The more I spoke to the locals here I could feel a burning sense of pride that they had for their culture. Back in the day, when the Spanish conquistadors crashed the party, the indigenous population preferred to suicide rather than submit to the Spanish. Eventually, they weren’t defeated through military might but through disease introduced by the invaders.
After a 12 hour overnight bus ride (I could write another bus story here), we arrived in San Cristobal de le Casas at around 7am. It was the first time I decided not to book a hostel in advance as it’s currently the shoulder season so we decided to take our chances anyway and go for a place called the Iguana Hostel. After a few days of chilling out I was up for a bit of a good time and meeting some people and Ruben, an American living in in Colombia who I met in Puerto Escondido said it would be a great place to go to.
Greeted by a sleepy eyed fella from Montana who looked like he had a psychedelic time the previous night, we managed to secure a bed at a place I would call home for the following 3 nights.
I checked out a local map and saw a church on top of a hill that I thought would be a good starting point to check out the town from high above. A thousand steps (may be an exaggeration) later I arrived at the top and you could see how the town sits within a valley with huge chunks of the surrounding mountainsides missing due to deforestation. It was quite a site. I met another aussie couple walking up the stairs who were only in town overnight and wondered to myself if it was worth it in the first place to experience a place on face value and not get a feel of what makes it unique?
Just like Oaxaca, the buildings were of colonial style. Beautiful and colourful. The only difference was that with San Cristobal, you could notice the presence of flags on string zig zagging across streets and churches to celebrate festivals and religious holidays. Speaking of religion, I haven’t seen so many churches and cathedrals in the one place. The Spanish really went to town here imposing their beliefs on the locals.
After neglecting to visit the surrounding areas of Oaxaca, I thought it would be a waste to do the same here. I met a fellow traveller from the hostel who was doing the same thing so we decided to jump in an el cheapo collectivo (40cents) and head out to the town of Zincatan. Zincatan is a short 15min ride out of the city and known for its textiles and flowers and this quite evident in the attire the local women would wear as well as the number of flower arrangements within the local churches. The locals here have their own pact with the national government so you don’t have the intimidating police and army presence that you get in Mexico City as they are banned from the surrounding village areas. Instead they have their own local law enforcement (Am picturing Chuck Norris as Walker Texas Ranger) and what really gets their knickers in a knot is the taking of photos of the local people without permission and within churches and the locals are happy to throw you into jail by doing so. However, if you get permission from local people, you are welcomed into their home to watch them weave and create textile items as well as get a hearty feed… for a small donation or purchase of course.
The following day, I decided to check out the church of San Juan in Chumula. From what I had read, the local population practice a fusion of Spanish and Mayan Catholicism. Even if you weren’t religious, the church was something that one had to see while in San Cristobal. Rather than paying 200 peso for a tour I decided to have another crack at finding a collectivo. As my Spanish Speaking friend had now left, I decided to face my fears anyway and have a crack at asking the local drivers in my best attempt at Spanish. Turned out the first bus driver I asked did go to Chumula so I jumped in and in no time we were there.
Upon entering the church I was told no cameras and all that. I couldn’t even write in my notepad with my pen while I was inside. Now this church is like no other. It’s open all day and night and while we are used to seeing church pews, what you see inside are fresh pine needles laid across the floor. Those who come in to pray sit on the pine needles and light candles and pray, generally when they are ill. From what I’ve heard, the sacrificial rituals with chickens still goes on within the church but I didn’t see it happen when i was there. Apparently they rub the chicken on the sick person and then snap its neck, ensuring that the chicken does ‘get to the other side’. Coming from a family who used to eat our own chickens from the backyard, I don’t think it’s anything I would be missing out on too much, but it would be surreal to see this ritual happen amongst the thousands of lit candles as well as within the company of the many statues of saints within the church.
I was tempted to try to sneak in a pic on the iphone but being in a foreign country and in a town that prohibits the police and military from entering, I thought it would be best to focus on taking in the vibe and surroundings which felt calming.
Overall, the town was fairly relaxed and isolated from the hecticness (is there such a word?) that was present in Mexico City, yet it still had a contemporary and uncomplicated vibe to it still. I couldn’t quite put my finger on as to why but after meeting some people at the hostel who had been there for a couple of months and hearing stories of people who came to visit for a weekend and stayed for years I can understand why it appealed to them.