Chichicastenango – one of the oldest Mayan Markets in Central America

CHICHICASTENANGO MARKET and LAKE ATITLAN, GUATEMALA: Visiting Chichicastenango Market is almost a must if you want to experience the unique culture and centuries old history of Guatemalan Mayans. This is a perfect place to talk to the locals, get a glimpse of their lifestyle, or just to enjoy their daily hustling while doing some shopping. 

There are 25 different cultures in Guatemala and 22 of them are from Mayan ethnic group. Unfortunately, (what our guide told us) Mayan language is only taught in private schools here now. 90% of the highlands people in Guatemala are Mayans and visiting Chichicastenango gives you a small window to that rich heritage. 

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A scene of Chichicastenango Market in Guatemala

This was my first excursion in Guatemala. I booked this online couple weeks before reaching the country. It was $75 per adult for a 12-hours of day trip from Guatemala City, organized by Gray Line Guatemala. We were picked up around 6:30am and were returned to our hotels around 7-ish in the evening. Lunch was included with the package. It was a small group of only 6/7 people in a big van. I won’t lie, this was a long trip and we were in the car for more than 3 hours before reaching Chichicastenango Mayan Market. But I have to say Gray Line Guatemala was a very friendly and accomodating tour company and I loved our guide, Juan Pablo. 

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Chichicastenango Market in Guatemala

MY HOTEL: I stayed in “Oh Espana”…a bed and breakfast-style accommodation in Zone 13 in Guatemala City. The capital is divided into different zones; make sure to pick your hotel carefully, as some zones are not safe for the tourists. The owner lady and the cook were very friendly and helpful. Although a traditional breakfast was included, the location was not that great. It was in some kind of a military residential neighborhood…very safe and gated. But there were absolutely no restaurants or stores within walking distance. Thanks to my ramen cup noodles that I brought from home, which I had to eat for few of my dinners. It was only 3 minutes drive from the airport and hotel had free shuttle service…but again, I wouldn’t stay there again next time I go to Guatemala. 

My recommendation, if anyone is going to Guatemala for a vacation, is to stay in Antigua. It’s about an hour away from the airport. But once you are there, it’s heaven. I know for sure, if I ever go back to Guatemala, I’ll stay in Antigua…especially Hotel Porta Antigua looked fantastic to me inside and out. 

TIME of TRAVEL: I visited Guatemala during the long weekend of Thanksgiving, 2019. I had 3 full days to roam around different parts of the country. 2 more extra days here would have given me the flexibility to visit Tikal, the famous Mayan ruins site in Central America. It gets pretty chilly at night and early morning around this time of the year. During the day time, you can go out with a t-shirt and it’s very pleasant. But if you are traveling with kids in November to Guatemala, I would recommend carrying a sweater.

EATING and SHOPPING: Our lunch was included in the package and it was in Chichicastenango Market. It was in a cozy, 2-floored restaurant, called St. Thomas. While I was waiting near the balcony on the 2nd floor and looking out the door to the local vendors on the street, I was served with some black corn tortillas with a bowl of soup. For the main dish I ordered chicken in papiene sauce (a pepper sauce) that came with potatoes and avocado on the side. While I didn’t really enjoy the chicken main dish, the soup and the black tortillas were amazing. The restaurant itself is decorated beautifully with colorful local decors and comes with very friendly waiters. 

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My delicious lunch – black corn tortillas with soup in Chichicastenango Market, Guatemala

FYI, with 10 different species of corn in Guatemala, I guess, trying out different types of corn is a must. 

Chichicastenango Market is a heaven for souvenir hunters, like me. It’s a colorful and attractive outdoor market with variety of items from fresh vegetables, fruit, and local dishes to textiles, wooden masks, potterries, and other decors. Most of the vendors here are Mayan women. Don’t forget or feel frustrated bargaining with each vendor…it’s their culture, so enjoy it without overthinking the process or fear of losing money or getting a better deal somewhere else. I bought 6 small wooden bowls for $20 and 5 table runners (combination of cotton and silk table runners) for $120, which I later found out, I probably could have gotten these a bit cheaper price. 

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Traditional Central American dolls in Chichicastenango Market, Guatemala

Coffee, chocolate, vanilla, jade jewelry, textiles, pottery, hammocks, masks, and wooden trinkets are some of the popular gifts to buy from Guatemala. 

PLACES I’VE VISITED: This tour was about 12 hours of long journey which highlights only 2 places…Chichicastenango Market and Lake Atitlan. I had 2 more extra days in Guatemala for which, I spent a day in the capital and my last day in historic Antigua.

