Chamula, Chiapas | One Strange Little Town and Its Very Famous Church

by Stephanie Walsh on December 10, 2012 · 16 comments

in Mexico, North America, Travels

Chamula Church, Chiapas, Mexico

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.

Chamula, Chiapas, Mexico

Chamula market and the famous church in the background

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.

Chamula, Chiapas, Mexico

The indigenous town of Chamula, in Chiapas, Mexico

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.

Chamula, Chiapas, Mexico

The colourful church looks typical of many Latin American churches...from the outside.

Chamula, Chiapas, Mexico

Looking up, from directly under the door of the church

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.

Chamula, Chiapas, Mexico

Naturally I don't have any photos from inside the church but this is how the people dress.

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.

Chamula, Chiapas, Mexico

Andres and a chicken in the market. I guess this is where they buy them.

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!

Chamula, Chiapas, Mexico

A local man in traditional dress selling chiles in the market.

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!

Chamula, Chiapas, Mexico

Some of the mens on the prowl...plus the 'council' gathering in the background.

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.

Chamula, Chiapas, Mexico

The busy and colourful market in Chamula.

Chamula, Chiapas, Mexico

A local Tzotzil indigenous woman selling fruit in the market in Chamula.

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.

Chamula, Chiapas, Mexico

The wool they use to make their skirts in the market.

 

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.

 

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{ 16 comments… read them below or add one }

1 Jennifer December 10, 2012 at 12:05 pm

You know, I like quirky as much as the next gal, and I eat plenty of chicken…but I’d bet I still would have gotten nauseous watching those chickens get their necks broken. Probably says more about me as an in-denial carnivore than it does about this ritual.
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2 Stephanie Walsh December 11, 2012 at 7:14 pm

Ha, well it wasn’t easy to watch. The women doing it didn’t even bat an eyelid! Thanks for reading and commenting Jennifer!

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3 Lillie - @WorldLillie December 10, 2012 at 3:55 pm

What LOVELY photos! Thanks for this peek into the town!
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4 Stephanie Walsh December 11, 2012 at 7:14 pm

You’re very welcome Lillie, glad you liked it!

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5 D.J. - The World of Deej December 10, 2012 at 6:14 pm

It’s posts like this that reminds me how amazingly unique so much of this world really is:)
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6 Stephanie Walsh December 11, 2012 at 7:15 pm

It sure is…and there’s still so much to explore and discover! :)

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7 Reena @ Wanderplex December 12, 2012 at 11:15 am

Burping to release bad spirits from their bodies? Love it! It’s always so cool to see and hear about places with such unique beliefs and traditions!
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8 Stephanie Walsh December 17, 2012 at 3:02 pm

Thanks Reena, yeah I couldn’t quite believe it until I saw it for myself! It’s a place I will never forget! :)

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9 Terry at Overnight New York December 14, 2012 at 10:39 am

Love the juxtaposition of the tourist girls in hot pants watching the locals breaking the necks of the chickens and burping out evil spirits.
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10 Stephanie Walsh December 17, 2012 at 3:04 pm

Ha thanks Terry! That was probably the strangest part of all of it…it was like a live museum in there, yet essentially it was just people praying…one of the most common sights there is! I found the tourists even more fascinating at times! :P

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11 Cat of Sunshine and Siestas December 16, 2012 at 3:24 am

I’m like Jennifer. When I first met my boyfriend, he told me that his Spanish grandmother taught him how to snap the neck of a chicken when he was a wee bicho of three!! Made me look at him in a different way, but as I grow more adept at Spanish culture – particularly small town culture – I see he’s just one in the know.
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12 Stephanie Walsh December 17, 2012 at 3:06 pm

Oh god, well it’s not something you get used to very quickly, so I can understand why it took a while! So many things about my boyfriends Colombian culture still shock me too so you’re not alone! :)

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13 LeX @ LeX Paradise December 17, 2012 at 6:00 pm

Very unique culture and tradition! Cannot wait to experience myself! Thanks for the sharing! And Andrea with the Chicken… :D
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14 Stephanie Walsh January 21, 2013 at 11:54 am

Thanks Lex! I look forward to reading about your experience someday! :)

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15 Timothy December 21, 2012 at 4:23 am

What a very random and quirky story, I don’t think I could have watch the chicken neck breaking too long. The market looks so good… colourful!

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16 Stephanie Walsh January 21, 2013 at 12:06 pm

Thanks Timothy! The market was amazing, I wish I could have taken more photos but they really don’t like cameras in their face so I tried to be respectful. You should definitely try go if you ever get the chance…it’s a very memorable and special place. :)

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