An exotic aroma engulfed us as we stepped through the door of the church: a heady mixture of fresh pine, flowers, incense and candles.
It was the Church of San Juan Chamula in Chiapas state.
Outsiders come regularly to watch the syncretic rituals of the Indian/Catholic Maya, especially during Easter season, from the beginning of lent until after Easter Sunday.
San Cristobal is approximately 30 miles east of the capital of Chiapas, Tuxtla Gutierrez, and about 670 miles southeast of Mexico City.
Religious holidays are a busy but sacred time at the Chamula village church. The white stucco building has no furniture, and its walls are lined with statues of saints and Christ in glass boxes.
People prostrate themselves before their favorite icons, several groups of two or three musicians add a low-pitched tintinnabulation of ancient instruments (each playing its own haunting melodies), and hundreds of tall lighted candles waxed to the floor in front of each penitent glow in the dim light.
Families kneeling together reverently pray, pausing now and then for a swig of pash, a potent local sugarcane liquor.
The church is no longer officially Catholic; it has no clergy and hasn’t had for six or seven years. The rituals are now interpretations of the Indians who were baptized Catholic but raised in often secret ancient tradition.
The old marble floor is strewn with pine needles. I watched as the clothing of a statue was changed, a once-a-year event on the saint’s feast day. The statue was washed scrupulously clean, and fresh new garments were solemnly placed onto the painted image.
Each carved figure was dressed in many layers of brilliantly flowered cloth, some with mirrors hung around their necks. It is said that the innermost layer of clothing is woven with secret symbols of the ancient Maya.
To visit the church it’s necessary to obtain a permit, for a small charge, at the government building on the main square. No cameras are allowed in the village on this day.
It is a time for a special ceremony celebrated only once during each Easter season. Several hundred men from barrios around the countryside gather on the road surrounding the square.
Barefoot women and little girls gossip and socialize in the square while setting up their crude stalls to sell fresh vegetables, fruit, tortillas and cases of soda pop. In the making is a special market-day party that will last well into the night.
The men line up into three formations, much like ancient crusaders preparing to go into battle.
They are dressed in flamboyant antiquated costumes including high-heeled huaraches, tall cone-shaped hats covered with monkey fur and topped by colorful ribbons, knee-length pants, a red-tassled white scarf and striped cummerbunds. Some of the men wear monkey fur chin straps that resemble a beard.
A Mexican observer said that all this imagery has been passed down orally from the 1600s when Spanish conquistators subjugated the Mayas. These men are reliving a genetic memory of the ancient past.
Everything is symbolic, but because most of the people taking part can speak only a Mayan dialect, Tzotzil, and no Spanish, I was unable to understand the whole story.
For instance, why do some carry a ceramic goblet filled with incense? Or a cane made from the penis of a bull? What is the significance of the flowered banners on tall poles?
I can only guess. As the day continues I wonder if even most of those in the throes of this pageant really know the whys.
Two or three men in each platoon toot screechy old one-note brass horns. A single drum and clouds of incense initiate a flurry of excitement and the men begin to charge around the large square on a mad run. Little boys join the noisy festivities by running catch-up behind the men, practicing their roles for the future.
At an unseen and silent signal the running men stop as one, reverently waving banners over the incense, then begin running wildly again until they approach the government building where they stop and pause respectfully for the casiques.
The casiques, each man a leader of a different village, crowd together on a second-floor balcony overlooking the square, wearing their beribboned hats, and each holds under his arm a silver-headed rod as sign of his authority.
The colorful scene is punctuated throughout the day with intermittent cannon blasts, and at nightfall fireworks light up the sky.
First-time visitors to San Cristobal should know that the Chiapas Indians, especially the Chamulans, Zinacantecans and Lancandones, adamantly do not like to be photographed, and they like it even less when you produce a camera inside their churches.
In Chamula it’s permissible to take pictures in the square as long as it isn’t a special holiday. A warning about cameras is posted in most of the hotels and the warning should be heeded as the best way to avoid any unpleasantness.
The city of San Cristobal, with its varied Indian population, attracts people from all over the world. It takes time to get to the 5,000-foot-high San Cristobal de las Casas from the airport at Tuxtla Gutierrez.
But the roads are continuously being improved. Only 45 years ago you could expect a trip from Chiapas’ capital, Tuxtla Gutierrez, to San Cristobal de las Casas to take 12 hours by mule. Today it’s a 1 1/2-hour drive on a good road.
