San Juan Chamula and Zinacantan

Note: this is a very long post because it's the result of a very informative tour of an extraordinarily different culture, and most importantly one that is not friendly to pictures. Words will have to do for now, but this will probably always be something that can really only be understood when visited.

San Juan Chamula

One of the popular tours based out of San Cristobal is a visit to the indigenous towns of San Juan Chamula and Zinacantan. Just reading about these online fascinated me: strange religious rituals that blend Catholicism and Mayan traditions, towns independent from the Mexican state where military and police are not allowed to enter, and where photography is mostly forbidden. Who could pass up that kind of mystery and a truly "you had to be there" excursion?

We tried really hard to make ourselves hike the 2+ hours up to San Juan Chamula from the hostel because it would be good exercise and show us more of the countryside (mountainside?). Most sources online talking about this town as an excursion say it's hikable, but no one seems to have done it and written about it later. We did find a highly rated guide that will take you up on mountain bikes or hiking, but was about twice as expensive as the other tours we've done here.

We were about to just go for it and try to walk up via Google maps when we talked to a German/Swedish couple who had taken the paid, guided tour the hostel recommends and told us that it's well worth it for the wealth of information and context you get that you simply won't figure out on your own. We booked that for the next day at a reasonable $26 for the two of us.

The tour visits two towns, both a bit further up in the mountains - about 20 minutes away by van when traffic cooperates. The van arrived promptly at 9:40am as promised and we met the 3 other travelers who would be joining us, and Cesar, our guide. Cesar's tours are very well regarded online, for good reason: a native of San Cristobal, Cesar's grandparents were citizens of another indigenous town similar to San Juan Chamula and kept the religious traditions that make this town special. He makes the trip up there every day and is well known and respected by these people, who are not particularly welcoming of outsiders.

A sweeping view of San Juan Chamula from the hill where we started, abandoned chapel in the mid ground

As we climbed the hills to Chamula, Cesar explained that we'd see a lot of the green crosses that had started to appear, and that the hilly country in this area supports farming as one of the main economic activities for these people. We arrived on the outskirts of town, just above a cemetery and abandoned colonial-era chapel, up on a hill with an expansive view of San Juan Chamula.

This is a city of 80,000 people, somehow. Chamula means "muddy water" in the local language, a Mayan dialect called Tzotzil, a name shared with the people here. It's surrounded by small farming population centers -- hamlets -- that are not technically part of the city but it is their spiritual center, and they send their citizens there for periods of time to participate in Chamula's civic and religious life. More on this later.

We knew coming into this trip that the religion in Chamula is one of a kind and would be the focus of our tour. As we walked through the city, Cesar pieced together more and more of the religious life here, something we certainly couldn't have figured out walking around alone. The first interesting tidbit is that the gravestones in this cemetery are color coded: the black crosses are for adults, the blue for children and adolescents, the white for babies.

The shell of a chapel here had an interesting history although I didn't catch all of it. From memory, the fiercely independent people here resisted this chapel's being built and more Catholicism being imposed on their old ways, chased out the priests, and this chapel was simply never finished. There's even a sign on this chapel explaining that it is forbidden to build any chapels in Chamula now. My notes say that the last Christian priest was expelled from the town in 1969, although I don't know if that date is related to this chapel's history.

The abandoned chapel and graveyard. I recently read that a graveyard is attached to a church and a cemetery is standalone.

At our vista on the outskirts of town, a full force carnival was being built for the feast day of Saint John the Baptist, held on June 24th. We visited on the 20th, so festivities weren't in full swing but they do quickly build up in the week approaching that day. I bet it's absolutely crazy to visit on the feast day, but do wonder if you'd get the same experience and see how much their religious traditions permeate daily life.

As we started heading into town, we stopped at another large green cross and learned that although these obviously look Christian, with a bit of local flavor, these green crosses actually pre-date the Hispanic invasion and any introduction of Christianity. These green crosses appear in a lot of Mayan artifacts and art, and actually represent plants, specifically the Ceiba, or cotton silk tree, which is sacred to many cultures, including some Mayans. I imagine that when the Spanish priests arrived and found cross iconography everywhere, it was straightforward to blend the two traditions and strengthen their evangelism. Or maybe it was easier for the Tzotzil people to keep their traditions strong and eventually reclaim their religious freedom.

One of the many green crosses.

We learned that although there is a lot of Catholic imagery and history here, this is not a place where the Vatican has any influence or power. The religion practiced here is called "Catholic traditionalism", but by my estimation their belief system is no more than 20% Catholic, max.

As we left the carnival area we learned that this is not really a hygienic place to eat - Cesar specifically warned us against eating tacos here. Had we not taken this tour, there's a very good chance we would have tried some tacos and perhaps ruined the next couple of days in Mexico, so on that note alone I'd say it paid for itself. We did hear that some other people from our hostel were spotted eating tacos there the following day, time and bathroom usage should tell us soon how that went for them.

Spiritual Leaders

The next stop on the tour, by foot, was the home of one of the spiritual leaders of San Juan Chamula, and the beginning of a huge, fascinating topic. There are 122 spiritual leaders in Chamula, all volunteers, unpaid, with enormous responsibilities. We stopped by the home of two, one which had tall, pine wood platforms built in the front yard that are used for unspecified religious ceremonies. It was a charming scene with a recently slaughtered cow, butchered down to quarters, hanging on the front porch while the children swatted at it with sticks to keep flies away as it dried or aged. It wasn't anything grosser than you'd see at a Whole Foods butcher, although this was not a walk in refrigerator and the head was present. As with many things in this story, there were no pictures allowed at this house, so words will have to do. The Chamula people in general do not approve of having their pictures taken and can get quite offended and even violent when travelers persist. I do think that I was able to take more pictures as part of the tour than I would have if we went alone because I could just ask Cesar if pictures were allowed at each point.

The tour took us around back of one of the leader's houses and into the small temple shed that this leader maintains. We paid a small donation to this leader's household for access, I gave $20 pesos or about a dollar for the two of us. Walking into that shed is a bit like entering an X-Files episode or something. Picture a small building, maybe 20'x20' with a low roof, somewhat dark on the inside but a broad open door. Immediately through the door is a large altar covered in plants, pine branches, and large vine connected flowers.

