The village of San Juan Chamula is set in the mountains of Chiapas in Southern Mexico. Living here are the Tzotzil Maya people - a fiercely independent and self-ruling community. The village may only be based six miles from the popular San Cristobal de las Casas but their culture, dress, architecture and religion seem worlds apart. So if you're looking to get truly off the beaten track in Mexico, San Juan Chamula will be right up your calle...
First Impressions of San Juan Chamula
Arriving into San Juan Chamula, I first noticed how many unfinished roads and buildings there were. Projects were funded by new migrant money from the USA, but seemed to have come to a grinding halt mid-way. Walking along half tarmac, half dirt roads, you arrive at the main plaza where the focal point of the village is the church.
From the outside, Iglesia San Juan seems like a fairly regular church with white-washed walls and a brightly painted entrance. Step inside the church, however, and it is a far cry from the mainstream Catholicism that the majority of Mexico practices.
Discovering the Traditional Rituals and Practices
When entering the church, you are first hit with the aroma of incense and the smoke from the hundreds of candles surrounding the room. You then notice that the floor is completely covered with fresh pine needles, and that there are no pews, priest or altar in sight. Surrounding the walls are models of saints in glass boxes, who represent Mayan gods and are believed to keep evil at bay. Groups of locals congregate in circles, either praying, weaving, drinking, smoking or carrying out rituals.
These rituals, that are a combination of ancient Mayan religion and Catholicism, are truly fascinating. Live chickens will be bought into the church and, sometimes, waved overhead by shamans to remove evil spirits. The chicken will then have its necks broken before being taken home, chopped into 13 pieces, and the head buried as a gift for the God of the underworld. Evil spirits are also believed to be expelled from the body by drinking a combination of sugar-cane rum (pox) and Coca-Cola... and burping loudly!
Discovering the Traditional Attitudes...
Keeping their traditions alive is hugely important to the Chamulans and, as a result, they are very private people who reject outsiders and change. This means tourists, other Mexicans, and even neighbouring villagers, will not always feel exactly welcome! As a result, it is very important not to get in the way of any parades or rituals. Taking photos of the inside of the church is prohibited and it is seen as highly offensive to capture images of the locals. It has been known for tourists to have their cameras confiscated or broken due to a single photo (you have been warned!).
A Call for Discovering the Undiscovered
Despite this unusual way of treating visitors, it is an excursion that I highly recommend. It is truly special and eye-opening to witness the locals dressed in white wool tunics and black hairy skirts, to wander around the chaotic Sunday market, and feel the spirituality within the church - an experience that is heightened because you are actually living it, rather than seeing it through a camera. Truly off the beaten track!