Huh? Explore Chiapas? Where is that? Oh ok, in Mexico. Interesting…
When you think of a holiday in Mexico, Cancun probably comes to mind. I won’t argue, Yucatan peninsula, with its well-known Cancun and Chichen Itza, it’s beautiful and worth visiting. I will write about them in a different post though.
Where is this Chiapas?
Chiapas is a region (state) in southern Mexico, at the border with Guatemala. The capital city is Tuxtla Gutierrez, where it also has a small airport. I recommend flying there, about 1,5h from Cancun because by land it can be quite bumpy and curvy.
Chiapas is the state with the largest indigenous population in Mexico. That’s right, a great bunch of the real Maya descendants live there, still keeping alive the languages and traditions of the place. For me, that was reason enough to visit. But you can add in the beautiful scenery, with mountains, waterfalls, and rainforest. And did I mention locally made chocolate and coffee?
San Cristobal de las Casas
One of the best cities to stay in Chiapas is San Cristobal de las Casas. A mountain town at 2200m elevation, with a cosy and relaxed vibe. My friend says that it looks like you are in the clouds! And indeed, the clouds surrounding the town can be best admired from the Central Park (Parque Central).
The handcrafts markets are just a burst of colours and you don’t know where to look first. There are so many beautiful objects, textiles, jewellery and more. Sometimes you spot the owners working on a new piece, which makes it a very authentic experience.
But apart from the markets, there are lots of locals selling merchandise on the streets, restaurants, and bars. You might be enjoying your margarita at a terrace, but you soon realize someone pokes you. You turn around, and a little girl is trying to sell you handmade dolls. After some time, while preparing to sip from your margarita again, a woman appears in front of you, flashing a blouse or a scarf.
Tip: If you don’t want to buy anything and locals start to be a bit pushy, take out your phone and pretend you try to take a photo of them. Locals will turn around and leave, as they hate photos of them being taken. This is also applicable when you really want to take a photo of them, be sure to ask for permission beforehand.
There are a few museums to check in San Cristobal de las Casas, but don’t expect them to be like the European ones. They are usually very small, 2-3 rooms at max, with short descriptions. The entrance fee is very cheap, around £1. At the end, they have a store with local products. I went to museums of cocoa, jade and Maya medicine. I liked Jade’s museum best, which made more sense after visiting Palenque.
Walking around can turn out to be a very interesting experience. In the very central area, you walk by (or stop by) locals selling textiles, boiled corn with cheese and chilly, macadamia nuts or fried insects on the streets.
After you passed the handcraft markets, you can check the vegetable market as well. Everything is very cheap and with a strong flavour. I wish I had those tasty vegetables and fruits at home.
If you’ve been there a few days, you are already used to the fireworks-like sounds at any time of the night and day. Don’t need to look around, you won’t see any actual fireworks. From what I’ve heard, it’s a local tradition in Chiapas and Guatemala. There is not a special occasion or time to do it, just whenever one feels like. Yes, I didn’t get it either.
And speaking of things that I don’t get, while walking around, I came across a store with witchcraft stuff. A large store, among other “regular” ones, advertised properly, can spot it from afar. Couldn’t help it, my friend and I entered. We started browsing, hardly keeping it serious and avoiding eye contact. We saw nicely designed drinks and perfumes for bringing good luck in personal life, money, and business. Some for excluding bad people from your life.
I started to read one of the labels, saying you have to drink the content of the little bottle while praying to Jesus/Virgin (?), followed by a specific prayer. It had a “golden stamp”, to show its originality. My friend was (sarcastically) impressed by the stamp, and we soon burst in laughs so hard that we had to leave the store.
I don’t even know where to put this. This is one of the things I like when travelling to distant places. Even a regular walk can lead to some unexpected experience, leaving me to wonder “Now what was that about?”
San Juan Chamula and Zinacantan
Every day at 9 am, in front of the big cross in Central Park, there is a guided tour going to San Juan Chamula and Zinacantan.