The floor is covered with green pine needles. The large amount of plant mass in here gives it a smell and appearance like an intense florist shop, not at all a bad smell. On the altar are some statues of saints, heavily decorated and with a mirror hanging around the statue's neck. Plants and pine leaves fill most of the dead space between statues and around the altar. A table in front of the altar has some ceremonial objects: alcohol, soda, and a bowl that kind of looks like a very large and decoratively painted version of the holy grail from Indiana Jones. We took a seat on the benches against the wall and Cesar explained a lot of what we were looking at.

Unsurprisingly the plants are sacred or important and a key part of the religious ceremonies here. There's a schedule for their maintenance, which I think is a good thing because if you let those pine needles go out, you're going to have a fire quickly due to all the candles and fire used. Pine needles have to be changed weekly on Saturdays. Other plants are changed every 20 days (around one month in the Mayan calendar), others still are changed only four times a year. The religious leader is responsible for all of the plant changing duties.

There are candles in front of the altar, white thin candles, that the leader is responsible for changing and keeping lit three times per day. We later learned that the white candles represent tortillas, and that unlike Catholic saints, these saints by the same names are considered to be much more concrete spirits that need food to survive and help the practicing people, even if it's just symbolic food.

Already getting a sense that the spiritual leader is a large job, we sat in the altar building and learned just how extensive it is. As I said, these leaders are volunteers who receive no pay and actually perform their duties at great personal expense. There are some 50-odd saints (52?) celebrated in Chamula, each with its own religious leader (other leaders have non-saintly duties). Being a religious leader is a position of honor in the community, and I think we'd have to stay here much longer to understand exactly how that works, because the burdens of being a leader we understood immediately and it doesn't seem to balance out.

Religious leaders put their name on a list to serve, and for the most popular saints the waiting list to serve is 26 years long. It wasn't clear to me if this is a fixed waiting period or not, Cesar seemed to say that other saints have much shorter waiting periods, but at the same time the number 13 is important here and 2x13 = 26. The period of service for a religious leader is one year; only married men may serve as leaders. This raised questions of what happens if a married man puts his name on the list, and 26 years later his wife has died or left him? Apparently the wife's sister or mother can fill the role of the wife? We weren't clear on exactly how far those responsibilities extended. Women can serve as religious leaders, although only widows, but I don't think female religious leaders are common.

Other daily responsibilities include conducting ceremonies and setting off fireworks. We've heard a lot of fireworks in San Cristobal, and heard many more in Chamula. You might guess that fireworks are about warding off evil spirits, but here they're actually used to open up the sky and bring rains. They don't use fireworks with any visual component, since the fireworks represent thunderclaps - they only care about the noise and explosion and not visuals. Fireworks are set off for almost any symbolic reason: the start or end of a religious leader's service, changing of the plants, etc. Religious leaders are responsible for purchasing their own fireworks and probably for making making some of them by hand. Cesar passed around a small, very heavy iron cylinder with a hole drilled into it on one end. They stuff this with black powder, tamp it down, light it and hold it up in their hand for it to shoot a charge into the air and explode. It's not a physically easy thing to hold this 5+ pound iron tube and allow an explosion to push it down; leaders have to work hard to not drop it.

Another duty is providing and burning a tree resin daily, which added a ton to the piney, earthy smell in the saint house. Cesar passed some around: sticky, light, and apparently very expensive. I think a kilogram was a 400 pesos and they go through that much pretty quickly. The holy grail type vessel is for holding the burning resin, Cesar lit some for us and we got to experience that aspect of the rituals up close.

Finally we moved on to the booze. We've learned a lot about pox (posh) here and this was another form of it, lower in alcohol than what we sampled at La Espirituosa on the walking tour. During the bigger religious ceremonies, the leader is responsible for distributing pox to the practitioners, but is not allowed to get drunk himself. As a compromise, the leaders carry a bottle on a rope around their neck, and each time a practitioner needs a shot of the spirit the leader will take a small sip and pour the rest into the bottle, perhaps for later. This was the one area in which the leader was allowed to make money; religious leaders have a special dispensation to sell pox to the townsfolk for income. I don't think they're expected to make it themselves. We got to taste a bit of this version, it's a raw but not harsh, clear sugar cane based spirit, nothing too crazy.

So we've learned about all these responsibilities of the religious leaders and Cesar tells us that the way it usually works is that after you put your name on the list, you basically save money for the next 26 years (or however long it takes to become your turn) that you will spend in your year of service. The typical year of service costs $10,000 USD. That has got to be a fortune to a farmer in the hills of San Juan Chamula - we were floored to learn the size of this financial burden. The leaders also have to spend it all in their service, they can't cut costs and take home a single extra penny.

At this point the job is sounding pretty terrible and we're hoping that they get a ton of fringe benefits along with the honor the position carries. Still don't know about that, but most leaders do have up to thirty assistants to help them in their extensive duties; they pay these assistants $200 pesos when they begin service but no salary or wages after that. I think the assistant service lasts for a week or so. It's a really interesting system they have set up here.

So there are all these hamlets of Tzotzil people around Chamula, and many of the leaders come from the hamlets when it's their year to serve and rent a house in the town where their family lives and as the base of operations for their spiritual duties and the home of their saint, if they are sponsoring one. Another piece of the financial story for the spiritual leader's life and how the city and hamlets interact. When their year is up they return home with greater respect and honor and 26 years of savings gone.

Our visit to this leader's house was very intimate and intense - the small hut with burning resin, pine needles and saints will do that do you. This is absolutely, undoubtedly, something we could not have experienced if we had walked up on our own and just checked out the church and town square, so for that we're grateful.

We left the leader's house after listening to some of the music they play at ceremonies, and headed down a hill to the iconic church and town square.

Politics in Chamula and Communal Living

Before we headed to the famous church, we headed to the modest town hall / civic center / jail / courthouse. It's all one building, no bigger than the post office in a moderate US town. It does have the classic look of a big semicircle arched two story part in the middle with flat wings to each side. Think of the biggest building in town in a classic Western movie.

