Fiesta de San Tomas, Chichicastenango, Guatemala

Masks for sale in Chichicastenango. (photo by Corrie Wingate )
Masks for sale in Chichicastenango.

The otherwise quiet town of Chichicastenango in Guatemala’s Western Highlands comes alive for two events – its twice-weekly market and the Fiesta de San Tomas in December.  

The fiesta is a week-long festival, and is a typical Central American fusion of Maya and Christian traditions. The celebration is to honour the town’s patron saint around the Church of San Tomas. This massive whitewashed building was constructed over 400 years ago on an old temple platform and the 18 steps that lead to the doorway are still revered by Maya priests, who regularly conduct their rituals on them.

The festival is a riot of colour and sound – revellers dressed in brightly-hued costumes and masks parade around the town, drinking, dancing and setting off firecrackers. The whole town is thick with the sweet, smoky aroma of copal, a pine-based incense. The pinnacle of the celebration is the palo volador – a 100 foot / 30 metre pole is erected in the town square and revellers climb to the top, attached by a rope, which they wind around the pole as they ascend. They then hurl themselves from the top of the pole, the ropes unravelling as they revolve at high speed around the pole towards the ground. A spectacular sight, and one that people travel from all over to witness.  

Apart from the Fiesta de San Tomas, the town is one of the chief tourist destinations of the highlands. Twice a week, the normally calm “Chichi” hosts the most famous market in the entire Maya region, coming to life in a maelstrom of furious commerce.

From the dead of night every Thursday and Sunday, traders arrive to set up their stalls by candlelight. By the time day breaks, the roads into town are crammed with trailers, trucks, and buses. The market is a good place to buy local textiles and handicrafts – if your haggling skills are on point. 

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