Upon recommendations from friends we visited the Sunday market in San Juan de Chamula in Chiapas in hopes of viewing some bizarre traditions. From sacrificing chickens to amputated statues of saints, much mystery surrounds this indigenous Tzotzil village in the mountains of Mexico. Since it was only a short twenty minute drive from our hotel in San Cristobal de las Casas, we decided to visit this past weekend.
The Sunday Market in San Juan de Chamula in Chiapas: An Exotic Exploration of the Indigenous
Following my GPS, Allan, I and friends, Jim and Janet, drove from San Cristobal de las Casas to Chamula in less than a half an hour. We stopped on a side street already lined with parked cars and departed towards the town center and market. Before taking twenty steps women approached us cloaked in traditional black dresses made from goat hair and berry colored tops. Their hands were laden with colorful bracelets, magnets shaped like dolls and hand woven belts. As expected they wanted us to buy something.
We already had spent enough on these ambulant hawkers in San Cristobal. So we declined and kept walking towards the main square. The San Juan de Bautista Cathedral and nearby market were our main priority.
As we neared the square, in the distance an outdoor market spanned the horizon with hundreds of make-shift stalls.
To the right sat the white cathedral with turquoise trim surrounded by a white cement courtyard. Outside men dressed like cowboys played guitars and sang Mexican banda type music. Other guys dressed in white goat skinned cloaks with cowboy hats sat nearby and drank.
When we approached one gentleman passed us a shot each of pox, as if inviting us to the celebration. Pox is a Mayan liquor made from corn, sugar cane and wheat. It tastes a bit like tequila but sweeter. I downed the forty-proof liquor in one gulp in an attempt to quickly conquer the potent concoction.
Just then our friends approached us tickets in hand. They had purchased our minimal entry fees to the cathedral of San Juan Bautista. This is where the rituals were rumored to transpire.
Fueled by Mayan booze we followed our comrades into the church.
The hall was packed with tourists and locals alike. A dense smoke wafted through the air, a product of burning copal and thousands of candles stuck to the floor with wax. As we walked flat footed, we tried not to slip. The entire surface was littered with long, loose pine needles. Plus the only light came from the candles and a few skylights.
Over twenty-five statues of saintly-looking figures lined both sides of the cathedral. These are Mayan deities with ghostly white faces and red vampire type lips. Their bodies were trapped insides boxes, and covered from the neck down in white cloaks. Rumor has it some are holding mirrors to ward off spirits while others had their hands amputated. Unfortunately due to the cloaks I could confirm either assumption.
Chamulans sat on the floor chanting religious mantras in their native tongue of Tzotzil.
The mix between the smoke and orations gave the whole cathedral a haunted feeling. I felt like I was on another planet, much like our visit to the Potala Palace in Tibet this past summer. Certainly I’ve never been inside a church anywhere in the world like this.
Apparently chickens are also slaughtered inside the cathedral to summon the gods and heal the afflicted. However we were spared the ritual during our stop inside. Therefore we missed the sight of spurting blood and avian cries which might have sent some running.
Regrettably no photos are permitted inside. Violators risk losing their cameras. In Chamula laws are enforced by the people rather than the police, a rather vigilante type of justice. Good luck getting that camera back.
Once outside and back in the daylight we decided to tour the market which was equally entertaining.
The market felt so raw and authentic. You could see the lines on the faces of the vendors and hardness in their eyes. Many went without shoes. All were wearing some form of goat hair. Clumps of black goat hair were laid out for sale on tarps next to squash and corn.
To one side of the market groups of men sat wearing straw hats with red and green ribbons. Black and white cloaks covered their bodies. In front, more men stood with cowboy hats and white fur cloaks.
I purchase some peanuts and lychee to snack on. Since you have to crack a shell or peel them to eat, I figured it was the safest food option that would not upset my bowels. Let’s say the afternoon did not inspire a hygienic feeling. Instead of risking food borne illness, waited till we left town to properly supplement our systems.
My Overall Impressions of the Chamula Market and Cathedral
Undoubtedly our visit marked a unique experience in my life. In a world filled with major western markets and globalization, it’s refreshing to see something so alien. I almost felt like I was on Mars. Frankly, the oddities did intimidate me slightly. However, I think that’s more a product of being faced with the foreign and unknown.
The locals were warm and inviting, despite their other worldly appearance. Also many churches throughout Latin America share a similar look and tradition. Whereas the Chamula church and people hold totally unique customs and traditions. It’s really an experience you can’t get anywhere else.
Getting to San Juan de Chamula
If you rented a vehicle, just follow your GPS. It’s a rather easy 20 minute drive from San Cristobal. Otherwise take a tour. I recommend Otiza tours. I used them to go to the Sumidero Canyon, and found them inexpensive and reliable. They also have a central office in San Cristobal on Guadalupe Street.
One Otiza tour offers a trip leaving from San Cristobal and arriving in Chamula on horseback, a ninety minute commute each way, not including time inside the town. Otherwise they offer a package via van which also includes a visit to a local family.
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