Chiapas is known for its remarkable nature and the archaeological site of Palenque. Most travellers stop in San Cristóbal de Las Casas and fall in love with it. Pervaded by a vibrant and colourful atmosphere, local artesania is one of the main attractions of the city. It also represents the perfect starting point to visit some of the most beautiful places in Chiapas.
Just outside the city you find two indigenous villages, San Juan Chamula and Zinacantan. There are tours which take you there, but my advice is to meet local guides Raul and Cesar at the cross (the square in front of the Cathedral) at 9:30 am. I’ve been told about them by a friend (thanks Anaé!) and it was the best suggestion! You can do the tour either in Spanish or English, both guides are knowledgeable and know the locals, which make your visit much more authentic.
The two villages share some similarities, but they also have distinct characteristics. I personally found San Juan Chamula truly unique and I can’t recommend it enough. Going without a guide won’t let you appreciate the peculiar aspects of this place. You wouldn’t understand why the cemetery looks like it does, or why the church is… well… inexplicable.
This is the only village in the world which has a public courthouse gathering every Sunday.
They have a traditional figure called Mayordomo, who takes care of a Saint for a year and wears traditional clothing. The local inhabitants rely on a traditional type of Mayan medicine which involves key elements to heal the body and spirit. When people are sick they visit a curandero, who uses his fingers to feel the patient’s wrist and determine the nature of the problems. Kind of what traditional Chinese medicine looks like. But what comes next is like no other treatment. People use candles, each colour representing a different issue (money, health, etc…). To purify the spirit they have a soft drink (I’ll let you imagine which one), because the gas induces burps and supposedly helps getting all the bad odds and ends out. They also drink a liqueur called Pox (pronounced Posh), distilled from sugar cane and sometimes flavoured with fruit or honey and cinnamon. It is absolutely delicious and you can get a bottle from the locals for just 50 pesos (£2) instead of buying it in expensive shops in the centre of San Cristóbal. Singing is part of the ritual, adding an heterogeneous soundtrack to your visit to the church. Finally, a chicken comes into place. No blood is spilled, but they do pull the neck, so yeah… technically they still kill it.
Taking photos inside the church and other places of religious importance is strictly prohibited! Perhaps it’s better this way, it is a place you need to see to get out and think ‘wow, this truly is something else’. Just imagine a strong smell of pine tree, people sat on the floor singing in Tzotzil, their native language, devoted to their Saints. There is no directionality like there is in any other church, just people drinking while waving a chicken over tens of candles. What caught my attention is that every Saint has a mirror on his/her chest. This is highly symbolic because when you pray you will see the reflection of your image. It may be easy to lie to others, but not to yourself!
The square is filled with people coming to you to sell bracelets, dresses or whatever other thing they produce. This happens all over Mexico, but here people get to a different level. I was stopped by a lady who saw my camera and told me I could take a picture if I paid 10 pesos. Knowing how difficult it would have been to take someone’s portrait, as well as how much she needed the money more than I did, I decided to go for it.
You’re not supposed to take photos of the locals, they believe you’ll steal their soul (or you have intentions to kidnap the kids). For some reason money changes the rules… it is what it is. A little girl with the saddest “Bambi eyes” I have ever seen could not even smile when I took the photo. I felt very privileged to have grown up where I could receive education instead of spending my days selling on the street.
The nearby village of Zinacantan is another gem worth visiting. Here the church is lot simpler, the traditional clothing is different and I didn’t see any chickens around. We visited some women who knit with the telaio and make the most amazing pieces of clothing. If you want to get yourself a scarf as a souvernir, this is the place! It’s all genuine, the cotton feels incredible and there is no sewing machine on sight.
You’ll also have the chance to try freshly prepared tortillas with frijoles (refried beans) and linseed powder. It goes down very well, but a sip of Pox helps and you are welcome to have it.
I loved this place! Understanding what goes on amongst these people is a unique experience and Raul did a fantastic job! The tour costs as much as it would with another company (250 pesos), but the service is second to none and worth every penny.