San Cristobal de las Casas, Mexico: An Ethereal Highland City
By Richard Arghiris
Strikingly positioned in the highlands of Chiapas, there is an intense and otherworldly quality to San Cristóbal de las Casas. The streets rise and fall with brightly coloured houses, green mountains all around.
Thick white clouds pours over their peaks, while clean, clear light spills across the city. Between the rows of red-tiled roofs, churches and mansions rise up with regal presence. The ghost of colonial past lingers in San Cristóbal.
Rich in indigenous culture and history, San Cristóbal de las Casas is an anthropologist’s dream. The Maya, who are descended from an ancient and ingenious civilization, are a strong presence in and around the city. In many respects, Chiapas more closely resembles Guatemala than Mexico.
Mystical, indigenous and ethereal San Cristóbal: A visit here is sure to enchant and fascinate.
Around one million Maya inhabit Chiapas. Their villages tend to be distinct, possessing their own unique laws, dress codes and languages. Often, many features of their daily lives are pre-Columbian in origin.
Particularly around San Cristóbal de las Casas, the Maya have managed to preserve their ancient customs and beliefs. Religious life tends to contain the most vivid manifestations of their pre-Hispanic past, with a form of Catholicism that leans heavily toward the Pagan. Around San Cristóbal, the old gods are worshipped as much as the Saints.
The village of San Juan Chamula is particularly renowned for its adherence to ancient traditions. Shamanism and other forms of folk medicine are widely practised by its inhabitants. Meanwhile, spirits are said to occupy the forests and mountains around the town.
Carnaval is a particularly evocative time in Chamula, when troops of dancers perform their routines upon burning embers. Outside of Carnaval, the village follows a time-table of festivals. Visitors fortunate enough to arrive during a fiesta will find the village alive with reverie, dance and home-made fireworks.
On a normal day, the village church is the best place to experience Chamula’s particularly evocative brand of ‘Christianity’. Inside, immersed in a fog of incense, the villagers engage themselves with tasks of offering and devotion. Some kneel before grids of burning candles, singing quietly. Others swig deeply on bottles of ‘posh’ – a locally concocted moonshine that is anything but high-toned. Often, shamans will be engaged in rituals of healing where live chickens are sacrificed before crowds of onlookers.
Around San Cristóbal, the native women sell their wares upon the pavements: brightly coloured straps, belts, cloths… little dolls with little wooden guns and woollen balaclavas. Behind San Cristóbal’s façade of elegance lies a convoluted history. Centuries of corruption and inequity reached a climax in 1994, when an armed uprising claimed San Cristóbal and three other towns.
Timed to coincide with the singing of the North American Free Trade Agreement, the insurgency was led by a small band of rebels calling themselves the Zapatista National Liberation Army (Ejécito Zapatista de Liberación Nactional or EZLN). The Mexican government responded rapidly, driving the rebellion into the countryside. 150 people were killed in the conflict.
Since then, the pipe-smoking leader of the Zapatistas, Sub-Commandante Marcos, has become something of a folk hero. It is his image that can be found everywhere in San Cristóbal – on t-shirts, posters and buildings. The cute, terrorist-style dolls that the Maya sell are also effigies of Zapatista rebels. While Chiapas remains firmly entrenched in colonial prejudice, the uprising has brought fresh attention to the plight of Mexico’s indigenous people.
‘Na-Bolom’, which means ‘Jaguar House’ in Tzotzil Mayan, is the life-work of Swiss anthropologist Getrude Duby and her husband, Franz Blom. Originally built as a religious seminary, this beautiful colonial building was bought by the couple in the 1950s. They converted it into a resource center, dedicated to the understanding and preservation of Mayan culture. Since then, Na-Bolom has established itself as an internationally renowned institute of excellence.
An essential stop for anyone wanting to learn more about the Maya, Na-Bolom’s attractions include a museum and an astonishing photo gallery. Among the acquisitions are a Mayan clock, which has no mechanical parts and resembles a hanging mobile. It is purportedly extremely accurate, though few people know how to read it anymore.
In addition, there are many rare, personal photographs of Chan-Bor-Kin – last spiritual leader of the jungle-dwelling Lacandon Maya. Chan-Bor-Kin fathered 13 children by 3 different wives – the last when he was aged 100. Some estimate that he was 120 when he died, and was without a single grey hair on his head.
Na-Bolom’s other facilities include a well-tended garden, which contains specimens of ornamental and medicinal plants. Its most interesting feature is a small chapel, built in the rustic style of the Lacandon Maya. The center’s most impressive facility is its library. Fitted with dark wooden cases, leather armchairs and tables, it exudes the air of old world scholarship. A huge collection of mostly anthropological resources are available there for public use.
Museum of Maya Medicine
Folk medicine is still popular among the Maya, and has its roots in the shamanic practices of their ancestors. It forms an integral part of a complex ‘cosmo-vision’, where extraordinary spiritual realms co-exist with mundane reality. Practically speaking, there are three main branches of Mayan medicine: herbalism, pulse-reading and midwifery. Visitors to this museum can expect to see some interesting displays.
A video that focuses on child birth makes for particularly fascinating, if not intense viewing. Throughout pregnancy, expectant mothers are required to conduct themselves in rituals of cleansing and social seclusion. The birth itself involves its own prayers and ceremony, which all takes place under the supervision of a mid-wife.
