There is no ‘bucket list’ - Lynne and I are both well, thank you – but we have arrived at a point in our lives where we have the time, the money and the good health to indulge in a passion for travel. We know how lucky and privileged we are to be able to do this, and we know it won’t last for ever, but while it does…..

Sunday, 26 November 2017

San Cristóbal de las Casas, Chamula and Zinacantán:Part 7 of South East from Mexico City


Oaxaca to San Cristóbal de las Casas

We enjoyed a leisurely start, our airport pick-up not arriving until 10.30. Women professional drivers have been a rarity on our travels and today’s was the first to be accompanied by her twelve-year-old daughter. Saturday morning childcare can be problematic.

Oaxaca’s small, smart, new airport is thirty minutes south of the city and we were there far too early - no taxi company wants to risk a client missing a flight. Although our driver had less English than we have Spanish and was probably less familiar with airport procedures, she was determined to be helpful, accompanying us to the (closed) check-in desks, finding out what time they opened and showing us to seats where we could wait - all unnecessary, but we appreciated her kindness.

After a long wait we took off on time, heading east and a little south. The visibility was perfect as we flew over the lagoons and islands of the Pacific coast. The turbo-prop ATR-42 (always a comfortable plane, though on this occasion the air-conditioning was overly aggressive) covered the 500km to Tuxtla Gutiérrez in less time than we had spent at the airport.

Tuxtla Gutiérrez, the Capital of Chiapas State  (which occupies Mexico's bottom right corner), is three times the size of San Cristóbal - but it is not marked on this map.
On this scale it is a few mm west of San Cristóbal de las Casas
At Tuxtla’s equally small and new airport we almost had the baggage carousel to ourselves, and Al, our guide for the next few days, found us easily. The airport was swarming with police, which was worrying until one of them pressed a leaflet into my hand and we discovered they were all there publicising a campaign against domestic abuse of women. ‘Fair enough,’ I thought, but why target the airport?

Tuxtla Gutiérrez airport, 20km south the city, was the southernmost point of our Mexican sojourn and the lowest so far, so we traversed the car park basking in tropical warmth. It would not last. Once inside the air-conditioned car we set off for San Cristóbal de las Casas, an 80km journey, and every one of those kilometres took us further from the balmy Pacific and higher into the mountains.

San Cristóbal de las Casas

Our first impression of San Cristóbal was of an attractive, tidy colonial city nestling among the hills. When we arrived the sky was blue, the sun was not quite thinking about setting but at 2,200m (7,200ft) there was already a nip in the air.

Our hotel was in the main square…

Main square, San Cristóbal de las Casas
…at its heart, surrounded by grass and trees, was a café that might once have been a bandstand. On the edge of the square we paused to watch a street entertainer doing remarkable things with a diabolo...

The central square, San Cristóbal de las Casas
...and then strolled up a pedestrian street lined with cafés, restaurants and tourist shops – and the odd impromptu stall laid out on the pavement.

San Cristóbal de las Casas
We dined in a restaurant on the square. Margaritas and a mole seemed a good idea, but the temperature had plummeted, the restaurant was unheated and the door open, so we found ourselves concentrating on the cold more than food. The mole, covering a piece of pork rather than chicken, was probably the poorest I had eaten, it certainly did nothing to raise my opinion of moles, and the margaritas were slushy ice that melted reluctantly in the arctic atmosphere. Not a great night out.

We stayed at the Hotel Cuidad Real in the main square of San Cristóbal de las Casas

Breakfast in the hotel’s covered hall was an extensive buffet but again there was no heating. I ventured a taco with a bean filling in the hope that I might be adjusting to corn dough. Lynne chose fried plantain with vegetables, which she pronounced good. There was plenty of fruit and some delicious little pikelets.

Al arrived to conduct our walking tour, but first we paused to watch a procession in honour of the retiring bishop wind its way round the square. We might have popped into his 18th century cathedral, but it was closed and covered in scaffolding after the recent earthquake. The surrounding corrugated iron fence was a source of local controversy; donated by central government as earthquake relief, there were many who thought it would have been better employed as emergency roofing for the poor. As ever in Mexico, the corrugated iron had attracted graffiti, tags at the end of the church….

Scaffolding on the Cathedral of St Christopher, San Cristóbal de las Casas
….but more artistic endeavours along the side.

More artistic graffiti outside the Cathedral, San Cristbal de las Casas
The charms of San Cristóbal de las Casas lies less in places to visit than in the streets, which were strangely quiet on a chilly Sunday morning.

