Whenever I told anyone in Playa del Carmen that we were going to Chiapas, Mexico’s southern-most state, their eyes would glaze over in a kind of in-love way, and they would start to swoon, with ‘Oohs’ and ‘Aahs’ and ‘You’re going to love its.’ I’d begun to swoon a bit myself, if not only to soothe my sadness at leaving our temporary home in Playa del Carmen. Over internet searches and conversations with friends, my desire to explore Chiapas’ cultural riches just north of the Guatemalan border grew and grew. It made leaving all I had come to know and love on the Caribbean coast almost bearable.
We flew into the state capital of Tuxtla, and high-tailed it to the colonial town of San Cristobal de las Casas. This town had been super-swoon-inducing when I’d mentioned it to both Mexican and ex-pat friends back in Playa. We happened to share a cab from the airport with a Texan guy who’d lived there for several years before moving to Tulum, and for the entire journey he sung the praises of San Cristobal with the vigour of an evangelist on ecstasy.
So you could say my expectations were somewhat elevated…
We alighted the cab near the Zocalo, the main town square, flanked by an impressive array of colonial buildings on each side. I had booked a simple room through Hostelbookers at a family run guest house for $20 per night, about the minimum for a double with a bathroom. We made our way along the main walking street, Real de Guadalupe in search of the Hostal Posada Colonial. I felt quite disoriented, not because we were lost, but because of the crisp mountain air and the array of European style coffee houses lining the street.
I had to remind myself that I was in fact in Mexico, and not a European town. It was beautiful enough, yes, and neither of us have ever refused a good cappuccino, but there was something about the city that screamed ‘tourist town posing as colonial gem’ that unsettled me somewhat. They say expectations are a disappointment in waiting, and perhaps I’d let mine get inflated. But it was too soon to judge; I was still mourning ‘Playa’, a place we’d both found such happiness, and was trying to get into the swing of travelling again.
Arriving in San Cristobal de las Casas
Even the dogs were cold!
After we checked into our simple yet charming little room, we ordered coffees ‘para llevar‘ (take away) and strolled around town sipping on our delicious brews. It was cold! Again, this was quite a shock to the system, and we sat shivering in the town square before realising we needed to keep moving to find somewhere warm. We wandered away from the center and found ourselves at a small eatery where a very sweet woman served up terrible tacos and warm cokes. Our spirits waning, we adopted the attitude of ‘if you can’t beat ’em, join ’em,’ and treated ourselves to Dinner Number Two in a supremely cozy pizzeria on the main tourist strip.
It was delightful.
The next morning, we headed out for coffee, the second of many during our stay. Chiapas is a coffee-growing region and the alluring smell of roasting beans fills the air of San Cristobal. As delightful as it was, one can’t sit around drinking coffee all day (yeah right!), so we decided to rent a scooter and explore the area around town. We both felt like we needed to get our bearings, to experience what was around us away from the boutiques, cafes and souvenir shops.
We headed for the nearby village of San Juan Chamula, taking the ‘slow road’ as the Canadian owner of the rental shop had recommended. Apart from the staggering amount of speed bumps (called ‘topes‘) that scratched the bottom of the bike every time we went over one, it was a pretty good road with next to no traffic. We cleared the outskirts of town and immediately found ourselves in lush green country-side, where women wrapped in colourful fabric tended small flocks of sheep on gentle sloping hillsides.
I took a deep breath, inhaling the crisp air with my lungs and the wonderful view of the rolling hills with my eyes. We rounded a bend and a tiny bright-white church appeared off to the side of the road in front of a sheer rock face. I made Tyrhone pull over so we could take a look inside. I think that seeing this little church reassured me that I was in fact in Mexico. The stucco facade, the bright green painted trim, its hill-top position and dinky interior just seemed so symbolic of rural Mexico to me. I was filled with such a burst of joy and a gentle voice inside me said, “Okay, now you’re travelling again.”
If that doesn’t scream, “Mexico!” I don’t know what does…
We found our way to Chamula easily, passing through a few little villages along the way. We parked the bike next to the town square and wandered through the vast paved plaza. A few food vendors waited by their carts and women scurried across the square in groups, babies slung around them with long bolts of fabric.
Most of the attention was on the south end of the square, where men with cow-boy hats and sheep-skin robes seemed to be undergoing some sort of ceremony. The enthusiastic Texan had imparted a huge amount of information during the hour-and-a-half taxi ride and I remembered him saying that the politicians of this village wore sheepskin. He also told us they did not like their photos taken.