  1. CHICHICASTENANGO MARKET: Chichicastenango Market was about 3 hours drive from Guatemala City. So you have to start the day very early. This is a Mayan market which is more than 500 years old and believed to be one of the oldest outdoor markets in Central America. The city of Chichicastenango itself a beautiful city on a small hill which we passed by upon entering and has about 60K people.
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Chichicastenango Market in Guatemala

After reaching the market, we pushed the crowded small streets of vendors to reach our first spot. It was the big indoor area where fresh produce and other local food items are sold. It’s very colorful and is an energetic place to see locals going on with their daily lives. Mostly Mayan women are the sellers in this market. This is a crowded place with lots of vendors, local buyers, and tourists. Therefore, this is a very common place (as we were told by our guide) for pick-pocketing…keep your belongings very careful here. 

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Indoor market of Chichicastenango in Guatemala, where fresh produces are sold

Next we were taken to St. Thomas Church. This Catholic church is located at one end of Chichicastenango Market and was built around mid to later part of the 16th century by the Spaniards.

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Right outside St. Thomas Church in Chichicastenango Market, Guatemala

While outside of the church was packed with flower vendors on the stairs and countless people nearby, this is a very simple church inside with a calm and peaceful courtyard. Interesting fact and a beautiful scene in this church is that, you can see both Catholics and Mayans are doing their own rituals and using it equally. While the beautiful incense were burning and spreading mystical smell, we saw Catholics were praying closer to the main altar and a Mayan woman walking on her knees to the altar. This was beautiful to watch as they kept their own heritage while being very respectful to the other believers. 

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Inside St. Thomas Church in Chichicastenango Market, Guatemala

One of the most beautiful places in Chichicastenango city is the colorful cemetery where we didn’t go but saw from the hill from a bit far away. The color of the tombstone in that cemetery represents the favorite color of the person who passed away. 

In the market, especially near St. Thomas Church, it’s very easy to get lost. In fact, for a few seconds, I couldn’t find my group and was frantically looking each direction for them. Thanks to our assistant tour guide who saw me and told me where they are. Use some basic cautions when you are there, especially if you have kids or traveling with a large group.

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Some locals of Chichicastenango Market in Guatemala

2. LAKE ATITLAN: The drive from Chichicastenango Market to Lake Atitlan was about an hour and fifteen minutes in the district, called Solola in Guatemala. We stopped at San Francisco Panajachel town to visit Lake Atitlan and spent anywhere from 30-45 minutes by the lake, just walking around the lake, taking some shots, and checking out the Mayan market. 

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Lake Atitlan in Panajachel, Guatemala

The lake, in a massive volcanic crater, is surrounded by mountains, especially 3 volcanoes around the lake. We were told by the guide that the lake is 23km long and the deepest point of the lake is 350 meters. 

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Lake Atitlan in Panajachel, Guatemala

Overall, I wasn’t a big fan of Lake Atitlan for the effort and time it took to get there from Chichicastenango Market. Lake Atitlan is a beautiful place with mountains and volcanoes, but the long winding journey was not fun and if I knew, I would have just gone with half a day to Chichicastenango Market.

Going Back to Mayan Time – Joya de Ceren, El Salvador

JOYA de CEREN, EL SALVADOR: If you are a history lover or if archeological sites fascinate you then Joya de Ceren or “Jewel of Ceren” is a trip you will definitely enjoy in El Salvador. This archeological tour was a combination of visiting different sites which feature pre-Columbian farming villages of the ancient Mayan civilizations. These are remarkably well preserved and important archeological sites of El Salvador.

Mayan ruins in Joya de Ceren Archeological Park in El Salvador

Mayan ruins in Joya de Ceren Archeological Park in El Salvador

These Mayan sites are believed to be farming communities from around 1200 B.C. Volcanic eruptions from different centuries buried these villages under many layers of ash. The museums of each Mayan site displays utensils, ceramics, pots, and everyday household items that the villagers once used in their daily lives.

We booked this whole day trip thru viator.com beforehand. The package included a private van, a driver, and a professional guide. Our guide, Mr. Cesar, was an extremely knowledgeable person with gentle manners who spoke excellent English. Most of these sites, like Joya de Ceran, San Andres, and Tazumal are located within short distances from each other. It was an exhausting day walking under the hot sun and in humid condition, but going back in time of Mayans thru the history and display was thrilling.

