San Cristobal de las Casas is a small colonial town up in the mountains of the Chiapas region of Mexico. It sits at an altitude of 2200 metres so can get quite chilly at night.
The town is very pretty, with colourful buildings, typical Mexican style churches, small cobblestone streets, great food, lively bars and a fantastic market. It is surrounded by indigenous villages, beautiful countryside, and is known to be home for sympathisers of the Zapatista rebels.
Our time in San Cristobal didn’t exactly get off to a good start. We had booked a room online at a Posada that sold itself as a “rustic, urban hotel.” The man on the front desk was very friendly but when he showed us to the room we were pretty surprised – it wasn’t a room at all but an outhouse attached to the side of the main building. A shed!
There were dressing gowns hanging from a palette on the wall as if to convey a somewhat boutique feel, but the bricks were covered in cobwebs and dead spiders and the bed was damp. We asked to move rooms but it was the only one they had, it was late and we’d been on a bus for nearly 8 hours so we bedded down in the shed for the night.
After a pretty damp, sleepless night we decided we couldn’t stay again and went to ask for a refund. There was another, very friendly guy on reception and, money successfully refunded, we stumbled upon a lovely little hotel closer to town. This was a much cheaper price with a huge room and window. Moral of the story, don’t always book ahead!
Just a short 20 minute drive from San Cristobal is the indigenous town of San Juan Chamula. You can go by bus or on horseback but we went with a guide from Alex and Raul tours who we met outside the cathedral. The town is home to the Tzotzil tribe, they still wear their traditional dress and have their own laws and customs. The women wear black skirts made from sheepskin and the men wear leather and sheepskin tunics. The town has tribal and spiritual leaders and we happened to visit on a Sunday which was market day.
The villagers still stick to their ancient traditions and believe in shamanic and pagan rituals. We were lucky to witness a ceremony inside the house of a newly elected spiritual leader. Led into a smoke-filled room of burning resin, we sat quietly on a bench while a band played music and the leaders sat opposite shaking maracas. Four women knelt on the floor in front of a flower covered altar, chanting and swaying back and forth as if in a trance. This ceremony goes on for two days straight and it was mesmerising to sit there, surrounded by smoke and music as they offered us local rice whiskey.
No doubt the most interesting feature of San Juan Chamula is its church. It seems like any normal Catholic Church from the outside, but inside is far from conventional. It is no longer governed by the Vatican and the last priest was expelled from the town in 1969. There are no pews inside, the floor is covered with pine leaves and candles surround altars for the saints.
People sit on the floor praying and chanting, some of them crying as the candles burn away and the wax melts into the ground. Bottles of Coca Cola are everywhere, used to burp out evil spirits. Live chickens sit in bags and boxes, awaiting their fate at the hands of the Shaman, who perform sacrificial rituals as an offering to the underworld.
You aren’t allowed to take photos inside the church, but it will remain one of the strangest things we have ever witnessed.
San Juan Chamula was one of the most intriguing places we’ve ever visited, a real indigenous town that isn’t really interested in changing. We walked past the town jail and there was a prisoner standing behind the bars, kept in view so he could be publicly shamed. Our guide didn’t know what he had done but said it couldn’t be too bad, as the more serious crimes generally incur a far worse punishment.
We saw some Mexican policemen and asked our guide why they were there if the town has its own laws and judicial system. He said they appear if something really bad happens. Apparently just a few weeks before our visit there had been an incident, the town Mayor had been lynched and shot dead right in the square. The villagers thought he had been withholding money from them from the government, he swore he’d never received it. This really isn’t a town to mess around with!