I don’t even know how to start. Visiting San Juan Chamula was probably one of the most surreal events during my travels. It rarely happens that I’m lost for words, but when I returned from the trip and friends asked me how was the experience – I couldn’t say a word.
But let me try and explain to you why San Juan Chamula is a town you have to visit during your stay in San Cristobal de las Casas.
There are loads of amazing things to do in San Cristobal de las Casas but if you decide to do none of them (and just enjoy the incredible vibe of the town) – visiting Chamula should be one that you do. There are many waterfalls, canyons, rivers and magical towns in the world.
But there is only one San Juan Chamula.
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What makes Chamula village so unique and different?
San Juan Chamula is a town in the Mexican state of Chiapas located around 10 km from San Cristóbal de las Casas. With a total population of over 76.000, practically the entire population of the multiplicity is indigenous and speaks an indigenous language. The Tzotzil people and their language dominate the municipality.
Chamula’s inhabitants have preserved pre-Hispanic cultures and customs. And you can feel it as soon as you arrive – it feels like you have stepped back in time.
The women wear their characteristic black wool skirt made by themselves, which goes from below the chest to the ankles and is tied with a strip of cloth as a belt. Their hair is collected or braided, mothers wear the shawl wrapped around the shoulders and chest to carry their young children.
The town of Chamula appreciates its unique autonomous status within Mexico. There is no police or military in the village – the law is imposed by men dressed in shearling vests holding a large wooden stick in hand.
The unsuspiciously pretty white and the blue church looks out upon the town square, which turns into a local market where the inhabitants of Chamula buy and sell all kinds of food, clothes, and other items. You can see how the older women carve the wool to make the typical skirt if you’re lucky.
Inside the church, it is prohibited to take photographs or record, but you will find it challenging to snap a photo of the people in the village as well. They will hide their faces and be unhappy when they spot you trying to take a photo.
Many Mayan indigenous people believe that you are stealing their soul if you take a photo of their person. And in San Juan Chamula, beliefs are deeply rooted.
When arriving in Chamula, you really feel like you stepped back in time. Very much.
But the main reason why San Juan Chamula is so intriguing is its church - Iglesia de San Juan Chamula.
On the outside – a pretty white church with coloured symbols and blue painted arch. But when you enter this temple, nothing you have seen before bears any resemblance to what’s in front of your eyes.
What is happening inside of IglesiaSan Juan Batista is unlike any other religious ceremony you have seen (I would assume). Worshipers engage in unique rituals involving activities not seen in any Christian temple.
So much so that it is not officially recognized as a catholic community anymore. After the Spanish arrival in the 1520s, they attempted to adopt catholicism as well as to pacify the local Maya.
But this area of Chiapas is known for its rebellious nature and has a reputation of fierce independence.
The natives resisted the indoctrination and, as a result, blended their traditional rituals with the Catholics, creating their own rituals and establishing their own religious leaders. As controversial as their practices are – they reflect the Mayan people’s will to survive the colonial invasion. The brave blood of the Mayan fighters still runs through the veins of Chamula inhabitants.
So what is happening inside of the church of San Juan Chamula?
What did I see and experience during my visit?
It is crucial to arrive at Chamula with a certain mindset. Whatever you think is right or wrong – it doesn’t matter here. These people lived their own way for centuries, and our modern ways don’t matter nor apply to them.
After paying 25MNX to get to the church, I stepped in, following some other travellers. The door is not completely open, so you cannot see what is happening from the outside.
As I entered, I witnessed a church lit purely by thousand upon thousands of candles. No usual benches, ceiling lights or painted windows. There is no elaborate altar. In fact, the main altar at the front is dedicated to San Juan Bautista (Saint John Baptist).
Instead, I found floors covered in pine needles for people to sit on, candles spread across the floor and randomly put on tables. All lit. The first thing that hit me was the intense smell – a combination of fresh pine aroma and candle smoke. This smell had not left me for a while after I left the church.
The walls in the church are lined with statues of saints put into the cabinets and resting on tables with hundreds of candles lit in front of them.
On the floor, sitting by those tables and all over the church, I have noticed whole families, sometimes mother and daughter or father and son (what I assumed). They are lighting the candles, chanting, using a whistle or hailing the life chicken above the candles while chanting the prayer.
I spent nearly an hour in the church – wanting to see the whole ceremony (from start to finish), but it was hard to fully grasp what was going on as it seemed that they all differed somewhat.
They arrive at the church, often as a whole family, with bags filled with candles, pox (pronounced posh – a strong alcoholic drink), and soft drinks like Coca-Cola or Fanta. They drink fizzy soft drinks and pox (posh) – and burp to remove wicked spirits.
