Arriving in Chichicastenango
Early Sunday morning I found myself on an uphill shuttle scaling winding roads and crossing lush terrace fields on my way to Chichicastenango. Every Thursday and Sunday the sleepy little town that lies on a mountaintop crest comes alive through a colorful market filled with local crafts. On Sundays it also hosts spiritual rituals that mix catholic and Mayan customs. Not surprisingly, visiting Chichicastenango on a Sunday had been a must on my list ever since I bought my ticket to Guatemala on a rainy April day in New York.
I had arrived in Guatemala City, or Guate as the locals call it, the night before and after a paramount catch-up session with Xochitl, my great friend and travel buddy, in the colonial town of Antigua and a quick nights sleep, we were now sitting shot-gun in a packed shuttle talking to a cheery driver about the precarious journey he took to cross the American border years before.
Getting to Chichi
I arrived in Chichi just as the day was starting and entered a maze of makeshift stalls filled with embroidered textiles, vibrant pottery, leather accessories and every other artisan good imaginable to mankind. As I elbowed my way through the sea of smiling tourists, I started to wonder if I would get to enjoy any regional culture that wasn’t catering to the sightseers. “¡Amiga, amiga!” the vendors repeated as they ran their hands through their merchandise “¡Algo especial para ti!” I would stop and look, but worried I would be settling too soon I continued to browse in search of true local flare – the kind I could take home as an authentic memento and, more importantly, the kind that opens up a whole new culture from within.
As with most artisan markets, the experience I was looking for wasn’t hidden between the crafts, but outside the perimeter of the market. I walked through the stalls, passed the bustling church steps where flowers were being groomed for sale and ended up atop a steep hill that overlooked the most colorful cemetery. It was quickly clear I had to find my way there.
Navigating the Graveyard
Two local women dressed in vibrant Mayan dress pointed me in the direction of the entrance, where a scant group of tourists huddled around a guide. I swiftly sidestepped the pack and marched in hypnotized by the tombs and mausoleums painted in bright shades of stunning pastels. My gaze jumped from epitaph to mausoleum top leading my feet down an empty path towards the back of the graveyard where smoke wavered in the distance. A drunk man lying on the floor half asleep watched me go by and started to chuckle. I looked around and noticed we were the only ones there, except for a handful of locals that became smaller and smaller as they continued down the way towards a small white church plastered in smoke stains.
As I walked by the graves, the impact of their colors never faded. Murals of virgins decorated walls while crooked crosses stuck out from the ground. Rambling down a dirt path, I approached an opening that featured a large slab of cement with small heaps of offerings. On one corner, two women were carefully decorating a mound with thin candles, colorful candy and flowers. On the other end of the concrete a playful fire burned away as an older man scraped the underlying charcoal with a long, thin stick and talked continuously under his breath. Black candles were stacked against a tombstone signaling a mound that was yet to come.
The crackling sounds of the fire added an element of wild mystery, while the fragrant smoke took me back to my grandmother’s Seville deep in the throes of Holy Week. The methodic swaying of the scraping stick set to the chaotic movement of the fire had a spellbinding quality that kept me staring at the ritual in silence. Suddenly a loud bang burst out of the flames pushing my mesmerized body into an ungraceful leap. Not far away the drunk man pointed from the floor and rolled around in laughter. It was time to move along.
Would the Gods Understand?
After peeking into the church, pointing at beautiful tombstones and witnessing a few more ritual ceremonies, I was back at the front gate. A pick-up truck filled to the brim with laughing locals trudged by and a group of women dressed in traditional Mayan clothing strolled along with sleeping babies slung across their backs. It was only day one and already Guatemala had proven itself to be a country of tradition and wonder in ways I couldn’t have ever imagined.
Staring at the cemetery from the outside, watching strings of smoke billowing and mausoleums shining against the green mountains I let the magic of the moment sink in. In my mind I pictured a map of the world and zoomed in on Chichicastenango’s location for added perspective. It was time for an icy cold Gallo beer. It was only 11am, but I was sure the Gods would understand.
Written and Photographed by Christina Thornell
Christina Thornell is a journalist and photographer with a deep passion for culture and travel. Originally hailing from Madrid, and after a couple of detours in Southern California, she now calls New York home. Being half Spanish and half American she has always considered herself a bit of a foreigner anywhere she is, allowing her to keep a foot outside the norm and elude pigeon-holed expectations. She travels often and never forgets her camera. When she isn’t working as an Editor for a Design Forecasting company she is cooking up travel plans and exploring New York with her camera in tow.