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Exploring small towns and ruins of Chiapas

Posted: Wednesday, Jan 30th, 2013


A pair of marimba players treat restaurant customers to a selection of popular Mexican tunes in San Cristóbal de las Casas. Marimbas play a huge role in the music of Chiapas, Mexico. (Photos by Tarmo Hannula/Register-Pajaronian).


SAN CRISTOBAL de LAS CASAS, Mexico — After three nights in San Cristobál de las Casas, my wife, Sarah, and I decided to venture into the outback and view a few small towns that friends had suggested. Our book, “Mexico Handbook” by Footprint, only lightly touched on the towns Zinacantán, San Juan Chamula and Ocosingo so we bought tickets for a tour of the first two towns.

Rodrigo, our blunt and fiercely direct guide, with Jalapeño Tours, drove eight of us about 30 minutes to Chamula. Rodrigo told us he had some Mayan ancestry and deftly displayed his skills with handling a few of the dialects of the region as well as clowning around and joking with local kids who knew him wherever we went. As we pulled into Chamula, a tiny town slapped on the side of a wooded mountain, we were terrified by our first sight, a rabid dog, foaming at the mouth and lurching along the roadside in a pained manner. We stayed inside the bus until the poor animal ambled off.

Rodrigo first led us right into a house in Chamula and introduced us to a few folks who were enmeshed in some religious ceremony of lighting clumps of dried herbs and candles. Rodrigo explained how the religion here was comprised of a bunch of elements taken from Mayan culture, Christianity and elsewhere. The woman of the house headed out the door and our group followed her to the main plaza where an amazing colorful church stood. I’ve seen dozens of churches of all kinds all over Mexico, Costa Rica, Guatemala and in South America, but nothing compared to this (see photo). After paying a small fee at the entrance Rodrigo led us into the church after warning us that photography was strictly forbidden indoors.

“And don’t think you’re being clever by sneaking photos with your handheld phones,” Rodrigo said. “These people are not dumb; and besides, they all have iPhones and they know what you’re up to.”

Indoors my amazement doubled. Thousands of lit candles, standing in various formations on the concrete floor, cast a yellow glow throughout the otherwise dully lit room. Dozens of local worshippers knelt on the floor facing the front altar mumbling prayers, hands clasped in front of them, many with their eyes closed. Much of the floor was covered with a bed of long pine needles, which emanated a sweet pine scent. Some folks waved clumps of smoldering herbs about, leaving trails of thick scented smoke. One person gently swung a metal incense burner back and forth. This was probably the thickest air I have ever experienced, and I don’t just mean smoky air: The spiritual density was thick enough to lean on and not fall over. Of course, being a photographer, it was crushing me to not grab a few frames of this incredible sight.

Outside we spotted a group of about 50 men leaving some congregation hall all garbed in cowboy hats and black bushy wool overcoats that looked like something a caveman would wear.

Next we barreled off in Rodrigo’s beat-up minibus to another tiny town, Zinacantán, about 20 minutes away. About 98 percent of the population here are Tzotzil Maya, typical of highland Mayas in southern Mexico and Guatemala. In pre-Columbian times the people here had strong trading links with the Aztecs in central Mexico, mainly dealing in salt, tobacco, cacao and coffee.

Rodrigo took us into a home where the friendly people welcomed us and put on a demonstration in their primitive kitchen on how they make tortillas and tacos. The small tortillas, started out as a small ball of dough shaped by hand, were placed in a simple press and squeezed out into a flat disc. The disc was tossed onto a hot ceramic platter perched on a heap of burning wood. They were flipped over in a few seconds, lightly toasted to perfection and then stacked on a plate for consumption. Each of us was invited to make our own tacos with a selection of Mexican cheese, beans, toasted and crushed pumpkin seeds, and a few chili sauces. I don’t know if I was starving or what, but those little tacos were fantastic! And the teen girl and her grandmother who put on the show were so gracious and friendly.

Rodrigo dropped us back in San Cristobál. The next morning we caught a minibus for a two-hour drive through the mountains to Ocosingo, a somewhat larger town than the last two. Many of the plain wood plank homes we saw on that drive were among the most primitive homes I’ve seen. Once, in the Yucatan, we stayed a night in a home about 18-feet across, an oval shape of vertical wood sticks lashed together with rope with a corrugated tin roof and a hard-packed dirt floor. We slept in hammocks that were slung between support poles. In the middle of the night a mammoth hog slammed into the side of the stick shack during a tussle with other barnyard animals and the whole place, hammocks and all, heaved back and forth.

The homes we observed on the drive to Ocosingo were mostly unpainted rough timber with one door and two windows, usually perched on a hillside on short stilts.

After being deposited on the outskirts of Ocosingo we caught a cab and the friendly driver, Jose Morales, drove us to Hotel San Jose, a place he recommended, $22 a night. Jose told us that the Toniná ruins, less than 10 miles away, were free on that day. He offered us a great price so we checked into the hotel and Jose whisked us out to the huge stone pyramid complex in the lush green countryside.

Though similar to the famed Palenque ruins, which draws world visitors, Toniná also features a wider range of various Maya styles. Seven large stone platforms graduate up to the top of the main pyramid, which is 10 meters taller than the Temple of the Sun at Teotihuacán in Mexico City, another world famous site. Carvings on stone tablets and walls of Toniná leaders and events are abundant here and a small museum at the site offers an extensive display of some of the more important and refined discoveries at Toniná.

Jose trudged the entire distance with us, sometimes in a light rain, pointing out highlights we would have never spotted, and giving interpretations and thoughts about the ruins. He toted our bags around and took photos of us with my camera and went way out of his way to help us get a full dose of the area. We tipped him royally after he hauled us back to San Jose Hotel. Jose’s tour and warm company was certainly a bright moment in our journey.

I had initially planned this story to unfold in a three-part series. However, because our return flight from Tuxtla Gutierrez was stalled an entire day, we seized the opportunity and tagged on a day visit to Mexico City — which I have not been able to squeeze into this third part. So, in a bonus fourth installment, I’ll share photos and thoughts about exploring a city of more than 20 million people with a quick waltz through Palacio de Bellas Artes and a walking tour of one of the world’s largest plazas, the Zócalo.

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