The villages of Zinacantan and San Juan Chamula

  • Marion Bunnik
  • 07 Feb 20

Words can not begin to describe the joy I get from travelling to Mexico and the colourful and individual villages that can be found south-east of San Cristobal de las Casas.

Having just returned from escorting a group on our Mexico and Cuba tour the memories of my time there are still fresh.

San Cristobal de las Casas, Mexico

What an amazing Indian town with approx 500,000 inhabitants. It is such a real gem! The Plaza Mayor is where most people gather and features a large Cathedral. We settled in at our hotel and then walked through the pedestrian street with its many shops, cafes and little restaurants to the market in front of yet another impressive church. This church, however, is particularly special with its intricately carved facade on the main entrance. It is worth a visit inside as well. In the market in front of the church entrance there are many sellers keen to at least make one sale to the tourists looking for souvenirs. Believe me, even the people not intending to buy anything will find a souvenir which will suit one of their friends or family in Mexico.

Not far from the Church is the fruit and vegetable market with an abundant selection of fresh fruit and veggies. One of the sellers offered me one of his mandarins. The taste was so beautiful and rich, it must have been sun ripened. We decided to have dinner in one of the local restaurants in the street behind the Cathedral on the Plaza Mayor, not far from our hotel. It was local food and really tasty. Most of us were hanging out for a steak which were well prepared. The owner made a special sangria style drink for us with fruit, wine and spirits. This was nice and rather potent and the likely cause of many giggles and laughs. It was a great night and we all fell in love with San Cristobal!

The Indian Villages of Zinacantan and San Juan Chamula, Mexico

Our first visit the next morning was to the village of Zinacantan. How lucky were we that today was the day that the Bishop was visiting the village?! All the local people in their typical dress were parading to the church for the Mass the Bishop would perform.

The Bishop walked into the church taking photos on his mobile phone which was a really funny sight. The church was packed and beautifully decorated with many flowers, it looked great. The local people in this village wear their costumes in purple with ponchos and beautiful embroidery patterns. Even the small kids wear these. We took some photos and were asked for some money, which is fine and normal in most places in Mexico – a few coins are well accepted.

The kids would follow us everywhere asking us to buy their home-made souvenirs like bracelets, small bags, chains for glasses, etc. We ended up buying them some food in the small shop, out of nowhere other kids appeared, happy with the small snacks we bought them. We visited one of the local houses. Here, we were shown how tortillas are made. It all looked so easy and we all got to sample these tortillas with fillings as the locals would eat them, they were delicious.

Zinacantan is such a great village with its very Catholic church. In Zinacantan the people grow flowers in glass houses, geraniums mainly and it forms a great part of their income. The people in this village have a very different way of living, traditions, religion and culture to their neighbouring village, San Juan Chamula, and often they do not have the greatest of friendships.

In San Juan Chamula the people believe that San Juan (or Saint John) was more important than Jesus as it was Saint John who baptised Jesus. This village is also really colourful with the people wearing their local costumes that are very different from those seen in Zinacantan.

In San Juan Chamula there is the most amazing church. I have visited this church 4 times now and each time I discover new things. The Indian people here in Mexico believe very much in Sharman and their religious beliefs are a mixture of Catholic saints and their ancestors’ belief in Mother Earth and the mountains. This mixture is represented in the church with mountainlike banners on the ceiling and pine needles on the floor. The mountains are holy to the people and the pine needles on the floor of the church represent Mother Earth. They believe Mother Earth represents fertility. On this visit there were many candles burning in the church and fresh pine needles everywhere.

The smell of the flowers mixing with the smell of the pine needles was so aromatic. Many people were burning candles on the floor in rows of different colours. These colours represented the cause that each person was presenting to the sharman. There were various Sharman with the different family groups and at the end of the ceremony they offer the live chickens they have in a bag. The chicken is killed in the church at the end of the ceremony. You are not allowed to photograph this ceremony and when one of our group was making some notes of what Mario, our guide, was explaining, she was told that this was also not allowed. On each side wall of the church the Saints are displayed with mirrors on some of the Saints’ chests. It is believed that when you look into these mirrors it will reflect your soul. The church was so beautiful on this day with all of the activities, pine needles, burning candles and the many local people who are still very much devoted to their ancestors’ beliefs combined with the Catholic religion. The Catholic religion was forced upon them by the Spanish Conquerors but they have somehow been able to combine this with their own beliefs. We were all in awe of the experience and I was humbled by the depth of faith of the local Indian people. How sorry we were that we could not take any pictures. It was a photographer’s paradise and such a very different experience.

If you're interested in visiting Mexico, explore our Central & South America small group tours.