(Continued from “Vamos a México! Part III: Palenque”)
I had spent the rest of the day wandering around the wonderful San Cristobal. The city made a marked difference to the much smaller, culturally unchallenged (yet still cosy and pleasant) Palenque – and had a great colonial feel about it. I fell in love at first sight and must have taken at least 300 pictures within only a few hours.
A local woman selling knitted Mayan animals
All you need is love
Just a yellow wall
One of San Cristobal’s many churches
After the green jungle, I was blinded by San Cristobal’s bright colours
The city’s crafts stalls around the Santo Domingo Cathedral (Templo de Santo Domingo) and the food market (Mercado) further north both impressed. My sincere “wows” at the sight of whole pig heads, piled crabs and over a dozen kinds of beans, all with their different colour, size and shape, produced a few smiles (and strange looks) from the vendors. A man selling beans was particularly puzzled. “Que bonito!” I kept saying as I took about 20 photos of his bean collection. He couldn’t get it; “It’s JUST BEANS”, was his sole response.
She runs the place
Those famous beans
The poultry section…
…and the fish section
…the promised pig’s head
…and the cheerful lady who kindly volunteered to put a pig’s leg back together for me
The highlight of my day was pacing the entire length of Real de Guadalupe to Guadalupe Cathedral (Templo de Guadalupe) and watching the sunset from its high steps.
Real de Guadalupe
As I walked back to the hotel along the darkening streets, I began to shiver in my short-sleeved top. Thanks to the altitude of over 2km, San Cristobal experiences rather cool night temperatures even in the summer.
DAY 8: SAN JUAN CHAMULA AND SAN LORENZO ZINACANTAN
The next day was a Sunday. I was awoken by a symphony of chiming bells calling pious locals to church and hurried outside.
Chiapas is known to be a very religious part of Mexico. Perhaps the best known example of adherence to exotic religious rituals is San Juan Chamula, a village 10 km from San Cristobal – my morning destination.
It got notably colder overnight. I stepped out of the hotel dressed rather inwisely and had to turn back and change into a proper hooded jacket reinforced by a scarf. It could not have been warmer than +5C degrees; white patches of mist separated mountain peaks from the ground in a most enigmatic way.
Frosty morning in San Cristobal
Frosty morning in San Cristobal
The Cathedral behind bars
Frosty morning in San Cristobal
I was a sole foreigner exiting the colectivo in Chamula. A few commercially minded local women almost ran towards me, cheap jewellery and textiles hanging across in every direction. They were followed by kids who, too, were selling everything from sweets to large wooden crosses. I fought hard to shake them off and continued into the village.
As a side note, I could not help being amazed at the variety of ethnic groups in Mexico. When I was younger, we used to get Mexican soap operas on Russian TV channels. Not one representative of a non-white race ever made it to the cast – giving me an impression that the population of Mexico was very much European-looking. The predominant number of Quintana Roo and Chiapas locals I saw though looked more Native American than European. And, with indigenous women sporting heavy woollen skirts and chattering away in Tzotzil Mayan language, Chamula was promising to be as traditional as it gets in Mexico.
The temperature on the altitude of 2km was a few degrees above zero; white mist was hanging low over the ground, like in San Cristobal. I walked up the obvious main street towards the zocalo. The village was waking up to a busy Sunday market. Locals on tiny chairs were congregating next to portable coffee makers. Shop owners were spreading their merchandise for public display. Everybody was on the move somewhere.
But most people were decidedly heading to one central location: the church. It is for most part the church of San Juan that makes Chamula such a special place. The church is famous for its unusual form of Catholicism – essentially a blend of century-old Mayan rituals and Spanish traditions. It is not allowed to take pictures inside the church, and foreigners have to pay a fee to enter. Regrettably hiding Nikie in my bag, I walked in, preparing to see something utterly unusual.
But what I saw was beyond imagination. The stone floor of the church was completely covered in pine branches. Mixed with copal resin incense commonly used for ceremonial purposes in southern Mexico, the pine gave the building a peculiar strong smell. Hundreds of multi-coloured candles of all sizes were dancing their flames on the floor and around the wooden images of Catholic saints lining the walls.
Perhaps thanks to the candles, the air inside was a blend of dust and hazy smoke. In thin long rays was the daylight flowing through the cracks between simple stained glass and the stone walls of the church. Strangely, most windows were on the eastern side of the building, with a single western window near the altar.
And the people! The people matched the environment perfectly. Most had come in large family groups and were kneeling down together in front of the saints’ images. Each family would clear a patch of the floor, arrange several rows of candles, drink ceremonial cups of Posh liquor or (rather comically) Coke – and the prayer in Tzotzil began. Some people were praying very emotionally, crying their requests out loud, tears streaming down their faces. I heard from some previous visitors that animal sacrifice (usually live chicken) in cases of dire family need was also not uncommon.