The state of Chiapas is home to Mexico’s highest indigenous population, and there are at least twelve different ethnic groups here. Chamula is a Tzotzil community, who we were told practice an interesting religion which is a blend of Catholicism and ancient Mayan Paganism. We purchased our ‘tourist tickets’ to the imposing Church on the square, and entered the heavy wooden doors.
I was immediately overcome with the scent of strong incense; not perfumed, but herbal and earthy. My feet slipped around on the thick blanket of pine-needles that covered the tiled floor. We made our way quietly into the church that had no pews; groups of people gathered on the floor and in front of them rows of thin candles were stuck down with wax in carefully laid out formations.
Statues of saints were encased in glass boxes which lined the perimeter, protected by a wooden railing. I stepped carefully to avoid treading on burning candles, but with so much to see around me I came close several times. Groups of men in cowboy hats and sheepskin robes were playing music and passing around glasses of coke; clusters of women and children sat or knelt on the floor, praying and chanting. A young woman in one group was sending a message on a mobile phone.
To my left I saw an old lady with long grey plaits praying intently as she held a live chicken in her lap. I’d heard that the sacrifice of live chickens was not uncommon in this church, and I must admit, I was quite excited at the prospect of witnessing one. Whilst continuing her prayers, the lady placed her weathered hands on the chicken’s neck and began to slowly and methodically ring it like a wet towel. It began to flap its wings, but she kept the chicken contained in her lap, so there was little commotion. She then passed the chicken to a younger companion to complete the task, and sprinkled clear liquid (local liquor, I’m told) over the chicken and on the ground around her.
We’re definitely not in Playa anymore, Toto, I thought to myself, equally shocked and entranced as the chicken twitched for the last time, then became completely still.
Afterwards, we sat at a small restaurant on the square, drinking from tiny cans of coke whilst a group of local women at the table next to us slurped from giant bottles. Coke is omnipresent in Mexico. I know most people think ‘Corona’ when they think of Mexico, but I have never seen so much Coca Cola consumed in a place; it’s everywhere. The fact that it has become part of religious ceremonies in a tiny town such as Chamula is either a testament to Coke’s formidable marketing strategy, or the healing properties of its sugary goodness. I’ll let you decide…
We then hit the road again, heading out of Chamula and into the mountains. We passed tiny villages, where women wove beautiful textiles on large looms. Teams of road-builders stood open mouthed as we waved to them from the scooter, staring at us like, “What the hell are they doing out here?” before breaking into a smile and a wave. We stopped for lunch at a tiny taqueria before continuing on to Nowhere In Particular. We had a vague idea in mind of a ‘loop’ we would take back to San Cristobal, but our phone’s GPS didn’t indicate the condition of the roads on said ‘loop’. Most were okay, but large sections were either unsealed or still being built.
At one point, we tried to make it up a hill on a particularly rough section of road, and the bike almost came to a complete stop in front of some very amused road workers. They weren’t as amused as us however; we roared with laughter at the sight we must have looked – a couple of silly gringos on a red scooter in the middle of god-knows-where, trying to make it up a hill on an unfinished road.
But it was worth it for the views…
We made it back to town at dusk and headed straight for the pizzeria. An English guy who had also shared the taxi from the airport with us was already dining (on our recommendation of course!), so we joined him on the second-story terrace for another delicious wood-fired pizza. After dinner we sipped real hot chocolate at a tiny cafe, before hitting the hay, burying ourselves under heavy wooden blankets.
The next morning we wandered around, more coffee in hand, feeling a lot more comfortable with the town than we first did. We came across a tiny, quiet square at the North end of town, which I immediately dubbed ‘my favourite’, and vowed to stay nearby if we returned.
Women in colourful traditional dress, laden with babies and bundles of beautiful textiles made their way along the narrow footpaths of the cobbled streets, arriving from the outer villages to sell their wares. Now that I’d been to their villages and stood in awe inside their churches, I felt a greater appreciation for the commercial nature of San Cristobal and why it was an important economic hub for the local people.
But alas, it was time to move on. Our bus to the ruins of Palenque left at midday, and whilst I was looking forward to exploring the ancient Mayan city and surrounding jungle, I was really warming to the charms of San Cristobal de las Casas. The Texan and everyone else had been right – it was a special place, it just took me a little longer to see it for myself.
Reluctantly I bid San Cristobal farewell, with the quiet hope that it would not be for the last time.
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