We were given the opportunity of going on a tour to two traditional Mayan towns. I’m not normally hugely keen on this sort of thing. It can be somewhat a bit awkward walking around as a tourist with the locals viewed as some sort of performing monkeys. However the counter argument is that tourism will provide economic benefits to help them preserve their way of life. Also, everyone else was going so I went.

Cesar was the tour guide and he was amazing. He’s a descendant of such indigenous tribes (I’m afraid I can’t remember his exact circumstances) and speaks great English as well as Spanish and the tribal language. There seems to a mutual affection between Cesar and the native people (don’t call them Indians as it’s obviously offensive). We were driven to the first village, Chamula, not too far outside the city of San Cristobal. It’s referred to as a village but the population is something like 80,000. Cesar then explained the background information and rules. It was mostly obvious stuff such as don’t take photos of people without their permission, no photos of leaders nor inside churches. Such villages are autonomous from Mexico. They arrange for power and water to be supplied by the state but are run independently with their own laws and police. Cesar told us that the locals here are welcoming, which seemed to be the case. Often people would smile or wave as you walked by.

Chamula is an interesting place. In many aspects it doesn’t look unlike much of small-town Mexico. There are plenty of cars and taxis driving around, local children riding around on bikes, a market and the customary town square with cafes and food stalls. The school has Spanish and local language words of the blackboard and there’s a computer in the classroom, hardly resembling something out of the stone ages. The economy seems to be based around agriculture, trading wares in the market and obviously tourism. You get the feeling that’s it’s perhaps not the most affluent place with the street traders being slightly pushier than elsewhere but you can hardly blame them for being not that well off financially.

There’s a couple of things that suggests that we are not in mainstream Mexican society. One is when Cesar explains that due to Chamula being legally independent, the local justice system can involve the death penalty being carried out via vigilante lynchings. While I’m personally a little uncomfortable with such a practise, the opposing argument would suggest that this works here with supposedly hardly any crime existing. Secondly was inside the church, the most memorable part of the visit. Cesar said that the locals will describe themselves as Catholic but this uses a broad definition. Their religious practises are dominated by traditional beliefs to an extent where the Vatican won’t recognise this church. From the outside, the building looks fairly standard. Inside the first thing noticeable was the huge amount of candles. Lots of people sit on a floor of pine needles, conducting their religious rituals in small groups. Then my overriding memory of the trip occurred. Cesar explained that when people have experienced trauma in their lives or are suffering from depression, their condition can be improved with the help of a shaman. Part of this process involves sacrificing a live chicken. I’ll never forget the sound from the other end of the church, firstly of the chicken screeching as it’s feet were put into a fire and then falling silent when it’s neck was rung. Possibly even worse than this were the tourists who were rubbernecking the ceremony, inappropriately gorping at what was happening.

We were told that the mainstream Catholic church have labelled this religion as backward and the shaman as charlatans. When people have turned up to try and convert  the villagers to the more recognisable form of Catholicism they have been chased out of town. Cesar told us that the people here do not take kindly to outsiders trying to impose their beliefs upon them. He said that the tribe are respectful people and would never ever try to push their views on anyone else, which I suppose is a fair point. However as a non-believer, the whole situation simply seems a bit strange to me.

We then move onto the second village, Zinacantan, which neighbours Chamula. The answer to the obvious question is, yes they get on well. The two tribes dress slightly differently and observe seperate rituals. For instance in Zinacantan the main trading commodity is flowers. We are taken to visit a family who run a weaving business. Only the ladies and children of the house were at home as the men were out working. We were given a demonstration of their weaving which is incredibly labour intensive but produces some nice stuff. They made everyone some fresh tortillas on their oven/fire. While access to the internet and television is available in the village, life is fairly simple here. We were told that younger people may move to the city if they wish, although most opt to stay in the village. Life is reasonably stress-free and very family orientated. This, along to a healthy organic diet meant that one of the ladies in the family is still going strong at 95 years old.

The church in Zinacantan is more mainstream that its Chamula counterpart. It’s affiliated with the Catholic church and is more recognisable to the outsider with a confession booth and hosting wedding ceremonies. Speaking of weddings, in Zinacantan the standard one wife practice is in place, unlike Chamula where polygamy still goes on. Similarly Zinacantan clearly also isn’t the wealthiest area. It was quite amusing to see someone fall for the trick of having a photo taken with some kids in tribal dress, in return for a small donation. Within about 30 seconds about 20 of their mates had seemingly appeared from nowhere, all wanting in on the photo and donation action!

We had a really good evening out, ending up in the Revolution Bar, not to be confused with the UK-based, slightly tacky chain of vodka-themed bars. Living up to the somewhat political reputation of this part of southern Mexico there was plenty of Manu Chao and Bob Marley music played. On the way home we managed to purchase a bottle of Bacardi from a restaurant that was just about closing in order to have a fairly civilised room party. As Harry Redknapp would say, we had a triffic night!

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Chamula from a distance
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Chamula village square
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Chamula church
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Zinacantan church