Next to the zealously pious parents, the visibly un-entertained children made quite a contrast. One boy spent most of his time playing a hand-held electronic game. At one point, he forgot to turn off the sound, and a loud computerised intro suddenly joined the unison of wailing voices – its inappropriateness rather amusing in a place like this.
I asked myself how Christian this church could be. There were images of some Christian saints around, but even those were strangely presented. The central point of the altar was occupied by St. John the Baptist, the patron saint of the village. Jesus was standing shyly on his right hand side and not even facing the church. And Virgin Mary? She was lost somewhere among numerous other saints in a lesser part of the building. This “indigenous Catholicism” was certainly an interesting interpretation of Christian faith. I wonder what the Pope thinks of all this.
As said, taking photos inside the church was not allowed, and I got a few shots of the facade instead. This was most certainly not forbidden – but a local man suddenly appeared next to me, loudly denouncing my photographic activity. The smell of bad alcohol spread well around; the man was dead drunk. At barely 9am.
Too early to trade
San Juan Church in Chamula
Sunday market in Chamula
Sunday market in Chamula
On the way back, I stopped at a textiles stall and haggled for an embroidered blouse. I had most certainly seen a very similar one with a lower price tag in San Cristobal, but wanted to have a token of my visit to Chamula.
The woman running the stall did not make the best impression though. She reluctantly knocked off the price a little bit (still keeping it above San Cristobal’s) and, when I handed her 200 pesos, raised her theatrical eyes to the skies and complained that she did not have any change. Oh you poor thing.
That was not particularly credible. When you do not have change, you ask the other person if they have lesser notes. Or you rush to the neighbouring stall (of which there were a legion) and ask to exchange your customer’s money. You most certainly do not loudly announce your liquidity crisis to the customer. Just in case they might lose their trust and walk away.
Which I did. Don’t you have this feeling sometimes that someone just does not deserve your money? Even if they are a poor woman in a textiles stall in a remote Mexican village.
After Chamula, I visited Zinacantan – another traditional village west of San Cristobal. Perhaps because of how much quieter it was in comparison, Zinacantan impressed me less than Chamula. I took some photos around the zocalo crowned by a central church (built in style prevalent in the rest of the region) and treaded a few semi-central streets. What surprised me most was the local population’s diametrically opposite attitude to photography. If the Chamulans covered their faces at a mere sight of my camera, then the Zinacantanees would come running over and offer to pose for money. Huh? Two villages were so close to each other physically and yet so different in such fundamental aspects.
Zinacantan’s San Lorenzo Church
Locals wearing traditional clothes, Zinacantan
Zinacantan’s winning team
I spent the rest of the day walking around the historic San Cristobal. My major mission was visiting the hill in the western part of the centre, on which the San Cristobalito church proudly stood.
For the church of the patron saint of the city, it was admittedly rather low-key. What made the hill special though was the Mexican flag. Yes, the Mexican flag. It was huge. I had never in my life seen a larger national banner before. It was so wide even the weakest touch of the wind would stir it, producing the same flapping sound the sails of a boat make in strong gale. I was mesmerised; I could just sit there and watch it forever.
Owing to flag-associated national sentiment or general secludedness of the location – the hill seemed to be frequented by young souls in love. I scared not one kissing couple during my photographic worship of that huge flag. And, as much as they visibly wished to be rather left alone, so did I wish to spend a few intimate moments with that incredible tricolor.
Next day, I had planned a popular tour out of San Cristobal – covering Rancho Nuevo Caves, Chiflon waterfall and Montebello Lakes. All points of interest are located between San Cristobal and the Guatemalan border.
Judging by the rattle of the simultaneously talking voices behind me, the minibus seemed to have at least twenty Polish people in it. Unconvinced, I looked back. The Poles only numbered four, of which two turned out to be living in London. Quite a neat illustration of the general statistical trend, then.
We first stopped at Rancho Nuevo Caves some 10km southeast of San Cristobal. Only about 400m are open to the public; the “Forbidden the step” [sic] bilingual sign at the end of the marked path prevented us from going much further.
Are you sure?
Getting deeper into Rancho Nuevo
The point of, erm, return
We could see the cause of the ball – our next destination – long before reaching it. The plunging Chiflon waterfall was impressive even at a distance. I could hardly wait to reach the main viewing platform about 800m from the entrance. Friends who had visited Chiflon previously had shared graphic stories about how excitingly soaked they got without even being that near the epicentre of the waterfall.
And they were right. The closer I got to the viewing point, the clearer it became that I should have just stripped to my swimming suit and brought along a waterproof case for my camera in the first place. By the time I put my foot on the finishing line (more like a puddle than an actual walking surface), I looked like I had just had a very decent shower. With all my clothes on. There was nothing to lose anymore. I wrapped my last remaining dry item – the scarf – around Nikie and ran towards the collapsing masses of water. Towards the unknown!
