San Juan de Chamula is a small Tzotzil town, just 10 kilometers from San Cristóbal. This unique village is fiercely independent, with its own laws, police, and judges. That is why we wanted to tell you all you have to know before visiting Chamula.
Places like this need respect, ethics, and responsibility.
Due to its proximity to San Cristóbal De Las Casas, Chamula is becoming more and more popular among tourists. Most of the agencies in San Cristóbal offer half-day tours to Chamula and we definitely recommend to take part in one of these. Visiting Chamula without a guide is “like watching tv with no audio” (we stole this from a guide in Palenque).
ALL YOU HAVE TO KNOW BEFORE VISITING CHAMULA, MEXICO
CHOOSE ALEX Y RAUL FOR YOUR TOUR
Among all the tour agencies we cannot recommend enough Alex y Raúl Tours. Alex y Raul is an independent tour operator that is not represented by any other agency. The only way to take this tour is to show up at 9:30 am at the cross in front of the cathedral of San Cristóbal. The tour leaves every day and will bring you to the communities of Chamula and Zinacantan. The reason why we loved this tour is that both Alex and Raul are well integrated by local guides with indigenous background and direct knowledge of the indigenous people’s culture. The tour can be attended in English and Spanish but more importantly, the guides speak also the local language, knowing deeply the culture is a plus and allows you to have an authentic and responsible experience.
IT IS GOING TO BE A MYSTICAL EXPERIENCE
San Juan de Chamula is well known for its church. The main attraction is the Iglesia de San Juan Bautista located in the main square. To visit the church tourists have to pay an entrance fee, the ticket office is on the left side beside the church. Be prepared, what you are going to see is nothing related to what you probably expect to see in a place like that. This is something you will never forget.
Once you walk through the door you will be overwhelmed by the smell of incense. The church has no pews and the ground is covered with freshly-raked pine needles and candles of various size and colors. The entire church glows.
Usually, the church is crowded, locals are making offerings, singing and it’s not uncommon to see animal sacrifices. During the ceremonies, people drink Coca Cola and a local alcoholic spirit, pox. There is a meaning for this, don’t be afraid, ask your guide. Our experience in the church was very intense, for two atheists like us, it was incredible seeing how the church was spiritually charged with intense emotional energy.
This place more than others needs lots of respect. No photo in any circumstances is allowed. Please don’t interrupt ceremonies and avoid staring at people. Consider yourself as a guest.
NO PICTURE, PLEASE!
Among the list of all, you have to know before visiting Chamula this is the most important one. Mayan people consider that a piece of their soul is stolen with every snap, knowing that, avoid to photograph people. Sometimes tourists ask for permission but most of the time is better to just respect their belief and keep your camera down. Panoramic pictures are allowed. If you really want to have a memory of this incredible place the main church is very picturesque.
BE CURIOUS, ASK QUESTIONS TO YOUR GUIDES
Few hours are not enough to understand Chamula and its culture. Find a way to get the best out of it, ask questions, even the most stupid one. Alex and Raul know everything. For example, did you know that in San Juan de Chamula only men pay taxes? Did you know that to became a Spiritual leader there is a long waiting list? That is actually good being a Spiritual leader it’s an onerous and expensive task. It can cost up to $10,000.
THE COMMUNITY IS A SERIOUS THING
Living in Chamula means be part of a strong community. For example, locals who convert to other faiths, however, are not tolerated. They are forced to leave the community. Chamula has its own rules, the community own schools, police force, and prison. Thanks to this system the crime rate is extremely low, also because when serious crimes are committed, the consequences will be your life. Furthermore related to the criminal justice system of Chamula, the jails are open to expose the criminals to public shame. It is also important to say that the Chamula express their strong feeling of community by serving it. Another important fact to know is that the community of San Juan Chamula does not even allow outsiders to reside in the town.
CHAMULA IS NOT ONLY IGLESIA DE SAN JUAN BAUTISTA
Another interesting site in San Juan de Chamula is the cemetery. Generally speaking, Mexicans find themselves more comfortable among the dead than other people in the World. So don’t get shocked if you don’t see a single headstone in the cemetery or people enjoying a meal on top of a tomb. The day we visited Chamula we had the chance to see a funeral. People were singing loudly and playing traditional songs, kids were running and jumping above the tombs and ladies were hoeing graves with dirt. It was definitely a singular experience.
It may sound weird but it was so fascinating the same time, there are many meaning related to death and the way local people celebrate it. If you are planning to visit Chamula with Alex y Raul they will drop you at the cemetery as your first stop.
Hope this list of all you have to know before going to Chamula will help you out to plan your trip to this incredible village acting like a responsible tourist.
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