Through Mexico’s Mayan heartland
Mayan ruins at Palenque, taken from the Temples of the Cross. (Rebecca Conan)
“Burping cleanses the soul,” said our tour guide when explaining why the Tzotzil people in the town of San Juan Chamula gulp down coca cola while praying in their local church.
The small church and its blend of pre-Hispanic mysticism and traditional Catholic practices, is one of the stranger stops on a trip through the state of Chiapas. Religion and ritual aside, Chiapas is a blend of what makes Mexico special: majestic ruins, indigenous traditions, artisan crafts, colonial architecture and engulfing jungle.
Chiapas is the heart of a great Mayan civilization that stretched through southern Mexico to Guatemala and Honduras, dated between 2,000 BC to the Spanish conquest in the 16th Century. Comprised of several ethnic and linguistic groups, including the Lacandon, who continue to live and work in the forest of the same name, the majority of Chiapas’ indigenous people live in the north of the state near the border with Guatemala. Some 27% of Chiapas’ present day indigenous population are direct descendants of the various Mayan groups, and their ancient culture is still evident in the local languages and traditional dress.
San Cristóbal de Las Casas
San Cristóbal is an impressive colonial town, perfect for people watching from one of the many street cafes or while meandering along cobbled streets past pastel-coloured buildings with red slate roofs. Fashion here has not changed for centuries and the indigenous women still wear the long stiff furry black skirts, cummerbunds and embroidered satin blouses favoured by their ancestors.
Spend an afternoon wandering around the zocalo (main square) complete with an impressive bandstand that regularly hosts live marimba music. The cathedral and the Santo Domingo church are also worth a visit for their gold leaf interiors and baroque facades alone.
The town is a hub for shopping, both in the independent shops that sell goods from local collectives and in the affordable markets around Santo Domingo that sell brightly embroidered rugs, blouses and soft furnishings. Worth a stop is the Taller Leñateros – the Woodlander’s Workshop. Founded in 1975 by the American poet Ambar Past, the profit sharing collective prints Mayan language books and accompanying Spanish and English translations. All of the books, cards and paper are handmade using natural fibres such as flowers, sugar cane, banana leaves, cactus and coconut husk. While documenting oral Mayan histories, the collective trains and employs people who would otherwise have no access to formal education.
In more recent history, the city was the centre of the Zapatista armed uprising in 1994. On 1 January of that year, the North American Free Trade Agreement was signed and the National Zapatista Liberation Army -- made up of local indigenous people -- occupied four towns in Chiapas while calling for better conditions for indigenous people and the protection of communal lands. The only visible sign of the city’s short lived insurgent occupation are the Zapatista dolls, complete with wooden guns, that are sold in the markets.
To find out more about Mayan history, stay at the Na Bolom hotel (the name is Ttozil for “House of the Jaguar”). Founded in 1950 by Danish archaeologist Frans Blom and his anthropologist and photographer wife, Gertrude Duby, the hotel houses an extensive collection of photographs and artefacts gathered from the couple’s work with Mayan communities in the Lacandon jungle. The beautiful colonial house with ample courtyard and garden space is still a centre for Mayan research and a base to sell handicrafts produced in outlying indigenous communities.
San Juan Batista Church, San Juan Chamula
The combination of Mayan culture and the Catholicism imposed by the Spanish conquistadors is best experienced a short drive north from San Cristobal. Ostensibly Catholic in its façade, entering the San Juan Batista Church in San Juan Chamula is one of the most surprising experiences in the state.
A few depictions of Jesus hang from the ceiling, but here ends the similarities with a typical Catholic church. Small groups of worshippers sit on the pine needle covered floor to chant, light rows of candles and sip fizzy drinks. Live chicken necks are gently snapped in offering and women chant while spitting the local brew pox, a potent alcohol made from fermenting corn over small alters between the soul-cleansing burping.