© Visit Mexico
Mexico by way of Maya
San Cristobal’s Spanish architecture and cobblestone streets rub shoulders with a vibrant indigenous culture
About a thousand years ago the Mayans used to go to agonizing lengths to beautify themselves. They flattened the foreheads of infants with boards to elongate their skulls. They hung small baubles between their eyes, making them somewhat cross-eyed. They pumiced their teeth sharp points and inset jade until they shone. They deliberately scarred their cheeks and covered their upper bodies with tattoos.
The present-day Mayans we encountered revealed no such attempts at vanity. But we observed some astonishing rituals of a more spiritual nature in San Juan Chamula, a small village near San Cristobal de las Casas, where the stubbornly independent Tzotzil Mayans here have resisted mainstream Catholicism and many of the modern trappings of the rest of the world. Their church, unlike anything I have ever experienced, blends Christian and Mayan beliefs.
The floor was strewn with fresh cedar boughs. There were no pews or altars; instead Mayan men, women and children knelt down on the floor setting up individual altars with varying numbers and colours of candles based on their shaman’s instructions. Other items for their altar offerings included Coca-Cola or Fanta (the belief is that the carbonation dispels bad spirits in the form of burps), eggs, bones and live chickens. If a person had a psychological or physical problem, the shaman recited various prayers and passed a live chicken over the patient. Then she/he quietly broke the fowl's neck, which went home for a ceremonial lunch.
Meanwhile, the priest and his followers circulated around the church playing accordions and various stringed instruments. The air was pungent with copal incense mixed with the whiff of fresh lilies. The other key offering was posh, a potent liquor made from distilled corn mash. A few worshippers flambéed their posh with candles; others took generous swigs. We noticed one fellow loading a handheld metal cannon with some kind of explosives that he later blasted off outside on the square. I feared the whole place would go up in flames.
Tourists must pay a nominal sum ($2) to enter the church and sign a waiver saying they won’t take photos. Once you're in they basically ignore you while going about their rituals. This is a very sacred place and the worshippers are intensely devoted.
Welcome to day one of my first visit to Chiapas, Mexico’s southernmost state, bordering Guatemala. Most folks associate Chiapas as being the headquarters of the 1994 Zapatista Movement led by Subcomandante Marcos, when the natives rebelled against the Mexican government over land distribution, health care, Indian rights and other social injustices. That situation has long since subsided. This being one of the poorer parts of Mexico, I was expecting dirt roads and basic services but I only encountered these in some small Mayan villages.
San Cristobal: Colonial Charmer
San Cristobal de las Casas is another story. Frankly I was surprised to find not only one of Mexico’s best-preserved Spanish colonial towns but also an upscale vibe. There aren’t many North American tourists here but the Europeans have definitely discovered the cobblestone streets of San Cristobal, aptly designated as one of Mexico’s Magic Towns.
Capital of Chiapas until 1892, San Cristobal is still the cultural capital of the state. It’s the ideal hub for exploring the region’s villages, archaeological ruins and countryside. The cathedral dominates the tree-lined zocalo (main plaza). Built during the 16th and 17th centuries and restored in the 1920s, the mustard yellow and white facade blends Baroque, Moorish and indigenous influences. Most evenings the gazebo in the centre of the zocalo is occupied by musicians playing lively marimba tunes. The square also seems to be the headquarters for Mayan women and children peddling piles of blankets, serapes and jewelry. From the zocalo the town radiates outwards; streets are chock-a-block with colonial-style buildings with red tile roofs and wrought iron balconies housing inviting hotels, wine bars and all sorts of eateries from posh candlelit courtyards to cheerful pizzerias.
A few blocks from the Santa Domingo Church, the San Cristobal municipal market is the social and commercial centre for the Tzotzil and Tzeltal peoples who inhabit the surrounding highland villages. Stalls overflowed with piles of mangos, tomatoes, beans, corn, medicinal herbs, fresh flowers and more. Tiny Mayan grannies with long braids and intricately woven shawls wrangled live chickens and turkeys.
It was a photographer’s dream, but also source of great frustration.Mayans tend to resent having their pictures taken. It’s not so much about “stealing their souls” as a belief that all live and inanimate things have chu’lel (vital energy) and that photographing them violates it. So I learned to be sneaky and shot from the hip.
