San Juan Chamula

I love getting a glimpse into other cultures.  We always enjoy searching out areas where the locals hang out, and you aren’t quite as likely to run into crowds of international travellers.  We’ve experienced Chiapas, Mexico before, but this time bringing along cousins Vivian and Wilson allows us to share with them the magic and beauty of some of these amazing Pueblas. Chamula is high in the mountains, over an already high city of San Cristobal de las Casas.  We returned the following day, when it was misty and cloudy, but I didn’t take any photos without a guide to let me know when it was advisable.  On that day it was literally like being in a cloud.  Just simple mist in the air, clinging to everything, but no real rainfall.

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Go to the cross in front of the church, town centre in San Cristobal de las Casas.  Look for someone representing AlexyRaul tours.  Be there just before 9:30, and you can hook up for a tour to San Juan Chamula, and San Lorenzo Zinacantan.  The tour is about 3-4 hours (250 pesos – $17) and is one of the best we’ve ever been on.

Both Chamula and Zinacantan are indigenous villages (populated by the Tzotzil – Mayan tribe) a short distance from San Cristobal.  These villages are unique in that they are autonomous from the rules, laws and taxes of Mexico.  They govern themselves entirely.  One of the things we noticed about that is the cars don’t have any licence plates, and virtually as soon as you can reach a gas pedal you can drive…… Needless to say, this can only happen in your village.  Chamula is fiercely independent, and they do not take kindly to outsiders.  A man may marry or bring in an outsider (polygamy is acceptable) but not a female.  No outside males may ever reside in Chamula.  Be very careful taking photographs here, and certainly don’t take ANY of the religious leaders or ceremonies.  Our tour guide explained that we were able to take photos of general scenes, and if that happened to capture some individuals, that is the best you can expect.

cemetary

Arriving in Chamula, our first stop was the cemetery.  Not the solemn place we come to expect in Canada.  Large family groups gather on a regular basis to visit, laugh, talk, eat and drink with their departed family members.  A band is even hired! All those dry pine needles are from previous visits.  They will routinely be replaced by fresh needles.

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The church, and square is central to all activities.  Built as a Catholic Church, it quickly became more Mayan.  The decorations are all part of Mayan life, and inside it is an interesting combination of Catholic saints and Mayan worship.  You won’t find any pews, or altars, but rather a floor lined with pine needles, candles burning, live chickens and flower petals.  Don’t forget the Coca Cola.  This pop has a life of its own here – considered quite sacred, used in religious ceremonies and just consumed by the case.  We even noted a sign for a village named San Juan Coca Cola.  There are family groups scattered around, each with their own healer, performing ceremonies, and praying to the saint of their choice.  NO, I certainly didn’t take any photos inside.

 

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Sunday is a big market day, with both Chamula residents, and those from outlying villages offering everything you can think of.

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The residents of Chamula speak Tzotzil, and wear traditional clothing all the time, not just on festival days.  The black skirts are woven from the wool of the black sheep you see grazing on the hillsides all over the place, while the men wear the white tunic primarily in the warmer weather, but a woven black coat in the winter.  Black sheep are so predominant here that if a family member causes trouble, they are considered the “white sheep”.  Not the best photo, but I had to crop from a large “scene” photo.

 

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The women often have a scarf or shawl on their head, perhaps to keep the sun off?

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We had taken the tour with Alex and Raul  tours about 7 years ago, and returned the following year so Mike and Hayley could experience that.  We have visited the villages since, but with Vivi and Wilson along, we wanted to have them get the same information.  It is really refreshing to find a tour guide that has such respect for the areas we are allowed into.  He also took us into a “holy” home, where some religious ceremonies were performed.  Needless to say, no photos were allowed, but how I wish I could have recorded that room with the incense and smoke absolutely filling the space, such that it was difficult to see across.  The floors are covered with pine needles, and the saint is protected from view by multiple levels of foliage.  The elders and religious leaders were praying and the musicians kept up a steady beat.  It is literally impossible not to be moved in such a setting.  Alcohol plays a large part of the ceremonies too, with them consuming “poxx” or “posh”.  Over 40% alcohol, it is distilled from sugar cane and helps, with the repetitive music, take them to a “higher level of consciousness”.

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These women are selling fleece recently sheared, for the woven garments.

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The women of Chamula gather to socialize on market day.