So we'd learned bits and pieces about the political and cultural organization in Chamula throughout and it comes together in front of the town hall. One of the most important differences here is that living is communal, in contrast to the very individualistic societies we have in the Western world. This is something that didn't even make sense to me several years ago because I've grown up exclusively in a society where the individual is the fundamental unit and priority.

In communal societies, the individual doesn't matter as much, and it's the family and the community that is prioritized. Kids don't regularly leave home at 18 to make a life for themselves and never live with their parents again; instead multiple generations live under the same roof for much of their lives. Undoubtedly parents have more influence in major life decisions such as who you marry; the family aspect is only part of the picture.

The communal aspect is something I probably won't fully understand, but we asked Cesar some questions to get our heads around it. In the US, we focus so much on individual liberties and rights; if you find a way to pursue your goals that is legal but harmful to the community, you have good legal standing to continue as you see fit because those individual rights are more important than the wellbeing of the community. Communal societies are different. You won't be able to pursue your individual goals to their maximum extent without considering its impact on the community, and the community may well deny you your goals if it harms the community. Community comes first. I'm sure a lot of human life has been lived this way, and one of the benefits of travel is being able to contrast lifestyles like this with the only thing we've ever known, and grow up a bit as we realize that we're more unique than universal.

The next part of communal living is communal justice. In the US if you commit a crime, it's entrenched in our legal system that you will be judged based on the facts in a trial by a jury of peers, and by definition these peers are not people that know you or have any preconceived judgments of you. Communal justice is almost the opposite - the full context of your life is taken into account and judgement is not so objective. The way it works in practice here is that if you commit a misdemeanor level crime, you will be judged by the mayor and sentenced to one day in prison with a fine. If you can't pay the fine you serve three days of community service, sleeping in prison. The prison is in the back of the courthouse, and in the men's cell you are simply behind bars that face out onto a street, so the whole town can see you and know that you are being punished. The women's side has a bit more modesty.

Punishments for misdemeanors are not harsh, possibly unless you consider that in a communal society where people know each other, you are not going to come out of that cell with the same esteem that you went in with. But one day isn't bad, and there are no longer terms. For felony level crimes, bad ones especially, the penalty is death. They can and will hang you here for rape, murder, kidnapping. Again, the mayor judges this, so it's rather feudal in the sense that you have a unified justice system where one person is judge and jury, deciding your guilt and sentence.

The mayor clearly holds a lot of power here in the justice system (whereas he has almost none in the US political system), and is elected by an informal process. When the mayor's term is up, the current mayor will host a large town meeting on the square, where he presents each candidate for the next term, and citizens either cheer him on or boo and throw stones at the candidate. I think the outgoing mayor judges the crowd response to determine the new mayor.

Another note on the mayor: he is the primary representative for the citizens of Chamula to the state of Mexico, from which they are technically independent. So he engages in discussions on building new roads and similar services that the government provides, while keeping his town in order. As I mentioned before the military and police are not allowed within the limits of Chamula - they have their own police force.

There are also many appointed or elected civic leaders, akin to the religious leaders, but we didn't learn as much about them. Major town decisions will certainly be made with civic leaders, religious leaders and the mayor collaborating. The lines of power are not clear and hierarchical outside of the mayors office, another sign of the communal organization.

After seeing the town hall and the jail cells (no one was incarcerated), we headed to the church and its square.

The Church

There are limited pictures allowed of the church from the outside (never the inside) so this appears in a lot of literature online about the town. Probably because we were there four days before what may be the biggest religious celebration of the year, we got to see a procession of religious and civic leaders in the famous Chamula white wool vests as we approached the church.

The Chamula wool is ubiquitous here, even in San Cristobal. There are two traditional garments the Tzotzil wear: men were a black or white wool vest or tunic, and women wear a white or black wool ankle length skirt. There are at least two styles that we've seen on the women. Some are a simple woven black wool, chunky by modern clothing standards but uniform in appearance like any woven cloth. The other style, which is newer, is extremely chunky, unwoven and unthreaded black wool; it looks roughly like what it does on the sheep. I like the latter style better but apparently there is no deeper meaning to differences other than fashion and style.

The town leaders gathered outside The Church for a procession

All of the leaders in town wore chunky style white wool vests, with small differences in some of the details like hats, necklaces or scarves to signify whether the man was a civic or religious leader. We were able to just walk into the large square in front of the church as a hundred people or so milling around organized into a procession with live music and (most likely, we didn't count) 122 men in white wool vests marched out of the square and into the town. Cesar assured us that pictures in general outside the church here were ok, although it's best not to focus on an individual and take portrait photos. Even with that I was hesitant to get more than a few snaps and a few seconds of video as the procession approached us. One white couple that seemed to be visiting on their own followed the procession very closely and eagerly, the guy recording nonstop with his phone and the girl with her large camera prominently displayed. They didn't seem to attract any negative attention but I do wonder if they knew what they were doing there and how the rest of the day ended up for them...

After the procession was gone we were mostly alone in front of a large, colonial style Catholic cathedral, at least that's how it appears from the outside. We knew from reading up about this that the inside would not be anything like any church we'd visited before.

Here's what happens when you walk in: again it's like being in a large scale, dense, intensely religious florists shop. There are no pews inside or seats of any kind, even though the layout is the same as any cathedral. There are green pine needles covering most of the ground, the same as you'd have with sawdust in a dive bar. The floor was smooth marble, and the combination of green pine needles and smooth marble wasn't the safest surface to walk on so you step carefully and stay on guard a bit.

The church exterior. Forget about seeing any pictures of the inside.

Lining much of the walls are permanent statues of saints, again with mirrors hanging around their necks and lots of vegetation surrounding them. There were massive banners hanging from the very high ceiling, draping down to the walls on both sides, adding a bit of intimacy and a good sense of space to the cathedral. At the far end where a normal Catholic church would have an altar, and where a priest would stand, are more statues, no altar, tons of plants and candles. So that's the borders of this scene. In the middle, families and townsfolk are sitting in groups on the floor, clearing spaces in the pine needles and lighting many, many candles.

This church is open 24 hours a day, possibly the only "Catholic" church open all day in the world. There are no services, no priests, no congregations. Families or groups come when they need to to perform whatever rites they need at that time, at all times of day and all times of year. This is great for tourists because you can literally show up whenever you want and you're going to get a bit of a show (although tours are careful to point out that this is not a show, this is their life).

