Usually referred to as just Chamula, this is the closest indigenous village to San Cristóbal (10km), as well as the most frequently visited. It has a population of fifteen thousand or so, and more than ninety thousand in the surrounding municipality – despite the fact that thousands of residents have been cast out in recent decades for converting to Protestant faiths (these so-called expulsados create many of the crafts sold in San Cristóbal proper).
Chamula and the surrounding indigenous communities are essentially self-governing, and have their own schools, police force, and a small prison with two cells that are semi-open so as to expose the criminals to “public shame”. Over the centuries, the village has been far more resistant to change than neighbouring Zinacantán, putting up fierce resistance to the Spaniards from 1524 to 1528, then acting as the centre of a rebellion described as the second “Caste War” from 1867 to 1870, inspired by the uprising in the Yucatán.
On the north side of the plaza, the two hundred-year-old Iglesia de San Juan Bautista, painted a festive turquoise, is the epicentre of Tzotzil Maya religion in the area, and one of the most intensely sacred spots in all of Mexico. A visit can be a humbling and moving experience. The interior is glorious, the floor covered with pine needles and the light of a thousand candles casts an eerie glow. Lining the walls are statues of the saints adorned with offerings of clothes, food and mirrors (thought to aid communication with the laity), while above the altar, San Juan, patron saint of the village, takes pride of place. The customs practised inside the church incorporate aspects of Christian and Maya beliefs – each villager prays by clearing an area of pine needles and arranging a “message” in candles, and rituals frequently involve tearful chanting, singing, an array of fizzy drinks – locals believe expelling gas through burping helps to release evil spirits – and posh, a sugar-cane alcohol. Eggs, bones and live chickens – which are sacrificed in the church and later eaten or buried – are also used in these ceremonies. There are no priests, masses or marriages here, only baptisms, and the church is open 24 hours (though tourists are welcome only during daylight). It plays a central role in healing ceremonies.
In keeping with Chamula’s very traditional atmosphere, photography is generally not appreciated, and it is explicitly banned inside the church.