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Would You Like a Handbag With Your Mayan Ceremony? – Chichicastenengo, Guatemala | We're Not There Yet

Chichicastenango is a typical Mayan market: chaotic, colorful, dirty, and full of locals just dying to sell you handbags/jewelry/leather shoes/tablecloths/live chickens/lightbulbs/plastic bags. So why is it such a huge tourist attraction? Because it is the biggest market of it’s kind. Which, I would think, should send everyone running. But it is one of Things To Do that is pretty accessible from Xela, and so we piled in a chicken bus with a handful of friends to see what the fuss was all about.

The market takes place on Thursdays and Sundays and the number of visitors swells the town’s population to many times its normal size on market days. We decided to head in the night before to get a sense of the ‘real’ Chichicastenango, before all of the tourists arrived. The route from Xela traces a good portion of the ride we did to Lake Atitlan a few weeks before and it was kind of a trip to see the countryside fly by at bus-paced speeds (which, on a chicken bus, is pretty close to warp speed). Upon arrival, the bus dropped us off on a busy street a few blocks from the central square. We were immediately approached by the touts who hang out, waiting for gringos with big backpacks and clueless expressions (we fit the bill, at least close enough), who they hope to entice with promises of leading them to the best hotel rooms (‘very good price; hot water’), traditional Mayan ceremonies (‘very good price; special price for group’), and the best deals on handbags/jewelry/leather shoes/tablecloths/live chickens/lightbulbs/plastic bags (‘very good price; buy present for your mom’). We managed to avoid the initial gauntlet and arrived at a hotel that was highly recommended by our friend, Shaun, who had passed through before. We found the hotel, but it appeared to be closed (Shaun’s email to us warned ‘people will tell you that it’s closed, but it is definitely open’). We spent a good 10 minutes banging at the front door and calling the phone number we had for the place before another tout approached, told us the place was closed, and insisted on walking us next door to the neighboring hotel.

Vendors posted on the church steps

Touts make their money by selling tours, hotels, and transport that are easily available without their help. They claim that they have the inside scoop for the best deal in town, but, in fact, they simply take you to a place where they have an arrangement to receive a cut of the money. Often, they lead you to a totally legitimate business, but the price you get is slightly higher than the price you would be charged if you arrived on your own. We try to avoid touts as much as possible and were annoyed when this one insisted on leading us to the hotel next door, which would have been our obvious next stop after finding no one at the initial hotel. But the price was right and it was starting to rain, so we took the rooms and listened to the guide’s spiel about the ‘traditional Mayan ceremony’ taking place the next morning, which he was willing to take us to for the bargain price of $40. We managed to send him off with vague promises to call him if we were interested, but that we’d just like to drop off our stuff and grab a bite to eat. As soon as he left, we all agreed that we were able to make the short trip to see the Mayan ceremony by ourselves- it was, afterall, an attraction listed in the Lonely Planet guide, complete with a map and details about visiting the sight in a short morning walk from town.

The rain was so strong that the cobblestoned streets were completely covered with a strong current of dirty brown water. We braved the elements just long enough to grab some beers and retreat back to the hotel for a game of cards while we waited for the rain to let up. It never actually did let up, so our only other sojourn of the evening was a slog down to the market for some cheap food followed by an embarrassingly early bedtime (where else would a group of unemployed 25-35 year olds decide to turn in at 9:00pm?).

A San Simón mannequin on the way up to the Mayan altar

The next morning, we woke up early and followed the clearly marked signs to the Mayan altar, where we arrived just in time to see a family begin a small, private ritual that included, and I am not making this up, rubbing a live duck all over the patriarch, cutting the duck’s head off in sacrifice, then burning the whole animal- head and all- in a small fire. This was followed by the matriarch saying a blessing over each of her grandsons, in turn, then dousing them with a full, shaken liter of beer and a fifth of white rum. Shortly after this was finished, a pair of men (one was the shaman, the other his client) came up the hill and began to set up their own ceremony, for which they prepared a geometric design on the ground made from multi-colored sugar and topped with a crate-full of small, colorful candles. During the preparation of this second ceremony, the tout from the day before arrived with a Dutch couple and a bad attitude. He seemed to be put out that we made our way to the ceremony on our own without his services or his fee. A few of us attempted a sociable hello, but we were met with his unhappy glare for the duration of the ceremony. The fact is, a guide was not at all necessary for the walk and he arrived too late to see the first, more interesting animal sacrifice. We were grateful to have had the opportunity to see the ceremony without the supervision of a guide and had the chance to speak to the family, ask their permission to stay and watch and ask questions about their ceremony. It was a memorable, intimate experience that we didn’t need guidance for and just drove home the extent to which ‘enterprising’ locals will go to make money off of tourists. I can understand that this is a poor country and that tourism is seen as an opportunity to make a buck, but at a certain point, it ruins the experience and becomes a big turn-off to tourists who would gladly pay for basic services and unique experiences.

