Perched on a hillside, Chichicastenango ("the place of the nettles") is in many ways a typical highland town. The narrow cobblestone streets converge on a wide plaza where most days you'll find a few old men passing the time. You'd hardly recognize the place Thursday and Sunday, the two days a week on which one of the world's most famous markets takes place, when row after row of colorful stalls fill the square and overflow into the adjoining alleys. There's a dizzying array of handmade items, from wooden masks to woolen blankets to woven baskets. Much of the artesanía is produced for tourists, but walk a few blocks in any direction and you'll find where the locals do their shopping. South of the square is a narrow street where women sell chickens. To the east you might run across a family trying to coax a just-purchased pig up a rather steep hill.
Believe it or not, Chichicastenango does not disappear the other five days a week; if you come here on, say, a Tuesday, you'll have the place to yourself. Few tourists actually do that. At just an hour from Panajachel, two hours from Antigua or Quetzaltenango, or three hours from the capital, Chichicastenango will always be Guatemala's consummate day trip for most. But a visit here on a non-market day gives you a chance to see "Chichi"—few people ever bother to wrap their tongues around the entire six-syllable name—the spiritual center of Quiché Mayan culture, at its most serene.