Scooters to Chamula and Zinacantan

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“We’re taking scooters to see the neighboring Tzotzil villages of Chamula and Zinacantan, do you want to come?”  Music to my ears – road trip!   So the next morning I was off with a local scooter shop owner’s son Justin, his girlfriend Sam, and a bilingual friend.   When visiting interesting places it’s always helpful to have someone who understands the language so you can get questions answered and generally understand better what you’re seeing.

Esteban and Justin and Dixie almost ready

We made it out of town without incident and hit the highway to Chamula.  The countryside was beautiful, and the traffic was light.  There is a large parking area above the Chamula cemetery where we parked and locked up the bikes.  There’s a restaurant there, as well as a few market stalls.  In a Tzotzil cemetery, the color of the cross on the grave tells the approximate age at which the person died:  White crosses grace the graves of children, black ones indicate a middle-age death, and the few gray ones represent those who lived a full lifetime.

Chamula cemetery

The early Mayans embraced a complex world of science, particularly astronomy, and religion.  When the Spanish invaded, the result was a mix of Mayan religious practice and Catholicism still practiced today, though many have more recently replaced some Catholic influences with Protestant beliefs.

We walked through the village towards the old church, the centerpiece of the town, situated on a large plaza where markets are held.  There were lots of market stalls even though this was not the main weekly market day.  Along the way we saw mostly plain cinderblock construction houses, but there were a few nicer places and even a huge, new-construction house that I suspect will be the eventual house of the governor.  We even saw a couple of modern-style homes, though these were probably 15-20 years old.  We saw very few tourists that day, but the tourist board had their table set up outside the church door to collect 20 pesos per person to enter.  Apparently the Mayan religious practices are a tourist draw.  No cameras allowed.

Chamula Tzotzil Church

At first I balked at paying to see yet another big Catholic church, but I was very glad I relented and entered that world.  The culture shock was worth it.  The floor was completely covered with long, grassy, green pine needles.  The floor being marble tile, care must be taken to step carefully, lest you end up on your backside!  There was not a pew or a chair in sight.  The entire place was lit with hundreds of candles on tables and all across the floor, and I was surprised at the heat and smoke.  I stood at the back and looked around to get my bearings and figure out what I was to do, when a man approached.  I think he asked if I wanted a shaman today.  Uh, no, thank you (maybe some other time?)

The entire sanctuary floor was taken up by small family or mother and children groups, a few men, who lit groups of maybe 20-40 tall, thin candles and stuck them to the floor in a square pattern.  Many just sat or chanted quietly, a few not so quietly, before their little array of fire.  Some appeared to have a shaman with them.  Stephanie and Andre (of Discovering Ice) mentioned that they had seen live chickens being sacrificed here, but we didn’t see any while we visited.  I did see a few people with eggs.  Esteban said they pass an egg over your body for some type of cleansing or healing.  After a group is finished, they scrape the candle wax off the floor so the next group will have a clean space to begin. This picture of a side chapel with candles on the floor isn’t from here in Chamula, but it is representative.

Tzotzil candles in a side chapel

As we slowly walked around the perimeter, up to the front and around, we noticed that the entire outer wall had wood and glass boxes of many sizes, each containing a statue of a different saint, and tables in front covered with votive and taller glass candles.  The front altar area was just more of the same but with a large statue of Mary, no Jesus on the cross.  By the time we got to the front, we had started to sweat from the heat the candles were producing, so we walked a little faster on the way out.  It was well worth stopping in to visit this place.

We headed back up the hill to our scooters and took off toward the next village of Zinacantan, drinking in the big mountains and valleys and observing the inhabitants along the way.  If you drive in the countryside, you’re always going to see at least one group of girls and their sheep and old women and youngsters carrying huge loads of wood and other necessities on their backs, supported by a strap around their forehead. The children in the yards love to wave at us as we zip by.

Entering Zinacantan, we were stopped and asked to pay a tourist fee of 5 pesos each at a little tourist building.  Then we drove through to the main square and parked.  Three or four young girls all ran up and were asking if we spoke Spanish.  Esteban already knew one girl, whose name was Lucia, so we went with her to her home.  Apparently home tours are “the thing” in this village.  We walked past a huge, bright orange and white building.  I asked about it and was told it is the governor’s mansion.  An opulent, fabulous place compared to virtually all the other buildings and homes in the village.

Zincanatan's governor's house

Presently we arrived at Lucia’s home, and she invited us in.  The main room was lined with textile products, handmade scarves, rebozos, hats, belts, blankets, and traditional clothing for sale.  Grandmother appeared and donned her strap loom and demonstrated her weaving technique.  The scarf she was working on takes about eight days to make, working about eight hours a day.  Justin bought one of those for her asking price of 180 pesos, just under $14.

Lucia's house

Lucia asked if someone would like to try on the traditional Tzotzil skirt, belt, shirt, and shawl, so of course I volunteered.  All the fabrics were very heavy, though not uncomfortable.  I asked her mother if all this was handmade, and she said completely, the fabric woven and all the embroidery is hand done.  I have seen women around San Cristobal doing some of the embroidery, and it is amazing.  I don’t know what the asking price for these things are, but I’m sure it’s a pittance compared to even machine-made similar items back home.

Dixie models traditional clothing

Next we were ushered to the kitchen or at least where open-fire cooking is done.  We didn’t inquire if there was another room for cooking.  Lucia’s mother sat on the floor next to the fire with a large round metal tortilla-cooking pan.  She had a bowl of corn dough and a wooden tortilla press.  She made several fresh delicious tortillas for us that we could fill with a lovely salsa, ground pumpkin seeds, and fresh, homemade cheese sprinkles from a low table.  The corn was even grown in their own plot out back.

Lucia's mom makes us some tortillas

To me it was an amazing experience to get a small glimpse into Mayan life.  Outside we encountered a hen and several chicks by the roadside, and as we drove out of town we met a turkey hen and chicks that was not bothered by our presence.  In fact, we had seen several lone chickens around town by the road of different breeds.

Zincanatan rooster struts his stuff

Fortified by our tortilla snack, we boarded our scooters and headed back to San Cristobal.  The rain clouds were already threatening and we hoped – to no avail – that we would make it home before they cut loose.  Nearly back to town, we had to take shelter under a porch of a vacant house for half an hour.  After that, we made it back to within a few blocks before another downpour, with nowhere to go but back to the shop, drenched but laughing.

Here are the rest of the pictures from the trip – enjoy!

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Copyright © by Glenn and Dixie Dixon