Guatemala is a land of breathtaking mountain scenery, brightly-painted churches, sparkling lakes and diverse wildlife. But that’s not everything. It’s also a land of markets. At best, Guatemala markets are an enchanting world of colour and smells and noise.
And at their worst? Well, my first ever visit to a Guatemalan market ended painfully when I unwittingly annoyed the seller and was promptly pelted with very small, very hard grapes at very close range! Thankfully I persevered and during my four months in the country I learned how to make the market experience a positive and enriching one – both for me and for the seller.
Here are a few tips:
- What to see. The main attraction for most visitors to Guatemala is the colourful, intricately-woven textile traditionally worn and made by the Maya population. Weaving work is almost always done by girls and women, and each region has a distinct style not made anywhere else in the country. See if you can spot the difference as you travel! And as you admire the intricate combinations of colours and symbols and patterns, don’t forget most are made completely by hand, using traditional looms. I chatted with a young girl in a mountain village who said it took her three weeks to complete the beautifully embroidered blouse she was wearing – something to keep in mind if you’re tempted to barter.
- What to eat: Each area of the country also has a different style of cuisine and the best way to sample new flavours at rock-bottom prices is to buy it where the locals do – at the market. You’ll find plantain chips bubbling in oil over a wood fire, huge juicy mangoes sculpted into flowers and if you’re lucky, freshly prepared corn tamales wrapped in a banana leaf. Delicious! One thing I wouldn’t recommend sampling at the market is coffee. Despite the fact Guatemala is one of the world’s biggest coffee producers, the majority is exported. The last time I ordered a street coffee in Guatemala I was handed a polystyrene cup of sickly sweet Nescafe – and a bag of powdered baby formula in case I wanted milk! But fear not, Antigua and all the major tourist towns have a huge array of trendy coffee shops to satisfy your caffeine cravings.
- What to speak: This is a tricky one! A lot of markets in Guatemala are run by Mayan people, and there are more than 20 official Mayan languages. Most people speak Spanish too, but be prepared to use a wee bit of improvised sign language if not! It’s very rare for locals to know English unless you’re in a major tourist centre.
- Where to go. Most visitors to Guatemala head to its most famous tourist market at Chichicastenango, or to big souvenir stores in towns like Antigua and Quetzaltenango. They have the best range of stock, featuring textiles and crafts from across the country – but sometimes these are actually mass-produced goods which are not very well made. Beware of loose threads and poor finishing if buying textiles. If you’re looking for guaranteed quality, my advice is to seek out small workers’ cooperatives rather than the big commercial markets. Small, independent hotels and cafes often sell goods from cooperatives and while they tend to cost a little more, they’re made using traditional methods. But best of all, you can hand over cash in the knowledge it will go directly to the people who made them. Occasionally you get the chance to watch artists at work, and sometimes products from cooperatives feature the name of the person who made it, adding a unique touch.
And finally, a few practical pieces of advice.
1) Always ask before you take a photograph of a stall or a person.
2) Get to know the local currency before you start shopping.
3) Be prepared for the hard sell! And never be scared to politely walk away if you really don’t want to buy anything.
4) Bartering is common, but don’t take it too far. While you might want to snap up a bargain, remember that more than half the population of Guatemala lives in poverty. A few extra dollars could make a big difference to the lives of the artists and sellers.
5) And finally…take an extra big suitcase on holiday! You’ll need it to transport all your wonderful Guatemalan crafts home.
And by following the advice above, hopefully you’ll take positive memories home with you too.