San Cristobal was founded in 1528 by the Spaniards and originally named Ciudad Real (royal city). For a while it served as the capital of the state. One-story pastel-colored buildings with wrought-iron covered windows and tile roofs line the often-steep streets.
Churches abound. Even if you’re not a church person, a stroll through town captures the beautiful architecture of these structures, some more than 450 years old.
Santo Domingo’s baroque facade glows a delicate rose color, and the intricate carvings, columns, statue niches and statues are beautiful.
The interior houses a sensational pulpit, one of Mexico’s finest. You’ll see many nostalgic retablos, religious paintings frequently offered in place of money donations, or in thanks for favors. The painters were not professionals.
Whether in the town of Chiapas Corzo, Tuxtla Gutierrez or San Cristobal, it’s not unusual to see an Indian healer (often a female curandera ) performing rituals in one of these churches; carrying a basket of “magic” herbs, touching the stricken pilgrim with flowers, passing burning candles before the church altars, and murmuring ancient chants in an Indian dialect.
These are ceremonies that do not fall under the dogma of Catholicism. But this is Indian country, and religion is a very personal mix of the Maya past and the Catholic present.
Other churches worth seeing in San Cristobal include the cathedral on the main square and the simple Carmen Church. Up many steps, high on a hill just west of downtown, the church of San Cristobal is open just once a year during the reveling fiesta on the feast of St. Christopher. There’s a view of the town and the entire valley from this hilltop.
Another antiquated building of interest is the Hotel Santa Clara, originally the home of 16th-Century conqueror Diego Mazariegos.
Despite the influx of tourists (mostly European), there is little change. No high-rise hotels, no fast-food outlets and always thousands of Indians dressed in their brightly colored traditional clothing, bustling to the rhythm of San Cristobal’s public market.
The outside world has introduced a few variations in the life style of the indigena. More and more you see factory-made straw cowboy hats, and among city-dwelling ladinos (people who have forsaken the Indian life style) polyester clothing is raising its shiny head.
Fortunately, in the outlying villages such as San Juan Chamula, Larainzur, Zinacantan and the Lancandone forest the culture vigorously lives on.
The Zinacantecans are still making their own flat-crowned hats with colorful ribbons flying free if they’re single, and (it is said) tied discreetly back if married.
Women still use a backstrap loom to weave colorful fabric for their blouses and huipils, an important cultural heritage.
Electricity, piped water, roads and telephone poles have gradually reached out to those villages.
Mexicana Airlines offers 10 flights daily from Los Angeles to Mexico City. Until April 4, a special round-trip promotional fare costs $279. There is one flight daily from Mexico City to Tuxtla Gutierrez, leaving at 9:15 a.m. and arriving in Tuxtla at 10:30.
If you don’t want to spend the night in Mexico City, take the late-night flight available daily from Los Angeles. The flight leaves at 1:35 a.m., arriving at 5:40 a.m.
Call Mexicana Airlines at (213) 646-0401.
From Tuxtla, buses run frequently to San Cristobal de las Casas and Palenque. It’s about a 2-hour bus ride.
In San Cristobal, one of the best hotels is the Hotel Posada Diego de Mazariego downtown, a few minutes’ walk to the city plaza. About $30 U.S. double. Ask for a room with a fireplace; evenings get chilly in the highlands. Another good colonial hotel is Hotel Ciudad Real. Right on the plaza, it’s about $25 double.
Traveling in Chiapas can be an adventure. Mexican car-rental companies are available at Tuxtla Gutierrez, but traveling on public buses is risky. We found the first-class buses were generally comfortable. Each person had a seat.
A second-class bus will take on any and all. During our ride to San Cristobal at least 30 people spent the eight-hour trip hanging over the passengers in the aisle seats, grasping the overhead rack, trying to stay upright on the curving road.
A tour package is preferred by many to get to San Cristobal. Seeing Chiapas is simpler with an experienced guide in command.
Contact your travel agent and ask about a seven-night tour offered by Sanbourn Tours, $548 per person, double occupancy, including accommodations, transportation sightseeing and three meals. Air fare to Mexico is not included.
Contact your travel agent or Sanborn Tours toll-free at (800) 531-5440.
For more information on travel to Mexico, contact the Mexican Government Tourism Office, 10100 Santa Monica Blvd., Suite 224, Los Angeles 90067, (213) 203-9335.