It says founded in 1524, but our guide thinks we shouldn't take that too seriously.

The church is public, and although photography is strictly forbidden and even having your phone out is probably a bad idea, it's fine for visitors like us to walk around and check out the church in detail, as long as we're careful not to treat the townsfolk practicing here like exhibits or a show put on for us (i.e., keep it moving and don't stare). Melissa and I carefully (pine needles and polished floor!) wove our way though pockets of people and groups of other tourists to check out the many saints, all the way to the back where there are five paintings on the ambulatory ceiling. I recall a jaguar, a bull, a lion, an eagle over cactus clutching a snake (look at the Mexican flag), and a Jesus on the cross. The far end is a massive display of saints, Jesus, branches and flowers covering the wall. We headed back to Cesar to get some explanation for what we were seeing, seeing one surprisingly calm chicken on the way and many glass bottles of Coca Cola.

Other than the pine needle floor, new pews, semi-bastardized saints and Christian iconography, the Coca Cola and the chickens define what makes this church unique: both are used in rituals. They drink the Coca Cola specifically to produce burps which help restore the soul that they may have lost. Or it's for warding away evil spirits, I'm not sure we got a clear explanation on this. Sadly, we did not see anyone chugging soda and belching, although travelers at our hostel who went on the same day stayed around long enough to see it.

We learned later in Zinacantan that the Coca Cola is really just a modern version of the black drink important to these rituals. There are five important colors to the Tzotzil, one for each direction of the earth in Mayan mythology (think back to the art in Merida on the walking tour):

  • Black for the West, where the sun sets and death and jaguars reign. Today the drink for this is Coca Cola
  • Yellow for the South, and corn, from which men and gods are made. Today the yellow drink is orange soda, unspecified brand
  • White is for the North, I'm not clear on what this represents. The present day soda is lemon
  • Red is for the East where the sun rises and the day is reborn. The present day soda is strawberry
  • Green is for the Center, where the Mayans are is the center of the world. The people in San Juan Chamula think that the town is the navel of the earth, so quite central to the entire world. I don't remember what soda they use for this, perhaps it doesn't have a drink

Historically, these drinks were made with different colors of corn, fermented a bit. When we visited the house in Zinacantan, we were able to see an ear of corn of each color, it works pretty well. Thinking of it now, though, I don't remember a green ear of corn...

So with that context, today the carbonated beverages serve the role of the spiritual colored drinks and fuel the belching that fulfills some purpose. That's one piece of the rituals. You may have been able to guess what happens to the chickens by now.

There are a couple levels of rituals and we learned a lot about why they're performed and what the goal is. Central to the beliefs here is the idea that your soul is something that can be lost in part and must be restored to keep you in full health, physically and spiritually. Adults lose their soul when something traumatic happens to them like an injury, car crash, rape, losing possessions, etc. Children lose their souls far more easily because the fontanelle isn't closed so it's easier for it to escape through the top of their heads. Children in particular are encouraged not to flinch when the adults do fireworks or cause explosions, as this flinching scares some of the soul out. That alone explains a bit of the fascination and boldness with fireworks here.

So after you lose some of your soul, you need to restore it at the church. I think how traumatized you were and how much soul you lost determines the level of ritual that you must perform, but Cesar didn't explain that clearly. Minor rituals can involve a chicken egg, many candles, presumably burping, and possibly a shaman. I don't recall what they did with the chicken eggs because they're not cracked and left on the floor, or if they are the spiritual leaders are very good at cleaning that up quickly.

The next level of ritual involves the sacrifice of a chicken, many, many candles, a shaman to help heal you and potentially many days of rest and continued ritual. Men kill a rooster and women kill a hen in the church, or rather that's what they bring and the shaman does the killing, as he specializes in this function. The killing is bloodless, the internally decapitate or break the neck of the chicken. This is only the beginning of the ritual though.

The shamans do a lot with the pulse, we were advised that if we see someone with their hands out and palms upturned, with a man taking their pulse at the wrists, that we'd seen a shaman working (we didn't see this). Too strong or too weak of a pulse is something that needs to be corrected through rituals. For the really serious rituals, you light a certain number of candles, probably in multiples of 3, 13 or 15, all sacred numbers. The shaman sacrifices a chicken. You go home with the shaman and your family prepares the chicken; as the person in need of healing, you eat only the head, the shaman and your family eat the rest. For a particularly intense ritual you may then stay in your room for 5 days, with periodic visits by the shaman, abstaining from bathing, exercise, and various other activities.

After the five days you may return to the site of your traumatic event. We were given the example of a woman hit by a car, so she would return to the site of the accident. The shaman brings a tiny gourd of water and blows on it and performs other ritual actions like lighting candles and dealing with pine needles. The point of returning to the site of the event is that this is where your soul escaped, so this is where you must go to restore it. I'm not sure what ends the ritual but at some point you are considered healed and return to your daily life. It's a fascinating, involved process that I'm sure we could learn about for months.

Shamans are clearly an elevated class of citizens, although they're not the same as religious leaders. They can be women but rarely are. Not everyone can be a shaman, most have something very distinctive about them or get certain visions through their dreams. People with certain mutations such as six fingers are revered and identified as shamans. I think you pay them to perform the rituals for you, but it wasn't clear.

So with that explained, we broke for half an hour to explore the downtown area. Melissa had (finally, given the corn lover she is) worked up a real appetite for the grilled corn on the cob we'd seen in the informal market area downtown. We joined up with the solo German traveler on the tour, Tristan, who was actually staying at our hostel and explored the area, staying away from tacos.

Cesar had explained to us that while Chamula in particular is known for wool, we have to differentiate between hand made, local wool products (sweaters, scarves) and machine made products, and that we won't get an honest answer from most vendors. Fortunately we're not in the market for that, but we wandered the stalls anyway, struggling to find Melissa's corn until the very end. She got one, giant ear of corn with enormous kernels, served in a banana leaf (they are very useful in food preparation) with a lime wedge and chili salt.

