Mar 19, 2006, 6:36 PM
Post #4 of 11
Several people have e-mailed me and asked me more about San Cristobal, so I'm posting below my Chiapas 'travelogue' that I previously sent to friends. It's long, so some of you may not want to plough through it, but I thought others might enjoy it.
Re: [Jane.Wilkinson] Adios San Cristobal de las Casas
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Here are my impressions of San Cristobal de las Casas after spending a month there (and I wish longer)--
Chiapas is strange—one foot in the 21st century and the other in the 15th, or so it seems. Within a city (San Cristobal de las Casas) that is hundreds of years old, you can use high-speed Internet, visit a modern car dealership (we spent a lot of time at the VW dealer getting our van fixed), taka a yoga class, go to a multiplex cinema or a fine restaurant, and then look out your window or drive for a few minutes and see women carrying firewood for cooking their meals, tending their flock of sheep or washing clothes in a stream. Yesterday we saw a woman sitting in the grass by the side of the road watching a half dozen sheep and keeping herself busy cleaning and carding the wool by hand, presumably to later spin it and weave it. The indigenous women and girls are almost always wearing their native dress, are often barefoot (even in the city, I read they like the connection with the earth, but I don’t know if that is true), and most are carrying something on their backs, either a baby, firewood, or maybe food/merchandise to or from the market). It is still a hotbed of political intrigue here, but much more complicated than simply Zapatistas vs. The Establishment.
San Cristobal is a high elevation (7,000) feet small city with both strong colonial and indigenous roots, which makes it attractive to tourists. Eurogringos of mixed age groups, particularly French, predominate here. A variety of counter-culture types stand out in the younger (and sometimes older) crowd. Almost the whole city is built in a colorful, colonial style, making it very attractive. There are a lot of indigenous people (Mayans, divided into a number of subgroups with their own languages) who either live in San Cristobal or come in from nearby villages during the day. Restaurants are inexpensive and very good and the local music is quite subdued for Mexico and pleasant. The Marimba is the instrument of choice here.
It is remarkably cool (sometimes cold) in the Chiapas highlands now (high in the mid-70’s for a few hours a day, lows in the mid-40’s, more sun than clouds), considering that we are at the same latitude as Belize. High mountain pine and scrub-oak forests dominate the region around here and small, barely subsistence level agricultural plots farmed by indigenous families. A more jungle-like terrain emerges at lower elevations. A true delight is seeing large areas of naturalized calla lilies in full bloom in wet spots in the mountains.
The government, perhaps in response to the Zapatista uprising, has made visible improvements. The roads are as good or better than anywhere in Mexico, and we’ve found some regions where the formerly dirt roads leading to small hamlets have been recently paved with concrete; concrete walking paths have been installed on popular foot routes. In villages, there are solar panels on roofs of tiny houses, or even Sky TV dishes. The latter, in better quality dwellings with no sign of men, is an indication that the men are north, sending remittances home. It does seem that women and children (lots of them) dominate the scenery and do the heavy lifting. The birthrate among the Mayan population is twice as high as among Mexicans (where birthrates have declined substantially). I read that the average age in Chiapas is 16, and 72% of the children live in poverty, the highest in Mexico, despite the fact that Chiapas is rich in natural resources. It is also quite green and beautiful.
