Highlights of Mexico (10): San Cristobal de las Casas

Day 7 (Tuesday) was a much easier day since we were just in and around San Cristobal de las Casas and we did not leave the hotel until 9.10 am.

Located at 2,200 metres (7,200 feet), which gives the town a cooler feel, San Cristobal de las Casas was founded in 1528 by Diego de Mazariegos, a Spaniard who was sent to punish the native inhabitants of the region after they revolted against the conquistadores. The cause of the indigenous Mayans was taken up by Father Bartolome de las Casas, after whom the city is now named. Today it has a population of almost 200,000.

Our guide Alberto started the day by taking us on a walking tour of the centre of the city. It was interesting to note that there was a fair amount of political graffiti protesting at the actions of the police and the authorities. When Roger said to Alberto “So the Zapatista spirit is still alive?” Alberto quickly replied “Very much”. We were taken to an open air market which had everything which we had seen before in Oaxaca plus indigenous women carrying live chickens around their necks and others with live chicks in baskets, all waiting to be sold fresh.

Next we viewed two churches: the Gothic Templo de Santo Domingo de Guzman built in 1528 which was for the Spanish and down the hill in much plainer style the neo-classic Virgin of the Charity for the indigenous population. The first of these has a wonderful facade of filigree stucco in the style of vegetation and, since a restoration of the church has just been completed, it sparkled in the sunshine. Inside in one nave, a shaman uttered various incantations to alleviate the problems of two local worshippers – strange conjunction of religious beliefs.

Round the corner in the main square Plaza 31 de Marzo was the city’s Cathedral which was constructed in 1535. Everywhere we went there were little women with dark faces and colourful clothes representing different local villages who were trying to sell all sorts of wares to passing locals and tourists. Many young children were also trying to sell various items.

Alberto was ready to take us to visit two nearby villages of indigenous people where the local language is Tzotzil, but we suggested a coffee break first and stopped at a place called “Maya Vinic” (“Mayan Man”).

The prime visit was to a village called San Juan Chamula which means ‘the place where the water becomes dry’. Most of our time here was spent viewing the inside of the Church of San Juan Bautista. This proved to be the most astonishingly unusual Catholic Church that any of us had ever encountered.

There was a main altar but no side altars or naves and no benches or seats. Around 40 glass cases with statutes of various saints and versions of Mary lined the long walls, hundreds of glass vessels held lit candles, and pine needles on the floor delineated the most sacred areas which were covered with rows of tiny candles with groups of faithful. Each group of indigenous people had the requirements for their offering: some soft drink or alcohol, bits of fruit, a row of eggs and a live chicken (the end of the offering involved the snapping of the chicken’s neck).

If all this indigenous religious practice in a Roman Catholic Church, seems strange, then Alberto described the combination of shamanism and Christianity as “religious synchronicity”. We could not take photographs of the indigenous Mayans as they believe that the camera steals their souls (this might explain why Vee is so reluctant to have her photo taken) and we could not take photographs inside the church because the people believe that this steals the soul of God (how could an almighty God be so vulnerable?).

The other indigenous village that we visited was San Lorenzo Zinacantan which means ‘the place of bats’. The zincantans wear multi-coloured outfits with ribbons on their hats signifying how many children they have. Every few years, they change the dominant colour of their outfits and at the time of our visit it was purple.

Alberto took us to a little artesan factory calmed “Catalina y Juana” where five women create beautiful coloured textiles using traditional hand looms. We were invited into the back rooms where they live, especially the kitchen to see tortillas being cooked over a wood fire.

Our guide dropped us off at the main square back in San Cristobal de las Casas at 3.15 pm and the rest of the day was free time. Roger and Vee went for some lunch in a smart place called “Sensaciones” on the main square. Roger went local and ordered tortillas with pork, cheese and house salsa, while Vee had a veggie sandwich with eggplant, zucchini, sweet red peppers and manchego cheese.


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