Standing watch over the square is this gleaming white Dominican church, Guatemala's most intriguing, busy with worshippers all day and late into the night. The structure dates from 1540, built on the site of an ancient temple, and locals say a block of stone near the massive front doors is all that remains of the altar. The Quiché people still consider Chichicastenango their spiritual city. Perhaps no church in the country better represents the concept of syncretism, the blending of theologies, than does Santo Tomás. Church officials look the other way as Mayan ceremonies are still practiced here today. In fact, once the daily 9 am mass ends, the rest of the day and evening are given over to indigenous rituals conducted by shamans (curanderos in Spanish, or chuchkajaues in Quiché), who wave around pungent incense during the day, and at night toss rose petals and pine needles into a raging fire right on the steps of the church as part of purification rituals. Take care:
If you are at all sensitive to heavy fragrance, the incense aroma can be overpowering. The age-old ritual has darkened the once-white steps—18 steps correspond to the months in the Mayan calendar—leading to the church entrance. Outsiders should not pass through the front doors. Instead, enter through the door via the courtyard on the building's right side. Also, under no circumstances should you take photos inside the church. Inside, candles are affixed to 12 tablets embedded in the floor, four each representing sun, moon, and rain. Curanderos place conjoined candles there on behalf of married couples, solitary candles on behalf of single people. Yellow candles represent entreaties for business affairs; blue, for rain; green, for agriculture; and white, for health.