An odd thing about most of the street corn here is the texture, it's always very rubbery and firm, rather than springy and explosive like corn back home is. I don't know if this is the source material or cooking process, and it's not bad but I still prefer what I'm used to more. This corn was no exception, it was more than half way to becoming popcorn, but it had a good char on it and the lime and salt worked great. The enormous kernels popped out very easily and the ear had very little silk, so incidences of corn silk and fiber stuck in your teeth were infrequent. Pretty good snack and so far we haven't gotten sick from it.

Rico street corn horneado

While we were walking around and checking out the market we got to hear a lot of amateur fireworks going off. There seemed to be two kinds: giant, huge bottle rocket kinds with a 1+ meter long wooden stick and a large rocket attached to the far end, or the iron cylinder packed gunpowder variety. The men seemed to work in teams: one guy sets off the giant bottle rocket, then the second guy lights and holds up the iron bomb, which is usually really loud and explodes close to the ground. I'm not going to lie, for some of these when the kids where doing it, I was worried about poor aiming and a giant rocket screaming over to explode in front of us. We made it out safely though, I guess they get plenty of practice on this. The rockets are launched by hand, of course.

After they did the pair, we usually saw the guys sit down to pack the next one then they'd move on to a different location to repeat. Because of this pattern, it was hard to know when the next one was going to go off, and where, so I didn't get any good footage of it, not that that would come out well on a cell phone camera anyway. One of the last ones we were around for took us by surprise and practically deafened Melissa and Tristan. We all survived and piled into the van for Zincantan.


Zincantan is over some mountain roads, only 10-15 minutes from central Chamula by car. Although very close to Chamula, there are stark differences. The towns are very friendly with each other and respect their differences, but they are by no means the same despite how similar they appear to outsiders.

Whereas Chamula has religion and ritual infused into nearly every aspect of daily life and lives on farming and tourism, Zincantan takes their religion a bit less seriously and is a major producer of flowers. Driving down a mountain road with a view of the city, we could see dozens of large greenhouses. The Dutch couple on the tour felt right at home I'm sure.

The clouds were literally touching the ground in Zinacantan

We headed straight for the first of two adjacent churches in Zinacantan. The larger church had a similar layout to Chamula, with a large open square in front and on church property with a cross in the middle. Inside the church is a bit different though, while there is a lot of green and saints with mirrors, there are no pine needles on the floor and they do have seats. So it's a bit closer to a normal Catholic church. We walked around for a few, only one family was there doing some praying and singing - they don't have the extensive ritual culture in this town.

This church had some impressive statues of Jesus and the Virgin Mary, and some of the same jaguar images around. They had the grail cups for burning incense, and many small sculptures of jaguars, bulls, crocodiles and more that are actually candle holders. Similar concepts but used differently and much less elaborate here.

We moved to the second church after briefly exploring the first, where the town leaders were in meeting. This church was much smaller, a large room really, with saints and plants on the furthest wall. An old, local man came up to us with a collection box after we entered - I paid $3 pesos for the both of us and any donation amount was accepted really.

The first church of Zinacantan

Cesar pointed out to us as we were driving in that the clothing here is quite different, and we were able to see that up close. Rather than black and white wool garments, the men and women here wore very colorful, elaborate cotton garments. As it turns out, Chamula is known for its wool products, Zinacantan is known for its cotton, and they don't really cross over.

The men in the church were sitting at a long table, what I'd imagine you'd see if you went back to a Viking village, although with different clothes. On one side were the religious leaders and the other the civic leaders. We had no idea what they were discussing, but after a while they got up to leave for a procession into the larger church next door.

A couple of the things that Cesar point out to us here were remarkable. First, this town, and only this town, is on a different time zone. We checked the old man with the collection box's watch: an hour earlier than the time we had. Apparently when they discuss time here with visitors, they'll ask if you mean the modern time or God's time.

Something else that I probably would have missed was the traditional Mayan footware the leaders had on. These "shoes" had only a high leather backing, like a boot, and a sole, no front or top. I vaguely remembered seeing something like this in the reliefs at the ruins, but the level of detail on ancient stone carvings isn't that great. Cesar showed us some pictures of these reliefs from Palenque later and sure enough it looked like the same shoes.

The Mayan shoes

We didn't dive as deep into the religion here, but did learn that while they have adopted the names of the Catholic entities, they mean entirely different things. For them, Jesus is just the sun and Mary is the moon, which are the entities they have worshiped for thousands of years before the Spanish arrived. We listened to a great anecdote wherein someone asked a practitioner what would happen if they didn't pay homage to "God" for a day. The faithful replied that it's not the God in the pictures of Jesus that they need to worry about, if he forgets them life goes on. It's the Sun that they must worry about because if that doesn't rise the next day, there is no food, no life. It grew very apparent that the underlying structure of their beliefs here are largely unchanged, it's just new names and images on top of the same worldview that the Spanish were able to impart.

We have no idea what the procession was about as the village leaders left this church and headed to the next in their colorful clothes, but the timing was related to noon - we noticed as we checked our phones which read 1:00pm.

After that stop we took a short walk down a hill to an indigenous family's home in the town. These are people that Cesar knows well, and except for the grandmother, are comfortable with having their picture taken. They let tourists like us into their home for a chance to sell the cotton garments they make, sadly we had no need or room to accumulate these at this point. We did consider sending a colorful table runner back home but the shipping would really cost us.

The traditional weaving process, supported with a back strap.

This home visit is yet another example of something that you simply couldn't accomplish on a solo hike up to these towns, if you even made it to Zinacantan at all. I'd say that these people keep to the old ways for the most part; they weave fabrics using a back brace loom that we saw depicted in stone carvings hundreds of years old, pre-Hispanic technology. Their kitchen was a small room with a fire on the floor in the middle, no tables or knives or cabinets.

We got a demo of the weaving technique and a chance to buy some of their goods while the teenage girls in the family sat around, clearly used to clueless travelers wandering through. The kitchen fascinated me. I consider certain kinds of foods to be almost permanently grandmother foods because they require a massive amount of effort to produce and almost always must be consumed fresh. This kind of food prep doesn't scale to busy city people like us, and even restaurants rarely do it the right way. I firmly believe that gnocchi is one of these: first of all, every good Italian will insist until they die that their grandmother made the best gnocchi they've had, and second, I've made gnocchi (once well, once poorly) and it is a ton of work. The precise humidity of the day matters.

