Driving in Guatemala is never for the faint of heart. Widening the two-lane Pan-American Highway — which begins in Alaska and ends at the bottom of South America — was a project that lasted most of this century. Periodic stops occasioned — during the April-October rainy season — by landslides that blocked part or the entire road are now history. The Pan Am is finished so zipping between the Mexican border and Guatemala City is no longer the knuckle-whitening experience of yore.
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Leaving the Pan-American at Los Encuentros, a wide T-junction populated with gas stations, ad hoc bus stops, comedores — small eateries that are ordinary Guatemalan’s fast food — and vendors, Route 15 heads northeast toward Chichicastenango. After a stop at an agricultural inspection station to prevent uninspected fruit from entering the highlands, we pull out onto the narrow, two-lane road, endure 18 traffic bumps over the next 15 kilometers, then begin climbing. We crawl around hairpin curves because we have NO idea if a crazy bus driver is barreling down the mountain in OUR lane.

Twenty minutes later we reach an overlook and Chichicastenango, heart of the K’iche (also spelled Quiche) Maya region, lies before us. In another five minutes we enter Chichi and once again are forced to a crawl by narrow streets, too much traffic, and jaywalkers. Women in their traditional trajes (TRA-hays) and men, mostly in western dress, are everywhere. It’s a human ant colony — with much more colour and vibrancy.
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Chichicastenango is famous for its Thursday and Sunday markets, when Mayan vendors come, not only from the surrounding area but from Antigua, Lake Atitlán, and even from the northern Ixil (Ee-SHEEL) region, where we are headed. They bring huilipes (the traditional blouse worn by indigenous women throughout the Mayan world); lengths of fabric woven on pedal looms that, wrapped something like a sari, creates their skirt; and belts woven on back-strap looms that keeps the huipil tucked in and the skirt in place.

Food, other textiles and a variety of goods designed to appeal to the tourists who pour into Chichi on market days (special buses run from the capital and Antigua) are spread across tables that are set up at 06:00 and disappear by 18:00. The market runs for several blocks in all directions, appeals to every sense, and can satisfy all daily needs.