San Juan Chamula, Chiapas, is a very famous Tzotzil indigenous town just 30 minutes or so outside of San Cristobal de Las Casas in the highlands of southern Mexico. Visitors come here on a daily basis from San Cristobal for one main reason…to witness the otherworldly and fascinating goings-on that occur in the town Church.
You may have seen many churches in Latin America before, and realized that they are all quite similar, so we were fascinated as to why so many other travellers we met, were raving about a tiny little church, in a tiny little village, hundreds of miles away from where we were.
Well, now we are the ones who tell everyone about it. It really was like nothing we had ever seen before and, if you can believe it, we spent almost 5 hours in this church, just watching and quietly observing the strange customs being performed around us.
What Actually Happens In The Church in Chamula?
The church is small and colourfully decorated on the outside, typical of many churches in the area and in Mexico. We walked up to the entrance and, yes, we had to pay an entrance fee. Luckily, we had heard previously about how severely strict they are about not taking photos inside the church, so I had already stored my camera away, scared to feel the wrath of the local community come down on me.
When we entered, I was still blown away by what we saw inside, despite all the detailed accounts I’d already heard from other travellers. There was no light in the church, except for five powerful beams of sunlight bursting through the side windows and literally hundreds, if not thousands, of flickering candles spread across the floor, on walls, tables and on the many altars. I felt myself gasp and I desperately wanted to photograph how beautiful it looked and how stunning the light was. I resisted, as I learned later, was a good idea.
The church was full of light smoke, endlessly drifting through the beams of sunlight above. There were no seats and everyone was either kneeling or sitting on the ground, which was covered in pine needles. There were countless altars and shrines around the perimeter of the church and lots of framed paintings of unrecognizable saints. Local indigenous families, in traditional dress, were in large groups about the floor, constructing personal altars out of candles.
Then Things Started To Get Very Strange…
The next few things we witnessed is why people usually cannot believe us when we tell them about the Church.
Families entered the building with live chickens in plastic bags. Others, who were already praying, would hold their chicken by the legs and move his head over the flames from the candles, or alternatively break its’ neck with their bare hands. For me, it was difficult to watch. Next, they would all drink and share a bottle of alcoholic drink called pox, as well as Coca-Cola, which is apparently a big part of their everyday religious activities. They even gave some to young babies. It also explains why 80% of the town was drunk by noon.
It is said that they believe, by drinking Coca-Cola, they are forcing themselves to burp (a lot!) and in turn, release bad spirits from their bodies. Some families would drink some pox and then spew it out onto the candles in front of them. Maybe they liked the effect of the flames spitting and intensifying?
Families with bags of snacks, pox and chickens continued to enter the church regularly and set up their altars on the floor. They would spend hours praying in their local language, which sounded nothing like Spanish, rocking back and forth and, often, socializing and laughing loudly with other church-goers as the pox clearly started to kick in.
Probably the strangest part of all of this, was the fact that there were boatloads of tourists just standing around watching the local people pray. Girls in hot pants and tall guys in vests would walk awkwardly between the families sitting on the floor to get a better view of the religious antics. At one point there was a circle of people standing around one family as they sacrificed their chicken. I couldn’t help but wonder what the locals must thing of our strange traditions, our inappropriate dress and our fascination to travel all the way here, just to watch them go about their daily lives.
Near the end, we finally got to witness what happens when you attempt to take a photo inside this church. I was so relieved that I had not tried to take one now! A middle aged man and his wife entered the church, obviously without reading the ticket or listening to the warnings from the people outside. Immediately, he did what I was so tempted to do, when I first entered the church. He pulled out his iPad and held it up in front of his face to take a photo…
Immediately, like a bodyguards for the President, the church ‘security’ pounced on him. They shouted at him, humiliated him, told their friends about him, pointed at him and even confiscated his iPad in an attempt to delete the photo he had taken. I felt so sorry for the man. He was just uninformed and they made him feel so uncomfortable, as they stalked him around the church, hissing at him for the rest of his visit. Needless to say, he and his wife left quickly.
After the photo-seizing antics were over, we got talking to one of the now-drunk church guards and he told us that they use the entrance fee to buy new pine needles for the floor, every week. Well, ok then.
The Chamula Market and Beyond
The rest of Chamula is no less of a fascinating place, than the Church. The market is full of interesting and beautiful local crafts, fruits, vegetables, nuts, spices, shoes and live chickens (that’s probably where they get them!). Almost the entire town is dressed in their traditional clothes. The women weave colorful ribbons through their long, thick, black hair and wear long, furry, black skirts, made from sheep wool, with colorful silk shirts. The men walk around with fluffy, white ponchos, also made from sheep wool. They also carry a belt with a machete, so don’t mess with them!
Then there is the ‘council’…a whole other level of Chamula craziness. To us, Chamula was clearly a self-governing town, which has taken the law into its own hands. We frequently saw young men, being marched up to the ‘council’ by mini armies of white poncho-wearing men. At the council, these men would stand around the ‘accused’, as they looked up innocently from their ‘chair of doom’. It was quite the sight to behold!
Later, to confirm our suspicions of their self-governing ways, we walked up closer to the ‘council’ and got talking to a local member. He told us they were ‘solving a dispute’. Yep, looks like the indigenous people of Chamula don’t leave it up to their official government to solve their issues. And I‘m not surprised, especially after learning about the Zapatista Revolution in Chiapas, during the 1990’s. The indigenous people of Chiapas have been through a lot and are very strong people, but they do not have any faith in their discriminating and corrupt Mexican Government.
It’s great to see how the people of Chamula, Chiapas, have kept their customs alive and still dress in their traditional clothes. I would advise anyone in the Chiapas area to visit this town. While the local people are not so friendly to foreign visitors, it is still a really fascinating place and even more interesting when you learn about the troublesome history of the state of Chiapas.
What do you think of Chamula and its unique culture? Have you ever been there? What was your experience like?
Let us know your thoughts in the comments below.