The museum also contains a medicinal herb garden, and a temazcal steam bath – an ancient tool of purification, closely resembling a native American sweat lodge. The experience of bathing in a temazcal is not unlike taking a herbal sauna. The museum also has a list of over 900 healers, who are all members of the state organisation for indigenous doctors (Organizacion de Médicos Indigenas del Estado del Chiapas). They are available for consultation and the museum staff can organise meetings.
What the Heck is Huitepec?
Located just 3.5km outside of San Cristóbal, the Huitepec Ecological reserve provides a convenient excursion into natural surroundings. Two distinct zones make up this reserve, which embraces the slopes of an extinct volcano. The low-lying areas tend to
be dominated by oak forest, which as one ascends, slowly transforms into cloud forest. At its heights, the vegetation spills over with lush exuberance – Thick green carpets of moss, ferns, bromeliads and spidery extrusions.
A 2km, sign-posted trail gives the names and descriptions of various flora, as well as details of their cultural use. Many of the plants have medicinal properties, useful for the treatment of common ailments like colds. Others have ornamental or religious functions, and are employed in the decoration of altars. Visitors should be aware that while this trail is not particularly long, it is quite steep. Pack a bottle of water for break stops.
The artesanías produced in Chiapas are among the finest in Mexico. Mayan textiles tend to be the most sought after goods, which are typically exuberant and colourful. Amber jewellery is also produced locally, as is some pottery.
Vendors can be found all over San Cristóbal, with individuals selling their wares on the streets. Specialist shops are concentrated along Real de Guadalupe, while there is a daily craft market near Santo Domingo. The town’s main market has less offerings. Feel free to haggle, though bear in might you will probably get a bargain whatever you pay. Many of the pieces on offer take months to complete.
The villages around San Cristóbal are also good places to pick up artesanías. Many tours of the area include a trip to a weaver’s house, where you will be able to buy goods directly, and at a discount. This can make your purchases more personal and satisfying. You will also be able to ask specific questions about the piece you buy. Mayan textiles are often laden with symbolic motifs, and their makers are only to happy to explain their meaning.
When to Go
Temperatures are fairly constant in San Cristóbal, with warm days and cool evenings all year around. The wet season is slighter warmer and quite a lot wetter (May-September), while the dry season (November-April) can see some particularly chilly nights. June, July and August sees the greatest influx of tourists. January through April are probably the best months to go.
Getting There and Around
Long-distance buses are served by 1st and 2nd class terminals near the Pan-American highway. Regular services run to major cities and towns including Cancún, Oaxaca and Villahermosa. Long-haul trips should be booked at least a day or two in advance.
Transit around San Cristóbal is by roaming combi or taxi, although everything is within walking distance. Bikes can be rented at Los Pinguinos on 5 de Mayo.
Visiting Mayan villages is best accomplished through a tour guide. If you are intent on going independently, be mindful that Mayans are quite wary of outsiders. You can catch combis to San Juan Chamula, Zinacantan and other villages from various points in San Cristóbal. Check with the local tourist office. See the Safety Issues section for details of biking and walking between the villages.
Alex and Raul lead daily tours to the Mayan villages of San Juan Chamula and Zinacantan. These tours are excellent and highly informative. They include visits to markets, churches, a shaman’s house and a family of weavers. Groups tend to be small, and the price is very reasonable – around $10 per person. Alex and Raul can be found most mornings, around Plaza 31 de Marzo. Check which day the shamans are working in Chamula’s church.
An awesome excursion from San Cristóbal is to the Sumidero Canyon, 12 kilometres from the state capital, Tuxtla Gutiérrez. Over 800m deep, this enormous fissure was flooded in 1981, after the building of the Chicoasén hydroelectric dam. Today, high-speed motorboats race along its length, dodging crocodiles and passing stone structures of astonishing proportions. They depart regularly from the town of Chiapa de Corzo, accessible by bus from Tuxtla Gutiérrez. Tickets are around $7 pp for a 2 hour ride.
San Cristóbal is well suited to budget travellers, with a plethora of hostels and ultra-cheap hotels. In fact, San Cristóbal offers some of the best value lodgings in the country. A very basic double room with shared facilities might set you back $5. A bed in a hostel dormitory could cost half that. Visitors are advised to shop around, particularly off-season, as great bargains are to be had.
San Cristóbal caters to a wide variety of tastes. National, international and vegetarian cuisine is available everywhere. The cheapest outlets are near the markets. Budget travellers can also fill up at lunch-time, when ‘comida corrida’ is offered by many establishments. This comprises a set, three course meal for the price of a couple of dollars.
Visitors to Chiapas should be aware that parts of the state are still enthralled with the Zapatista conflict. San Cristóbal and the surrounding environs are completely safe, but villages further afield may be ‘no go’ areas. If you are planning to head deep into the countryside. Check with the local tourist board about current safety levels. Never photograph military equipment or personnel.
Similarly, don’t take any photographs of the Maya without permission. Many of them believe that it captures the soul, and tourists have got themselves into serious trouble over it. This is especially true in the churches.
Do not even reveal your camera in a church, or you may find if confiscated or broken. You may also be attacked, verbally or physically. That said, many Maya will be happy to pose for you, and will probably ask a fee. Take care around children, however, as westerners have been accused of kidnapping in the past.
Biking or walking between Mayan villages is not recommended, as there have been incidents of armed robberies on these roads. However, circumstances change, and if you are really keen to do it, check with the local tourist board for their opinion on the matter.
Men and women should dress and behave respectfully in Mayan villages, especially in Mayan churches. Women should cover their shoulders, arms and legs, men should remove their hats.
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