El Salvador's national bird, Torogoz...luckily spotted it in Joya de Ceren, El Salvador

El Salvador’s national bird, Torogoz…luckily spotted it in Joya de Ceren, El Salvador

TIME of TRAVEL: We went to Central America during the spring break in mid-March of 2015. Our first stop was in El Salvador, then Panama, Costa Rica, and finally Nicaragua. Within El Salvador, we spent a day in San Salvador, one day in historic town of Suchitoto, and last day in Joya de Ceren, visiting the Mayan ruins. The climate is very tropical here and temperature in El Salvador is usually constant throughout the whole year. We were there during the dry season. You don’t want to come here in the monsoon when you can’t get around as much. It was in high 90s, almost touching 100 degree the day we visited Joya de Ceren…needed sunscreen, hats, sandals, liquids, and ice cream for the whole day.

OUR HOTEL: Real InterContinental San Salvador was our hotel and base in El Salvador. We stayed here for 3 nights and everything about this hotel was above average. With courteous staffs, spacious rooms, grand breakfast buffet, and great location, this hotel was nothing less than A+ in every way. It was within walking distance from some fast food places and a mall. Although we booked all of our tours before arriving here, hotel can arrange daily tours with professional guides anytime for its guests.

EATING and SHOPPING: We had lunch in a popular Salvadoran fast-food chain, called Mister Donut in Santa Ana. Good thing they don’t only sell donuts and coffee. Our guide recommended this place for lunch and we found all sorts of local dishes here from rice, salad, fish, meat, soup, and lots of options for desserts in a clean environment…but sorry, no hamburgers or cheeseburger in this fast food. They are all cooked in traditional Salvadoran style.

Our lunch in Mr. Donut near Santa Ana in El Salvador

Our lunch in Mr. Donut near Santa Ana in El Salvador

All the sites below had their own souvenir shops. Tazumal had a whole street of shops outside the archeological park. You will find terra cotta potteries with human figures, bowls, wall-hangings, and lots more in these shops. The price here is very cheap and you are allowed to bargain or make a deal with the vendors, no fixed price in these places.

Street full of souvenir shops with full trinkets outside Tazumal Archeological Park in El Salvador

Street full of souvenir shops with full trinkets outside Tazumal Archeological Park in El Salvador

PLACES WE’VE VISITED: This was a day trip from San Salvador and we hopped from one Mayan site to the next the whole day with the guide in a nice air conditioned van…we needed that A.C., so hot and humid. But it was worth all the way. This was a very educational trip for us and the kids.

A cocoa tree (or chocolate tree) in Joya de Ceren Archeological Park in El Salvador

A cocoa tree (or chocolate tree) in Joya de Ceren Archeological Park in El Salvador

1) JOYA de CEREN ARCHEOLOGICAL PARK: Joya de Ceren was the first Mayan spot that we visited in this tour. It is the only UNESCO World Heritage Site in El Salvador and a must-see place for everyone. UN gave monetary support to save some portion of this park. Interestingly, unlike many other Mayan ceremonial sites in other countries, this is the only one where people used to reside.

Few centuries old pottery made by the Mayan, displayed inside Joya de Ceren Museum in El Salvador

Few centuries old pottery made by the Mayan, displayed inside Joya de Ceren Museum in El Salvador

Joya de Ceren is within the area of Mesoamerica. Around the 7th century A.D. there was a pyroclastic volcanic eruption which expelled ash mixed with steam that forced people to flee with few of their belongings. Within just a few day, the village had completely disappeared under volcanic ash. It left the village under 14 layers of ash which is average 19 to 32 cm of thick layers of ash. It is believed that no one died from the eruption…the villagers left before the disaster, so no mummies were found. Loma Caldera volcano, about 1km north of it, is the source of the eruption that buried Joya de Ceren. Over time, later eruptions from other volcanoes deposited more ash over the area too. The village remained deeply buried for 1400 years. In 1976, bulldozers were leveling the ground for a government project, when they accidentally cut a platform of a structure.

Some signs of Mayan civilization in Joya de Ceren Archeological Park in El Salvador

Some signs of Mayan civilization in Joya de Ceren Archeological Park in El Salvador

As many as 70 buildings were uncovered during the excavation along with kitchens, living quarters, different communal service rooms, and religious structures. You can see few tombs, ceremonial architectures, and small pyramids. There were saunas, sleeping quarters, old doors, windows, walls, and shaman’s house as well.

Other than the different sections of ruins in this archeological park, enjoy many exotic plants (like cocoa tree, banana tree, chestnut tree, and more) and tropical birds. Make sure to visit the exhibition near the entrance to know about the history thru photos and texts. Relics, beautiful potteries, and other artifacts from the Mayan community are in display here. These are more than 1500 years old treasures. Overall, this is a very well-preserved Mayan site with good management.

