San Cristobal and Oaxaca, our next two stops, are described as ‘Colonial Cities’. They are both high in the mountains (San Cristobal at 7,000 ft and Oaxaca at 5,000 ft – we’re talking Denver high) and cold. Since it’s the rainy season, throw some rain and gray skies into the mix. Yes, we did feel the change in altitude when walking the streets.
While we were after an escape from the heat of Merida I’m thinking we went a bit far in the opposite direction. As we prepared to leave Campeche I chose to lighten my load leaving a large pile of clothes on the hotel bed. Lucky for me, I kept my jeans and a couple long-sleeved t-shirts. Those were well used in the mountains. We were told the rains came a bit early this year. Hmmm…just for us?
San Cristobal is a wonder. It is a lovely little city high in the mountains. Many people come here to visit the archeological and geographical sites we visited from Palenque. Those sites are about halfway between the two towns. There are others who come here to study Spanish. Expats from Merida come in the spring months to escape the heat. Still others, who knows why, come from all parts of the world. This is a very cosmopolitan city in the middle of nowhere.
We had Argentine, French, Spanish, Italian as well as Mexican food. Sushi was also available as was Chinese. The city has blocked off three streets leading away from the main zocalo as pedestrian only. Coffee and chocolate are big local products. Along with coffee comes pastries especially with all this European influence. We heard firecrackers exploding pretty much from dawn to dusk. No one seemed a bit phased. It was obviously common.
San Cristobal had plenty of churches. The design changed from the Franciscan style in Yucatan to a more ornate New Spanish Baroque style. If you think I know about architecture, thank you. I don’t know architecture, I am able to see the changes from the Yucatan. Take a look at what you notice.
We took a tour to two neighboring indigenous villages, Chamula and Zincantan, to learn more about the native population.
When the Spaniards conquered Mexico they took the indigenous (Mayan) people as slaves. They destroyed the Mayan cities and forced the people to practice the catholic religion. Churches were built atop former pyramids. The Spaniards would not allow the people to continue any of their traditions that might hint at religious practices. The Mayan people worshiped many gods and their culture was tightly linked to these practices, worshipping the rain god to assure their crops and so forth.
These two villages are examples of two indigenous sects who have maintained their traditions and own rule. In Chamula the Catholic Church has given the church in the town over to the village. The people practice their own form of Catholicism mixed with their old mystical, traditional practices. Once a year a priest will come to Chamula to baptize children.
The church no longer has pews. The floor is covered with pine needles. There are the usual large wooden boxes of different saints along the side walls. The community elects religious leaders to take care of the church and all the celebrations. The church is open 24 hours, 7 days a week. People go into the church to light incense and candles on the floor amongst the pine needles, pray to the saints and give sacrifices. There are some who actually kill chickens as part of their worship by wringing their necks. They have shamans that act as healers both physical, mental and spiritual.
Chamula is a closed community that practices polygamy. They elect their own civic leaders and enforce their own laws. For the most part the Mexican government does not intervene. The community does not sell their goods outside of their or other complementary indigenous communities.
We were there on market day. It also was the time of new religious leaders being placed into position. Part of that ceremony was exploding firecrackers (gunpowder) in handheld, homemade cylinders. Now we understood the all day firecrackers we’d been hearing. We were not allowed to take pictures of the ceremony outside or in the church itself.
Crosses are significant in Mayan traditions and the indigenous people substituted praying to saints instead of their gods. These are some of the ways the indigenous people were able to adapt to the Spanish conquest.
The primary products in Chamula are wool which is very thick with the fibers combed long and wooden toys. Other villages come and sell at the Chamula market. We would see many women mostly, and some men, in typical Chamula dress in San Cristobal. We were told these people have been ousted from the community for failing to follow the accepted norms. It’s estimated there are around 35,000 ex-Chamulans living in San Cristobal de las Casas. They sell products in the artisans markets or on the streets.
Zincantan is a neighboring village. They do not practice polygamy and the Catholic Church still serves the community. They have pews in the church, regular services are held and they do not offer sacrifices. The community is still self-governed much like Chamula. They elect their own spiritual and civic leaders and have and enforce their own laws. It sounds much like our Native American reservations.
The primary product in Zincantan are flowers. These flowers are sent throughout the country. They also produce beautiful weavings and embroidery.
Whew! That was quite a visit. Our tour guide was quite militant about respecting these indigenous communities right to continue living as they have for many years. They do have schools built by the Mexican government. Most children go to school through third grade then begin learning their trade. It was eye opening. Lots to think about.
We’re leaving Mexico City tonight for Zihuatenajo. I’m way behind reporting. Our internet has been sketchy until we arrived here. We’ve been very busy while here.
Honestly, I’ve gone through a bout of homesickness. I miss family and friends and am very tired of hotels and eating in restaurants. We have a kitchen in Zihuatenajo which should be nice. It’s fun getting and preparing fresh food from the markets.
Hasta la vista, until we meet again. Keep us in your prayers.