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Can you even imagine how warm these woven wool coats are?  Note the 4th man, with the “rifle” over his shoulder??  That indicates he is a policeman.  They carry sticks, to represent rifles, and travel in pairs throughout the village.  That wheelbarrow is full of bags of freshly cut coconut and mango, just waiting to be drizzled with hot sauce.  Delicious!

When you return from a visit to these villages, it is with a sense of experiencing the surreal.  A guide allows you the comfort to see the areas you wouldn’t otherwise be able to.  We don’t often hire them, but when we do, it is to make sure we are understanding the cultures and customs of a region without offending.  These indigenous villages are that situation, and when I get home, I often drift back to these moments, with a sense of privilege that we were able to experience this.  I want so many more photos than I take, just to memorize the images of such beautiful faces, unadorned with makeup and certain on their path, unchanged for generations.  We did notice certain differences this time, in that more people had cell phones and I can’t help but wonder how that will change their future.

 

 

 

 

 

 

San Lorenzo Zinacantan

Zinacantan is an Indigenous village outside San Cristobal.  We recommend you tour this village with a guide (we suggest Alex and Raoul Tours).  In combination with a tour to San Juan Chamula it will take about 3-4 hours.  Just meet up with Raoul or one of his members at the cross in front of the church in San Cristobal.  Be there any time between 8:45 – 9:30 in the morning and you can join in with a group.  What is really impressive about this tour is that they are so respectful of the villages you are going to visit. We really enjoyed our time with Raoul Jr, and loved the way he interacted with the elders of the villages.

church cross

You might wonder how you will find one of the tour guides here ….. but you will.

Zinacantan is similar to San Juan Chamula only in that it is an autonomous village, exempt from the taxes, rules and laws of Mexico.  This village is supported by the flower industry, and arriving in the village you see miles and miles of greenhouses, sometimes on the most impossible slope and you have to wonder about the logistics on managing those.  Flowers are evident everywhere!  They are all over their clothing and the buildings.  It is such a colourful village.  I wish I had been able to take photos inside the churches – they were absolutely beautiful with archways of flowers and banana plants.  Slightly different from Chamula, these churches had altars and a few pews.  Behind the altar though, was an astonishing array of flowers.  You simply can’t believe the colourful display.

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Part of our tour took us into a weaver’s home, where they showed us how labor intensive the weaving is.  Literally days worth to create a shawl.  THEN, they start the embroidery.

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CORN. Part of everyday life, in all its varieties.

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This is life in the village. We were so fortunate to have this family prepare a snack for us in their kitchen, Blue corn tortillas on the comal (flat cooking surface) over a wood fire.  Can tortillas ever taste better?  I don’t think so.

 

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If this is what the entry to church looks like, can you even imagine the interior?  It was stunning.

We were in Zinacantan during festival days (no accident, you know Grant looks up all this extensively!)

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All  in traditional clothing, they are chanting and dancing their way into the church for blessings before carrying on with the next stage of the festival.  (All stages include lots of moonshine!)

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Hard to imagine all the colour ….. these are the men involved in the ceremonies.

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The flowers themselves are stunning, but the artistry in the arrangements really is amazing.

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Just look at the embroidery on the clothing – this is everyday wear!

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The colours are brilliant.  It’s hard to imagine how many hours of embroidery go into the daily clothing for both males and females.

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There were all sorts of activities going on for the festival that involved the horses, but we never did catch the race this year.

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Residents of Zinacantan aren’t quite as upset about getting their photo taken.

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This guy loved having his photo taken, wish I’d turned it to video as he and his horse danced around.  See the school in the background & the cow grazing.  No need for a lawn mower here.

 

 

 

All the guys with black painted faces are panthers, the beak guys with corn in their mouths are crows, and well…. the others are jaguars.  The panthers climb that stripped tree, with the dissected squirrels (real ones, but stuffed) and throw them down to the hunters who race around trying to collect them.  We waited for hours, but no one ever seems to know when something is actually going to transpire!

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Look at all that embroidery, even the youngest wear the traditional clothing.

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You know right away this family is from Chamula by the black wool skirts. (and the suspicious look at my phone)

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If you have time on your vacation to tear yourself away from Mexico’s amazing beaches, we heartily recommend you go inland …. the culture, food and sights you see are well worth it.