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San Juan Chamula and Zinacantan are two indigenous towns just outside San Cristobal de Las Casas in Chiapas State in Southern Mexico. The two could not be more different even though they are only 7km away from one another.
Why are San Juan Chamula and Zinacantan different
- they both have their own police force
- the villages rule autonomously
- they have their own customs
- they have their own traditional dress
- they have their own holidays and celebrations
- San Juan Chamula is a merchant town
- Zinacantan is an artisan town
San Juan Chamula
The journey from San Cristobal de Las Casas to San Juan Chamula takes approximately 30 minutes. The road takes you up and over the hills surrounding San Cristobal de Las Casas, past a traditional Mayan mud house (which we were not allowed to take photos of and one which the family is not happy that many mini buses daily stop to view) to our first stop a ruined Mayan Church San Sebastian and Mayan Graveyard.
The Church of San Sebastian was originally constructed by the Dominicans in the baroque style in the 17th century. Unfortunately, it was destroyed over a century ago and this is where the story becomes fascinating. There are two beliefs. The first, is that the Church was destroyed either during the Revolution of 1910-1921 or later during 1926-1929 during the Cristero War. The other belief is that it was destroyed by fire. Anyway, whatever is the true story the locals were not happy that the Saints of the Church allowed the Church to be destroyed. They took their own revenge, left the Church in ruins and any of the statues that were not damaged were taken to the Church of San Juan just down the road in the village.
Now, the Church of San Juan had its own Saints to worship and they adorned the walls of this unusual Church (more about this later). The locals placed what was remaining of the Saints into the new Church but placed them in a way that they faced the wall, chopped their hands off and did not dress them in the traditional robes of the Church. Today, if you enter the Church of San Juan you will note that all statues face the front and if you look closely you will see those who were disgraced still without their hands.
The Mayan Graveyard outside the ruined remains of the San Sebastian Church had different coloured crosses adorning each grave. White symbolises the death of a child, blue/green symbolises the death of an adult and the black symbolises the death of an elder.
The Church of San Juan
Back into our mini bus and we headed off to visit the main church in San Juan Chamula – the Church of San Juan. This is what this tour was all about in essence. Before we were allowed off the mini bus we were warned that no photographs were allowed to be taken in the Church and the locals did not allow photos of themselves to be taken. I had read prior to coming on the tour that tourists who did not know about the strict rules, and had taken photos, had their cameras confiscated and were marched off to the local Police Station.
The Church of San Juan is located in a large square. The Church itself is stunning from the outside, the external front section is decorated in Mayan Flowers, the original glyphs of these flowers can be found in the Palace of Palenque 230km away and they date back to around 1500 years. They are painted each year.
This is the only Church we have visited that had no pews, the floor was strewn with pine needles and their aroma mingled with the hundreds of candles lit created a special feeling inside. We were told to be careful as the pine needles create a slippery floor surface and those wearing long trousers to be careful in case you brush up against the lit candles on the floor.
The statues were lined up on both sides of the wall but we were mesmerised by the ones who were wearing mirrors – apparently, this was to deflect all evil and we missed seeing the ones without hands. We slowly walked around the inside of the Church marvelling at the unusual style – the locals of San Juan Chamula practice a mix of two religions – Mayan and Catholic. The interior reflects both religions. Unfortunately, the Catholic religion was forced on them when the Spaniards arrived, they did try to resist but in the end they practised both.
Warning: Those who are against the killing of animals may just want to skip this next paragraph or two.
We had timed our visit with the visit of a Curanderos (a medicine man) who was performing a ritual for a local family. There was chanting, an egg, a live chicken, a lethal alcoholic mixture called Pox (pronounced Posh- a kind of local rum) and bottles of Fanta and Coke around the Curanderos and the family who were all seated on the floor in traditional dress. The egg, so we were told, if it was cracked open would be black inside as it has absorbed the negative vibrations from your body and soul. After the egg has been passed around the body it will be buried so that the dogs cannot eat it and take on the negative sins of the human.
