We find history, culture
After our rapid fire highlights hitting tour of Central America, we found ourselves crossing the border into our 14th and final country of the trip - Mexico! We spent our first week on North American soil in Chiapas, Mexico's southernmost state. Our first stop was Palenque, site of an extensive group of Mayan ruins set in the jungle. These structures were very different from the Tikal ruins but equally impressive. We spent an afternoon in the beating sun climbing enormous staircases and exploring the jungle scenery. The town of Palenque itself isn't much to see, but it does have by far the best fresh fruit popsicles ("paletas" in Spanish) in the entire universe, hands down. Bronwen had one a day while we were here - coconut, watermelon, strawberry- and is still dreaming about them.
We said goodbye to popsicle heaven and moved onto San Cristobal de las Casas. This is one of the loveliest towns we have visited on our trip. Chiapas is Zapatista country, and San Cristobal was the site of a brief occupation in the '90's. The city remains proud of its Zapatista history. We saw two fantastic documentaries that show here weekly - "The Last Zapatistas - Forgotten Heroes" about the surviving fighters of the original revolution in the early 1900's and "Zapatistas- Chronicle of a Rebellion" about the movement from the San Cristobal occupation in 1994 to present day. It set a nice context for our visit to this interesting city. In addition to the revolutionary spirit there are a myriad of lovely churches, a vibrant market place, great restaurants, and a gazillion vendors in traditional indigenous wear filling the squares.
During our visit we took a tour to two nearby Mayan communities. San Juan Chamula is an entirely independent Mayan town, with its own religious and governmental leaders, who are legally recognized by the state.
The town has retained its indigenous traditions and we were able to get a glimpse of the rituals and customs that make up their daily life. Perhaps the most impressive aspect was a visit to their unique church. The architecture is traditional Catholic, but the Chamulas ousted the Catholic priests in the 60's and have been free to operate under their own religious customs since then. This includes an open floor plan with no pews, candles lining the walls and floor in an array of colors and patterns (each with their own meaning), live chickens and soda pop used in religious ceremonies, and mirrors around the necks of all the saints. Photography is forbidden inside the church, but try to imagine a huge cathedral filled with music, pine incense, thousands and thousands of lit candles, and people grouped together standing or on the floor in prayer. It was a breathtaking, spiritual place.
We moved on from Chamula to the town of Zinacantán, another Mayan pueblo with its own distinct style. While the Chamulas wear heavy black wool skirts (women) and wooly sweater tunics (men), the outfit for Zinacantán women is vibrant purple embroidered blouse with long cotton skirts. The major religion here is still Catholicism, which our guide Cesar (quite a funny guy) says means less tourism for this town because there are "no chickens in the church". We met a group of weavers who showed us their work and then made fresh tortillas for us on an open fire. Cesar further explained Mayan customs and religion and we discussed how the indigenous way of life is being threatened by missionaries who think these customs come from barbarism and ignorance. It was really an eye opening look into an ancient culture continuing to try to find a place in this modern world.
We spent four days (that's long for us!) in San Cristobal, soaking in the sites, taking in a theatre production, shopping on the busy pedestrian walkways, and avidly people watching. Finally it was time to move on. Our next scheduled destination was Mazatlán, where Eli's parents live and would be eagerly (we hoped) awaiting us for a glorious month of staying in one place. Our options were 35+ hours of buses to get there or a 3 hour flight. So after seven months on the road we boarded our first plane of the year and took off into the skies.