A number of travel bloggers I’ve read have said that their visit to the main church in the town of San Juan Chamula near San Cristobal de las Casas, was one of the most awe inspiring things they did in Chiapas, so we were very excited to check it out. There were conflicting details about where the colectivos for Chamula departed from, so the day before we planned to go, we went out to try to find it. Our best bet was somewhere up near the Mercado, so we walked up there and started asking people. After three or four people we located the offstreet parking area for the Chamula colectivos on Honduras street, about two blocks west from the Mercado.
The next morning we walked back and boarded a colectivo for the 10km ride to Chamula. Cost for the ride was 17 pesos. Chamula is inhabited by indigenous Tzotzil Maya people. There are about 300,000 Tzotzil Maya in total, and 50,000 or so live in Chamula, the largest Tzotzil community. Just over 30,000 live in San Cristobal. The town has autonomous status within Mexico. No outside police or military are allowed in the town. On the way into the town we passed a big graveyard with lots of colorful crosses. There were no names on the crosses. The collectivo’s last stop was right in the square in front of the main church.
There is an expansive market area directly in front of the walled courtyard in front of the church. Sunday is the big market day, and we were visiting on a Wednesday, so we weren’t expecting much to be going on in the market, but there was actually a fair amount of activity with people selling produce and handicrafts and clothing.
As we were foreigners we were directed to a ticket booth beside the church where we paid 25 pesos each for an admission ticket. We were warned repeatedly that photography in the church is strictly prohibited. Dennis didn’t really need the warnings as he had already read reports of photographers having their cameras confiscated or broken or being assaulted when they tried to take pictures, so he wasn’t about to pull his camera out of the bag.
The church is imposing from the outside but it’s the inside that blows you away. The first thing that you notice are the uncountable thousands of candles that are burning around the perimeter of the church as well and many also burning in the middle of the floor. The air is thick with smoke from candles and copal incense which is used throughout southern Mexico. The candles around the perimeter and near the altar seem to be maintained by the numerous attendants, while those in the middle of the floor are lit by individuals or groups who have come to pray for favors or cures. They melt the bottoms of the candles and stick them directly to the floor. Some groups have dozens of these burning. To do this they need to sweep aside the long pine needles which are spread over most of the floor area that is not being used for candles. There are no pews or seats anywhere in the church. The pine needles serve as the only cushion for people kneeling on the hard floor.
We read that the church is not mainly used for services but rather for supplicants in need of healings or help for problems. On the left side of the open area are a collection of large bells of various sizes on benches which are rung from that position rather than suspended. On the walls are statues of Catholic saints resting on tables or upright. Given the blending of Catholicism and Mayan paganism, they are as likely to represent Mayan deities as Catholic saints. The blue-green crosses displayed everywhere are in fact Mayan crosses, not Christian crosses. The Mayans used crosses in their symbolism long before the Christians arrived. Every Mayan town has a patron saint, and for Chamula the patron saint is Saint John the Baptist. I have to say the feeling inside the church is truly fascinating with this strange mixture of Catholicism and the Mayan religion. As a Catholic myself, I found myself thinking that the trappings of Catholicism were there but much more overshadowed by the Mayan practices.
Healings, which are a large activity of the church, are performed by curanderos (or more likely curanderas) who are healers, or you might say medicine men or women. They diagnose medical, or other afflictions and prescribe remedies such as candles of specific colors and sizes, specific feather or flower petals and sometimes the sacrifice of a live chicken. The remedies are brought to a healing ceremony. Mayan families kneel on the floor of the church, often accompanied by a medicine man, with sacrificial items, stick candles to the floor with melted wax, drink ceremonial cups of Posh, local sugar-cane-based liquor, with Coca Cola and chant prayers in Tzotzil. We were told when they burped they could leave as that meant whatever bad was in them had been expunged with the gas, and they were now cured and could leave. There is something insidious about Coca Cola, which has done so much negative in the area, depriving local villages of drinking water and contributing to the diabetes epidemic in Mexico, insinuating itself into Mayan religious rituals.
After visiting the church we did a walking tour of the town, which is generally unremarkable. There is a long street leading from the church which looks newly constructed and charmless, with lots of plain grey cinder block building along it. The beginnings of a market stall gauntlet is beginning to form, but is currently spotty with participants. On other streets we noticed signs of recent construction, also grey cinder block. Overall, the impression is of a town that is getting ready for a tourist expansion, but hasn’t quite completed the transformation, with many shops and building half completed.
Other than the amazing church, there really wasn’t much to recommend staying longer in the town. There were no restaurants that we saw other than a handful of comedors and many food stands in the market. But the church is definitely worth the trip to this town and we recommend it.