I have always been intrigued by the weird and wonderful sights of the world. Any time witchcraft or voodoo is mentioned I usually get lured in, not because I believe in it, but instead because these misunderstood beliefs that are demonised by most are actually some of the last remnants of ancient civilisations on the planet. High up in the misty mountains of Guatemala is the small town of Chichicastenango famed for its colourful markets, pre-Colombian ruins and of course witchcraft. Walk anywhere in the village and you will see signs of it, from the ancient inscribed tablets to the ancient symbols that are hidden amongst the Catholic churches. This is one of Central America’s best-kept secrets! Hop ion a chicken bus and venture into the unknown at Chichicastenango, Guatemala.
Getting to Chichicastenango
Thanks to Guatemala’s extensive network of chaotic and sporadic bus system getting here from most major destinations such as Antigua, Guatemala City or the Mexican border is relatively straightforward.
There are many private bus companies that run the more comfortable aircon buses from the major centre, but these are not as frequent, and you must book in advance. The best way to travel to Chichicastenango is to do what the locals do, hop on what is known as the “chicken buses”. Chicken buses often painted and decked out to a tacky extreme are aptly named due to the fact that your fellow passenger may just be a chick or other livestock (one time there was a pig on my bus!).
Hopping on a chicken bus to Chichicastenango is not only the most convenient and fastest option, but you will get the respect of locals and might even meet a friend or two! Join the Central American Backpacking experience and ride along the chicken bus highway!
Central America’s Best Kept Secret Chichicastenango’s Market
Set in the main square at the foot of the church every morning of Thursday or Sunday is one of Central America’s largest and most fascinating markets. Locals spend hours getting here hailing from across the mountains to sell their wares here. The market really picks up around 10:00 am, you can see many kinds of fruits, vegetables, corns and there are plenty of unique handy crafts available for the intrepid shopper.
As a photographer, I was in heaven. The market is full of authenticity, many of the locals speak dialects of ancient Mayan and where traditional Mayan embroidery as they have for centuries. The area is absolutely stunning as well, with rustic colonial buildings back-dropping onto dramatic jungle mountains. Keep an eye out from witchcraft booths selling all kinds of spells and strange fetus like things. Sticking around I even got the chance to see the Confradias, a secret society of followers believing in traditional Guatemalan beliefs.
Inglesia De Santo Tomas Church
Just on the South side of Chichicastenango main market plaza is home to one of the strangest churches you will visit in Central America. At first glance, it seems a normal colonial Spanish Church but looks deeper and you will begin to find signs that this church is not even really a church.
The vast majority of local Guatemalans in the mountain regions will tell you that they are Catholic, but many of them still are strongly tied to the ancient belief systems of the Maya. In the past in order to avoid prosecution from the Spanish inquisition ancient Mayan religious beliefs would use Catholic symbols in place of theirs so that they could continue to worship their gods in secret.
Now, with the Spanish long gone, the symbols have sort of become a part of the ancient Maya beliefs and churches like Inglesia De Santo Tomas is actually used by almost everyone here to do ancestral worship, magic and connecting with the spirits around.
You can spend hours examining this church and the longer you do the more you will notice that is just not very Catholic! It has to be in my opinion one of the most fascinating churches in Central America.
Pascual Baj Sacrifice Stone
Just south of town perched atop a steep hill is the Pascual Baj Stone, a shrine dedicated to the Maya god of earth Huyup Tak’ah. Pascual Baj is also known as the Sacrifice Stone as its ancient origins are steeped in myths of sacrifice and even to this day Chickens are sacrificed over the altar of it. Locals believe the stone to be thousands of years old as well! It’s a pleasant walk through pine forest uphill here but be sure to do it during the day as at night there have been muggings before. It’s also a good idea to bring an offering as the locals do, usually, a drink or cigarettes will do.
Witchcraft and the Cofradias
The ancient Mayans had a strong belief system that valued the spirits of nature and of course witchcraft. Conjuring the spirits with ceremonies using spells and strange or rare items could be used for a blessing or a curse! Most Guatemalans still are very superstitions, more so here in the mountains near Chichicastenango. This belief in magic can be seen everywhere! Even with many who know where you can meet a shaman or witch.
Within Chichicastenango’s religious society there is a brotherhood who controls it known as the Confradias. As I mentioned above by hanging out in the plaza long enough during market days you most likely will get to witness them. They walk in groups wearing a colorful turban like cloth covered in Mayan patterns on their head and carry a staff with a solid silver crucifix with Mayan symbols surround it atop the staff.
The more time you spend in Chichicastenango the more you can dig deeper into this fascinating ancient society and learn more about Guatemala’s original roots.