In the carton boxes, they carry live chickens.
Each family or group clears a space for themselves on the floor and puts a bunch of candles on the church tiles. The shaman prescribes the colour of the candles. They allow the candles to burn entirely during and after their ceremonies. The remains of multicolored wax are then scraped, floor cleaned and covered in pine needles. Like nothing had ever happened there.
Prayers are chanted aloud. One of the families was joined by a curandero (this is what I found out later on) who have laid its hands upon the afflicted and waved a live hen overhead of all the youngsters and children. They all finished up by drinking pox and coca-cola.
In another spot, a father is lighting a line of around 100 thin white candles on the floor while chanting, and a son sitting on some random chair playing with his phone. Once in a while, the son comes over and helps the father light more candles.
In front of one of the saints, a mother and daughter are kneeling in front of a set of lit candles. Mather is continuously chanting out loud, making noise with a whistle, holding her face and bouncing. The daughter is holding the chicken. Then mather takes the chicken and waves it over the lit candles. They share pox—more chanting. Then I see the daughter putting the chicken on the floor, next to the candles. The chicken doesn’t move. I ask myself – why this chicken isn’t moving? A few minutes later – chicken still lays still on the tiles – then I realize – it is dead.
I have learnt later that they strangle the chicken towards the end of the ceremony and dispose of it as it contains evil spirits.
I kept walking around and stopping once in a while to observe the ceremony. The longer I was there, the harder it was for me to leave. I didn’t really understand what was I looking at in most parts. I forgot about the world outside.
As I stepped outside of the church, the sun hit me hard, and I couldn’t adjust my eyes to the light for a while.
I found a step on the square to sit on. I sat there for a while – what had just happened? The square in front started to become alive. Women dressed in traditional clothing were putting up stalls and composing oranges on the tables in perfect pyramids. Men are walking around, boys pushing trolleys, some vendors selling granizadas and empanadas. Life goes on.
I wondered – I really wandered – how their day to day life looks. Do they talk about what they do in the church? Do they pray in their houses? How do their relationships look?
I can, of course, research it – but the truth is, I will never know.
The guides will often say that Chamula is a “people’s church.” It’s the people who control the church – the church does not control people. They carry on their own ceremonies – the priest is not required for most of their religious life. This is a system they fought for.
The Chamula church is managed and maintained by the parishioners, and the administration is shared through a mayordomos. Each person volunteers to become one for a year of service.
Mayordomos pay for the constantly-burning candles, clean the floors, replace the pine needles, cover any expenses that accompany the year’s calendar of festivals. They do this all out of their own pockets. The waiting list to become mayordomo is long. It can take up to 25 years – during which time the candidate is saving money so he can cover all the expenses.
It is easy to judge and detest what is happening in the church. But after all that I have learnt about Tzotzil and local indigenous people history, how they resisted and fought the occupation, how they stack to their traditions, language and rituals – for me, what is happening inside of the church are not only traditional practices. It is a representation of Maya’s fierce fight for their identity. And they have won.
These days, when identity is mixed up with making an impression via social media, when taking a selfie is the best part of travel and discovering new lands – Mayans are reluctant to be captioned by a camera and unfazed by the changing world. Their lives represent values that are slowly fading away within a western culture – solidarity, pride, respect and tradition.
Important Information and Tips about visiting San Juan Chamula, Mexico
Do not take any photos or record videos insight of the San Juan Chamula church. The fine if you get caught will be nearly 4,000 Pesos – and don’t think you will get away. As the parishioners impose justice, you could end up in jail or stoned – very unlikely, but photographers had their equipment smashed on the floor in the past. Risk not worth taking.
The entrance to the San Juan Chamula Church is 25MNX. You can hire a guide from in front of the church (around 100MNX) or opt for the organized tour, which will also include a visit to Zinacatan – a local Mayan village known for textiles and weaving. You can do them both independently, but some travellers claim that this tour is worth it as you get a lot of information along the way.
To get to Chamula from San Cristobal de Las Casas without the tour, you need to take a colectivo (18MNX one way) from behind the market. I had to search for it, so I provided a link to Google Maps here.
The church is open 24 / 7.
Near the San Juan Chamula church are the ruins of an older church destroyed by fire in the 20th century and the village graveyard. It’s another interesting insight into the local blend of Tzotzil Mayan religious beliefs and Catholicism.
In the past, crosses on the tombs were painted in different colours depending on who had died, yet this is no longer practised. But you can still find signs of the old tradition here. Black crosses are for people who died of old age, white is for those who died young and blue is for all others.
Exploring more of Mexico?
If you would like to read about my experience crossing the land border between Guatemala and Mexico you will find it in this article.
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