We had read stories about people coming to San Cristobal specifically to visit the Mayan Medicine Museum, so we wanted to check it out while we were in town. However, when we looking for directions we were disappointed to discover several posts from late 2017 which said the museum was closed indefinitely. Since we’d already encountered several restaurants which were out of business even though they had recent reviews and active websites, we weren’t that surprised that the museum might not be open, but we decided to take a walk to the museum anyway, just to see what it looked like from the outside. The museum is located at least a half mile past the Mercado in less-scenic part of town, on a property surrounded by a high wall. When we arrived the large gate was open and so was the museum. Just inside the gate were three big blue-green crosses. As we mentioned in our Chamula article, these are Mayan crosses, not Christian crosses, and the Mayans used crosses in their symbology long before Christians arrived. There is a 25 peso admission fee and the museum is unguided.
The museum is dedicated to traditional Mayan medical practices of the Tzotzil-Tzeltal people of Chiapas. As museums go, it was not very impressive. There are three rooms containing large dioramas of Mayan healing ceremonies with plaques on the walls explaining what the healers are doing and the plants and other materials they use. Another room has displays of the many plants native to the area and the Western pharmaceutical companies that have patented and exploited them for their own use. Most of the information is only presented in Spanish. Behind the museum there is a garden with many types of medicinal plants labeled with signs identifying each. Most of the plants were in sorry shape, some not much more than stubs of plants with few leaves, as if they haven’t been properly tended for many months or even years. Leaning against the side of the building were signs for many plants which had most likely died.
Because Mayans believe that sickness is due to angry spirits inhabiting the body, cures typically often involve rituals for spiritual cleansing (using prayers, candles, crosses, flowers, incense, tobacco, etc.) in addition to herbal remedies or activities for physical cleansing, such as sweat baths, and drinking of pox (a local liquor) and Coca-Cola, which can release the evil spirits when the gas is burped out. Many of the herbal remedies are based on centuries of observations from Mayan healers of the effects of various plant and animal substances on the body, and this information has been of high interest to naturopathic doctors in other countries as well.
A sign in the front of the museum says there are five specialties in Mayan medicine: pulsador (a person who can diagnose maladies from touching a person’s pulse; huesero (bonesetter); partera (midwife); hierbero (herbalist); and rezador de los cerros (literally “hunter of the hills”, but apparently a person who can pray to the mountains for good crops, rain, and safety).
In another room there was a video loop playing, alternating in Spanish and English. The video is about Mayan midwifery and childbirth practices and it was very interesting. During delivery, the laboring mother was on her knees facing her husband, clinging to him as if in an embrace. The baby was born with her in this position. Afterwards a midwife massaged her tummy to help dispel the placenta. The placenta was planted in the garden. Then a medicine person moved a chicken (for girls) or cock (for boys) over the mother and baby and I think after this the bird was killed and made in to soup for the mother.
In a building separate from the museum, there is a pharmacy selling Mayan herbal remedies. A woman in a back room was filling bottles with herbs when we entered. We bought a bottle of medicine labeled “De Yax He Te” which is for stomach pain, nausea, and diarrhea.
While at the museum, we met a couple, Marybeth and Alex, from near Auburn, New York, with whom we had a great conversation and exchanged emails. We arranged to meet them the next evening at La Viña de Bacco, our favorite wine bar in San Cristobal. This was also my birthday. I normally don’t like to make much of my birthday, but Dennis let the cat out of the bag at the bar, and the waitress overheard and brought me shot of tequila and said ‘for your birthday.’ Alex and Marybeth started to sing “Las Mañanitas”, the traditional Mexican birthday song, in Spanish, and then the whole room knew and a bunch of people joined in. Even better than this was the conversation with Marybeth and Alex. It’s one of life’s joys to bump into people for the first time and just be able to talk to them as if you knew them all your life. They introduced us to the music of their daughter, Lhasa de Sela, a wonderful Mexican-American singer, who sadly died way too young in 2010. When we got back to our AirBNB, Dennis and I checked out Lhasa’s music on YouTube. She reminds me of Edith Piaf, but her music is unique and is influenced by Mexican music, klezmer, torch songs, gypsy jazz and Middle Eastern music. She won major awards and after she died a sold out memorial concert ended up being two concerts to allow for all who wished to attend. In 2014, a park located in her home neighborhood of Mile End, Montreal was renamed to commemorate her. We’re both very happy to have been introduced to her music and to be able watch and listen to her on YouTube. This is one of our favorite songs from her which feels like a song Leonard Cohen might have written.
The very best thing about meeting kindred spirits while travelling is the proof that although not all strangers are friends you’ve yet to meet, some strangers are.