out and people watch.

Here are a few more snaps taken in Guatemala...

Morning walk around Antigua
Antigua from above, the town is laid out like a grid system

After Chichi I travelled by chicken bus through hilly terrain to the lakes
Chicken buses are public transport and are old American school buses, they are used all over Central America

Aaah, the memories!