San Cristóbal de las Casas
Do not be fooled by the blue sky and sharp shadows; at this height the day warms up slowly
The centre, where the majority of the 160,000 inhabitants live, retains the original 16th century grid pattern and many of the original colonial buildings. Some still have single occupiers, other have been divided up…

Colonial building, San Cristóbal de las Casas
,,,while yet others have been converted into hotels with attractive gardens lurking behind the façades.

Hidden garden, San Cristóbal de las Casas
Further from the square we reached the market, passing stalls selling fruit…

Fruit stall, San Cristóbal de las Casas
 ….shoes, clothes and more fruit…

Fruit, clothes, shoe stall, San Cristóbal de las Casa
The black skirt of the woman walking out of the picture left is typical of Chamula (see below)
…shiny things and much more.

Stall selling shiny things, San Cristóbal de las Casas
The market is expanding from its official site and colonising the pavements. Ad hoc stalls are not always welcomed by shopkeepers and regular stallholders - I doubt the pharmacy (below) is delighted to have a fruit and veg stall sprawling across its doorstep.

Impromptu stall outside a pharmacy, San Cristóbal de las Casas - and more of the black skirts of Chamula
Since 2003 San Cristóbal has been one of Secretariat of Tourism's pueblos mágicos - others include Cholula (visited last Monday) and Chiapa de Corso (tomorrow) – and was declared the 'most magical' in 2010. Much of the ‘cultural magic’ is associated with the indigenous peoples who comprise a third of the city’s population.

The traditional hierarchy - Spanish at the top, mestizos (those of mixed descent) in the middle and indigenous people at the bottom – remains largely intact. Mestizos have increased vastly in number and importance since the 16th century and almost everybody we have come across so far on this journey is probably of mixed descent but before San Cristóbal we had not knowingly encountered anyone claiming to be indigenous. Here they account for about a third of the population and in the neighbouring municipalities of Chamula and Zinacantán almost 100%. Most are Tzotzil Mayas, but the Tzotzil are not a homogeneous group, women from Chamula wear skirts of heavy, black, hairy wool (‘they look like turkeys' said Al, somewhat ungraciously) those from Zinacantán  wear more colourful clothes while some from both communities have abandoned traditional dress, yet still consider themselves indigenous.

Street corner, San Cristóbal de las Casas
From the market we turned left and left again to return the way we had come, but a couple of blocks over.

The Santo Domingo steps were also the venue for an unofficial market. The church and former convent were built in 1546, but a later makeover turned it into a fine example of colonial baroque. Like the cathedral it was closed after the recent earthquake.

Santo Domingo, San Cristóbal de las Casas
Further along the retiring bishop had just finished saying mass by the cross on the cathedral square.

The cross and the Cathedral Square, San Cristóbal de las Casas
The sun had now worked its magic in the cloudless sky, and as our hotel was nearby we dropped in to deposit unwanted clothing before continuing further south, passing the house of Don Diego de Mazariego who founded the city in 1528 (or perhaps the site of his house – the phrase ‘sitio y casa’ on the plaque seems ambiguous).

'Sitio y casa' of Don Diego Maraziego who founded San Cristóbal in 1528
Finishing at the Iglesia del Carmen where we met Al’s driver who took us to Chamula, in the hills some 10km to the north.


The small town/big village of Chamula is the main population centre of the much larger Municipality of Chamula where 99% of the 77,000 citizens are indigenous people speaking Tzotzil as their first language.

We stopped by the graveyard, which looks almost Christian, but not quite despite the white painted chapel. The planted pine fronds come from traditional beliefs while the crosses are colour-coded – black for old people, green or blue for adults and white for children or women who died in childbirth.

Chamula cemetery
 Outside the house opposite was a green-painted Mayan cross, indicating the inhabitants had some standing in the community. The cross has been used since antiquity as a representation of the Mayan World Tree. I wish I knew more, but anything on the internet by proper archaeologists or anthropologists lies drowned beneath an ocean of drivel about Mayan astrology and pseudo-Christian speculation that the cross indicates the Mayan's special deal with God (it is all in the Bible if we read it correctly).

Mayan cross, Chamula
The market square is dominated by the Church of St John the Baptist. We realised St John’s might not be a bog-standard Catholic church as we approached past a stall selling chickens for sacrifices.

Sacrificial chickens, Chamula
Below is a photograph of the outside, but photos inside the church are strictly forbidden – as in 'don’t even think about it'. Entering the church was one of those moments when you realise you have stepped outside your previous range of experience. There were no pews, or seats of any kind, the floor was covered in pine fronds, fresher and greener than those at the cemetery, and the intense gloom was lit by the twinkling of hundreds, possibly thousands, of candles.