San Juan Chamula
San Juan Chamula is a very traditional town, and its people are known to be stubborn. The community is the most important to them, those who do not wish to follow, have to leave the town. There is no mercy for criminals and rapists, they are judged by the community and burnt down if found guilty. Bad politicians are thrown rocks at.
No wonder that the town’s jail has only 2 rooms, and they are usually empty. For minor incidents, locals are locked in for 1-2 days, and they are not fed or looked after by the authorities. Unsurprisingly, the delinquency is very low there and the town is considered one of the safest.
Otherwise, the people live in harmony and respect with nature and their surroundings. They keep some of the Maya traditions and rituals though. This involves sacrificing animals in certain occasions or drinking potions prepared by the Shamans. The Spiritual leaders (not the same as Shamans) take turns and pay all Church’s expenses from their own pockets. Some save and prepare half of their lives for this highly regarded duty.
Zinacantan is a traditional town as well, but slightly more open than San Juan Chamula. You can notice the differences first in their traditions and church. They incorporated more Christian motives while integrating them with their own.
Also, their conflicts are settled by mediators. The mediators are the town’s most patient and intelligent people, who dedicate to find solutions to all kinds of issues locals might face.
Both towns’ locals speak Tzotzil language (Mayan family). They understand each other and they can marry or do commerce together. They are differenced by their clothes.
Palenque and the waterfalls
One of the most common trips take is to Blue Waterfalls (Cascadas de Agua Azul), Misol Ha Waterfall and Palenque, the Mayan city. The places are very beautiful and definitely worth visiting, but the road is such a pain. Imagine 4h (each way) of curvy and bumpy roads. Don’t plan anything for the day after.
We woke up early and came outside at 4 am. The minivan came around at 4:40 am. We like to joke that it was 4 am, but Mexican time. Apart from the occasional jokes, I believe public transport was reliable and on time most of the cases. And I was impressed actually, as I didn’t have any expectations.
The Blue Waterfalls were not so blue because it was the rainy season. But still nice to see and stretch my legs after the long ride. Misol Ha is very impressive, it’s huge. You can walk behind it, to a cave, but I couldn’t see it because it was flooded (the rainy season again).
The last and the best stop was to Palenque. I found it much more impressive than Chichen Itza. Palenque was one of the largest Mayan cities in the region and unfortunately, the greatest part of it is still covered by the rainforest. Here I learned about the Red Queen and the symbolism around Pakal’s tomb. I always find it fascinating to learn about the past civilizations and imagine what was like during their time.
Day trip to Oventic
Long story about how I got to find out about the Zapatistas, the thing is I got there. The Zapatistas define themselves (or at least Wikipedia does *clearing throat*) as a left-wing revolutionary political and militant group based in Chiapas. Sounds a bit scary? Waaait for it.
I was curious to be in a place run by revolutionaries, who fight for the disadvantaged and speak loud about some of the modern ideas we think can bring us a better future. Their flag, the comparison with Che Guevara, in a Spanish speaking town, up in the high mountains. It only fuelled my excitement, as I was looking forward to the trip.
After more curves and bumps, as I was already used to, we entered a thick fog, lost phone signal and soon I read the entry sign to Oventic, Zapatista’s capital.
We gave them our passports, helped them with localizing and writing down “Romania”, answered a few questions and we got in. Two local ladies followed us around. They barely spoke Spanish, so communication was a bit difficult. But still, I couldn’t find any resemblance between them and a revolutionary attitude.
So apart from a few beautiful graffiti which were obviously done by foreigners (judging by the messages), there was nothing there. The locals seemed absent and unaware of what this movement is about. If I were to take the barrier at the entrance and the (loose) hoods from their faces, it was just a regular village.
I tried not to go into too many details, but for me was quite disappointing. What media and international influence can do from and to some remote (unaware) local communities is both impressive and disturbing. And yet again, I left the place wondering “Now what was that about?”