We visited some nearby villages during our first week here. Plenty of warnings are given tourists about not taking photos without permission, and we found permission is often granted for a price, usually about 10 pesos ($1). In the first one (Tenejapa), we were the only tourists on busy market day, which felt a little odd. This is where we first encountered barelegged men wearing belted black brushed wool ponchos and colorful accoutrements. (Traditional attire varies from area to area). The black woolly fabric is made from black sheep. This also is the cloth a majority of women use in their skirts. The costumed men are the honchos of the municipality. One small group was inside one of the city hall rooms wearing this costume, along with colorful ribbons streaming over the wide brims, listening to people’s petitions. A long line was waiting to see them. After wandering around awhile, I noticed that a group of these men, in their costumes, were gathered around Bill and Milo, taking a great deal of interest in Milo. This was the beginning of our realization that Milo is a bit of a star in these communities. People of all ages are fascinated by him, and we aren’t sure why. Although one does not see Standard Poodles in Mexico very often, there are plenty of toy poodle-like dogs, and lots of mutts running all over. Perhaps they are fascinated because he looks like the black sheep they keep or because he is being walked on a leash. By the time we left, there were about 30 people around us; the men left and the kids moved in. Milo did his short performance for them (sitting and shaking hands in response to both English and Spanish commands, and getting very excited when hearing the word “gato” (cat)), and I answered questions about him. We had a hard time leaving, because even in the car, the kids were pressing their faces to the windows, making it difficult to back up.
On a Sunday market day, we visited nearby San Juan Chamula. We were forewarned about what to expect from Chamula, and it did not disappoint. The community practices a religion with pagan roots and a thin Catholic veneer. They’ve substituted saints for the pagan gods. Their holy water and a sacred icon —I’m not making this up — is Coca-Cola. Apparently, they believe that burping rids one of evil spirits, and what better way to do this than with an ice-cold Coke? Fanta and Pepsi also will do. Reportedly, people are buried with their most valuable possessions and a bottle of Coke. The Catholic Church gave up on the community in 1968, although it still sends a priest around from time to time to do baptisms.
This is not your average parish church. There are no pews. Instead pine needles line the floor. Women and children, in traditional dress, are seated on the floor near the back in small groups. Each group clears a little swath of pine needles and sticks a dozen or two burning tapered candles (some quite thin) to the tile floor. Coke, Fanta and Pepsi bottles are part of the candle ensemble. Lighted candles in glasses line the ledges on both side walls. In all, there must be 1000 or more candles flickering inside. The sides, above the rows of candles, are lined with statues of various saints dressed in elaborate costumes. Up towards the front, some sort of device burns a copious amount of incense (one favored by the gods), which along with the candles, envelops the church in a thick haze. Large swaths of a dark fabric are draped from the center of the ceiling to the side walls in a swag fashion. The men are crowded into the front half of the church watching an elaborately costumed group doing some sort of low chant and swaying back and forth, accompanied by occasional musical sounds that I don’t have words to describe. I had difficulty seeing over the crowd at this point, but I decided not to press forward. Except for one other tourist, I was the only woman this far forward and the crowd was tight. Also, all the candles burning near the rapidly drying pine needles on the floor made me nervous, so I hung back. (The burned out hulk of their former church sits by the cemetery on the edge of town). Barely visible through the haze, elevated about five feet to the left of the altar, was the figure of a person on his knees and bent over, swaying and seemingly in a trance. Not all the men were attentive, however. A small group stood near me and presently I heard a soft ring. One of the men pulled a cell phone from his pocket and bent down to conceal his conversation with his tunic! I did not see any chickens inside the church, although I have read reports of chickens being sacrificed on the spot or used as foils for evil spirits. Curanderos (shamin/healers) consult the family groupings and prescribe occult remedies. By the way, Chamula is not unusual in its attachment to a fundamentally Pagan religion with thin Catholic overtones. It just happens to be better known because of its proximity to a popular tourist center.
A very mean looking bouncer, who threatened to smash my camera when I photographed the costumed dancers on the outside of the church, mans the entry to the church. When I went to enter, he snarled at me for forgetting to show my ticket and then for wearing a hat. I definitely had gotten on the bouncer’s bad side that day.
Although photography inside the church is strictly forbidden, cell phones, alcohol (a number of inebriated people staggered around) and cigarettes are not. It is only the photos that will steal your energy and your soul, I am told.