St John the Baptist, Chamula
Along the walls, glass cases containing crude images of the saints sat behind spaces for candles. Some of the saints were plaster images, others papier maché, some but not all, had names we recognised. ‘They are the old Mayan Gods,’ said Al, ‘made to resemble Christian saints.’

Some individuals had swept aside the pine fronds and were sticking lighted candles to the floor one by one, until eventually they were kneeling behind several rows of ten or a dozen thin, flickering candles. Other people were consulting their shaman, sitting on the floor while the shaman murmured incantations or chanted while feeling their pulse, or casting bones, depending on their preferred diagnostic tool. Coca Cola and a local firewater apparently called posh were sometimes involved as were chickens, their condition being terminal whatever the human's prognosis. Al informed us they were not permitted to kill the chickens inside the church.

The only regular services are baptisms held at the font. Occasionally, Al suggested, a priest will stand at the front – the altar is not the focus it is in other catholic churches – and lead a service, though most will ignore it and continue their consultations with the shaman.

At Chamula the veneer of Christianity is so thin as to be transparent, and we left the church feeling privileged to have been allowed to peer through it.

Outside in the market place the hard certainties of commerce were more familiar. It would be full of tourists, we had been told, but today we were the only foreigners. Al warned us that the locals dislike tourists and hate being photographed and then sent us off to take some pictures while he wandered round the stalls greeting friends. As markets go, the produce was not the most interesting…

Chamula Market
….but we were fascinated by the traditional black skirts, some hairy some not so.

Traditional Tzotzil skirts, Chamula Market
The material could be bought at many stalls….

Textile stalls, Chamula Market
….and everyone else seemed to be selling oranges, piled into neat little pyramids.

Oranges and a hairy skirt, Chamula Market
A few men were also in traditional clothing, a long shaggy tabard, black for most but white for village elders.

Chamula elder outside the church
Meeting up with Al, we returned to the car. Despite appearing to have many friends here, he had little respect for the indigenous people, having earlier been snarky about the hairy skirts (and they are not flattering!) he now pointed out the comfortable houses and large cars on the village outskirts. ‘Drug dealers,’ he said, ‘You don’t get those from subsistence farming.’

Chamula has its own police and its own rules, acting like an unofficial autonomous district, but Al’s beef was with the way Chamulans act outside Chamula; people in St Cristóbal obtain permits and pay rent for their market stalls and then find village people laying out unlicensed stalls in front of them. ‘When indigenous people have grievances,’ he told us, ‘they go about solving them the wrong way.’ We would discover the truth of this in the next few days – and discover the equally inept response of the authorities.


Zinacantán was a short drive away in the adjacent municipality. Although also a Tzotzil village the people dressed very differently and the atmosphere was more relaxed. There was little to see in the streets on a Sunday morning, though we did pass a band on their way to some event.

Band on the run, Zinacantán
Our main visit was to a shop, an Aladdin’s cave of brightly coloured textiles…

Textile shop, Zinacantán
Some of which were made on site using a primitive and uncomfortable form of weaving.

Weaving, Zinacantán
In the backroom chicken thighs were being grilled over a bucket of hot charcoal...

Grilling chickens, Zinacantán
... and tacos were coming off the hotplate. We helped ourselves to tacos, dropping some coins into the basket. They were the best we had eaten.

Making tacos, Zinacantán
Back to St Cristóbal

The drive back to St Cristóbal brought beautiful views across Zinacantán (unfortunately marred by the blue plastic sheet protecting the earthquake damaged church) and the hills behind.

We arrived in time for a late lunch, a ham sandwich, chips and beer at a pavement café.

We left the café about 3 o’clock when it was still warm in the sun but the shade temperature had started to tumble. We returned to our hotel to reclaim the outer clothing we had abandoned earlier and took a stroll to buy some chocolate and other gifts. On our wanderings we discovered that posh is spelt pox, the name meaning ‘medicine’ in Tzotzil. Distilled from cane sugar, wheat and corn it is flavoured (with hibiscus or strawberry in this photo) for the commercial market. I doubt it would sell in English speaking countries with that name!

Pox on sale in San Cristóbal
After dark the temperature plummeted and we were keen to avoid the freezing dinner of yesterday. It was not easy, San Cristóbal has many restaurants, all had their doors wide open and none had any heating; some locals even sat at tables in the street, huddled under their ponchos. We found this incomprehensible and were becoming desperate when we eventually discovered another ‘Italian restaurant’ (i.e. a pizza and pasta joint) with (sometimes closed) sliding glass doors and inside a pizza oven to sit beside. We enjoyed yet another meal of pizza (Lynne) and pasta (Me) and a cheap bottle of La Mancha red - I would have appreciated a change, but I needed the warmth. 

No comments:

Post a Comment