There are a couple of popular day trips from San Cristobal. I decided to do two that would give me a little taste of the region: one indigenous town and one natural wonder.
San Juan Chamula
Many people recommended going to see the nearby village of Chamula for its interesting church. Interesting did not properly prepare me for this experience.
The easiest way to get to Chamula is by minibus; it’s a quick 20 minute ride from the main market in San Cristobal. So naturally, I opted to walk, despite the fact that it had been less than a week since my 5 day jungle trek. Because.. I’m me? The walk was two hours all uphill on the side of a pretty major road. That probably sounds bad, but it was actually lovely – the landscape in Chiapas is beautiful, I was surrounded by rolling hills and farmland, I walked past sheep, goats and chickens that were hanging out on the side of the road, and the weather was perfectly sunny with a bit of a chill that made the exercise enjoyable.
When I got to Chamula I was at first entertained by the small town nestled in a valley. I walked past a few souvenir shops on my way to the main square. The church was not free to enter, so I kept walking around to see what else the town had to offer. Nothing. If it’s not a market day, there’s nothing going on in Chamula other than that church. People looked confused to see me wandering past their houses in a part of town tourists stay away from. So I went back, forfeited my pesos, and went inside the church.
I don’t even know if I should describe the church in case anyone reads this before they go see it. I don’t want to ruin the surprise. So if you are one of those people stop reading now. There’s a reason they don’t allow pictures inside.
I did not look into the indigenous culture of Chamula before I went to the town so I had no idea what to expect. I walked into what looked like a colorful church to find long green grass spread out on the floor. Altars to dozens upon dozens of saints lined the walls on each side. I walked past worshipers who were on the ground facing the altar. They had used wax to stick small thin candles to the floor in even lines and were sitting behind them chanting. I stood at the front and observed the emphatic devotees. Then it happened.
A mall pulled a chicken out of a cardboard box. He held it by its head and feet, wings outstretched, and waved it in circles over the candles and over the man to his left, chanting the whole time. I watched these rotations oddly mesmerized, wondering what the man had done to need a chicken waved over his head, and as I was watching the man stopped moving the chicken and pulled hard at its neck. Oh my god, he just sacrificed it. I watched him kill this chicken. In a church.
I had to walk past the chicken on my way out – my scarred walk out – and saw it laying lifeless in its cardboard box. I immediately got in a collectivo and went home. After more time in San Cristobal I learned that the people of Chamula still use sacrifice all the time. It’s apparently worse on Sundays, when dozens of animals are sacrificed in and around the church. They also will still burn someone in the town square if he has mistreated the wrong person. It seems to be an old, lawless, backwards by modern standards society that is still allowed to exist somehow.
San Cristobal still has a vast indigenous population, and Chamula is just one example. There’s a reason it’s the home to the Zapatistas, another group I did not know much about before but learned more about while I was there. Their fight for indigenous rights has occurred during my conscious lifespan, a fact that I was shocked to learn simply because of how little I had heard about it living in the neighboring country. This is all part of the fascination of the Chiapas region, albeit perhaps less enjoyable than the beautiful landscape but worth looking into.
Cañón del Sumidero
Next I decided to focus on that beautiful landscape, so Ale and I went on the tour to Cañón del Sumidero. It started out gorgeous – towering limestone mountains rose out from the green water, reminiscent of Khao Sok National Park in Thailand. Again I marveled at a landscape I did not know existed in Mexico. We saw giant iguanas, a huge crocodile chilling on the bank, and tons of birds. Then it turned sour. We saw a dead crocodile floating in the water. We saw rivers of trash that the boats simply drove around. We wondered how it was possible to have so much tourism money and boat traffic passing these problem areas and still have such a profound issue with garbage.
I tried to enjoy the ride. Our driver took us to a shrine inside a cave, underneath a multi-tiered waterfall, and past trees that floated off the side of the mountains, looking like they’d been put there by some talented CGI engineers. But I couldn’t ignore the trash. And then we reached the end of the river and our boat sidled up next to another boat that was selling snacks and drinks. We scoffed at the blatant attempt to get more money out of tourists, until we saw they were serving micheladas. Two please. If we had to go back through the river dump, we may as well boost the experience by sipping on a tasty michelada.
On the way back to San Cristobal we stopped in a town for an hour, another excuse to spend money. We took advantage of the time to get tacos and 1L micheladas (1 each) and the piñata that was in the Hostal Casa Gaia photo. Blame it on the michaeladas, but we were inspired to bring a little fun back to the hostel.
Would I recommend these excursions? Yes, hesitantly. The landscape of the canyon is beautiful but I would like to see some initiatives to clean it up before sending more people that way. And Chamula, well, it’s part of being in Mexico.