Dubbed Guatemala's "Mecca del Turismo" by Inguat, CHICHICASTENANGO is a compact and traditional town of cobbled streets, though the charming old adobe houses are now outnumbered by modern concrete structures. Twice a week the town's highland calm is shattered by the Sunday and Thursday markets, which attract a myriad of day-tripping tourists and commercial traders, as well as Maya weavers from throughout the central highlands.
Chichicastenango was founded by the Spanish to house K'iche' refugees from nearby Utatlán, which they conquered and destroyed in 1524. The town's name is a Nahuatl word meaning "the place of the nettles".
The market is by no means all that sets Chichicastenango apart, however, and for the local population it's an important centre of culture and religion. Over the years, Maya traditions and folk Catholicism have been treated with a rare degree of respect in Chichicastenango, although inevitably this blessing has been mixed with waves of arbitrary persecution and exploitation. Today the town has an important collection of Maya artefacts, parallel indigenous and ladino governments, and two churches that make no effort to disguise their acceptance of unconventional pagan worship. Locals adhere to the ways of traditional weaving, the women wearing superb huipiles with flower motifs. The men's costume of short trousers and jackets of black wool embroidered with silk is highly distinguished, although it's very expensive to make and these days almost all men opt for Western dress. For Sundays and fiestas, however, a handful of cofradres (elders of the religious hierarchy) still wear the traditional clothing and parade through the streets bearing spectacular silver processional crosses and antique incense-burners.
Chichicastenango's appetite for religious fervour is especially evident during the fiesta of Santo Tomás, from December 14 to 21. It's a spectacular occasion, with attractions including the Palo Volador (in which men dangle by ropes from a 20m pole), a live band or two, a massive procession, traditional dances, clouds of incense, gallons of chicha and deafening fireworks. Later in the year Easter is also celebrated with tremendous energy and piety.