A few moments later, I had reached the platform. Streaming, whirling and splashing – all around me was water. The feeling was beyond this world. I wanted to scream. Scream and then dive into the waterfall, head forward. I had never been so close to a waterfall of a comparable size in my life.
But Nikie was with me – getting hopelessly wet in an already leaking scarf. Before retreating, I took a couple of close-up pictures of Chiflon. Or I should probably say I TRIED to take some pictures. Imagine standing under a running shower and trying to capture the showerhead on a camera. No matter how hard you try, what you will most likely end up getting is water. Lots of water. In the form of bubbles on your lens. But at least I did try.
On my victorious descent back to the car, I walked into the (still dry) Poles from my group. The same silent question seemed to be reflecting in their eyes. I don’t blame them; I was seriously wet. When I had finally reached a toilet to squeeze my clothes dry (with my hands, of course), a couple of sinkfuls filled up with the water from my scarf alone. Isn’t it fun getting wet on your holidays? Seriously, I’d do it again.
I was hoping the hot weather would dry my clothes in time for the Lakes of Montebello– our next destination. The 50 lakes are located very near the Guatemalan border and known for their serene beauty reminiscent of the alpine lakes. I was really looking forward to seeing them.
But it wasn’t our day. When we had reached Comitan, the last big settlement on our way to the Lakes of Montebello, even the biggest optimist would admit that something was wrong. A lengthy queue of cars was stretching along the road, preventing anyone from entering the town – let alone continuing to the lakes. What was going on? It was a group of protesting workers. Just like farmers do in Greece (about) every other week, they were blocking the road! In an industrial action kind of response.
I was not sure what the response was to, but there was little to be done. We had to turn back. Bye-bye, my hopes of seeing the Lakes of Montebello. Maybe next time.
DAY 10 – SUMIDERO CANYON AND DEPARTURE TO OAXACA
It was my last day in San Cristobal and I still had not seen everything planned. The biggest gap in my discovery was the Sumidero Canyon between San Cristobal and Tuxtla Gutierrez, the capital of the State of Chiapas.
The Canyon’s cliffs rise almost 1 km above sea level over the Grijalva River. It is best toured by boat, as its steep peaks are not accessible by road. The river is remarkably full of crocodiles; some were relaxing sleepily on the shores as we zoomed past. Vultures were soaring up above, and numerous pelicans were emerging far lower, right over the water. The Sumidero Canyon boasts abundant flora and wildlife.
I was really impressed by the beautiful tear-thin waterfalls streaming down the Canyon’s walls and the open-air stalactites. The fast boat ride made the sightseeing especially fun. Highly recommended.
Mountain deer, one of the symbols of Chiapas
One of Sumidero Canyon’s pristine waterfalls
Touring the Sumidero Canyon
Decidedly one of my best photos from Sumidero Canyon
Those annoying visitors
Getting a sun tan
On the returning ride to San Cristobal, we stopped in Chiapa de Corzo, a town with a population of around 50,000 – a convenient lunch stopover but otherwise not terribly remarkable. I spent the half an hour allocated to the town sitting by a local school and watching the pupils dash in and out. Interestingly, Mexican school kids all wear uniforms, and each school has its individual design.
View from La Pila in Chiapa de Corzo
Wake him up before you go-go
As green as it gets
My night bus to Oaxaca was not due before 8pm. After returning to San Cristobal, I did little else than wandering around town, popping into the souvenir market, responding to endless comments from local guys, taking random pictures and filling up on street food. It was a great, relaxed time.
Before leaving San Cristobal behind, I accidentally bumped into an old “friend”. That Travolta Grease-like hair could be seen from a neighbourhood away. I looked at the gentleman in question for a few seconds, trying to remember where we might have met before. But of course! It was my sleeping mate from the night bus to Palenque. He must have continued to San Cristobal that early morning I got off. Small world! I pretended I didn’t recognise him, but he visibly recognised yours truly.
It was off to Oaxaca for me. I headed to the station to catch my ADO bus. I had only taken an OCC bus before. The two bus companies are competitors in Mexico’s first-class bus transfers, and I had assumed they were nearly identical and perfectly interchangeable.
Wrong. If OCC made me crouch sleepless for the entire night with my neighbour’s (greasy) head on my shoulder – and put garbage in my ears in an attempt to block away the sound of the cheap TV programmes broadcast on the front television set – then ADO was light years away. First, I was given a personal headphone set. The TVs were silent! Second, the seats (or should I say thrones?) could beat European business class airlines in size. Finally, there were coffee making facilities, unlimited drinking water, a free soft drink at boarding and separate toilets for men and women. True bliss. Long live ADO!
I was also lucky to have a full row of four seats (+aisle) to myself. Not before surrendering my front-row legitimate seat to a grey Mexicano in a cowboy hat though. The 12-hour journey was turning out a walk in the park. Towards the end of the night, I even stopped noticing the endless legs stepping over my own – resting across the aisle right on the way to the toilet(s).
(Continued in “Vamos a México! Part V: Oaxaca”)