The patriarch of the family, presenting the bird at the altar

The sacrifice

The offering

Grandmother shook a bottle of beer and doused her grandson with it

Then follows up with a bottle of light rum

Yet, it is having a bandana tied around his head that he most objects to

We left the altar, which is a scene of small, private Mayan ceremonies all day long, seven days a week. More ceremonies would be going on for the rest of the day, but we wanted to see the market and had to catch a bus back to Xela that same afternoon.

Sometimes the ceremonies overlap

A small altar made up of colored sugar and candles

The market was exactly like every other market we have been to on this trip, except that the artisanal crafts section was several time the size it is at other markets- clearly catering to increasing numbers of tourists who don’t buy kitchen appliances, but do buy typical blouses, shoulder bags, and colorful hammocks. Every five steps saw another kid selling bookmarks, woman selling tablecloths, or beggar asking for ‘just one Quetzal’. There were so many people approaching us, asking us for money, trying to sell us stuff that we just don’t want that I walked around the entire market with eyes down, shaking my head and murmuring ‘no, gracias’. We were ready to leave after less than an hour.

A man sells bunches of onions; a woman wears typical Mayan dress

This market is known for the brightly colored fabrics for sale

Of our whole group of 7 people, the only things purchased were a cloth shoulder bag (Nichola’s replacement for the last shoulder bag she bought in the market, which now had a hole in it) and a round of frescas (fruit shakes made with either milk or sugar and a heavy dose of sugar). The truth was, the trip was a bit of a disappointment. We had hoped to visit another town, see how they lived, and see this big, famous market. But the town itself was so small that it turns out that we really did see the bulk of it the previous night, when we ran out for our quick dinner in the rain; and both the town and the market were now so heavily geared towards the herds of tourists that flooded in on market days, that it was impossible to see the original elements that made it so attractive in the first place.

But the locals seem happy

I hate to sound like a tourist who turns her nose up at tourism- the fact is that we are here for the same reason everyone else is here and we go to see the same places that everyone else goes. But there definitely comes a time when the reason for going in the first place is obscured by everything that is built up around it. Tourists to Guatemala tend to come here more for the culture and the natural wonders than for luxury hotels and prepackaged tours. When so much is built up around these exotic experiences and beautiful places that it ceases to feel like a different country, it loses a huge amount of its appeal.

So we packed up to go, not disappointed- but definitely not impressed- and ready to go back to Xela. That’s when we discovered that one of our group, Sven, had about 100 Quetzals (about $15) stolen out of his passport, which was safely tucked away in his backpack. When he confronted the young guy who was cleaning the rooms, the kid immediately handed over half the amount. Sven then complained to the manager, who handed over the rest of the money. We thought it was bad business and strange behavior- clearly admitting guilt in the matter- but we had a bus to catch and were just happy to have the issue so quickly resolved. It wasn’t until we were waiting for the bus that another of our group, Tristan, realized that his iPod had gone missing from his backpack as well. This time, we all marched back to the hotel, which we were pretty disgusted with after the morning’s incident with Sven.

It wasn’t so easy this time around. The guy who had been cleaning the rooms (before we had even checked out for the day) was the likely suspect, as he was the one with access to our stuff while we were gone and had already guiltily handed back Sven’s money after the first confrontation. But he was gone for the day, as was the owner of the hotel. A little girl, who appeared to be a niece or granddaughter of the owner, dispatched herself to find the owner. Some of our group went to get the police and the rest of us awaited the owner, who told us that he was sorry we were robbed but that there was nothing he could do. He refused to call the cleaning guy, who he claimed did not have a cell phone, and told us that he had no idea how to get in touch with the guy or where he lived. After the police arrived, the situation devolved into a verbal brawl, with the owner of the hotel yelling curses and threats that appeared to be gleaned from American movies like The Godfather and Die Hard. We eventually left, after filing the requisite police report, but the incident did not do much to improve our impression of the place.

Two bus transfers later, we arrived back in Xela, back to our little cozy Guatemalan home base. It’s not that there is no crime in Xela or that it is super exciting, but there is something welcoming and real about the place, that is basically what we were all after in the first place. I’m glad that we have been making these weekend trips to other places in Guatemala, but they often just prove to us how right we were to choose Xela as our temporary home.