San Cristóbal de las Casas is fascinating, but travelers need to get out of town and visit nearby Tzotzil and Tzeltal Mayan villages in Chiapas, including the famous San Juan Chamula church, where their living culture plays out in booze, blouses, and burials.
Carried away inside the San Juan Chamula church
The most-visited of the neighboring villages has to be the Tzotzil town of San Juan Chamula just a few miles from San Cristóbal and home to a famous church. We arrived early on a Sunday (market day) and our truck was immediately swarmed by kids and not in a good way. For the first time in Mexico we felt uneasy about leaving our truck in the hands of these kids.
But we had no choice, so off we went to pay the 20 peso (US$1) per person entrance fee that’s required for foreigners to enter the San Juan Chamula church. We also get the very clear message about the town’s rules against taking pictures of town officials or anything inside the church. In case you didn’t understand the rules the first time, local men wearing white wool tunics and carrying big sticks were walking around confiscating film and erasing digital photo cards whenever they caught someone taking a shot.
Fair enough. Certainly, a town (especially an autonomous one like Chamula) has the right to earn a little something off the tourists they attract and the locals absolutely have the right to lay out (and enforce) some ground rules.
What bothered us was the resentment we felt in Chamula. It was clear that some members of the community have had it up to here with tourists. After witnessing the skimpy clothing and photo-snapping behavior of a few of the folks getting out of mini-vans we can understand that feeling. But if you really can’t stand us why take our money and fake welcome us in? You simply can’t have it both ways (snatch the cash then wish we’d never come), no matter how cool your church is. And the church in Chamula is damn cool.
The white facade with colorful blue and green trim is fairly unassuming. Inside, however, is an amazing world of Mayan customs and Spanish Catholic tradition. Dry pine needles blanket the tiled floor. There are no seats but locals sit and squat on the pine needles as they meticulously arrange candles in all shapes, sizes, and colors. Each person seems to have their own personal design in mind and the floor is ablaze in flickering patterns–the only light in the whole dark space. Men and boys wander around scraping the dregs of spent candles off the tile and making sure the pine needles don’t ignite.
The walls are lined with niches which house carvings of saints we recognize and some we don’t. Smoke from copal incense obscures their faces, mirrors and doll parts and other offerings hang from their limbs. Some people faced the front altar (the altar paintings were all missing when we visited) and some faced a saint along the walls as they lit their candles and mumbled their prayers in the Tzotzil language. One woman was swinging a docile live chicken as she chanted.
The effect was hypnotizing and it was one of the most transporting experiences we’ve ever had in a church.
By the time we emerged back into the sunlight, the resentful vibe eased up a bit as the men (and some women) were becoming increasingly blotto on clear alcohol made from fermented sugar cane called posh (pronounced pox) which they like to mix with Coca-Cola. One theory is that the belches produced by drinking carbonated beverages are thought to expel bad spirits. Our theory is that the special billboard Coca-Cola put up along the road near Chamula, aimed squarely at the local market, has done its job.
Exploring the Chamula market, with its gorgeous piles of rough wool and its smattering of fresh produce, and silently soaking up the atmosphere in the church made us hungry so we stopped at a little stand where a woman was grilling chicken. With so many begging children around (where, exactly, was our 20 peso entrance fee going?) we saved some of the food to give to the kids in the parking lot where we’d left our truck. Imagine how stupid we felt when we returned to our truck to find that some of those kids had splattered sticky, drippy fruit all over the passenger side window and shoved soda cans and candy wrappers into the bed.
Wander around the Chamula market and watch a procession leaving the town’s famous church in our video, below.
Booze and bargains in San Andrés Larráinza
The Tzotzil Mayan town of San Andrés Larráinzar hosted peace talks between the Zapatistas and the Mexican government (whose representatives sometimes failed to show up for scheduled talks, accusing the Zapatistas of propogandizing) in the mid ’90s.
We arrived in Larráinzar in time to grab some tamales from a vendor at their local market, which fortified us for a good half hour of watching men wearing fancy hats and sashes (members of the local civic and religious groups) stumble around blind-drunk in front of the town’s church.