Saw a hibiscus flower while walking around the Archeological Park of Joya de Ceren, El Salvador

Saw a hibiscus flower while walking around the Archeological Park of Joya de Ceren, El Salvador

Ticket is $3 for foreigners, $1 for the local Salvadorans, and free for the kids. Visiting Joya de Ceran took us about an hour. This is still an active archeological site where excavations still take place, so please be respectful and mindful of the area and its rules.

2) SAN ANDRES ARCHEOLOGICAL PARK: About 10 km from Joya de Ceren Archeological Park is San Andres archeological site in Zapotitan Valley. This was a major ceremonial center for the Mayans. It was discovered even before Joya de Ceren in 1940, when they were building Pan-American Hwy.

Occupation in this area dates back to 900 B.C. The sites you will see here were mainly political and ceremonial structures, since San Andres was a major political center point for the Maya civilization. The site was buried due to a volcanic eruption that took place in 1658 A.D. The monumental area is formed by the Acropolis and the Great Plaza including La Campana (The Bell) and other small buildings. Visitors are allowed to climb the grassy mounds and pyramids. An ancient underground tunnel in this site provides view of the pyramid bases located in the acropolis. This path is about 80 meters longs, 2.2 meters high and 1 m wide. Evidence of human sacrifice was also found in the area of Acropolis and our guide showed us a spot in front of the Acropolis which is believed to be the sacrifice stone. This is a very well-preserved and nicely maintained park. Be sure to visit the small museum for additional information and displays.

San Andres Mayan Archeological Park in El Salvador

San Andres Mayan Archeological Park in El Salvador

Interestingly, San Andres is still being used as a Ceremonial Center for Native American groups as spiritual guides with Maya vision of the cosmos and others. The museum and park is open from 9 – 4. Although our tickets were included in the package, it is $3 for the foreigners and $1 for the locals.

3) SANTA ANA: After visiting couple ancient ruins, Santa Ana was a nice break in the middle. This is a small colonial style town about 35 km from San Andres and about 64 km from San Salvador. Since the colonial times, it was an attractive place for its land, people, and landscapes. In 1555, it was established as the first Spanish city because of its suitable land for cultivating cocoa. This was also a prosperous city for coffee plantations, and therefore many rich businessmen used to live in this area.

Cathedral Santa Ana and the theater (green building) in the town of Santa Ana, El Salvador

Cathedral Santa Ana and the theater (green building) in the town of Santa Ana, El Salvador

Plaza Libertad is the main public square here which houses a theater (the green and white building) and city hall (the yellow building). Both of these are from the 19th century. The most magnificent building in Plaza Libertad is Santa Ana Cathedral or Catedral de Santa Ana. Its elegant white exterior with two Gothic towers put a grand touch in this square. This main attraction of the city has a neo-Gothic style exterior. Finished in 1956, it has a simple but elegant interior.

Inside Santa Ana Cathedral in Santa Ana, El Salvador

Inside Santa Ana Cathedral in Santa Ana, El Salvador

4) TAZUMEL ARCHEOLOGICAL PARK: 14 km from Santa Anna and 74 km from San Salvador, this is known to be the best preserved and most important pre-Columbian Mayan archeological site that we visited in this tour. It is located in the ancient Mesoamerican city of Chalchuapa and is the biggest ancient Mayan pyramid in San Salvador with 52 steps and about 24 meters height. The city was at its peak from 100 A.D. to 1200 A. D. These ruins were excavated and restored during the 1940s and 1950s. It was fantastic to walk around this old pyramid and climbing certain portion of it which holds so much history. Be sure to visit the museum at the entrance which has lots of Mayan artifacts and sculptures in display. In front of the museum, visitors can see a large rock with some carvings by the Mayans.

Tazumal Archeological Park in Chalchuapa, El Salvador

Tazumal Archeological Park in Chalchuapa, El Salvador

The ticket is $3 for the foreigners and $1 for the local Salvadorans. The site is located in the heart of busy city. You will find lots of souvenirs and antique vendors right outside the main entrance.

5) LAGO de COATEPEQUE: Our last destination of this tour was Lago de Coatepeque. It was not in our itinerary but our guide brought us here since we had some extra time. It is a stunning lake resort area. We didn’t go all the way down to the lake shore, just parked the car for 15 minutes and enjoyed the view from a hill. The lake kind of reminded me of the Crater Lake National Park in Oregon. Lake Coatepeque, with 125 meter depth, is also a crater lake with mesmerizing blue water and is considered as one of the largest lakes in El Salvador.

Lake Coatepeque in El Salvador

Lake Coatepeque in El Salvador

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