Indigenous Culture at San Cristóbal de las Casas

Eleanor Hughes


San Cristóbal de las Casas, a highland town in Mexico’s southern state of Chiapas, bordering Guatemala, was founded by Spanish in 1528. Colonial architecture can be seen in its cobbled streets, churches are dotted throughout town. There’s also a high proportion of indigenous people, given its close proximity to indigenous villages and communities, making up its population of approximately 186,000. Wearing traditional clothing of long woollen, shaggy black skirts, a sash-type belt and blouses, and their black hair plaited, the Tzotzil and Tzeltal women, descendants of the ancient Maya, are a common sight in the town laden with woven and embroidered textiles to sell.

Wandering San Cristobál de las Casas

Mustard-yellow Catedral de la Cristóbal stands in Plaza del Paz with Cruz Atrial, a cross, solitary in the middle of the cobbled square. It’s a good spot to get your bearings. Discover back streets of colourful buildings with their contrasting window and door frames lining narrow stone footpaths knee to shin high above the road level. Behind wooden doors glimpse big courtyards, or garages which open through to homes and greenery. For good views of the town visit Guadalupe Church and San Cristóbal Church both on high points at either end of town.

There are several pedestrianised streets in the central area which are rather touristy with bars, restaurants and cafés. Spend time people watching seated out on the pavement during the day. At night, the streets of Real de Guadalupe and Miguel Hidalgo are especially lively.

Not only are there handcrafts laid out on pavements and in plazas, but the Mercado de Artesanias de Santo Domingo, a colourful outdoor market surrounding Iglesia Santo Domingo, is packed with indigenous crafts. It’s open daily.

Hundreds of handwoven textiles are on display along with videos showing the traditional weaving process and how the clothing is made at Centro de Textiles del Mundo Maya – the Mayan Textiles Museum. On the upper floor of the former convent of Santo Domingo de Guzmán, Av. 20 de Noviembre s / n., it’s open Tuesday to Sunday, 9a.m. to 5.45p.m., while a store there opens 9a.m. to 2p.m. and 4 to 6p.m.

Traditional textiles can also be seen at Casa Na Bolom, located in a nineteenth century home. It also holds thousands of books on the region’s culture and history including information on the indigenous Maya people of the Lacondon jungle, the only indigenous group who escaped Spanish colonists.

Learn about Mayan Medicine and Practices

Museo de la Medicina Maya, the museum of Maya Medicine, is located a long walk out of the main tourist area, in a fairly rundown neighbourhood at Clz. Salomón González Blanco #10. Consisting of six rooms in a simple building it’s very dim inside. Although information is in Spanish, photocopied notes are available which are very interesting but can only be read outside in the light of day! You’ll see models in various scenes including childbirth, candle making – candles being an important part of healing rituals, gathering around a Mayan cross, pillico making – a compound of wild tobacco and limestone used to protect people from envy, and a chapel. Information boards detail medicinal uses of plants and animals. Learn about herbalists, and doctors who use prayer combined with candles and cleansings using eggs, chickens or plants to cure the ill. Gain an insight into indigenous birthing rituals with a short video on childbirth Mayan style when the baby is painted in egg and a chicken passed over it to deter bad spirits.

A Day Tour to San Juan Chamula

The village of San Juan Chamula, situated approximately 10 kilometres from San Cristóbal de las Casas, can be reached by public bus. Better still, take a tour to understand this town which revolves around a mix of Catholic religion and ancient Mayan practices. It’s incredibly interesting.

Autonomous, it is home to around 75,000 Tzotzil people, Mexico’s second largest indigenous group, and run by three different groups of leaders, the most important being the religious leaders. Few women don’t wear the traditional shaggy skirts or men, the white or black shaggy tunics. Wander the cemetery where different coloured Maya crosses, depending on the deceased’s age, mark graves. Visit a religious leader’s home, where pine needles cover the floor of a room and bromeliads hang from a large rectangular frame in the middle, a natural barrier protecting a concealed saint from the evil those entering may bring. The town is especially interesting on a Saint’s Day. The pew-less church floor is covered in pine needles, the air thick with incense smoke. Religious leaders wear white turban-like coverings on their heads and stand in a circle with the flags of saints, thumping flagpoles to the repetitive sound of drums, guitars, small harps, flutes, accordions and rattles. Men carrying pox circulate. An alcoholic drink taken during prayers, to apparently open people’s hearts and minds, it is even given to young children. Outside gunpowder explodes from metal tubes calling people to church. Healing ceremonies also take place in the church where coloured candles are burnt, the colour depending on the patient’s affliction, and a chicken maybe passed over the person’s body absorbing bad spirits, with its neck then wrung. Coca-Cola is sometimes drunk, the belching it induces thought to expel bad spirits from the body. Photography in the Church and of processions is strictly forbidden.

Visit the Flower Village

Known as the flower village, greenhouses of flowers dot the area, San Lorenzo Zinacantán is also indigenous. It can be visited on a combined tour with San Juan Chamula, located seven kilometres away. Women wear black woollen skirts with cotton shawls covered in flowers while men wear flowered tunics. See textiles woven at a local home, and in the sparse kitchen watch tortillas being made with a wooden press, cooked over a fire. You’ll get to eat them with kidney beans and ground pumpkin seeds. Pox tasting can also be done. This sugarcane derived, 40% proof alcohol burns halfway down. 

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