Simply meet at the Mayan Cross outside the cathedral in downtown San Cristobal de las Casas at 9.30 am any day of the week and your local guide will magically arrive. For 200 pesos he will take you on an intriguing and magical journey into Ancient Mayan culture.
A short bus ride northeast of San Cristobal is San Juan Chamula, home to 2,000 inhabitants of direct Mayan descent.The village made headline news in the 90’s as the stage for the Zapatista rebels many of whom came from in and around this area. Today the rebels are peaceful, however soldiers remain close to visitors just in case. It’s therefore reassuring to know our guide Cesar is a born and bred Chiapas local and seems to know many people here.
To understand the essence of San Juan Chamula a good local guide is an absolute “must”. The village is a fascinating blend of ancient Mayan culture and Christianity, and only local knowledge will make the difference between just “strange” to “understanding”.
At first you may think Chamula is just another mountain village…
“Indigenous people believe they have to feed the saints and play music to them, because if they are not content they will not send rain for crops, or they will send too much rain, or maybe an epidemic,” Cesar tells us.
Cesar leads our small group down a narrow dusty road, through an archway of cypress leaves and into a low dark concrete building. Sorry there’s no photos and you’ll see why later.
Inside the light is dim and the air is thick with smoke from the copal incense, a smell also pleasing to the gods. Pine needles completely cover the floor and the walls are draped with dense foliage of cypress branches. A central area is partitioned off where one of the saints is being taken care of by a spiritual leader. The table in front is covered in offerings, candles, coca cola and clear alcoholic liquid.
We are invited to sit down on the wooden benches and partake in the drinking of some of the local pox. Soon a group of young children arrive to see us, we teach them how to wink, then play the winking game with them. They love it and giggle away as kids do.
This is a holy house dedicated to one of the many local saints. There are many houses in the village that take care of various saints. Each year a volunteer spiritual leader in the village takes responsibility for the saint for a period of 1 year. It’s an onerous and expensive task for the leader and can cost up to $10,000. The leader must take care of the statue and paraphernalia as well as organizing festivals and celebrations. It is no simple task it involves a rigorous daily schedule of prayers, offerings of food and drink, incense and song. They must provide all the cypress branches pine needles and the huge amount of copal required to burn constantly at their own cost. In this, Mexico’s poorest state, people often shoulder years of debt for the honor.
The colorful façade of the church resembles many others in Mexico but once you step inside a unique experience into another world awaits.
Inside we are overwhelmed at the hushed spectacle and want to stay…
There are no pews.
There is no altars.
The floor is completely covered with a carpet of pine needles.
The air thick with smoke billowing to the ceiling from burning resin incense (copal). Oh I love this smell.
The light is soft from the blaze of thousands of small candles stuck to the stone floor with wax.
When a person asks for help, Cesar says, shamans prescribe the colors of candles to burn. Black is against witchcraft, red is for restoration of harmony, yellow for prosperity.
The walls are lined with glass cases each containing a saint. These saints appear at first to be Catholic saints, but to the people here they represent the Mayan Gods. Some of the saints have flowers and rows of candles burning in front of them, others have nothing.
Cesar explains the saints with no worshippers are the saints from the church San Sebastian on the hill. The church was destroyed almost a century ago. The statues were saved, but as the saints had been unable to save the church from harm, the local population decided to punish them. Their hands were chopped off and for decades the faced the wall in the church. Only in recent years were they allowed to face the congregation and their body has been clothed, so that their chopped hands are not visible.
The saints also wear a mirror on their chest. When one prays to the saint, the soul of the person praying leaves their body. The mirror helps the soul find its way back by reflecting it back onto the body.
Groups of people sit on the floor, each group separated from the other, with candles around them, carrying with them soft drinks, beer, alcohol, food and sometimes a chicken and/or eggs. We wander quietly through the church, observing the chickens being sacrificed, chanting, drinking, burping and worshipping while carefully dodging the flaring candles.
At one side a shaman on the floor holds a woman’s wrist as if to take her pulse. Shamans diagnose medical, psychological afflictions and prescribe remedies such as candles of specific colors and sizes, specific flower petals or feathers, or – in a dire situation – a live chicken. The specified remedies are then brought to a healing ceremony.
