San Cristobal de Las Casas Travel Blog

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Situated at the highland heart of Mexico’s south eastern state of Chiapas, San Cristobal de Las Casas is bustling, colonial town that has been a magnet for anthropologists, bohemians and ordinary tourists since the 1960s, when it drew the attentions of the California university crowd. Although the town is colonial in appearance and cosmopolitan in feel, the tourism that is its lifeblood focuses primarily on the indigenous peoples living there and in the surrounding villages.There is a unique atmosphere to this small colonial and Indian town, high in the scenic Chiapas range. The small restaurants and shops provide ample opportunity to wander. Indians from the surrounding hills fill the town and marketplace with their colourful dress including the distinctive Tzotzil Indians who still retain much of their Mayan customs and language.

Just under one third of Chiapas state’s 3.6 million inhabitants are of direct Mayan descent, speaking at least nine different languages, the most common being Tzeltal and Tzotzil, which is what you are most likely to hear spoken around San Cristobal. These tribes are fiercely proud of their heritage, but have been forced to endure hundreds of years of maltreatment at the hands of first the colonising Spaniards and more recently a corrupt government regime. In 1994 the town achieved international notoriety as one of those captured by the Zapatista rebels, many of whom come from villages in the area, and some locals still refer to it as San Cristobal de Marcos after the pipe and balaclava-touting Zapatista leader.

We travel by bus to San Juan Chamula then visit on foot where they practice an interesting blend of Catholicism and traditional religions.

The Indians are noted for their bright textiles and weavings in bold designs and this is the place to bargain for some colourful souvenirs.The small town of San Juan Chamula or St John of the dried lake, 10 km northeast of San Cristobal, fought hard against Spanish conquest, being one of the last to succumb in 1524. In 1869 it rebelled again. San Juan is really little more than a market square surrounded by a few single storey mud, wood and breezeblock buildings – most of its 2000 inhabitants living on tiny farms, edijos, in the surrounding hills. A popular tourist destination, it is famous for its market and for its church. The colourful façade of the large 18th century building is fairly typical of many to be found throughout Mexico. But take a look inside and you enter another world.  

 We are warned not to take any photographs inside the church, at risk of arrest, fines or even a night in jail.

The precise reasons for this remain unclear, though it is suggested that a photograph might be seen to draw energy from its subject.

Once every 20 days – once a Mayan month - a Catholic priest performs baptisms in the church. It’s an initiation that the townsfolk can relate to, bearing similarities to ceremonies of their own. But the church has had no priest of its own since 1968, the last time a traditional mass was heard here.

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