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Do you remember that scene in “Bedknobs and Broomsticks”, the one where Angela Lansbury is furiously searching for the book that will lead her to the Star of Astaroth but David Tomlinson and the brood are frolicking and singing about all the wares found at London's famous market Portobello Road? You know the one. "Anything and everything a chap can unload is sold off the borrow in Portobello Road." On your first visit to Chichicastenango, you too might be tempted to break out into song.
Chichi (as it is more casually known) is the largest and most well known market in Guatemala. Nestled into the hills of the Quiché district about four hours from Guatemala City, Chichi is the best of the best, a rollercoaster ride of good and bad, rich and poor, clean and dirty, seductive and annoying, and whatever it is you're looking for you'll find, along with a treasure chest worth of stuff you weren't.
The town of Chichicastenango (fotoember/istockphoto)
On market days, Thursdays and Sundays, stalls fill the maze-like streets with a Target Super Store collection of wares hawked by townies, indigenous farmers and local craftworkers who truck in on chicken buses from further up in the hills. Vendors line the milky-white steps of the 400-year-old church, La Iglesia de Santo Tomás, where you can get your bearings and plan a market attack. (Note: the church is actually quite interesting. It's built over a temple and inside you can see Catholic traditions mixed with ancient Mayan rituals performed by elders.)
Once you descend the stairs into the belly of the beast, you can find masks, incenses, television remotes, cell phone batteries, carrots, rope, flowers, corn, corn, corn, leather, wooden candleholders and fresh tortillas. You can find huipiles (traditional Mayan tops) and glitter-covered stilettos. You can find live chickens, dead chickens and fried chickens. The latter are swoon-worthy good eaten leg after thigh after wing - salty, crunchy, straight from the bag and sizzling hot—doused in label-less green hot sauce from the one of about a million fried chicken carts in Chichi.
You lose track of how many times you hear the phrase, “Good price for you”. But you also lose track of the number of times something catches your eye, something distinct, something precious. If you're anything like me, your eye lured by foodstuff. Bright red tomatoes no bigger than thumbnails still on the vine. Dirt-crusted duck eggs sitting next to the duck that bore them. She is also for sale. Spices - dried chiles in every shape and shade of red, cloves and bay leaves and peppercorns and Jamaica blossom and allspice - stuffed to the brim of yellow plastic tubes.
Navigating this labyrinth seems impossible, as you're contending with not just narrow lanes but also women carrying more buyables on their heads, small children and street dogs darting back and forth, and small operations perhaps just selling one or two items, say… pineapples and Dove soap out of a shallow basket on the ground. This is where you find today's prize—a basket of fresh, plump 'piloyes'…
Known in the U.S. as runner beans, piloyes are grown locally and come in a variety of colors ranging from milky white to blood red. When cooked fresh the piloyes boil up quick (seriously, like half the time as the dried beans we gringos get here in the States) and never come out mealy the way store-bought beans do. Instead, their skins snap when you bite down, their insides are the consistency of soft butter.
At 10 quetzales a pound (about $1.10), they're a steal. If you're anything like me (and if you're still reading this, let's assume you are) then you'll grab three pounds then spend the next several days finding ways to keep them chilled and safe until safely back in your kitchen. I'm not saying sneak them past a U.S. customs agent, but if you wanted to, piloyes are worth the trouble.
Tomato-Baked Piloyes with Herbs and Feta
Best part about fresh beans? No soaking time needed. Serve as a vegetarian entrée with crusty bread and a big green salad. Prep time: 1 hour; serves 4.
Tomato-Baked Piloyes with Herbs and Feta (Natalie Rose)
1 pound fresh piloyes or runner beans (feel free to sub any fresh bean you like)
2 cups of your favorite tomato sauce
½ cup cherry tomatoes
1 clove garlic, minced
¼ cup minced herbs, a mix of whatever you like such as thyme, parsley, rosemary or tarragon
salt and pepper
½ cup feta cheese
good-quality olive oil, crushed red pepper and crusty bread to serve
Preheat over to 350°F. Place piloyes in a large pot, fill pot generously with water (about two inches over the top of the beans) and bring to a boil. Turn heat down and simmer for 30-40 minutes. Test beans. If they're just al dente, add one teaspoon of salt, turn up heat and boil for 10 minutes more. Drain off water.
In the same pot with the beans, add next four ingredients, season with salt and pepper and turn mixture out into an oiled baking dish or individual ramekins. Bake for 15 minutes, until tomatoes are bursting.
Add feta and broil until feta is melted and toasty, about five minutes.
Serve immediately with a drizzle of good olive oil, crushed red pepper and bread. Buen provecho!
Natalie Rose is a freelance writer and multimedia producer. She writes about travel and culture, fascinating people she encounters on her travels and anything to do with food. She produces documentaries, branded content and commercial projects.