Our guide Roberto introduced us to a new amigo and market guru. Chiapas’s celebrity chef, Marta Zepeda runs a terrific boutique hotel and restaurant in the centre of town called Tierra y Cielo (1 Avenue Benito Juarez; tierraycielo.com.mx). We tagged along as she shopped and chatted with her favourite vendors. She introduced us to tascalate, a beverage unique to Chiapas, made with ground toasted corn, chocolate, cinnamon, achiote and sugar. Back in her kitchen at Tierra y Cielo, chef Marta whipped up her signature dessert, a torte made with the staples of Mexican cooking (corn, chilies, squash and beans). More regional specialties include tasajo (thinly sliced beef marinated in an achiote chili sauce), and pork with pipian (pumpkin seed sauce).
Next we explored the surrounding Indian villages that are noted for weaving, embroidery, leather and pottery. San Lorenzo Zinacantan, a Tzotzil community next to Chamula, is famous for its textiles. We visited Roberto’s friend Catalina and her family who earn their living by opening their home to tourists. Catalina was busy weaving a colourful tapestry on a primitive back-strap loom. I bought a magnificent huipil (traditional woven tunic embellished with embroidery and ribbons) and sampled some hot-off-the-comal tortillas made from scratch by Catalina’s daughter. We also tried their potent posh spiked with cinnamon.
Chiapas is one of the largest producers of amber on the planet. If you covet some new baubles this is the place to buy. Ancient Mayans used powdered amber as a medicine; today many babies wear a small amber bracelet to protect them from “the evil eye.” Some jewelry shops in town called themselves amber museums but the real McCoy, Museo del Ambar (Exconvento de la Merced, Diego de Mazariegos; museodelambar.com.mx), is located in the former Merced convent. The second floor houses an impressive collection, including one specimen with a scorpion trapped inside, and another with tiny lizard. Take note: authentic amber is light and warm to the touch; counterfeit amber is heavy and cold. A reputable store will let you test under an ultraviolet light before you buy. If the amber glows green, it’s real.
Hats off to the humanitarians
Around the corner from the Museo del Ambar is the Museo Sergio Castro (Calle Guadalupe Victoria 38; yokchij.org; $3, via appointment only). Senor Castro, an agricultural engineer, veterinarian and teacher by training, has spent a lifetime treating the wounds of the poor, building schools and improving health and water conditions. He has also amassed an unparalleled collection of traditional clothing from the Indian villages and can tell you the meaning of every ribbon and stitch on an embroidered blouse. He had to cut our tour short as he runs a burn clinic in the same house and a patient arrived needing care. Many of the ceremonial costumes in his collection were given to him as payment for his work. Extra donations are much appreciated.
Probably no foreigners have had a greater impact on the indigenous people of the San Cristobal area than the late anthropologists Frans and Trudi Blom. The Bloms dedicated their lives to studying and documenting the Mayans of the Chiapas region, particularly the Lacandon peoples. They set up a foundation to improve their lives and their forest homeland. At Casa Na Bolom (33 Avenue Vicente Guerrero; nabolom.org; doubles from $77), a museum and research centre housed in their former private home, you can view their collections of pre-Columbian artifacts. Casa Na Bolom also has guestrooms, a garden and restaurant with a large communal table where we dined and enjoyed a concert. Revenue goes towards Na Bolom’s reforestation project.
Doctors and laymen alike should pay a visit to the Mayan Medicine Museum (10 Avenue Salomón González Blanco) run by indigenous healers, midwives and herbalists about a kilometre outside of San Cristobal’s centre. Inside there’s a fascinating video portraying the role of a midwife during a traditional Mayan birth. Outside they grow myriad medicinal plants. I was intrigued by the pharmacy where you can purchase natural remedies for what ails you. A cardboard hand-printed sign indicates what ingredients heal specific symptoms. For example, pulverized wild tobacco, garlic and limestone are supposed to protect people against envy, bad winds and nausea. I wasn’t sure about that, but the little vial of cold sore liquid that I bought for a few pesos worked like a charm for me.
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