Corn tortillas are another example of these. Corn doesn't have the great binding protein that wheat does (gluten) to make it easy to work with and longer lasting. Corn tortillas are fragile, they need to be made fresh and consumed within hours ideally, when they dry out they crumble instead of fold. Even in New York, very few restaurants have someone making fresh corn tortillas by hand daily, and some of the ones that do sell them to the other Mexican restaurants in town.

These more authentic New York restaurants are almost definitely using masa harina, a prepared corn flour that you add water to to get masa, which when formed into a tortilla and cooked is the base of your taco. We've made sopes and tacos with masa harina, it's not hard and in Mexico it's ubiquitous. Almost every town that we've driven through has at least one tortilleria that makes tortillas daily and sells them to the citizens. I assume they're using masa harina because the names of these tortillerias is the same name as the brand of masa harina that we bought in New York City.

This family takes it a step further. To properly use corn for nutrition, you have to nixtamalize it. That's a Nauhuatl word for boiling hard (not sweet) corn kernels in a chemical solution of lime and water. Lime (from the abundant limestone here) is basic (as opposed to acidic) and this preparation process makes the Niacin in corn bioavailable, as in humans can absorb the vitamin when eaten when corn is prepared this way. The family we visited (most days) takes raw corn, boils it with lime to nixtamalize, grinds it on a stone mill by hand, forms tortillas and uses those as the basis for their meals. I assume it's the grandmother doing this while the younger family members make cloth to sell. This is some really labor intensive stuff.

The dark kitchen, with the maiz grinder on the table to the left and cooking fire in the middle.

Behind the kitchen the family had a large garden that grew their limes and vegetables. The garden was definitely larger than the kitchen. We hung out in here a while for a demo of the corn, tried some of the hyper local pox that this family used in religious rituals or to just drink, and passed around some of the candles they use as well. Like the spiritual drinks, the candles are colored red, white, green, yellow and black and have different purposes.

We also got a chance to pass around some of the traditional garments made and worn here. We're quite familiar with cotton and although these were handmade, there was not much surprising there, except that the men's traditional colorful tunic was very heavy.

No one bought anything at the family's house, a few of us asked how to say thank you in their language and we climbed into the van for a surprisingly congested ride back into San Cristobal, perhaps a siesta time rush hour?

Looking out the kitchen to the production yard

We wrapped up as the van let us out by the central park and cathedral, a moderate walk from our hostel. The combination of focusing, incense and intense smells, dark cathedrals and smokey kitchens and surprisingly strong sun at altitude did a number on us so we walked to a specialty soup restaurant to revive and the hostel to relax for the rest of the day. I will say I kind of like that pictures are so scarce on this tour, it really makes it something that everyone has to visit to have a chance of understanding how these people live and what you see there. Although unusual, it's nothing too crazy but we're very happy that we did the tour and we certainly learned a lot.

Learning Spanish in San Cristobal de las Casas

After some discussion and research, we decided to stay a couple more weeks in San Cristobal de las Casas and learn Spanish.  The most common way of learning Spanish in Central and South America is through a school that offers homestays in addition to classes - what this means is that we are taking Spanish classes for a few hours a day, and, in addition, we are staying in the home of a local family.  After speaking to a couple of local places, we decided to go with El Puente, a language school based on Calle Real de Guadalupe, one of the main streets in San Cristobal.  While classes are typically by the week, we decided to start classes ASAP, which meant on a Thursday, but not start the homestay until Saturday since we already had accommodations booked through then.

Evening stroll in San Cristobal, near our home stay

Our host is an older woman named Cristina.  She was born and raised in San Cristobal - she lives in the same house she was raised in!  She is a FANTASTIC cook, and we are going to be fat(-ter) by the end of our two weeks staying with her.  With this homestay, all of our meals are included, which means she cooks breakfast, lunch, and dinner for us daily.  Honestly, the price is ridiculously inexpensive - it's cheaper than anything we found in Guatemala and Colombia as well - and we really wanted to start learning Spanish so that we can communicate better with people we are meeting.  We had talked about flying to Colombia from San Cristobal to do classes, but this was a great deal and it's worked out well so far.  Her home is very nice - she has a pretty large garden for being pretty close to the center of the city, and she has an apple tree, peach tree, avocado tree, lime tree, tomato plants, etc.  While a lot of it is not completely in season right now, a lot of fruits and vegetables are grown close to San Cristobal and you can get fresh, delicious produce no matter the time of year.  She made a nopales (cactus) pico de gallo on Sunday, and it was delicious.  I'm not the biggest fan of nopales in the US, the texture is usually slimy to me, but hers was crunchy, really good, and not mushy at all.  Same with papaya - I usually find the texture to be awful, but it's been decent at her house.  The mangos have been perfect, too.

Since we're at Cristina's and in classes for two weeks, we're trying to get ourselves into a bit more of a routine than we have been used to over the past month and a half.  With this homestay, she keeps to a pretty regular schedule for meals (with our input!) - breakfast is at 8:00am, lunch at 2:00pm, dinner at 7:30pm.  Because of this, we're hoping to try and keep to this, for the most part:

  • 8:00am - desayuno con Cristina
  • 9:00am-12:00noon - la clase de espanol
  • 12:00noon-1:30pm - exercise - this includes walking (Melissa)/running (Adam) up this STEEP staircase to one of the many churches. It's not the legs that get you here, it's the thin air
  • 1:30pm-3:30pm - almuerza con Cristina, relax
  • 3:30pm-7:30pm - go to one of the many coffee shops in San Cristobal and review Spanish, do homework, etc.
  • 7:30pm - cena con Cristina
  • 8:00pm - relax and review Spanish vocabulary

Steps to Iglesia de Guadalupe.
These are not the steps we run, they're a piece of cake compared to that one.

We're hoping this works - it's early in the week, but so far so good.

After just a couple of days, everything is going well.  While it's awesome that we are getting good homecooked meals, it's a little disappointing that we don't get to explore the restaurants around San Cristobal a bit more.  It's interesting, the locals don't think the restaurants in San Cristobal are very good - but we kinda like them because they offer more of a variety than a lot of other places we've been in Mexico (we've had Argentinian, Lebanese, Thai, Korean, Japanese, Italian, Mexican, wings, etc.).  As city people, we're used to having our choice of cuisine, and we don't typically eat the same cuisine daily because we (especially me!) get sick of things quickly.  I like variety!