I finally left the church to see how Bill was doing with the large crowd that had formed around Milo. While Bill was buying the tickets to go into the church (every attraction in ejido-land has a price) and taking his turn inside, I waited in the square with Milo, only to find myself surround by about 40 men and boys (no women or girls at all) who formed a tight circle around me while they inspected Milo. They were laughing and talking, mostly in Tzotzil, their native language, but unlike the group in the other town, no one wanted to pet him. I tried to cheerfully make some conversation with some of them in Spanish while others translated to Tzotzil, but the fact that the crowd was growing—and no one was getting bored and leaving—was making me nervous. It also was putting Milo on edge and he refused to go through his little performance.
The market was busy and interesting. Along with vegetables and other edibles, people (mostly women) sell their brightly hand-embroidered or woven textiles and other handicrafts.
There are many displays of large teal colored crosses around the town square as well as out in the countryside. They are generally erected in groups and decorated with pine boughs. Their religion has taken on the crucifix as a symbol with special pagan meanings, which is why these arrangements are found in many parts of the Mayan world.
The graves in the town cemetery, like others in the immediate area, are marked with color-coded crosses: white for children, blue for people who died as less than old adults, and black for those who made it into old age. Mayan cemeteries elsewhere are not like this. Generally they feature elaborate aboveground tombs painted in bright colors, adorned with artwork and flowers.
On the topic of religion, I read that many of the indigenous peoples who live in the poor housing in the hills adjacent to San Cristobal are Protestant (and sometime Muslim) converts who have been driven from their native communities. Chamula is reportedly one of the communities that is least tolerant of new religions. Some observers have mentioned that there is another reason for driving the converts out: it relieves the community of over-crowding.
There's a small town four km. and one valley over from Chamula called Zinacantan that is different and probably more prosperous. About half the fields were covered with makeshift greenhouses, which one would think produces a more profitable crop. Interestingly, the differences go back many centuries. The Zinacantans sided with the Aztecs against the Chamulans when the Aztecs were ascendant. Then they sided with the Spaniards against the Aztecs and the Chamulans (who fight everyone) when the Spaniards were ascendant. I guess they had the knack for figuring out which way the wind was blowing!
A number of the villages along the highways in Chiapas are proudly in EZLN (Zapatista) control. Murals on the walls announce this. Our B&B host assures us the EZLN communities are probably the safest because they are stricter about alcohol and drugs, and also may have a stronger sense of community.
We took some drives into the mountainous region north of San Cristobal. Not surprisingly, the further up one goes, the poorer the population. (Everywhere there is population). They scratch out a living on the steep hillsides growing corn and raising small flocks of sheep, a few chickens and turkeys, and the occasional pig. In lower elevations, houses were often made of concrete block and were the size of a double garage or larger, with windows and doors. As the elevation rose, the size shrunk, many dwellings were windowless, and they were more often made of mud or wood. People everywhere cook with wood, and you often see women trudging along carrying a load on their back. On one drive it was misty and raining, but the women and children were huddled on the hillsides watching their sheep. If they weren’t doing that, they were washing clothes outside, weaving on their backstrap looms, carrying wood, or going to or from the market on foot. We never observed any men watching the flocks, but we did see them working their fields from time to time. We also saw several groups of men clad in traditional costumes in some sort of procession. Mostly, however, the men were invisible, leading us to speculate that they had gone north. Most areas seem to have electricity and very new looking water systems were quite visible. Still, we saw a few communities where women and older children would be trudging up a hill carrying water. In another area, they were filling their buckets at a spigot plumbed into the hillside. Any impression that the women are beasts of burden is not unfounded. If they are not carrying wood, water or goods, they usually have an infant slung on their back or side, as well as a covey of small children alongside.
Conspicuously absent in the region are military checkpoints. There are several military bases here and we were told there is a very heavy concentration military in Chiapas keeping their eyes on the Zapatistas. But apparently they’ve pulled back to their bases, becoming much less conspicuous.
