San Cristobal turned out to be just the respite from the heat and humidity of the coast that we craved. Nestled in a valley at 6000 feet and surrounded by pine-covered mountains, it has long been a bastion of Mayan culture ever since the Spanish first came here in about 1542.  In fact the city was taken over and occupied by the Zapatista rebels from the surrounding mountainous areas in 1994, who were fighting for more attention from the government and more power for the rural indigenous poor.  They held it until finally driven out by the Mexican Army later that year.

The campground we have been staying in is quiet, on the very fringe of town, and against a mountainside that is nothing but pine forest for as far above as one can see. When we make the twenty-minute walk into the heart of town, we first travel by farmland filled with cauliflower and corn and any number of horses grazing in the open grassy fields.

We were in San Cristobal in 1989 for a week at Christmas and truly loved it.  The town was much smaller then without the tremendous development it has undergone in the last twenty years or so.  We have no idea what the population was then, but it certainly was no more than 50,000 people.  Like so much of the world, particularly in those countries we call ‘developing,’ this period has seen an enormous influx of the rural population into urban areas.  Today San Cristobal is a city of 160,000 people spread over a much larger portion of the valley and with many of the modern conveniences and enterprises one associates with a city of this size.

This has, as well, brought a level of ‘western’ sophistication that wasn’t here in 1989.  There are really excellent restaurants and artisan shops in the center of town, and taxis crowd the streets.  According to a taxi driver we talked with, many of the more elegant shops and restaurants and the nicer homes in the center of the city, are now owned by foreigners, many of them Europeans.

Like most Mexican towns, the center is a plaza dominated by a cathedral, but here there are really two interconnected plazas on two sides of the cathedral that are the focus of the city.

The front of the Cathedral of San Cristobal

The front of the Cathedral of San Cristobal

 

The plaza in front of the Cathedral

The plaza in front of the Cathedral

 

Balloon Sellers on the Main Plaza beside the Cathedral

Balloon Sellers on the Main Plaza beside the Cathedral

In addition, the center is devoted to pedestrians with many of the streets shut off to car traffic.

Guadalupe Street, closed to cars

Guadalupe Street, closed to cars

 

Woman selling on the street with smiling child

Woman selling on the street with smiling child

 

Contents of a candy cart on Guadalupe Street

Contents of a candy cart on Guadalupe Street

There is also a huge central market or ‘Mercado’ near a couple of the oldest churches in town where almost everything imaginable short of automobiles and houses is sold.

Just a few of the varieties of beans sold in the Mercado

Just a few of the varieties of beans sold in the Mercado

 

Fishmongers at work in the Mercado

Fishmongers at work in the Mercado

 

Woman selling handicrafts just outside the Mercado

Woman selling handicrafts just outside the Mercado

Nearby as well is the home of a local hero of the Revolution, General Utrilla, now a wonderfully peaceful and quiet courtyard restaurant surrounded by the rooms that made up his house.

The courtyard restaurant in General Utrilla's home

The courtyard restaurant in General Utrilla’s home

But what is most striking about San Cristobal and what draws so many tourists here is the continuing presence of the indigenous people, specifically those of Mayan descent.  They are easily identifiable by their slight stature (rarely are the men more than five feet tall) and in the case of the women by their clothing, each specific to a particular village. Whereas most of Mexico is dominated by ‘mestizos,’ people of mixed Spanish and native descent, here in Chiapas many of the citizens are pure Mayan and are absolutely dedicated to preserving their traditional cultural values and practices.

This is particularly evident in the village of Chamula, perhaps twelve miles outside of San Cristobal into the surrounding mountains.  It would be difficult to find a village with as strong a traditional Mayan culture outside the jungle itself and still in contact with the modern world.  Here governance is based on village spiritual leaders chosen annually, the town has its own legal and judicial systems totally independent of the rest of Mexico, and spiritual celebrations dominate life. And these practices are a long way from the traditional Catholicism one sees in most of Mexico.

Dominating all of life here is the central and only church, beautiful with glazed tiles surrounding its entrance and blazingly white in the sunlight of the plaza it fronts.

The entrance to the church in Chamula

The entrance to the church in Chamula

But what points so strongly to the preservation of traditional Mayan ‘pagan’ practices are the church’s interior and the activities taking place there.  No Catholic priest enters this church but for a monthly baptism ritual, no crucifix dominates the altar, no pews cover the floor. The only clear indication that this is a Christian church are statues of the saints in glass cases lining the walls.  What does dominate are the scent of incense blanketing the air and thousands of burning candles–on tables against the outer walls, on platforms scattered across the entire space, and most striking of all, all over the pine needle covered tile floor.

Everywhere are shamans, some of them women, on their knees sprinkling powders, performing ceremonies, and praying over sets of candles.  According to our local guide, some are asking favors of the gods for upcoming events, some are using candles of various colors to affect the lives of others for whom they are interceding, some are simply honoring those same gods with prayer.  And there is sacrifice as well.  We saw chickens held closely under the arms of shamans or bound by their feet beside the candles, and each will be sacrificed inside the church in a right of purification for the soul of an individual who is under duress.  These are not Roman Catholic rites but religious practices that go back hundreds of years and predate the arrival of the Spanish in the early 16th century.  We would love to share photographs with you, but taking pictures was very strictly forbidden.

Outside things appear to be closer to what one expects in a Mexican village, with the woman in the clothing of Chamula sharing the shade at midday,

Chamula women in the shade

Chamula women in the shade

or the men gathered and talking in the plaza close to the church,

Men gathered in the plaza in front of the church in Chamula.

Men gathered in the plaza in front of the church in Chamula.

or an older woman spinning wool into yarn on a street corner.

Local Chamula woman spinning wool into yarn

Local Chamula woman spinning wool into yarn

We also visited another village, Zincantan, in an adjacent valley to Chamula’s, where life is somewhat different.  Traditional Mayan religious practices don’t dominate and there is a priest in residence who conducts Mass every day, but even the decor of the church interior is not quite what one is used to.

The interior of the Zincantan church

The interior of the Zincantan church

 

Here as well the woman dress in unique and colorful clothing unique to Zincantan,

 

Zincantan woman and child in village dress

Zincantan woman and child in village dress

which is hand embroidered at home, occasionally under the watchful eye of an indulgent husband.

Zincantan woman embroidering

Zincantan woman embroidering

But like so much of Mexico, one can stroll a street and encounter scenes which just cry out as elegant, artful, and somehow uniquely Mexican for their color.

After what will be two full weeks here enjoying San Cristobal and its surroundings and working with our friends Steven and Diana on upgrading our blog, we are about to set off again.  This time we will head into the jungle to visit ruins at Palenque, Bonapak, now accessible by car, and Yaxchilan, only accessible by primitive riverboat. We also would like to see the Scarlett Macaw, still to be seen in certain jungle locations in the Lacandon Preserved Areas.  Then it is on to Guatemala and new adventures.