A visit to Chiapas, in a remote corner of southern Mexico, offers lost Maya cities, isolated waterfalls and indigenous tribes who live as if the Spanish had never arrived in 1519.
The old colonial capital of San CristĂłbal de las Casas is a great place to start exploring this Mexican state. The central plaza is lined by colonial mansions, and a short distance north of here is Santo Domingo, a cathedral with a Baroque faĂ§ade that combines Oaxacan and Guatemalan styles, making it look as if it had been carved from candle-wax. There is a pinkish tinge to the stone.
The most unforgettable experience of this trip is the church of San Juan in nearby Chamula, its village inhabited by Tzotzil-speaking indigenous Maya. These people wear extraordinarily bright costumes and live in houses made from mud mixed with pine needles.
From across the ZĂłcalo, San Juan looks like an ordinary white Spanish church. But the hot, sooty interior is crammed with thousands of flickering candles and there are pine needles sprinkled all over the floor. The walls are lined with glass cases containing statues of Saints, some with mirrors attached to their chests, and a man is playing a melancholic tune on a concertina. The burning of incense is choking. All around, people are singing or chanting. Figures on the floor drink from an oily bottle a spirit known as pox, or âwhite water.â They then down Coca Cola, before burping loudly to expel evil spirits. One woman removes a live chicken from the bag beside her, raises it above the candles, and with eyes closed and a look of intense concentration on her face, she chants, and then, shockingly, wrings the chickenâs neck.
The Maya hold these healing sessions if they have a problem in their life-if they are ill or their crops fail, for example. The chicken represents freedom because of its wings, and its sacrifice brings back health and good fortune. The dead chicken is kept inside the bag so no one can touch itâit has absorbed evilâand then it is buried in the hills. Whole families come here, sometimes three times a day, to meet with their shaman. They sometimes bring offeringsâparticularly eggs, because the embryo represents a living thing. Witnessing this ritual is a unique and moving experience-an enduring memory to tell your grandchildren in years to come!
Near the village of ComitĂĄn, just outside San CristĂłbal, the Hacienda Santa MarĂa is worth the bumpy roads to get there. Itâs a sunny, tranquil spot, with views across a green river valley reminiscent of England with bees buzzing around hives and shady courtyards, and some absorbing 16th-19th century religious paintings in the chapel. The small restaurant serves organic food grown in the gardens. Rooms here come at a budget price, yet have chandeliers and are furnished with antiques.
On a guided tour of Chiapas, you can head down to the Usumacinta River at Escudo Jaguar, bordering Guatemala. Lanchas are narrow, yellow-painted boats with a roof of tin and reeds, which sail you down river to the remote ruins of YaxchilĂĄn where you can explore the PequeĂ±a Acropolis.
A climb up 200 steps to Edificio 33 deposits you at a palace with beautiful carvings. There is a headless statue in one room and next door the head is displayed on a plinth. Local Lacandon legend has it that when the head of this statue is replaced upon its shoulders, the end of the world will come. YaxchilĂĄn is an exciting place, exuding an aura of mysticism. It is completely wild, without any tourist trappings and only reachable by boat. Visiting gives you a sense of how the first explorers felt when they stumbled across this city.