San Juan Chamula in Chiapas, Mexico, is somewhere I’ll never forget. My senses overpowered me and the tears flowed in the church of this Tzotzil Maya village near San Cristóbal de las Casas. Here’s why.
The view of the main square in San Juan Chamula was enough to get my senses reeling. A vibrant swirl of vegetables and unrefrigerated meat assailed my eyes and nostrils with a starburst of colours and aromas.
I made my way through the sellers and stepped inside San Juan Chamula’s church. Which, from this point on in my life, would be known as THAT church.
The scent of pine needles struck me. They looked to be an inch thick, all over the church floor. The effigies of the Catholic saints surrounded the dusky interior, but the offerings given to them made it clear the Mayan culture was visibly alive.
The shaman of San Juan Chamula
Small groups of people gathered on the floor in the dusky interior of the church, each led by a spiritual leader, a shaman. Villagers in San Juan Chamula seek out a shaman to help them carry out a ritual to expel illnesses. Candle burning aids the process – the physical and mental illnesses to be expelled are represented by different colour candles. White candles signify a general ritual.
The candlelight flickered amidst the pine needles, and caught movements in the glum light. Prayers were chanted, eggs broken, animal bones rubbed, and – occasionally – there was the muted sound of a chicken being sacrificed. Fizzy drinks consumed – it’s believed the burping induced by the gassy beverages help expel the illness. The holders of the Coca Cola and Pepsi franchises in San Juan Chamula are rich.
Emotion hit me like a wave. My brain couldn’t process what I was seeing – this fusing of beliefs displayed in one place. My eyes welled up. I was glad for the dark to hide the glistening of my tears.
The ceremony concluded with the consumption of the local firewater, known as posh. In some cases it’s how shaman are paid for their services, and my guide told me alcoholism is an issue in the village.
Hats off to vote
San Juan Chamula’s church and its sheer other-worldliness may have been the most emotional part of my visit, but it certainly didn’t represent the full story in what I learnt about the village.
I was told that men have the right to more than one wife and the right to vote – which they do by raising the hat that forms part of their traditional dress. Women don’t wear these hats. No hat = no vote.
Photography in San Juan Chamula
The San Juan Chamula village government has its own police force, which deals with minor crimes through community service punishments. Major crimes are handed over to the federal police.
Taking close-up photographs of villagers is classed as a minor crime, and visitors will have their photos forcibly deleted if they try and break the rule. My view? Not having photos has made the whole overwhelming experience live longer in my memory.
If you’re looking to push your culture comfort zone, I’d highly recommend a tour to San Juan Chamula and other villages near San Cristóbal de las Casas. I’m not one for pushing guided tours, but in this case going with a guide will help you interpret and get the most out of the – potentially emotional – experience.