Tacos de longaniza.  Similar to chorizo, more locally used in San Cristobal.  Definitely the simplest meal Cristina has cooked for us, but delicious.  Adam wasn't able to sneak pictures of the delicious chicken dish and pork dish we had other days. Also pictured: a local craft beer and Cristina's homemade habanero salsa that we've nearly been drinking.

Tamales!  On Saturdays, Sundays, and holidays, many vendors make
and sell tamales - Cristina bought these for dinner, she said they're 
so much effort to make and other people do a great job :).

I'm pretty happy that we've decided to settle down here for a couple more weeks.  It's a beautiful city, the rain is starting to lessen a bit, and we're learning Spanish.  Our next couple of weeks may not be the most exciting, but I'm excited for them.

Sumidero Canyon

This post is delayed over a week because I had a lot of difficulty uploading all of the photos. This was the excursion we did in San Cristobal, on 14 June, before Palenque.

There are lots of excursions available near San Cristobal de Las Casas, and at the top of our list was a tour of the Sumidero Canyon. This is a tour a couple of hours long (plus transportation) that takes you on a boat ride some 30 km down the Grijalva River in the absolutely insane and beautiful Sumidero Canyon. We'd read about it in our cheat sheet blogs and the hostel book of tours and already knew that it was a scenic canyon that formed around the same time as the Grand Canyon in the US, about 35 million years ago.

Our boat unloading from the prior tour at the embarcadero

We left at 9:00am from our hostel in the van, riding up to the launching point for the tour, about an hour outside the city through some truly stunning high mountain roads that offer sweeping views of the valley when it's not covered with clouds.

We've had and will continue to have a lot of rain in our stay in San Cristobal, like greater than 80% chance of rain every day for the next few weeks, as far as the forecast goes out. Fortunately, the rain here isn't a nonstop deluge, it's more of a rainforest rain that comes and goes, and really at no point is the day ruined because it won't stop raining anymore. You basically have to just wait a bit for the weather to change and we really can't avoid going on excursions because at no point can we be assured of no rain.

Approaching the only bridge we saw as we enter the canyon

So after a reasonably comfortable collectivo ride (depending on your resistance to motion sickness (Melissa)) we arrived at the launching point. There were a few stalls there and restaurants to feed and sell to the tourists, but relatively low key compared to other sites in Mexico. We were issued life jackets and filed onto a 40 person boat, scrambling to get a good seat in the front or on the side. We did pretty well, second row with the cameraman on the side.  The weather at the Canyon was much warmer than in San Cristobal - probably closer to 80 degrees as opposed to the 60 degrees it's been in San Cristobal (San Cristobal is at altitude, so it's shockingly cool).

The captain of the 40 person boat models gets a cool little elevated platform from which he can see and steer the boat's two outboard engines. With a slight mist of rain and lots of cloud cover, we headed out into the river as the captain began the 100% Spanish tour.

The walls of the canyon begin to rise

Cacti growing between the layers in the limestone

The thing with this canyon is that it starts out relatively low, then as you go down river the walls grow higher and higher, until its peak at 1000 meters from the water, roughly halfway to the end. You get to see lots of different kinds of vegetation and rock along the way.

At the beginning the rock walls supported cacti growing out and up at a very slight angle. Some of the early rocks are clearly layered but pushed up at an angle, like looking at the edge of a phonebook that you're trying to fold in half. My guess would be that some kind of tectonic event disturbed the rock layers here to give them that appearance.

The peaks are shrouded in the morning fog as we set out

We started out in very brown water, not surprising at all considering how much rain the area has been getting. As we pushed further down river, the water eventually turned a rich green color. The vegetation changes a bit, we get more trees, some of them really monolithic and interesting looking on the shores or growing out of the rock walls. The wildlife really picks up too; birds are visible everywhere but get more interesting down river. The first major animals we got to see up close were some crocodiles (Melissa's favorite, in the sense that she finds them terrifying).

We saw 4 medium to small crocodiles sitting on a mud bank early on, almost perfectly still with their mouths slightly opened. I'm sure they do that for a reason but can't guess what it is. We barely even noticed the tiny baby crocodile that looked like no more than a normal lizard unless you paid attention to the shape of his tail, clearly optimized millennia ago for swimming.

The walls grow and we get a sense of scale for this place

A little blue sky helps

Big guy crocodile, waiting for food to jump in his mouth

Shortly after the crocodiles, our captain found some spider monkeys high up in the trees. We weren't able to see them as closely due to their perch but were able to make out two adult monkeys and even one baby monkey, monkeying around in the trees! I assume that the crocodiles will eat them if they fall into the water, but monkeys are usually good about avoiding that.

At this point we're into the thick of the canyon: the walls are extremely high, often quite sheer but sometimes more sloped supporting a lot of vegetation. Most of the river simply crashes against a rock wall - there aren't a lot of beaches or mud bars or places that you could easily get out of the water if you fell in.

Looking back as we pass a peak

Surrounded by the walls and clouds

Right near the highest point

One of the coolest things about this canyon is that it really twists and turns, up to 90 degrees at some points according to Wikipedia. That gives you an incredible effect of being able to come around a corner of the canyon and see the foreground moving more quickly while the background moves more slowly and you see more and more of the canyon open up in front of you as you proceed. At one point I remarked that it looked like the Jurassic Park intro, which Melissa couldn't comment on because she hasn't seen that movie for some reason.

We paused at the highest point of the canyon, which hits 1 kilometer above the river. The surrounding areas can't be much less than that because this point doesn't look dramatically different from the proceeding and following kilometer of canyon, so this whole stretch is really amazing to see. Because we set out on a rainy, cloudy day, a lot of these peaks and high points were shrouded in low clouds or fog, which gave a really cool effect without obscuring everything.

