The distances between our destinations were growing further and further apart and the need for longer bus travel was becoming more imminent, the further east we travelled in the country. Our next destination was San Cristobal de las Casas and was unfortunately a solid eleven hour bus ride away from Oaxaca, up into the Chiapas and Central Highlands region. It was also our first experience braving an overnight bus ride in Mexico (and for me, ever!), but thanks to ADO it was nowhere near as horrible as we were imagining!
ADO runs either their local bus, second class Oriente services overnight or the GL or Platino first class services and as we weren’t too eager to catch our first ever second class bus (that experience was yet to come in the trip) as an overnight trip, we decided to splurge a little and book onto the ADO GL service. Now don’t get me wrong, the regular ADO buses are a first class option in their own right – but man, was this a whole other level of service! As we were handing over our tickets to the driver, we were pleasantly surprised to find that we had a choice for a drink to take with us, choosing between either a soft-drink, water or juice. Making our way to our seats midway down the bus, we also were presented with headphones on our seat to watch the bus movie with – our first Mexican bus that didn’t feature the main movie blaring in your ears, as everyone around you watched on eagerly and you tried to take a nap. The male and female toilets were segregated and quite spacious for bus transport, and we were pleasantly surprised to find that the leg room was much greater than even airplane economy travel and the seats reclined nearly entirely horizontally. The temperature of the bus was quite cold, but we had done our online research and rugged up appropriately, the lights were dimmed and the mood to sleep was infectious! At least, it was for me – I suffer from motion sickness at the best of times, and had been informed that it was a terribly windy and bumpy drive, complete with hairpin curves on the edge of cliffs and too many bends to count – so I had decided to take my very strong anti-nausea tablets that subsequently also make me very drowsy. Within an hour of driving, I was quite asleep and Blake unfortunately was probably incredibly bored and cannot sleep on transport no matter how hard he tries, so stayed up playing Pokémon for a few hours and witnessing firsthand the ridiculous curves and bumps of the road (but thankfully, no sickness for him!).
0700am arrived, we had made it safe and sound and comfortably to San Cristobal de las Casas, and I’m sure at this point Blake had been awake for nearly twenty four full hours and I had probably slept ten out of eleven hours on the bus. But he is an incredible travel buddy and never one to let no sleep stop him, so we decided to trek on leg to find our hostel and plan our day of exploring ahead of us. Booking.com has been such an incredible resource for us in our travels thus far, as it features an extremely diverse range of levels of accommodation, across a variety of different price points and many reliable reviews and ratings so we can know exactly what we are booking before we arrive and this experience was no different. There was only one small point that let us down – the hostel address was entered as number 13 on the website – and after about twenty-five minutes of walking up and down the same street, asking locals in broken Spanglish for directions, we finally wandered far enough down and realised that it was not quite house number 13, rather it was 31 and a fair few blocks down from where we originally looked! Our hostel was more a small budget homestay named Casa Monad and was run by a small Mayan lady, who wore traditional colourful dress and spoke absolutely no English and had a tendency to lock each and every single window, door or fire escape promptly around 0930pm and offering no way to get out or escape the establishment, which we found incredibly strange – however she did cook mean pancakes and omelettes for breakfast!
There was one must-do/must-see attraction we had planned for San Cristobal, and that was to undertake Cesar’s tour to San Juan Chamula and Zinacantan, both two local regional towns that host Indigenous populations and still live an incredibly traditional lives. If you research small group tours to these two towns online, you will see Cesar and Raul’s names appear everywhere besides glowing reviews and this was definitely something we wanted to experience during our stay. As we had arrived earlier than expected and wanting to seize the day as much as possible, we headed to the main square to see if we could find this famous Cesar and Raul tour and possibly join onto today’s tour. The only instructions given online were to head to the main cathedral in town and you will see Cesar outside and that the tour left at 0900am sharp. Given that we had no idea what this Cesar character even looked like, we thought this would be an almost impossible task – however, we must stand out in a crowd of Mexican’s as incredibly enough, he found us! We were initially going to say to him that we weren’t interested in whatever he was selling, however he pointed to his flyer, and we saw the names on the top and couldn’t believe this was exactly what we were looking for. As they receive such incredible reviews online, we were expecting a busy crowd and lots of people on the tour – however as we left for the small towns, it was only a tiny group of five providing a very personal experience.
