From a tourist hot spot to seemingly taboo church practices, San Cristóbal de las Casas was a feast for the senses

It took me the entirety of our stay to remember the name, but San Cristóbal de las Casas is certainly memorable. The city is the capital of the Chiapas state and is a huge hub for commerce, service and tourism. In fact, 67% of the population is employed in the tourism industry.

It’s no wonder why both Mexican and international travellers come to this small, charismatic city. The Spanish colonial esthetic has been highly maintained and the presence of indigenous culture is strongly felt. The city is situated tightly between mountains, in the bowl of a small valley.

Brightly Coloured Streets

Off of the city’s main square are a couple of car-less cobblestone streets, which are full of restaurants, cafes, tour companies and vendors. While San Cristóbal is catered towards tourists, it also seems to hold its authentic essence, which many travellers look for. It is picturesque, with brightly coloured buildings lining narrow streets.

Amber is one of San Cristóbal’s main commodities and we found multiple amber stores, as well as vendors in every market place we visited. I was quite excited to find a multitude of crystals and stones in a small, artisanal market place, as I am keen to collect local gems from around the world. There is even an amber museum in San Cristóbal, if you ever wanted to know everything there is about amber.

One of many Amber stores

We visited the main food market (Mercado Municipal) and zig-zagged our way through pungent meats and towers of vegetables to purchase the makings of some guacamole, which we later devoured with a bag of fresh tortilla chips.

Vendors selling rambutan by the cart-full pepper the outside of the market, so I thought it was time I tried one of these odd, alien-like fruits. The lychee flavor was fresh and delicious. I wasn’t as inclined to purchase the live chickens, held by the claws by multiple farmers nearby.

Wandering to the outer parts of the city, we came to The Guadelupe Church. The church sits high atop the cerro Guadalupe (Guadalupe Hill) and the 79 steps up were worth it for the view of the city and surrounding land. The church is small, but stunning. There weren’t many people around when we ascended, except for the women selling meringues at the bottom of the steps and the 14 year boys waiting halfway up to tell me that I was a “guapa”.

The Steps of Guadalupe Church

We had also heard about a church in a nearby town, Chamula (about 30 minutes by colectivo bus), where indigenous Tzoztil Mayan people practice unique religious ceremonies. Macca had read something about chicken sacrifices so he was keen to make the trip. It seemed that we were entering an untouched, unseen pocket and I wasn’t sure we were welcome.

Another strange aspect in this village is the presence of, what I can only guess is their police force; men in furry black coats, cowboy hats and boots were met in the town center when we arrived. The town does not allow any outside police nor military of any kind. They also strictly enforce the prohibition of any sort of photography in the church itself. We had heard this before, so left the cameras at home.

After paying a small entry fee, we entered the dimly lit church. We were met with the warm glow of hundreds of candles burning and the scent of pine boughs, which littered the entirety of the floor. The walls were lined with saintly figures in glass cases and there were a few groups of people performing rituals while seated on the floor.

Cross in the Center of San Cristobal

The religion is a blend of Spanish Catholicism and ancient Mayan customs and most people in Chamula speak the Tzotzil language while performing their ceremonies. Muttering prayers and lighting candles, the people inside the church had brought supplies for their rituals, which included, strangely enough, bottles of coca cola. Maybe it was the rumors of sacrifice, but the place had a slightly eerie presence.

Then I spotted a chicken wrapped in cloth – still alive. I wasn’t particularly hoping to witness an animal sacrifice and luckily, didn’t have to. Maybe it wasn’t the right day, or maybe the whole chicken sacrifice is just a rumor. Either way, I was relieved.

As strange as it was, the church was beautiful and the lack of cameras gave it a genuine quality that can sometimes disappear as more and more people capture the moment. Heading back to San Cristóbal, I found myself equally grateful to have been in a place with such tangible energy as well as to not have to witness chicken blood on the church tile.

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Author

Brianna Wiens is an actor, director and photographer who has worked for a number of theatre companies over the years. She has also started a new drama programme in Bolivia as well as travelling all over the world.

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