Chiapas is undoubtedly one of the most fascinating states in our country, home to a rich history, fourteen indigenous peoples, ancient gastronomy, and natural beauties everywhere. Of its many extraordinary destinations, there is one especially emblematic: San Juan Chamula, the gateway to Chiapas syncretism. Let’s find out.
San Juan Chamula: basic guide
Where is San Juan Chamula?
San Juan Chamula is located in the Highlands of Chiapas, in the center of the state, 67 kilometers from Tuxtla Gutiérrez and 10 kilometers from the Magical Town of San Cristóbal de Las Casas.
Why visit it?
San Juan Chamula is a singular and unique place, with a different, almost alien air. It is a community that is governed by uses and customs, a guarantee of the preservation of traditions and the perpetuity of unusual practices in the rest of the country, such as barter and distrust of external cults.
Its complicated past, of conquest, rebellion, and resistance, and the strength of its people gave rise to a quite peculiar syncretism, where the indigenous and the European were interwoven to create a unique and fascinating belief system, reflected in all aspects, from clothing to gastronomy and architecture.
What to do in San Juan Chamula?
The first thing to do in San Juan Chamula is to visit the legendary church of San Juan Bautista, where for a small donation of $25 pesos you can see how the Mayan and the Christian coexist in the same space.
The interior of this church with a white and green facade is another world, with green floors, Catholic saints in glass boxes with mirrors on their chests, multicolored candles, ribbons, and offerings: pox, coca, eggs, and chickens -which will soon be sacrificed-. Within this church, photography or video is prohibited, out of respect for the local belief that it steals the spirit.
Once outside the church, the main square welcomes its visitors with handicraft vendors, local guides, and people offering cleanings to tourists. This peculiar ritual corrects ailments of body and spirit with the help of the saints and a peculiar combination of prayers, offerings, multicolored candles, eggs, and strangely, Coca-Cola.
The lucky ones who visit on a Sunday will be able to live the experience of the market, where between stalls and calls, everything from piracy to fruits and vegetables, handicrafts, and kitchen utensils is sold.
After the square and the church, you must visit the cemetery and the ruins of the old temple of San Sebastián. Here, the graves are made of earth, and have wooden or concrete crosses, depending on the class of the deceased, and are covered with slats and abundant branches of pine, a tree sacred to the chamules. The temple, or rather the ruins of the temple, remains standing despite the passage of time, with its stucco façade and its entrance arch.
Another very peculiar experience of San Juan Chamula is to attend its carnival, celebrated the five days before Ash Wednesday, a celebration of ancestral origin that integrates Catholic elements, indigenous rituals, happy music, and an abundance of pox.
In addition to the above, in this fascinating community you can buy handicrafts and taste the local cuisine.
What to take into account before visiting it?
Since tourism is very common in the community, it is generally a relatively safe place. However, it is better to visit it during the day, in a group, and preferably in the company of a professional guide.
It is also essential to respect the rules, such as not taking photos in forbidden places – let alone people – to avoid uncomfortable situations with locals or with the “mayoles”, who are equivalent to local police officers.
Another detail to consider is that street vendors are quite insistent, so arm yourself with patience.