The jewel in the crown of the Chiapas Central Highlands is San Cristóbal de las Casas, a beautiful colonial town, located at a height of almost 7,200 feet. Nestled in the grand Valley of Jovel, surrounded by thick forests of pine and oak, this magical town is situated in the centre of one of Mexico’s most authentically indigenous regions.
San Cristóbal is a very charming colonial town with an almost alpine atmosphere and buildings painted in shades of pastel yellow, orange, blue, and purple. It is one of the most scenic towns in Mexico. Walking along its narrow cobble-stoned colonial streets with white-washed walls, picturesque arcades and small tree-filled plazas is a delightful experience. The 16th century Templo Santo Domingo is the most impressive church among the many churches in the town. It has a gorgeous baroque facade covered with intricately carved mortar, Solomonic columns, and statues tucked into ornate niches. The church is the gathering place for the town market where the agricultural produce, household items, textiles, etc. are sold daily. The Zócalo or the Plaza 31 de Marzo (the Main Square) is the main meeting place for locals and tourists. Live music, street performances, clown acts, native women and children selling hand-woven items like bracelets, belts, and shawls to all and sundry, numerous tourists from different parts of the world.
San Cristóbal is the centre point of the constellation of numerous indigenous villages, extending deep into the mountains. Each village has developed its own identity. These villages are an anthropologist’s delight with traditions dating to pre-Conquest times. They tend to be distinct, possessing their own unique laws, dress codes with respect to colours and designs, crafts, languages and patron saints. Often, many features of their daily lives are pre-Columbian in origin. People do not marry someone outside their community. And if they do, they are expelled from their respective communities, leaving the couple and their offspring to fend for themselves, deprived of any help and protection from the communities they were born into.
Each village has a weekly market where they sell their handmade crafts, including textiles and jewellery, fresh produce, meat and poultry. The people are extremely poor and keep to themselves. They strive to maintain ancient traditions while adapting to tourism. Though tourists are welcome, these communities ensure that their traditions and beliefs are respected by outsiders. Photography is restricted and entrance to their churches and shrines is strictly controlled. Besides, photography inside their churches is forbidden and punishable with imprisonment. One has to ask for permission before taking photographs of the local villagers. Some say that these people believe that when they are photographed, they lose their soul. But others dismiss this belief with a simple explanation that the villagers dislike outsiders who interfere in their lives and then profit from it.
Independent travellers are less common in the villages and are looked upon with suspicious and wary eyes. Sometimes, they have to explain their presence to curious village leaders. A guided tour through the villages is the best option. As each community is distinct, the customs and practices are best explained by the tour guides who are more knowledgeable about the village culture. More than ten different dialects are spoken in the indigenous villages surrounding San Cristóbal. However, two principle villages, San Juan Chamula and San Lorenzo Zinacantán, are easily reached and are the most sought out destinations.
San Juan Chamula, about 10 km from San Cristóbal, is a major attraction amongst all local villages around San Cristóbal. Located at an altitude of 7,218 feet, it is the principal town of the Tzotzil-speaking community with around 80,000 inhabitants. This place enjoys a unique autonomous status within Mexico. No outside police or military are allowed in the village. The people have their own police force.
The Chamulans are very strict about their traditions, in comparison to the other villages. Anyone refusing to be a ‘Catholic’ which is Catholicism blended with Maya ritualism, is ostracized and expelled from the community and the village. The Chamulans acknowledge only one of the seven sacraments, that of Baptism, rejecting the other six. They revere St John the Baptist above Jesus Christ.
The main attraction of the village is its colonial era church, known as the Ceremonial Centre of Chamula. This lone village church serves hundreds of indigenous communities from the surrounding mountains. Though it appears like any other church on the outside, it is not a typical Catholic church. There are no priests, nor is any holy mass conducted. The only Catholic ceremonies conducted here are baptisms. Every year, on 24th June, a priest comes to perform all the baptisms of children born during the past year. There are no church weddings, only civil marriages. Instead of masses, healing rituals are conducted with candles, eggs, chickens and Coca-Cola. These rituals are done for each individual or family simultaneously inside the huge structure.
Shamans – male or female – are considered as physicians as well as priests, and are consulted on all matters of health and spirit. It is the job of the shaman to balance the body and spirit which may be disrupted by sins and illnesses. After consultations with the petitioner, he determines the changes necessary to regain balance. Depending on the problem, candles of specific size and colour are placed in precise positions and burned. In some extreme cases, a chicken can be sacrificed and its blood used to aid in achieving balance.
People place lighted candles on the church floor covered with pine needles. White candles are for various daily or family matters. Red candles burn for someone who is ill, black candles announce death. Petitioners consult the village shamans only, and all the ceremonies take place in small groups on the floor, each headed by its own shaman who leads the group in chanting.
There are no pews or altars in this church, only a large statue of St John decorated with red and yellow ribbons. The Virgin Mary has a place in the observances, but as a saint, not as the Mother of God, because the indigenous villagers consider the concept of a virgin birth ridiculous. They worship the traditional Catholic saints as images of their own gods. This obviously reflects back to the times when they were forced to accept the Catholic religion by the Spanish conquistadores.
Each devotee has a favourite saint amongst the many whose statues flank the nave. The statues of the saints are dressed in layers of brilliantly flowered clothes with mirrors hung around their necks. Offerings made to them include alcohol, herbs, food, candles and incense. The pagan rites of the Maya merge magically with the Catholic religion, diverging completely from the traditions of western Christianity.
The Catholic Trinity is represented by St Peter, St John and St Sebastian. Although, the Christian cross is found throughout the village, it does not represent the Trinity, but rather the cardinal directions of North, South, East and West. It is used to protect against evil spirits. The pine tree is an important part of the village culture and since it is considered sacred and aids in protection, crosses are often found erected in pairs or threes and adorned with pine boughs.
The village of San Lorenzo Zinacantán, or just Zinacantán, is located 12 km from San Cristóbal.
About 98% of its population are Tzotzil Maya and speak Tzotzil. The Zinacantans are believed to have descended from a mixture of Tzotzil and Aztec blood. The people here are more open and western in their outlook than those from the village of San Juan Chamula.
The first missionaries, who came to evangelize the native inhabitants in Zinacantán, were the Dominican friars. They settled in Zinacantán in the 16th century and built a wooden chapel to begin their mission. These missionaries left Zinacantán before they were expelled from Mexico by the government in the 17th century, but they returned to continue their pastoral work in 1976.
The village dates back to Aztec times, when local salt mines were exploited and formed a major part of the economic activity. Before the Spanish Conquest, Zinacanteco merchants traded salt for amber, cacao, and quetzal feathers from the Chiapas lowlands, which they then sold to the Aztec traders who travelled from central Mexico. Today, merchants travel around the region selling home-grown vegetables, fruit, and flowers. A growing tourism business also has helped this village to prosper. But the principal economic activity today, is the export of flowers and this is quite visible through the numerous greenhouses full of flowers dotting its valley. Zinacantans are responsible for a lot of the tropical flowers shipped throughout the surrounding Mexican states. Flowers have played an important role in their culture as their means of prosperity, which explains the floral patterns on their clothes.
I hope you’ve enjoyed reading this post. You can read more on San Cristóbal de las Casas and its surrounding villages, my travel experiences there and at many other beautiful destinations in Mexico in my ebook Discovering Mexico
Click here to read the book synopsis and sample chapters and to know how you can buy a copy of my ebook.
I leave you with this song by Enrique Iglesias : Dimelo Enjoy 🙂
Take care…hasta luego 🙂