We had a wonderful four weeks in the beautiful mountain community of San Cristobal de las Casas. My traditional “We’re Home” post covered the first half of our time there, so this post will cover the final two weeks (except our trip to Sumidero Canyon, which was its own post). It was a busy period for us with Chad’s work but we still found time to enjoy the area’s culture and cuisine.
We visited three museums in addition to the Jade Museum I mentioned in my prior post. The first was Na Bolom, a museum in the former home of archeologist Frans Bolom and his journalist/activist wife, Gertrude Duby. They worked with and studied the indigenous cultures in the area in the mid-20th century (starting in the early 1940s). Our visit started with a fascinating short film (in English!) about their relationship with the local people, the Lacandones, and Frans’ excavations at Moxviquil, which is where we went hiking on my birthday. We also learned about Frans on my birthday when we had fabulous cocktails at a bar named after him (Blom Bar). Na Bolom is a play on his last name as well as the indigenous words for house (Na) and jaguar (Bolom). The displays about the Lacandones and the couple were all very interesting. We love small museums like that where you can take it all in and also enjoy the unique architecture of the sitting, in this case a late 19th century neoclassical building that had originally been intended to be a seminary.
Our next museum was the Centro de Textiles del Mundo Maya, a free museum about the fabrics and textiles of the local people. It was also very interesting, and we learned some of the meanings behind the patterns embroidered on the beautiful blouses the women wear (often with the black “furry” skirts that I mentioned in my prior posts) and the methods they use for dying, weaving, and embroidering. Textile work is very important to the indigenous women and after visiting the museum, I couldn’t resist buying a small embroidered coin purse in the artisan’s market nearby. Later I went back and bought myself two embroidered shirts and coin purses for various friends. I try not to go too crazy with souvenirs but they really do beautiful work and it was impossible to resist, especially at the prices in the market.
Our final museum was the Museo del Ámbar, because this part of Chiapas is a hub for selling amber jewelry. It was another small, easy-to-digest museum and fun to see the various pieces of amber with ancient insects encased, and all the beautiful amber carvings. Again the highlight was a video, which showed an amber artist carving and finishing a small piece. It is quite a process. We visited the amber museum at the very end of our stay and another highlight was seeing the groups of dancers practicing for the upcoming Semana Santa (Holy Week) festivities in the plaza in front of the museum. Again this museum had interesting architecture to enjoy as well, because it was located in a former convent.
Day Trip to Chamula
Perhaps even more educational than all the museums was our short trip to San Juan Chamula. Although there is a collectivo bus that goes regularly from San Cris to Chamula, we decided to go the more comfortable route of taking a taxi. The second driver we flagged down was willing to take us for 130 pesos (about $7) and dropped us off right in the center of the town. It was a windy 25-minute drive up even higher in the mountains than San Cris.
Chamula is a Tzotzil city (the main indigenous group in the area, a type of Mayan). The primary attraction is the church, the Iglesia de San Juan Chamula. It is unlike any church you’ve ever seen with no pews or traditional church services. Instead, the local people use the church to perform rituals that combine Catholicism with Mayan traditions. I learned the word “syncretism” in my research about the practices, which essentially means merging two or more belief systems. But more on that later.
Before going into the church, we decided to walk through the town a bit, which is practically a small city with more than 40,000 residents, almost all of them Tzotzil. We walked up to the Saint John Cemetery, which I’d read about in my research where there are ruins of another church, Iglesia de San Sebastián. The cemetery was especially interesting because there was a family there holding some type of ritual that included four musicians playing mariachi-sounding music and a couple of cases of Pepsi (you’ll see the significance of that later). We were respectful and gave them a wide berth, but it was interesting to witness. I read online that the colors of the crosses in the cemetery represent the ages when people died – white for kids, blue for adults, and black for elderly. The graves are also decorated with pine needles, which are important in the local religion.
After the cemetery we walked back to the church. Tourists can enter and observe the practices being carried out by buying a ticket for 30 pesos at the kiosk to the left of the church. Photography in the church is strictly forbidden, but I’ll do my best to describe some of what we saw. The inside of the church is lined with images of various Catholic saints, though Wikipedia says these also represent Mayan gods. There are candles burning in front of all the saints along the walls, and they produce a fair bit of heat and smoke, as does the incense being burned. The center of the church is empty (no pews) and the floors are covered with pine needles. The worshippers clear a space on the floor to set up candles for their rituals and the gathered pine needles provide some cushion for sitting on the hard marble floor. For their rituals, they light candles and chant and pray and drink pox (the local liquor mentioned in my last post) and soda (mostly Coke and Pepsi) to induce burping, which is supposed to clear evil spirits. Some rituals also involve sacrificing a live chicken. We only saw one chicken and left before anything bad happened to it. It was a fascinating, intense, and unforgettable experience. If you want to learn more, it is easy to find more descriptive blogs on Google.
After our experience in the church we were ready to return to San Cris. That was a little more complicated than getting a taxi to bring us to Chamula because the San Cris taxis dropping others off were not allowed to pick up any fares in Chamula. You had to use their local drivers who just had regular cars. Once we learned that, we arranged with a guy near the church to drive us to the center of San Cris for 150 pesos, not much more than the cost of coming out (and less than what we were initially quoted by another driver). It feels wasteful that these trips have to be one-way but that’s often the way it is with taxi licensing. Though it is hard to say how “official” the drivers in Chamula are. However one gets to and from San Juan de Chamula, it is definitely worth visiting and seeing firsthand the religious rituals they practice.
Good Food and Daily Life
In addition to the cultural activities I mentioned, we caught one more movie at Kinoki (an Uruguayan detective movie) and continued to enjoy many meals out. San Cris has really great restaurants. We also made two more visits to Blom Bar for delicious cocktails and continued to enjoy our beautiful Airbnb. All and all, we enjoyed a great quality of life in San Cris and really learned a lot. It is not a place we plan to hurry back to but we are so glad we spent four weeks there.
Airbnb Review and Link – We loved our four-week stay in this apartment. It is so spacious and beautiful. With the large windows and all the wood and stone, it felt like an architect’s house. Very clean and comfortable all around. We appreciated that the caretaker, Lupe, cleaned once a week. Communication with Lupe was great before and during our stay. Excellent kitchen. Wifi worked well except in the main bedroom, we couldn’t get a signal.