There seemed to be a hierarchy and specific roles to play. Some were attempting to dance, some attempting to play music, some orchestrating events, but all of them were too inebriated to accomplish much. A few were simply slumped over on a bench next to the church entrance.
If anyone has any theories (beyond the obvious) about why binge drinking is a such a huge part of so many market days and religious days in indigenous areas around the world, please share your comments here.
Wearable culture in San Lorenzo Zinacantán
Though we arrived too late to take in the market in San Lorenzo Zinacantán (most are over by noon at the latest) we paid our 15 peso (US$0.75) per person entrance fee and checked out what this town is really famous for: bright blue and purple floral weavings.
The colors are almost blinding and the large floral motifs are bold to say the least. The local women look fabulous in the the boxy blouses they make out of these fabrics, but most tourists end up looking silly. Though if we still had a house we would have been tempted to buy one of the blouses from one of the women selling them from small shops in the center of town and hang it on a wall as pure art.
Burial rites in Tenejapa
Another great day trip destination outside San Cristóbal is actually the final destination for many Tzeltal villagers. Near Tenejapa lies the Romerillo cemetery where tall light blue and light green crosses are arranged on the crest of a hill. Like lop-sided sentinels, they keep watch over a ramshackle (and, sadly, garbage-strewn) collection of graves.
The small crosses on each grave are color-coded to indicate the nature of the person buried there (old, female, male, a child, etc). Each grave is also topped with a simple wooden door or wooden planks. On Dia de los Muertos (Day of the Dead) the wood is removed so people can “talk” to their dearly departed.
The immediate effect is an unshakable impression that zombies will be shoving their rotting arms up through the earth and rising up through the doors at any moment. Creepy, but cool.
Here’s more about travel in Mexico
Looking forward to visiting this town soon! We are in Tulum at the moment. great video as well ;)
Fabulous post. I ran out of time before making it to San Cristobal de las Casas, but will definitely return to explore th]is part of Chiapas, including all these villages.
Coca-Cola and live chickens for worship… one of my favorite places!
Thanks for telling it straight–the attractive and the indisputably ugly. Although there are many beautiful and fascinating sites to see, I’m not sure I’d want to put up with the Attitude with a capitol A.
That market in San Juan Chamula looks like so much fun. So many interesting things and people to see.
We visited San Juan Chamula with a guide, which was pretty interesting because he was able to explain a bit about how the local brotherhood functions, I also remember him mentioning that one of the leaders in the town (at the time we visited) also worked as a distributor for Coca-Cola. I didn’t think much of it then, but maybe that has something to do with the billboard… ;) We didn’t make it to Tenejapa or the Romerillo cemetery, but it looks so interesting, maybe next time!
Thank you for the wonderful descriptions and photos. My sentiments as well. I visited Tenajapa this morning but couldn’t take any photos at all. I did ask permission but was not granted .How did you manage to take so many photos ??
I only took photos around the cemetery in Tenajapa and never even thought to ask anyone for permission, in fact there was nobody in sight to ask.
Sorry, for misleading you. I had meant all the photos in your blog showing eg .Brightly dressed civic and religious leaders in San Andres Larráinzar. and the religious leaders in Chamula as well. I saw the Tenajapa brotherhood lining outside the church and walking around the market and so asked them for a photo and that is when they refused. But anyway thank you for your photos, as they will be a reminder for me of my visit to Tenajapa plus Chamula tomorrow.
I felt very welcomed in the church in Chumula; I took in everything that I could and they seemed to appreciate the fact. I was surprised though to learn that reading and writing were prohibited inside the church. Otherwise, I felt right at home and the people performing the ceremony could readily read the fact in my face and body language. But I wanted to mention something to you, If there are those in the community who do not particularly welcome scantily dressed individuals or snap happy with the camera types, that is one thing. You don’t seem to identify with that crowd; until it is a matter of ‘we tourist vs the locals.’ Not everyone is equally welcomed anywhere.
[…] square. There was a small market to one side, but nothing like the extravaganza Karen and Eric from Trans-Americas Journey […]