Lake Atitlan is dotted with a great variety of villages and towns, each with a distinct flavour. If authentic Mayan markets are your thing, then you might want to head over to Santa Clara market – an ideal choice for a day trip from Tzununá. It’s a high-in-the-clouds, Mayan mountain village, with a very different feel from the more cosmopolitan touristy, lakeside villages.
It was still dark when the alarm went off at 5am to give the Hummingbird crew plenty of time for breakfast and showering before hopping on the 7am pick-up from Tzununá to get to Santa Clara market by 8.15am. When it arrived, it was absolutely jam-packed with locals from Tzununá and San Marcos, heading over to the market to deliver and stock up on provisions, where fresh produce, free range meat, spices, kitchenware and beautiful handmade Mayan fabrics are all sold in abundance.
Yours truly, being particularly waif-like, was invited to squeeze into the single passenger seat, already containing a generously built Mayan lady in the closed cabin up front – luxury! The other 30 or so fellow passengers stood in the back, squashed together, reported my fellow daytrippers, far, far closer than any sardine has ever had to endure.
But that, dear reader, is the way it’s done here in Lake Atitlan!
The journey took around an hour, the old pick-up truck trundling and creaking slowly up the steep, bumpy mountain camino (path) and squeezing, sometimes by a hairsbreadth, past the huge Guatemalan chicken buses. At one point we got stuck in a pothole on a particularly steep and vicious hairpin bend. Chaos ensued, as people jumped off the truck and passing tuk-tuk drivers and assorted motorists pulled over and jumped out, shouting instructions hither and thither to help the driver cut her loose. After a few hair-raising minutes, we were back on our way, finally arriving in Santa Clara just after 8am, gratefully peeling ourselves apart from our fellow passengers who by now, it has to be said, had become pretty intimate with each other’s bodily crevices. Hmm.
The streets were bustling with locals on their way to both buy and sell, kids running around and the usual selection of roaming street dogs, hoping to find a scrap or two from passersby. We paid the pick-up driver our 10Q fare, followed the crowds and quickly found the market, just 100 metres or less from where the pick up dropped us off.
Santa Clara market
And what a sight it was! Mayan women in their traditional, brightly coloured blouses (Huipiles), beautifully embroidered belts (fajas) and brightly patterned skirts (cortes), setting up shop, sometimes on stalls (puestos) or on the ground, with wares laid out on a simple blanket. Of the many hundreds of visitors, our group of three were the only white faces in town – this was an authentic Mayan cultural experience.
Friendly and colourful
The vibe in the Santa Clara market was friendly and colourful. Aside from the odd curious gaze, mainly from children, our small group of 3 received a warm welcome, with locals genuinely interested in where we were from and how far we’d travelled (2 x English and 1 x Isreali). A couple of small Mayan girls somewhat surprisingly named Evelyn and Gladys and aged 8 and 5 respectively, took a particular shine to Katy, showering her with flower petals before presenting her with a perfect red rose – awww! Many locals had never heard of England and those who had generally asked whereabouts in the USA it was located? It was actually pretty delightful to be free of the guilty-by-association reputations of the governments of our respective countries!
There was absolutely no hard-sell and the fruit, veg and spice stalls were small-scale, for the large part families bringing their own garden produce to the market to sell. The delicious scent of street food wafted around the market square as children ran around, the local newspaper vendor shouted his headlines and chickens squawked nervously from their covered baskets, waiting to be sold.
Lots of brightly coloured traditionally woven Mayan clothes were on sale and some light haggling seemed to be expected. I purchased a hand-made, vibrantly painted baby-sized mandolin for 35Q and a lovely, hand-embroidered blouse, chatting for some time with the lady who made it and gladly paying the 90Q asking price.
We grazed the food stalls contentedly, feasting on fresh tamales served in banana leaves, roasted sweet potatoes and fried, ‘Kentucky’ style chicken from one of the cheap, homely comedors (cafés) in the inside section of the market. We joined the locals in drinking hot cups of Atol, a thick, sweet, gloopy concoction of starchy rice water and sugar with either chocolate, plantain or milk. The mixture was surprisingly tasty and the price for a large plate of food with a drink was the princely sum of 16Q (about $2 US).
Hunger happily sated and clutching our carefully wrapped parcels, we headed off to wait on the street for the 11am pick-up back to Tzununá. It was delayed for an hour and we watched nervously as the queue grew larger…and larger…and LARGER! By the time the pick-up arrived, everybody who had been on the outgoing journey was back, along with quite a few extra people, collectively having bought the contents of an average sized supermarket. An entire dining table was just one ludicrously large object amongst the huge sacks and crates and massive rolls of chicken wire. The word ‘overloaded’ doesn’t even come close.
We watched, with increasing horror, as the pick-up was loaded, first with passengers belongings. As the load increased, the inflation of the types decreased, until one of the back tyres was completely flat (you can see Katy pointing at the flat tyre in the photo above). We all looked at each other and unanimously decided we would rather hitch a lift, walk, skip or even backflip all the way back to Tzununá rather than get back on that genuinely terrifying vehicle!
As luck would have it, we quickly hitched a 5Q per person lift in the back of a gloriously empty pick-up with 4 x good tyres on its way to San Pablo and from there, Doron negotiated a 30Q tuk-tuk back to Tzununá (skills!) taking in the spectacular views of a distinctly moody, but nonetheless magnificent Lake Atitlan along the way.
Conclusion? An absolutely fabulous day out and an authentic cultural experience. You don’t even need a full day to check out Santa Clara market – we were back at our dear Hummingbird Hostel in sleepy Tzununá by 1pm, mercifully in one piece and feeling like we’d had a pretty cool adventure. Not bad for a morning’s work!