We arrived by minibus only thirty minutes down the road, into a town named San Juan Chamula that felt like it was entire worlds apart. It was like what you could only imagine stepping back into time in Mexico was like – a small cobblestone, tiny village with people wearing their Indigenous traditional dress and colours filled your sight everywhere you turned. These villages are only accessible on a tour, as the Chamulan populations want to preserve their culture and prefer not to allow outsiders to live in the village, however they were incredibly friendly and very eager to share with you their ways of life. We arrived at a viewpoint, overlooking their cemetery and immediately noticed that each headstone bore a cross, some featuring a bold bright colour. The colours, we were told, were representative of the age of the person at the time of their death; it was confronting to see just how many were blue, indicating that it was a child or baby who had passed away.
Upon arriving into the village, it was probably the first destination within Mexico where we blended into the background and weren’t stared at with watching eyes, wondering what the hell we were doing so noticeably far from home – interesting as it was the first place where we most obviously did NOT fit in! Kids approached us in the streets by the half dozens, wanting to sell handmade goods and tiny souvenirs, smiles stretching wide upon their faces as they’ve probably worked out the cuter and friendlier they appear, the more popular they are with Western tourists. Women adorned the traditional dress of fluffy furry skirts and vests all in black with colourful blouses beneath, whilst the men were clad in all white, white trousers and white button up shirts with a large cowboy hat placed upon their heads – an interesting yin and yang, the two genders wearing opposing colours. The prestigious leaders of the town, volunteer spiritual leaders and their elected mayor have to wear immense numbers of colourful ribbons and large headdresses, similar to those of American Indians, yet more colourful and made of textiles – whilst their wives wear their own symbols of power, large colourful necklaces that must weigh over a kilo each as they are so well decorated and huge!
It soon became clear that this community, who was so interested in self-preservation and the preservation of the Indigenous cultures and way of life, were also such a tight-knit family oriented community. They share the belief that if one member of the community prospers, the entire community shall prosper and were very honest peoples. There was only one tiny prison cell in Chamula – rather than an entire prison block, and when we visited it was currently empty. The prison cell faces outwards on the side of a main building in the town, putting the criminal entirely on display – but also free to receive drinks and food from caring family members or friends during their imprisonment. They believe that putting the criminal on display does the job, as shame and dishonour amongst their fellow community members is more effective than actual punishment, and prevents reoffenders in the Chamula community. Don’t let this kind nature fool you though – just last year, the citizens of Chamula had learned that their current mayor was being dishonest and corrupt, and was embezzling the towns money for his own personal gain, so they took matters into their own hands, called a town meeting and ‘lynched’ him – which we later learned meant they had shot him in the head. Cesar went on to tell us that they have no problems lynching citizens that act way out of hand and commit serious offences, to which our stomachs turned a little and we thought maybe they weren’t as peaceful as we had originally assumed – he did also reassure us that there would be less lynching going forward as the people were happy and loved the new mayor, and the arrival of the Mexican state police who had set up camp within the town had significantly quietened any major activity.
The most interesting part for us in this quirky little Indigenous town was the church. The church looks like a Catholic church from the outside, however when the Spanish settled and moved priests in, the Indigenous Chamulan citizens didn’t want to practice Roman Catholic conventions and wanted to preserve their own religious practices, so overthrew the church and kicked all the priests out of the church and even further out of the community! The church to this day practices a mixture of Catholic and Indigenous religion and was the most incredible church we entered on our trip thus far. No pictures were allowed to be taken within this church, so let us break it down for you. There are no pews for seats, rather pine needles scattered everywhere on the floor. Mini candle altars are placed throughout the church, on the floor and on tables – each candle representing a different point of the cross, corresponding to a primary colour – green, black, red, white and yellow. Incense of wood sap is burning and looking around the church, there is a slight haze forming in front of our eyes, obscuring a vision if we try to look further than a few metres in front. Statues of the Saints line the walls in glass boxes, like a few churches we have attended – however these Saints are slightly different to the traditional ones we have seen, as they are adorned in beautiful coloured ribbons draped around their bodies and clothes and feature glass mirrors over their chests, to reflect their spirits and allow you to see yourself within their spirit too. It was quite clear that this is no regular Catholic church and they’re not practicing traditional religion within these walls.
Shamans are perched on the floor, next to these candle altars, providing advice and healing services to the church attendees and this is when our visit became truly spectacular. We were able to observe a little old lady Shaman, with wrinkles a plenty on her face and long silvery hair trailing down her spine, tied back in a ponytail maybe to avoid a potential fire hazard and in her hands was a black chicken, she was holding rather straight and flat like a board, stretched out and by the neck too. This chicken would be waved in clockwise circles above the flames of the candles and then precariously rubbed across a small child’s head, neck and face and then repeated over and over again. The chicken was screaming, squawking in fear and probably pain from the heat of the flames and the lady was praying and chanting in native tongues during the procession. The child’s family looked on, eyes wide observing this shaman’s every move – this was clearly very important to them and imperative for this medicine to work.
