Thursday's and Sunday's are market days in Chichicastenango. The small town turns into a kaleidoscope of colour, noise and people. The population swells and the narrow laneways fill up with goods. We weren't shopping due to a constant battle with our bursting backpacks so we were there just for the show.
Chichi, as the town is generally called, is located at an altitude of 1965 metres in Central Guatemala and has been one of the largest trading centres for the Maya population since pre-Hispanic times. Overall 40% of the population in Guatemala is Maya and a large proportion are at home here in the western highlands.
Vendors arrive from across the highland the evening before to set up and most overnight in their makeshift booths to be ready for an early start. The stalls take over the centre of town spilling over on to sidewalks, the church steps are taken up by ladies selling flowers and the side streets are the place to buy machetes, tools, spare parts and second hand goods.
Nicaragua isn't on most people's travel bucket list, but that's quickly changing. Go now while it's still raw and not yet tarnished by tourism. We left Mexico on a bit of a whim and landed in Managua without knowing what to expect and with a fair bit of trepidation - would it be safe, what could we eat other than rice and beans, would we manage with very limited Spanish, would we find somewhere comfortable to stay?? The civil war ended 20 years ago yet our mental image was of a troubled country ravaged by guerrillas and the CIA.
How wrong were we! From the get-go people were helpful and what we found (once we left Managua which is potentially risky) was an exotic country of immense natural beauty with plenty of small hotels and a mix of cuisines. We were amazed by the variety of interesting places in the west of the country - choose between volcanoes, lakes, Ometepe Island, beaches, colonial towns and the coffee-growing highlands, all are easy to explore on guided treks or horse rides...
Just hearing the word volcano conjures up exotic images and on the small island of Ometepe, there is not one but two! It was one of our favourite destinations during our month in Nicaragua and talking to other travellers it's one of those special places that everybody loves without knowing exactly why! The island is located a 75 minute boat ride into Lake Nicaragua, the largest lake in Central America. You can get there on a small rickety panga (fishing boat) or a larger ramshackle ferry - based on our crossing we definitely recommend the latter.
The day after arriving on Ometepe we hired a motorbike and set out to discover the island. The single road runs as a figure 8 around the island's two volcanoes. Pigs and chickens roam freely with no regard for traffic and we passed tiny dusty villages and farmers moving their horses and herds of cattle. It's a simple life with most locals earning a living from farming (bananas, maize and beans) or fishing.