México III: San Cristóbal de las Casas & Chiapas

So far, there are an infinite number of sites competing for best view of my time so far in Mexico, from landing in Benito Juarez over endless kilometers of homes mingling with mountains, to the view of the deep mountains of Oaxaca from Hierve el Agua, to Monte Alban. But then I had another ethereal moment when I woke up during an overnight bus to see the sun rising over Chiapas.

Green and rainy, and at a high altitude, Chiapas stands apart from the largely arid and dusty regions of the first stretch of my trip.

When I was planning my route, I hit up Diego, who had just carved a similar path through Mexico. When I mentioned that I would be stopping in San Cris, he suggested that I couchsurf with his new friend Kevin. Actually, he said, “You will stay with my friend Kevin.” And then he contacted Kevin before waiting for my response, and that was that. Anyways, gracias tío. It became exactly the experience I had been seeking in a region I really knew nothing about. Casa Farrera is a woodland hideaway just outside the center of San Cristobal de las Casas, a blue and many windowed fixture adorned with hammocks and succulent…so, the dream home of a good majority of my friends. Kevin himself is a vault of information–on Chiapas, on sustainable agriculture, and on the Zapatista movement–to name some of the topics that were tossed around. He and his mother also introduced me and the two other couchsurfers to the gifted songstress Lila Downs, a musician of Oaxacan background, over tequila shots.

I also spent the weekend with two other Couchsurfers, an Australian named Kate now studying in Guadalajara, and a German named Isabel who just started a year long journey through Central America to learn Spanish. Kate, Kevin, and I visited two nearby villages with strong Mayan heritage. In San Juan Chamula, we entered the central cathedral for a truly staggering sight. Flowers hung from the ceiling, and live trees sprouted from floors covered in pine needles, every available surface reflecting green. And the indoor forest was bathed in the light of hundreds of candles. Even for the starkly non-religious, it is interesting to see the mix of Catholicism and Mayan tradition. This region is one of also the largest consumers of Coca Cola in the world. Many mom & pop shops and restaurants will tell you that they don’t have water–Coca Cola only. The drink had an easy transition here because refresco de caña, a similar beverage, is used in Mayan ceremonies as a gift to the gods. And so the church was also curiously lined with glass bottles flashing its label (an almost creepy marriage of advertising and religion). And in nearby Zinancantan, the entire town had closed shop and prepared for the Festival de San Sebastián. Every person wore traditional purple garb bearing embroidered flowers, the town’s greatest export. Kevin took us to a house where we could try pox (also spelled, and pronounced, like posh). Pox is a locally distilled liquor with a corn base and usually flavored with cinnamon, oregano, or hibiscus.

The center of San Cristobal de las Casas lived up to its reputation as a tranquil backpacker’s hub. If you were to ask people on the street what they do for a living, a large number would respond with “I make jewelry” or “I play the harmonica”. So, lots of art-oriented types. The word for dreadlocks is “rastas”, and yes, there are lots of those too. The markets hold a lot of wool goods and amber, along with other things I have found in other places, but at a cheaper bartering rate. I continue to crush colorful blouses and coffee beans into my backpack. The center is also very international, its businesses a reflection of its mass intake wealthy travelers seeking to put down roots. And so gentrification pushes Mayan residents further out as rent skyrockets amidst hostels, tae kwon do studios, and exotic cuisine (doner kebab y’all). Also, the number of people peddling goods on the street is soul crushing. Many indigenous children don’t finish the first grade and instead sell candy or woven dolls on the boutique streets and look at you with big sad beautiful eyes. In the end I started avoiding eye contact entirely.

Despite having followed the threads of socialism and Marxism in my undergraduate political science curriculum, I had never touched the Zapatistas of Chiapas. The Zapatista Army of National Liberation (EZLN) is a group that was born two years ago during the onset of the North American Free Trade Agreement, which worked to allow a monopoly by corporations and wealthy individuals over goods and laid waste to artisans and local producers. The Zapatista movement is a far left leaning social revolutionary movement seeking to return power to those marginalized groups finding themselves without representation or acknowledgment in Mexico’s government, impoverished by NAFTA and this new wave. There are cafés selling coffee and artisanal goods in support of the Zapatistsas. Also, there is a spot in town called Kinoki where you can cheaply rent a private viewing room from one of some 2,000 independent films and drink beer, where we watched Zapatistas: crónica de una rebelión (2004). One Zapatista colony outside of San Cris allows visitors that they deem untainted to enter to view its murals, which does not include those with a Mexican passport. It is a complicated political situation that I am excited to learn more about while living in the region, as San Cris is just a 10 hour bus ride from central Guatemala.

We also visited the Museum of Mayan Medicine, where I learned about herbal remedies and also saw a placenta for the first time. Also, it Is ritual for women to give birth while kneeling on their knees and hugging their husbands, coca cola on deck. It is especially interesting because I will be living in a Mayan region where these practices may be incorporated into the public health system.

At this point, my friends Sjela and James from earlier on once again caught up with me and so I transferred to a hostel called Puerta Vieja to spend a night with them in the town. This is my favorite hostel experience yet. A beautiful converted colonial style house by day, by night its enormous garden with its hammocks and open air became the site of a bonfire and mezcal shots for all. It is flower child paradise, where people who meant to stay for two nights find themselves still there months later. **Also, rugged men rampant.

And when I thought I had found the most awe inspiring sight, I was again taken aback by Chiapas. The Cañones de Sumidero outside of San Cris can be accessed by boat, with walls a mile high, overtaken by growth. The birds soaring overhead did not reach even a third of the height.

Luckily, like I said, it is just a 10 hour bus ride away. Ya tengo ganas de volver.

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