San Juan Chamula, Chiapas
Just 10 km (6 mi) from San Cristóbal de las Casas, San Juan Chamula is a Tzotzil town and most of its inhabitants speak that Maya language in addition to Spanish. More than half of Chiapas' large, tradition-oriented Tzotzil population lives in this mountainous region of pine-oak forests. San Juan is a commercial town. At its large Sunday market, held right in the main plaza, you'll find fruits and produce grown in the area: cabbage, radishes, lettuce, broccoli, alfalfa, and onions as well as corn. In addition to the ubiquitous tortilla, corn is used to make the locally brewed firewater, pox (pronounced posh). Travelers can buy textiles, leather, and lots of interesting souvenirs.
This is a colorful town, and although you'll want to take lots of photographs, be discreet. Men as well as women dress in the traditional black fleece which is sold in piles at the market. The men wear long, furry, black or white wool ponchos along with cowboy or baseball hats and jeans. The women are striking in long black wool skirts, shiny polyester blouses with embroidered trim, and long black braids.
The façade of San Juan's lovely 18th-century church---dedicated to San Juan Bautista (St John the Baptist)---is painted white and adorned with icons of stylized flowers in pink, turquoise, yellow, and other bright colors. You can take pictures outside, but it is strictly forbidden to do so inside. Guides can provide lots of interesting information about what's going on, although some speak Spanish (and Tzotzil) only.
There are no seats or pews; parishioners sit on the floor, which is spread with sweet-smelling pine needles. Incense perfumes the air. Along the sides of the single-nave church are dozens of major and minor saints; most are dressed in indigenous clothing made by women of the village. The mirrors on their clothing are thought to deflect bad thoughts and intentions.
Curanderos, or healers, work with native people, perhaps using a chicken to take away sickness, or an egg for less serious cases. After making three turns around the person asking for help, the shaman passes the egg or chicken over the body to remove the malady. Different colors of candles are lit to petition different things: green to pray for a successful harvest; yellow for money; red for health; and black to get rid of envy. Coca Cola or other soft drinks are drunk as the gas causes burping, thought to help dislodge negative energy from the body.
In San Juan Chamula, life centers around the church and its many centuries-old traditions. Families that have been converted to evangelical sects tend to relocate, either by choice or pressured by a community that fiercely defends its way of life.
How to Get There
Although it is close enough to get to by taxi or bus, most people go with a guide out of San Cristóbal, as it is most interesting to hear about the unique culture of the area. Inexpensive guided trips can be arranged through Na Bolom or San Cristóbal's many tour operators. They usually visit both San Juan Chamula and neighboring Zinacantán. Whether you go with a guide or on your own, you must check in at the tourist information center on the main plaza, where you pay a small fee to enter the church and get information on do's and don'ts for your visit.
The most important festivals are the Feast Day of St. John the Baptist (June 22 to 24); carnival (moveable feast); and All Saints and All Souls Days (November 1 and 2).