This past weekend we ventured on our first big student-planned trip to the state of Chiapas. It was a long drive but surprisingly it wasn’t until around ten hours in that everyone was awake at the same time. I think we collectively took enough Dramamine to knock out an elephant.
We arrived in Chiapas about 45 minutes outside of San Cristobal de las Casas which is where our hostel was located. We walked around on the docks and got to see for ourselves why Chiapas is known for its beautiful waters. For a small fee of around $13, we hopped on what ended up being a 3 hour boat tour of the Cañon de Sumidero. I tried to compare it in my mind to the Grand Canyon in the US but it was extremely different. Here the highest peak was 1000m high (which is huge) but the river was still flowing strongly and widely through the canyon.
One of the beautiful sights that we saw was the view that became the emblem of Chiapas. It is based on a view of the canyon from the river that hasn’t changed in hundreds of years. There were so many incredible views that even the highest quality photos cannot capture.
After ogling at the cactus (cacti?) that grew on the vertical rock face, we found crocodiles! They were up to six feet long and we definitely got a little too close for my comfort.
We also saw this incredible waterfall that is aptly named the Christmas Tree Waterfall. It looks small and puny from the picture and from the water so our guide decided that we should physically come to understand how wonderful this waterfall is. Aka, he drove the boat under it and got us all soaking wet. It was already a little chilly so that just added to the fun.
When we finally left for San Cristobal, we found our hostel owners at Hostel Iguana waiting for us. We definitely left an impression because when the hostel owner checked in on us around 11pm, he found that we had built a fort out of the bunk beds and were inside the fort telling scary stories. I love this group. I, unfortunately, fell asleep before they got really scary so I missed out a bit but the ones I heard were spine chilling!
Not to mention that we ate our own body weight in bread and jam every morning. I am just happy that I finally took after my wonderful mother and had my own tea bags and splenda stashed in my bag. I thoroughly enjoyed my Earl Grey although the powder creamer was a little off-putting.
The next day we visited San Juan Chamula, a village outside of San Cristobal and home to the Chamulas, an indigenous group. It was very close by because San Cristobal de las Casas is set up as a central meeting location and is surrounded by various villages filled with indigenous peoples who often cannot communicate with one another due to differing languages. The Chamulas are a very interesting people who call themselves Catholic but do not practice anything close to what is normally thought of as Catholicism.
Let me give you a little history lesson. When the Spanish arrived in Mexico, their first goal was to evangelize the peoples (well, after mining as much silver as they could get their hands on). From what you have heard of pre-hispanic culture, you may think of the indigenous groups of Mexico as savage heart-eaters but their culture actually assimilated with Catholicism rather well—to the disbelief of the Spaniards. In general, pre-hispanic religions had many gods each with their own area of expertise. In Catholicism, we have God in three Persons and all the Saints. While Catholics do not worship the Saints, Catholics pray to them for intervention with God. The indigenous viewed the Saints as gods themselves. How is this possible, you say? The Saints are each patrons of different areas and you pray to them for assistance in this area, correct? The indigenous simply interchanged their original gods with the Saints. With this foreknowledge it is easier to understand the Chamulas and how pre-hispanic cultures as a whole assimilated to Catholicism with a dash (or often a shovel) of paganism.
The church in San Juan Chamula is unlike any that I have ever seen. From the outside, it looks like any other church but inside it is radically different. The floor is covered with fresh pine needles and there are no pews or places to sit. Instead, statues of saints line the wall with candles melted into the ground in front of them. Each Saint, depending on whether or not they help the people who pray to them, have clothes put on top of them. Some even bear mirrors so that the supplicant can see him- or herself praying. The Chamulas view some of the saints, especially Saint John, their patron, as superior to God. We were not allowed to take pictures because the Chamulas, who live without electricity, as a culture cannot comprehend how cameras capture a moment. In traditional beliefs, capturing an image of yourself causes you to lose one of your souls which itself causes you to become sick until you can restore that soul. Therefore, we surreptitiously snapped a few photos before one of the guys got yelled at.
I bought lots of gifts in the market and honed my bargaining skills. One vendor tried to take advantage of my gringa-ness and asked $150 pesos each for two scarves. Final price? Both for $180. She probably still took my money but I can deal with that. And hey, they are scarves! I may or may not be wearing one of them right now. We all know that I have a ‘problem’ with scarves. (See post: The Temptation of a Crunchy Leaf)
Later that night we returned to San Cristobal to explore the Zocalo and downtown. There were a lot of jewelry stores that we went into which showcased amber which is the most popular and present gem in Chiapas. We almost had a few girls (myself not included) get nose piercings but they were talked out of it…for now. I had a lot of fun in San Juan Chamula and downtown San Cristobal partly because I was wearing the shirt I bought in Quetzalan and blended in a little more than usual. The blonde hair is always helpful when I’m trying to fit in here.
To end the weekend we went to the Lakes of Montebello which are five lakes of varying shades put together amid gorgeous mountains. As is our luck, it was frigid and raining. Regardless, a few of us swam in one of the lakes anyways! It was absolutely freezing but totally worth it. Great people, great places and great fun. That pretty much sums up most of Mexico!