Then the unexpected happened. The shaman waved the chicken one last time over the candles and swiftly snapped its neck, leaving its head to hang limp and the medicinal ritual complete. It was hard not to break out into a gasp or a look of horror, we had just witnessed a LIVE chicken sacrifice, but for respectful purposes we kept our cool and waited to discuss our reactions outside of the community. We later learned that this was a common practice for babies or children whom the parents believe have been given the ‘evil eye’ from westerners or foreigners looking upon their babies and passing on the curse – I have honestly never looked at Indigenous or local children the same way ever again, as I am now afraid that they will have to endure this shaman ritual all from my gaze!
The tour then continued to a spiritual leader’s house and it was intriguing to visit – but not quite chicken sacrificing intriguing! His house had an altar and to the Saint of his choice – where he would store the Saint’s statue and regularly burn incense and candles to keep the Saints happy. The candles were white, representing tortillas or food for the Saints and the altar featured an immense amount of greenery, leaves and branches of trees draped all amongst a large wooden frame in his house. More pine needles scattered the floor and we couldn’t help but ask, surely weren’t these a fire hazard with all the candles burning? Funnily enough, Cesar answered our concerns by saying it was the spiritual leader’s job to change all the fauna over regularly as the fresh plants don’t burn, and the costs of this and also the candles and the incense constantly burning were a responsibility of the spiritual leader. It was also the spiritual leaders responsibility to buy alcohol – this type of alcohol was called ‘pox’ and is a traditional drink of this community – upon tasting, Blake informed me it tasted of a combination of both tequila and turps! This was a huge financial burden and we couldn’t really understand what the reasoning behind this role was, however Cesar explained to us that this was not for personal gain and more a sense of pride within the community, and commonly the man who was undertaking the role of spiritual leader had had a family member before him, maybe a father or grandfather, also complete a year in the role. These people had so much to offer for the sake of their community, for very little personal gain and to see some individuals put the wellbeing and happiness of an entire community before their very own needs was just incredible to witness.
Our trip rounded out in the small neighbouring Indigenous village of Zinacantan – which was similar to Chamula, but a lot more understated, less colourful and busy and much more secretive and quiet. The church was nowhere near as bizarre, rather more traditional in its ways and still aligned to the Vatican, yet the Jesus statues were all adorned in rainbow ribbons and were all much more colourful – different to the pain and anguish depicted on the rather graphic statues we had been exposed to in the other traditional churches in Mexico. We visited a small weaving family and watched their practices of weaving traditional clothing, blankets and items such as bags and wallets available for sale. The intricacy of their craft was insane and to learn that these items can take months upon months for completion was just beyond comprehension – I don’t think either Blake or myself have the attention spans or patience for such a project! The girls in this family learned to weave as a rite of passage and when they turn twelve they begin the art, following in the footsteps of their family members before them.
Our day had been totally immersed in foreign cultures, Indigenous history and crazy rituals and returning back to the heart of San Cristobal, we felt a new found appreciation for the Indigenous population and how desperately they were trying to preserve their way of life, traditions and customs from getting lost within the busy hustle of modern day life and technology. We cannot recommend Cesar and Raul’s tours any more – they were culturally sensitive and incredibly knowledgeable, something that is entirely important when visiting Indigenous populations that face extinction due to pressures from Western or outside cultures and religions. Having grown up in the region, Cesar has lived to see these people thrive and build relationships with people within San Juan Chamula and his first hand knowledge would be incredibly hard to beat.
We decided to head to lunch and treat ourselves to some hamburgers (there’s only so many tacos you can eat before you start to go a little loco…) with our new friends from the tour, a Canadian and an Australian – before parting ways and wishing them all the best on their trips! The people you meet on the road and the memories you share together, albeit sometimes too short, really do make your trip something special – uniting people from all walks of life, all ages, all nationalities and all different interests and we only wish we had more time with each of the friends we have made along the way. Our next day was a short wander through the rest of San Cristobal and the sites on offer, mostly churches and Zocalo’s, a recurring theme we were beginning to notice throughout Mexico, before spending a day catching up on life admin and planning the rest of our route through the country, to ensure we could make the most of our time left. We went out and had some tacos, guacamole and enchiladas for dinner from a local place ‘El Tacoleto’ and before we knew it, our time in San Cristobal had come to an end. We really enjoyed this beautiful little cultural hub of a town, hidden within one of the most notorious states in the country, but we were headed onwards towards the jungle ruins of Palenque and our next destination in Mexico.