On another side, a crouching woman in a hooded shawl holds a black plastic bag from which protrudes the head of a worried-looking chicken. We learn that poultry are sacrificed to rescue a soul from the god of the underworld: roosters for men, hens for women a black chicken when the soul is lost due to witchcraft.
Sounds of whispering and chanting are heard, created by the shamans and their patients performing their traditional ceremonies aimed at curing illnesses. Chamulan people kneel on the floor of the church with sacrificial items, stick candles to the floor with melted wax, drink ceremonial cups of Pox, an artisanal sugar-cane-based liquor, Coca Cola and Pepsi, and chant prayers in an archaic dialect of Tzotzil.
The coke is often drunk during chanting, sometimes spat out over the candles – mimicking the Holy Water of the Christian service. A side effect of coca cola is burping. As expelling gas is believed to release evil spirits resident in the body. Then there is Pox – pronounced posh – a cane-alcohol beverage containing 38 percent of alcohol. Many state that three small glasses of Posh will see them drunk, being drunk is believed to aide communication with the otherworld, and talk to the saints.
Normally, a worshipper will light about twenty candles, placed in three rows, in front of one of the saints. Each row is a different height, with the highest furthest away. These candles are lit first, followed by the middle, then by the final row. The hope is that all three rows more or less extinguish together.
This is the standard form of worship, but on many occasions, a chicken is slaughtered. Once its neck is broken, it remains lying on the floor, in front of the candles. Later, it is removed, normally to be eaten by the family that made the sacrifice. That sacred meal, however, is not consumed inside the church.
All too soon we must leave and outside we are deafened by the booms of huge hand held rockets being let off by the shaman’s assistants. Fireworks, in particular hand held sky rockets, we have come to learn are part of the rituals and are thought to help summon thunderstorms to water crops. I think the men just like them!
You can take photos of people around town, from a respectful distance, though many will turn away from a camera, hence there is only a few on here.
Within the church photography is strictly prohibited as is photographing any procession or ceremony outside the church or in the town. They can and will throw you out of town or in jail if you attempt to violate this rule.
We saw the jail. It isn’t nice.
Many indigenous communities in southern Mexico are semi – autonomous, and San Juan Chamula is more autonomous than others, with its own police and judges. San Juan Chamula has its own laws. And its own customs.
Sentences for minor crimes are typically only a day or two, but justice can also be harsh. While capital punishment was officially abolished across Mexico in 2005, it still exists here, and was applied recently against two men accused of raping and murdering a local woman. The men were publicly beaten and set on fire.
It is considered sacrilege to enter the church with a hat on, but entering it with an opened can of beer in one hand and a lighted cigarette in the other is not offensive at all!
Chamula is a unique and intriguing experience and our best of Mexico so far. The smell of copal and pine needles will be baked in our memories of Mexico forever.
Our guide, the wonderful Cesar, grew up with this culture but has lived outside it also, gives us a very balanced perspective.
“They try to protect their culture. They do not try to convert anybody. I have never had any native person knocking on my door trying to convert me,” Cesar says. They should not be regarded as inferior, they should be regarded as equal, as they see others.”
We highly recommend visiting San Juan Chamula, step respectfully into their world, and learn.
There are tours leaving the square in front of the cathedral of San Cristóbal de las Casas every day at 9:30 am and 2pm for around 200MXN Plenty of other tours are available along Real de Guadalupe. If willing to go without a guide, taxis can be hailed anywhere in San Cristóbal about 35MXN or “colectivos” leave from the main market about 12MXN throughout the day.
Not generally a ‘tour’ person I do however recommend a guide for this place. The culture of San Juan Chamula has many fascinating aspects, and we’ve only scratched the surface here.
Entry to the Church of St John the Baptist is 20 MXN pp, paid at the entrance.
IMPORTANT: As previously mentioned no hats or photos allowed inside.
Sunday is probably the best day to visit, since it’s market day and the whole town is selling their wares around the main square in front of the church.