The live chicken, grabbed by its legs, was then passed over the body to absorb the negative sins as it’s neck was broken in the sacrifice. This also would be taken away and buried, not to be eaten, as it too would be full of sins. As all this chanting and sacrificial rites were taking place the family and Curanderos was drinking Pox, even babies take a sip, then cups of Fanta and Coca Cola were drunk as they needed something sweet after the ceremony.
Outside in the square we noticed a stone with unusual markings, asking our 81 year old guide Luis what this was used for, he asked for my pen, checked his watch, and stated it was a sun dial and it was telling the correct time. It was not ancient fairly new, but he was not sure probably around 500 years old, to me I would have thought that was fairly old.
The People of San Juan Chamula
There are 23 ethnic groups in and around San Cristobal de Las Casas. The people of San Juan Chamula are from the largest indigenous group in Chiapas known as the Tzotil. They speak their own indigenous language of Tzotil, the second language that is taught is Spanish, although some residents only speak Tzotil. The residents have to belong to the same religion and to the same political party. If you don’t agree with the laws you are expelled from town. Outsiders are not allowed to live in San Juan Chamula only those from their own indigenous group.
The women wear a traditional black fluffy skirt made from sheep’s wool with a traditional colourful shirt. Their hair is black and long. The men wear a white poncho and you may notice a machete attached to their belt on some of them.
Sheep are not raised for their meat but the wool is used for the making of their traditional clothes. If a sheep dies, it is buried.
7km away from San Juan Chamula is the village of Zinacantan. As you approach the village from the mountain the slopes surrounding the village are full of green houses growing flowers of which the village is famous for. The flowers are grown and sent to Mexico City and other parts of the country. In English Zinacantan means ‘land of bats’. The people from Zinacantan also belong to the indigenous Tzotil group.
To Travel Too Tip: There is a Tourist Tax for those entering Zinacantan of MXN15 per person.
We were to visit a traditional family home and the local Church. Again we were warned not to take photos inside the Church or of the local people in the village. We were allowed to take photos inside the family home as they demonstrated their weaving techniques and the making of tortillas on a traditional comal.
On arrival at the family home we were treated to a taste of Pox – three different flavours for our group to try. It was strong, very strong. We were led out to the back room where a demonstration of weaving took place and an opportunity for the group to purchase some locally produced garments and items, well, some of them were local and some were from Guatemala. If you had too much Pox you may have spent more than what you bargained for.
The making of the tortillas on the traditional iron plate called comal was interesting to watch. Once cooked the tortillas were served up with a variety of sauces and spices.
The last visit on our tour was to the Church of San Lorenzo. Once again we were reminded that photos were forbidden inside the Church which is famous for its floral displays from the local fields. The Church dates back to 1546 and was constructed by the Dominicans. As it is 100% Catholic unlike the Church of San Juan in Chamula it celebrates masses and its Patron Saint.
The women of Zinacantan wear pink and purple flower embroidered clothing and the men wear pink tunics with a ribboned palm hat. The colors are changed for both men and women every 6 years.
They have strong ethics, education for their children is extremely important to them and they strive to protect their environment through protective forestation methods.
Which Tour Company Did We Use for our visit to Chamula and Zinacantan:
There are many tour companies in San Cristobal de Las Casas offering tours to Chamula and Zinacantan. We collected 6 brochures in about 20 minutes. Our decision to use the services of Jalapeno Tours was because they were centrally located in the pedestrianized street of Real de Guadalupe, they were the best value, they had employees who spoke very good English who could explain fully the tour and the meeting point for their tours was just around the corner from them at El Grano Cafe. The tour would be conducted in English.
Our review: Luis our 81 year old Tourist Guide was very knowledgeable and conducted the tour in English as well as Spanish. The tour was exactly as it was explained to us.
Details: Jalapeno Tours
Where we stayed: Hotel Villas Casa Morada
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Have you visited Chamula and Zinacantan?