The captain told a story at this point, and this was the only one that anyone on the boat found important enough to repeat in English for us poor monolinguists. This canyon exists in the state of Chiapas, which was once the home of the Chiapa people, about whom modern civilization does not know very much. The legend in this canyon and at this point is that when the Spanish conquistadors were finally able to pin down the Chiapa people after many years of successful resistance, the entire remaining population chose to jump to their deaths from this 1km peak into the canyon rather than submit to the Spanish. We have no idea if this is true or not, most resources refer to it as a legend. Although 1km is a really far way to fall, I do wonder if some of them might have landed in water and survived. We'll let that one be a mystery.

The Cave of Colors, with waterline and ladder to the shrine

The Christmas Tree waterfall

Almost under the waterfall

I'd been wondering for several days now if my phone was going to run out of storage space. I've been taking a lot of pictures and deleting nothing, and although my phone has felt like an unlimited resource since I've bought it, I know it's not. My questions were answered at about this point in the tour when I started running out of space not even halfway through the canyon. Fortunately I was somehow able to delete a couple hundred pictures and videos to get through the day, although I missed a couple of features while I worked to see the screen in the bright light. Also, I deserve some special credit for getting a lot of good pictures without ever dropping my phone over the board of the boat. That may not seem like too much, but when this boat gets going it moves really fast, people lose hats and I started to feel a little wind burnt at the end.

The next major feature was the Cueva de Colores, or Cave of Colors. We didn't learn much from the captain here because of the language, but were able to observe some things and look up others later online. This was the biggest cave feature in the rock canyon wall at this point, so it's very noticeable from far away, even more so because there is an alcove in the cave with a religious statue in it and lots of flowers and offerings. It seemed to be dedicated to an early explorer of the area.

The name of the cave comes from the many colors on the walls caused by different mineral compositions. We saw a lot of pinks and greens, and interesting blob formations on the walls and ceiling. There was a ladder far up the wall and some ropes that reached a bit lower, totally out of the reach from water level. Based on the water line along the canyon walls, I'd say the water level today was several feet lower than a yearly max, so I guess you have to come at the right time of year to be able to climb up into the religious alcove and leave an offering.

The next major feature is a waterfall known as the Christmas Tree. We're right at the beginning of the wet season, so this wasn't obviously a waterfall at first. It is obvious why it's called the Christmas Tree though, when the water is flowing it falls onto outcroppings below and leaves mineral deposits in giant mushroom-like patterns that branch out wider on the way down.

I knew there was something called the Christmas Tree from reading guide literature but didn't know what it was until a bilingual traveler told us that this is normally a waterfall. After realizing that and looking much closer, I noticed that there was a bit of water flowing down really high up in the formation, just a trickle really and fanning out as it hit the next levels. As the boat pulled closer we were able to see more and more water falling down each level, being blown around by the wind and bouncing off the rocks. Eventually the captain took us right under the lowest level of the waterfall, telling the group that the legend here is that every drop of water from this fall that hits you adds a year to your life (or makes you a year younger, I heard both interpretations). We got slightly wet, and the effect of looking up through this misty waterfall was really cool.

Giant pelicans somehow sitting on thin tree branches. Some birds take flight as we approach.

Farmland in the canyon valley and a heavy bird population near the end

Further down the river it opens up a bit and the canyon walls get lower. We started to see some human buildings and massive power line towers. At one particularly wide point, I asked Melissa what she'd think if she were a Chiapan 500 years ago, and came to the canyon and saw dozens of Spanish ships anchored in this channel. That would have been nuts.

Some of the later bends in the river are homes to a lot of interesting birds. We pulled up really close to some trees at one point, unsure of why initially, then noticed that the branches were covered with giant pelicans. Most of them took flight as we approached, some stayed put. It must be annoying to have these boats come through every hour if you're a pelican living in the Sumidero Canyon. I was amazed that the branches were holding these birds because they are big.

We also saw a lot of herons and some kind of black bird I don't know that seemed fond of standing around with its wings slightly spread. A lot of these took flight as we cruised down river.

The dam

Turning around after 30km

The midpoint of the tour (in distance) is the Chicoasén Dam, a massive hydroelectric dam in the canyon that generates over 30% of the hydro power produced in Mexico. Sadly we couldn't get too close or see how big the drop was or what was on the other side of the dam, and I haven't seen many pictures of that side online.

We floated here for a bit as the captain passed his hat for tips and we drifted alongside a small snack boat selling chips, beers, and mango and coconut slices. We were warned that this part can be a little awkward and dodgy when they pressure for tips and sales but didn't have any trouble, especially since he only asked for tips in Spanish!

The cruise back was almost full speed the entire time, except for one amazing stop. The captain found a much larger solo crocodile sitting on a mud bank, mouth open. We got rather close to this guy, too much so for Melissa but luckily I was between her and the crocodile. I think crocodile legs look ridiculous, but that tail was huge and muscular. Really big guy.

Much bigger guy sunning on the rocks

What if he ate her?

Clearer skies as we returned

Upon returning to the dock we had a few minutes to visit the $5 peso bathrooms before the van took us to Chiapa de Corzo, the town situated on the canyon near the tourist points. We had about an hour in this small seeming, somewhat colonial and very Mexican town. Melissa and I both got a bowl of the regional specialty cochito horneado, which is not the same as cochinita pibil. That even fooled the Mexican man I sat next to on the way back; fortunately we learned the difference on our walking tour the previous day. Rather than stewed and slightly pulled pork shoulder, this was roasted pork shoulder chunks, served with a really good, deep, brown, unctuous sauce topped with cabbage and pickled onions and radishes. We both opted for the tipico serving rather than tacos; I imagine tacos don't come with this broth. I think I like this a lot better than cochinita pibil, especially since every version of that that we've had ends up with fairly dry meat.

We walked around the town square with our new canyon friends, tried some local pozol (a drink of blended raw chocolate, corn and water), and got back to town by 3 PM.

The local cochito pork, served tipico (not cochinita!). Delicious broth

Chiapa de Corzo square where we parked

Pozol: chocolate, water, corn. Really gritty and thick at the bottom

Overall this was a really good tour at a great price (500 pesos for both of us, or a bit over $25 total) and the sights at this canyon are simply incredible. This may be my favorite natural excursion yet, certainly only the cenotes are in the same category so far. Apparently this is a local favorite as well, as the internet tells me that 80% of the visitors annually are Mexican. I'm glad we were able to be some of the scant 20% of foreign tourists who visit here each year.