“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
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
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.
Hundreds of candles light
the gloomy, incense filled space and statues of saints border the room. Some of
the statues face the wall, apparently in punishment for failing to answer
prayers. The church is open 24 hours a day, and local residents come to pray,
give thanks and even lay out their dead. Time it right and you may come across
a procession around the saints, led by men in palm frond hats, coloured streamers
flowing down their backs, musicians playing drums and children carrying coconut
husks steaming with incense. The altar to St John the Baptist at the back of
the church is covered in tinsel, and the altar has a battery powered music box
that blasts out bird songs around the clock. Oddly, and despite all the random
permissiveness in the church -- from soft drinks to animal sacrifice -- no
photographs are allowed inside the church.
A five hour drive northeast from San Cristobal takes you to the Mayan ruins at
Palenque, which date from 100 BC and are widely regarded as some of the
best-preserved ruins in Mexico. Nestled in dense jungle and soaring vegetation,
the structures are bewitching. Hundreds of temples and palaces are dotted over
the massive terraced site. The largest and best preserved are the 26m-high Temple
of the Inscriptions that housed the sarcophagus of Palenque’s King Pacal; the sprawling
Palace buildings, complete with a square tower overgrown with hanging tree
roots; and the three smaller ruins, set high into the hillside that make up the
Temples of the Cross grouping. Getting a closer look at any of the ruins requires
a steep climb, but the pay-off is the sweeping views across the lush jungle
The Mayans believe that the
ceiba tree is sacred and connects the underworld to the earth and skies, which
is why you see them scattered all over the site, some thousands of years old. And
reaching up to 70m high, they provide welcome shade on a hot day. Just watch
out for the viciously sharp thorns that protect the lower trunk.
Yaxchilán and Bonampak ruins
Only accessible by narrow boat along the Usumacinta River that separates
Guatemala and Mexico, the journey to Yaxchilán is an adventure in itself. Boats
can be picked up in Frontera Corozal, a two-hour drive from Palenque. The
temples are swathed in jungle creepers, the long hanging roots which float down
from tall trees, and howler monkeys will often venture out of the surrounding
trees. The site is best known for its stone sculpture lintels and dense jungle
Some 30km further into the
Lacandon jungle are the Bonampak ruins that date from 580 AD. Although less
architecturally impressive than Palenque and Yaxchilán, Bonampak is famous for
the murals that can be seen in several of its tombs.
The Lacandon people manage
access to the site, so it is not unusual to see men dressed in long white
tunics wandering around with loose flowing hair.
Other stops along the way
All of Chiapas’ highlights are within a short distance by car, making
independent travel easy and affordable.
Along the road are reminders of the state’s Zapatista
movement. Roadside schools are emblazoned with political slogans and frequent
signs remind you that “You are now entering Zapatista territory.” The armed
struggle has long since ended but many of the smaller villages remain under
peaceful Zapatista control.
Some other places to check out include Sumidero Canyon, which lies on the road between the
state capital Tuxtla Gutiérrez and San Cristobal de las Casas. Here you can
pick up speedboat tours that weave past crocodiles, a waterfall shaped like a
Christmas tree and waters dwarfed by 100m walls.
Water at the Agua Azul waterfall, along the
road between San Cristobal de las Casas and Palenque, looks like it has been transplanted from the
Caribbean. The high mineral content in the water accounts for its blue colour
and is best visited out of rainy season (October to May), when the sediment has
settled. There are several fresh water pools you can swim in and a walkway
along the riverbank to get optimum viewing down the valley.
For a fun day trip from San
Cristobal de las Casas, head to the Lagos de Montebello lakes for hiking and
kayaking. Pine forests and mountains surround some 50 lakes while the crystal
clear waters change from blue to green depending on the time of day and the
mineral content of the lakebed. Organized tours can be arranged from San
Cristobal but the lakes can just as easily be visited by car and kayaks hired
Whichever stops you decide
to make in Chiapas, it is hard to leave disappointed. Nowhere else in Mexico
has the same blend of indigenous tradition, colonial grandeur, artisan crafts, humid
jungle and towering ruins. But to top it all off, you might just stumble upon a
jaguar ambling along the road in front of you.