Guatemala’s Western Highlands
To the northwest of Antigua, the Interamericana Highway twists around piney ridges and fuming volcanoes.
These are Guatemala’s western highlands—the heartland of the country’s Maya culture. The hillsides and valleys of this region are flecked with traditional villages and colorful market towns.
Chichicastenango is a Quiche Maya town known anciently as Chaviar. The town is situated on a ridge 87 miles northwest of Guatemala City (three hours), 67 miles from Antigua (three hours), and 23 miles from Panajachel (one hour).
Every Sunday and Thursday, Chichi’s central plaza fills with vendors offering handcrafts, flowers, household items and produce.
Few visitors leave without a huipilor (a vividly embroidered, traditional garment) or masterfully hand-carved mask.
Church of Santo Tomas
At the southwestern corner of the plaza, worshippers at the Church of Santo Tomas blend Quiche traditions with Catholic observances.
The church was constructed in 1540, atop an ancient temple platform; the syncretism here is deeply embedded.
Each of its 18 front steps corresponds to a month of the Maya calendar. Inside, beautifully-blackened altar stones are set in the floor.
Before entering, it’s customary for patrons to make offerings in a fire at the front, in addition to burning copal and estoraque incense.
This tradition leaves a sweet veil of smoke over the church’s steps, as Quiche priests offer prayers to ancestors. Appreciation of Maya culture has a rich history in Chichicastenango.
In 1702, the Quiche text known as the Popol Vuh was translated here by Dominican priest Francisco Ximénez.
The city of Quetzaltenango, 58 miles (2.5 hours) to the west of Chichicastenango, is a base for exploring the western highlands.
Quetzaltenango, known locally as Xela, is surrounded by villages with traditional markets and colorful churches. Zunil, six miles south of Xela, holds its market on Mondays.
Totonicapan’s market, northeast of Xela, is held early, each Tuesday and Saturday.
Guided hikes are available from Xela to three nearby volcanoes: Santa Maria, Santiaguito, and Tajumulco—the highest mountain in Central America, reaching 13,854 feet above sea level.
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