The Chamulas have always been a fiercely independent people. As part of the Tzotzil community, they resisted the Spanish upon their arrival in 1524 and later staged a famous rebellion in 1869, attacking the nearby colonial settlement of San Cristobal.
The small town, about 10km (6 miles) from San Cristobal, is a key attraction as part of a tour of local villages around San Cristobal and is best experienced with the help of a local guide, who can give insight and local knowledge that will help you to make some sense of the distinct culture and customs practiced here.
San Juan Chamula is the principal town of the Tzotzils, with a population of around 80,000— it is also the main religious and economic center of the community.
Like neighboring Zinacatan, the Chamulas also are very private people. They do not tolerate well people taking pictures of them or their temples. See Photography section. Like other indigenous communities in this region, they can be identified by the clothes they wear: in this case distinctive purples and pinks predominate. All the clothes they wear are hand made locally. The wool on the sheep, cleaning, dyes and knitting are all obtained “in-house”: nothing is purchased externally. Sheep are sacred here: they are treated, protected and mourned on passing as any other member of the family. If you are driving through this region take extreme precautions with sheep that may wander into the road.
75% of Chiapas’ populous is made up of indigenous peoples. Chiapas’ indigenous people live within 9 distinct communities, each with its own language, traditions, costumes, belief systems & patron saint, spiritual leaders & healers and rituals that create a complete and distinct culture. The Tzotzil culture is submissive by western standards: women always follow behind the men; men chop the firewood, but women carry it; you will never see a woman wearing a hat.
Each community has its own identity which is most visible by the colors and design of the clothes they wear: something that is strictly adhered to—you can always tell which community a person is from (whether they are a baby or an old man or woman) by the clothes they wear. People from different communities do not marry; neither must they detach themselves from the religious protocols set out by the community: to do so causes expulsion from it, leaving the couple (and their offspring) to fend for themselves outside of the protection and structure of the communities they were born into.
Religion here is a mixture of Catholicism and Maya Ritual. Chamulas revere St John the Baptist above Jesus Christ; St John’s image is more prevalent inside the church. The Temple of San Juan (St John) is covered in pine needles: the pine tree is an important part of Chamula culture: their towns and villages are surrounded by pine trees. Symbolism is strong: coca-cola is used in rituals, an apparent substitute to Atole (corn based drink) made from black maize; eggs are used to absorb evil; Agua Ardiente (cane based alcohol) is used as a substitute for wine… religion, politics and rituals are deeply intertwined; the community leaders are also spiritual leaders & healers. See Attractions, below for more information about the Temple at San Juan.
As you drive or wander through this region, expect to see a world far removed from anything you expect in a developed country. You’ll see men and women working the fields using rudimentary tools and elbow grease. The living here is simple: women wake up early to cook and tend to family needs: men go out to chop firewood, ready for their wives to collect it, and later will work the fields.
The lifestyles, culture and rituals you’ll see in these communities may not make much sense if you try to align them with an industrialized culture: it’s a key reason why having a good, knowledgeable local guide —who will be able to share important insights and local knowledge with you— is essential to get the most out of a visit to this region and especially the small rural villages.
San Juan Chamula and its surrounding villages offer awesome insights into a culture completely distinct to what you experience if you live in an industrialized nation. A highlight of a visit to San Juan is most often the town’s (and community’s) main Temple, where people from all over the nearby villages arrive to conduct rituals, pray and seek healing. There is a small fee to enter; tickets are purchased at the tourist office. Do not take your camera openly into the church; put it in a bag or pocket or in its case. It will be confiscated if you even attempt to take a picture inside. Do not wear any hats inside the church, either. Experiencing this church leaves most visitors with an extremely powerful impression: the pine needle carpet, the kneeling people chanting in front of candles placed in very specific arrangements (as instructed by local healers), the endless ocean of these candles, the animal (chicken) sacrifices; chanting healers using eggs and bones; the strong smell of incense— it is possibly the most unusual church you will ever visit. We cannot show you any pictures of the inside: you will need to visit this place and experience it first hand for yourself.
The market square directly in front of the temple provides an opportunity to buy local foods, crafts and textiles. Expect a barrage of ambulant vendors to approach you offering their chattels for sale; be sure to bring plenty of small bills and loose change to shop here.
More than anywhere else in this region – you must take extreme care with your photography here. It is completely prohibited to take photographs inside any church, or of any ritual or any religious leader or healer. The least that will happen is that you will have fresh produce hurled at you and your camera; you can also have your camera confiscated, be fined and even imprisoned. The warnings are not lip service – these people are serious about their privacy: Always ask a person before you photograph them or their property.
Catholicism is interwoven with old Mayan tradition in this community and the annual festivals reflect this strongly. The most important festival is that of St John the Baptist, held between June 22nd and 25th.
The high altitude and mountainous terrain make the climate in this area variable. It can get quite warm in the summer and cold in the winter. Rains can come at any time, but you will also need to pack sunscreen and a hat to guard against the sun. When you pack for Chiapas, pack clothes for all weathers; in the winter months you will need to ensure you pack a stock of warm and waterproof clothes.
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