human settlement of Chiapas, Mexico

San Juan Chamula, usually referred to as simply Chamula, is a small town in the mountainous jungles of Chiapas in southern Mexico. Chamula is the main town of the indigenous Tzotzil people (a Maya civilization who are sometimes also called the Chamula). The town feels a world apart from the rest of Mexico. Chamula is fiercely independent, they grudgingly accept the presence of outsiders, and they maintain a strong local government with its own police force that generally does not accept help from state or federal authorities.

The market in San Juan Chamula

Understand edit

Most Chamulas wear traditional garments. Women wear heavy black skirts that are made from naturally tinned wool, men wear white vests also from wool. The economic status can be seen from the garments; heavy thick skirts and pure white vests indicate wealth whereas thin skirts and spotty vests are worn by the poor. Though some Chamulas have attained some level of prosperity, the vast majority is very poor.

The Chamula people have a very distinct culture. Most visibly, their religion, though considered Catholicism, is a blend of Christianity and Mayan traditions. Their main place of worship is the church of San Juan Chamula. If you get to know Chamulas a little more you might also witness some baffling features in their everyday life and value system: they have taken law into their own hands and sometimes use force to bring people to justice. At the same time you may find families who see children foremost as an economic burden or people who are willing to sell their children like some commodity not showing any emotional connection towards their children as they are making an offer to do so. Be mindful of local customs and be aware that locals will often object to being photographed.

Get in edit

Map of San Juan Chamula

There are colectivos to Chamula leaving all day from the zocalo (town square) in San Cristóbal de las Casas. The one-way fare for the colectivos is M$22. Although you do not need to go with a tour -- it takes about 20 minutes in a colectivo -- taking a guided tour does help give you context for what you see in the villages, and with a good guide you really get a feel for daily Maya life that you could never gain alone.

Most of the agencies in San Cristóbal offer half-day tours to Chamula and Zinacantán that leave at 09:30.

Local taxis in San Cristobal will take you to Chamula for about M$120 (negotiate the price with the driver before getting in the cab). The ride takes 15-20 minutes.

Get around edit

It is easy to walk anywhere in San Juan de Chamula.

See edit

The church
  • 1 Templo San Juan Bautista (Church of St John the Baptist), San Pedro. It is the main church in Chamula, and is a must see. Inside you can see a seemingly random blend of Mayan traditions with Catholicism. The main altar shows San Juan (John the Baptist) instead of Jesus, and saints who resemble gods are lined up along the walls church. People go to church to be healed rather than to pray for salvation. They perform rituals on the church floor (covered by pine needles instead of benches) in the community of the family which usually involve a lot of candles and sometimes Pox (liquor) that is also served to small children. You must not take any photos in the church -- this is very offensive to the people and could result in your camera being confiscated as well as fines or even jail time. M$30.
Graves in the Panteon San Juan
  • 2 Panteon de San Juan (St John's Cemetery), Cementerio 8, San Sebastian. Picturesque local cemetery that's uniquely Chamula. They plant pine trees at the head of graves rather than using headstones and build a low earthen mound covered by pine needles. Many graves have flower arrangements as well, almost always marigolds. A ruined historic temple occupies the middle of the cemetery. It's a fascinating small cemetery that locals are just dying to get into!

Do edit

Buy edit

There is a big market in front of the church -- you can buy locally made handicrafts of wool. The local Chamula make purses, skirts, dolls, etc. The town is extremely poor and it would be helpful if you supported the community and purchased some of their handmade goods.

  • 1 Mercado de Artesanias, San Juan. M-Sa 08:00 - 20:00, Su 08:00 - 18:30. Wide range of artesanias and hand crafts, especially blankets and textile products. There are also food and produce vendors.

Eat edit

  • 1 El Mirador, Av Yaal Vakax 14, San Pedro. Tu-Su 09:00 - 20:00, closed M. Casual traditional food served in a spacious second-floor dining room with the best views in town. Big glass windows line the dining room which has views of the market and streets. Good snacks (antojitos).
  • 2 Vinajel Cafe, San Sebastian. Immaculately clean, modern coffee shop with bright inviting dining room and friendly staff. Specializes in coffee and chocolate drinks. The mint hot chocolate is a winner. Variety of breakfast plates.

Drink edit

Tzotzil communities invented pox, a distilled spirit common in Chiapas. Typically 80 to 100 proof (40-50% alcohol), pox is made from a blend of corn, wheat bran, and sugar cane or piloncillo. It's sometimes described as a cross between rum and whiskey. According to local traditions, drinking pox can help you see the underworld.

Sleep edit

There are no lodging options in San Juan Chamula. Virtually all visitors come on a day trip from San Cristóbal de las Casas.

Stay safe edit

Rule of Law is not really upheld in the Chamula area. Although there have been no major incidents involving tourists, take into account that issues are often resolved by force. (One could argue that this anarchic system has been established in response to the centuries of negligence and despise by the government and society; quite contrary to the response of the Zapatista movement though.) This is to some extent facilitated by the fact that San Juan Chamula has its own police force and that regular police or military are not allowed inside the village.

In the past there have been numerous incidents (e.g., in late 2015, people who went to collect a payment for a car were burned alive; also in late 2015, the entire hospital was taken for ransom when a child died after extreme negligence from its family; in mid 2016 a group of people including the mayor was fatally shot on the town square). Since crimes usually go unpunished, the area is also notorious for car theft and said to house drug labs.

However, the community appears to have a huge interest in you coming to their town and markets which has apparently kept tourists safe from any harm.

Go next edit

This city travel guide to San Juan Chamula is a usable article. It has information on how to get there and on restaurants and hotels. An adventurous person could use this article, but please feel free to improve it by editing the page.