We spent three separate days visiting the area between San Cristobal and the Guatemala border. Our furthest destination was two different lake areas. First we went to Lagos de Montebello National Park, a collection of 50 or more cenote-like lakes, formed at least in part from limestone, which give off brilliant colors of blues, grays and greens, depending on their mineral content and the weather. Visitors can easily drive to a handful of the lakes after paying the park fee ($2). Other accessible lakes are ejido controlled and each requires another ten pesos (about $1) to enter. I can’t blame the ejidos for their money raising efforts, but it does seem strange to always be reaching for change. At one waterfall site we visited (Agua Azul), we paid ten pesos at one booth, drove 100 meters where we paid 10 more pesos at a second booth. Shortly after that, there was a third stop, where a man collected the tickets we had just purchased! I asked why there were two tollbooths, and the response was that the first fee was for driving on the improved road inside the area, and the second was for actually seeing the waterfalls.
Then there are the guides and vendors, the latter often being kids. One young teen, around 12-14 years old came up to us at the place where tourists are allowed to cross into Guatemala (to see more souvenir stands). We declined his offer to be our guide, and declined again when he offered to share information with us about the area. Finally, he simply walked with us, telling us all he knew anyway. His knowledge was pretty impressive, even if textbook sounding. He said he had learned it all in school. And so he relieved me of my remaining change, save for a few pesos, which I gave to a kid who recited some poetry to us.
Further south, still along the Guatemalan border, are Lagos de Colon. They are not as well publicized, but we really enjoyed the visit. Perhaps it was because the day was much warmer and the swimming quite accessible and refreshing. There is an entrance charge to the village that manages the lakes, but that is it. They have erected picnic areas and draw in many families in the region for a weekend outing.
We also visited the very pleasant city of Comitan. It has a lot of colonial charm and is a lot like San Cristobal, but without the tourists. Until recently, the poor roads made it difficult to reach, so tourism is much less developed. We stopped for dinner in a nearby ex-hacienda that has been lovingly restored to a hotel, museum, and restaurant.
At the moment, getting in and out of San Cristobal is something of a challenge. We drove in from the Central highlands on the Mexico City to Veracruz cuota, then Veracruz to Villahermosa, and over to Palenque, which is not very far from the Tabasco border. Palenque is very accessible and a great place to visit. It took us the better part of a day to make a leisurely drive from Palenque to San Cristobal. It is mountainous, with the correspondingly winding roads, but there are some nice waterfalls en route to see. The shortest route in or out of San Cristobal going back to the central highlands is via the Chiapas capital of Tuxtla Gutierrez, a singularly unattractive city (although the nearby Sumidero Canyon and town of Chiapa de Corzo are worth the visit). The distance between San Cristobal and Tuxtla is about 50 miles, but it takes at least 1 1/2 hours to drive it, if you are a careful driver - a real white knuckler. I believe you lose about 4000 feet in elevation on that drive - it winds precipitously and has many steep downhill portions. A new cuota is under construction, but we heard it has been stopped for lack of funds. If and when the cuota is finished, it will really open up San Cristobal and probably change its character some. As it is, an amazing number of heavy trucks and busses go in and out of the San Cristobal on this road. I would not travel in front of any heavy vehicle for fear it will lose its brakes and plunge into your rear. The cuota from Tuxtla to the Villahermosa - Veracruz cuota is mountainous and scenic, but much better. Although San Cristobal locals claim you can drive from there to Puebla in eight hours, it took us nearly two days at a much more leisurely and safer pace.
All said, I believe Chiapas is one of the most interesting, beautiful and climatically pleasant places to visit in Mexico. It is just a bit hard getting there, particularly by car or bus. Flights go into Tuxtla, and of course bus service can be had from there to San Cristobal. We rented a good small car with A/C from Hertz in Tuxtla for $30 a day, including all taxes and fees, while our van was being fixed. Car rentals in San Cristobal were much more expensive. When using San Cristobal as a base for exploration by bus, you are probably best off going with local tours (tour offices are all over the centro), as opposed to public transportation. They don’t cost much more, and will get you to your destination more efficiently, making stops at points of interest along the way.