Visiting San Juan Chamula’s Mystical Church

Chamula Church in Chiapas

A few rays of light shine through the misty haze, the pine needles below your feet soften your steps, and a chicken clucks a few feet away.

No, it’s not early morning on the farm. It’s the interior of the San Juan Bautista temple in Chamula.

This unique place of worship provides a hearty dose of culture shock that will rattle your senses and blow your mind.

A day trip to the indigenous towns of San Juan Chamula and San Lorenzo Zinacantan, known as Chamula and Zinacantan, is one of the best things to do when visiting San Cristobal de las Casas in Chiapas, Mexico.

Both towns are testaments to how the Tzotzil people have managed to retain many aspects of their pre-hispanic culture despite centuries of colonization and evangelization.

Visiting Chamula and Zinacantan is a cultural experience not be missed!

San Juan Chamula Cemetery

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The Best Way to Visit Chamula & Zinacantan

Chamula and Zincantán are both about a 25-minute car ride away from San Cristobal de las Casas in Chiapas, Mexico. You can easily get there by using any of the transportation options below, but the absolute best way is to take a guided tour. As you know, we usually avoid tours like the plague, but this is one of the very few times that I will insist you take a guided tour.

Why take a tour? Because I’ve visited these villages twice, both with and without tours, and you won’t understand much about what is happening without a guide. These towns are autonomous and practice their own unique form of religious syncretism.

The first time I stepped into the Chamula temple was absolutely mind-blowing. But, without a guide, I had absolutely no clue what was happening, and I ended up with tons of questions and zero answers. Believe it or not, Google does not know everything! This time, I insisted we get a guide – Michael thought I was crazy – and I finally got answers to all of my questions (sigh of relief).

You may be wondering what on earth could be happening inside that you require explanation. I mean, it’s a church, right? Most people have been inside churches or at least know about what goes on inside them. People sitting in pews, praying, bla, bla bla.

Wrong! The San Juan Church in Chamula is it’s own mystical world full of chickens and chanting (keep scrolling for more on this).

Even though you can totally visit the church and town on your own, if you want to understand what you’re encountering then make sure to take a guided tour to both towns from San Cristobal or at the very least hire one of the guides in the plaza to give you a tour of the temple once you are in Chamula.

San Juan Chamula Cemetery

Cabins in San Juan Chamula Chiapas

How to Get to Chamula from San Cristobal de las Casas

San Cristobal de las Casas in Chiapas is the closest city with hotels. We stayed there over a month in an Airbnb (get $40 off your first stay), but there are also tons of great hotels on Booking.com.

By Tour: We took (and highly recommend) the culturally-responsible tour to Chamula and Zinacantan with Alex y Raul (www.alexyraultours.wordpress.com). They speak English, Spanish, and even some Tzotzil (indigenous language spoken in these towns).

Their tours depart daily at 9:30 am from the large cross in front of the cathedral in Plaza de la Paz. The cost is $250 pesos and includes transportation and an English-speaking guide. You don’t have to make reservations but, here’s their info if you want to contact them : phone (967-152-2004 & 967-119-6894) and email ([email protected]).

If you’d rather reserve your tour in advance and pay with a credit card, take a look at the guided tour options below.

By Colectivo: Catch a colectivo (shared van) near the produce market on Calle Honduras. There’s a clearly marked terminal with colectivos going to San Juan Chamula for $18 pesos. These will drop you off at the main plaza in San Juan Chamula, where the temple is located. From Chamula, you can either take a 1.5 hour walk or a colectivo to Zinacantan.

By Taxi or Car: Hire a private taxi to take you for about $100 pesos one way or rent a car.

By Horse: There are tour agencies all along the Andador Guadalupe in San Cristobal that offer horseback-riding tours to Chamula and Zinacantan. Prices start at $200 and vary depending on what is included. 

Sheep in the street in San Juan Chamula, Chiapas, Mexico

Word of the Day: Syncretism

Before we continue, you need to learn a new word: syncretism. I don’t think we had ever heard of this word until we got to Chiapas. I’ll assume most of you haven’t either. Religious syncretism is the term for when two or more religions collide and form a hybrid.

You’ll need to know this to understand what is happening inside the Chamula church. Their religion is a unique combination of their ancestors’ pre-hispanic Maya belief system and Catholicism (which their ancestors were forced to convert to during Spanish colonization).

One example is that the Chamulans believe that saints are Jesus’ siblings and pray to different ones according to their specific needs. Much like their ancestors prayed to different gods for different requests. Anyway, back to the story…

San Juan Chamula

Since we hadn’t made reservations for the tour, we arrived at the Plaza de la Paz quite early. We quickly spotted a man who we intuitively knew was somehow part of the Alex y Raul Tours and we were right. He turned out to be our driver.

We waited for the rest of the group to arrive and the 5 of us piled into the van along with our guide, Cesar.  It was a quick (about 20 minutes) and scenic ride to San Juan Chamula, through areas with wooden cabins, crops and lots of goats. 

We were dropped off in front of an old, half-constructed church without a roof. It was surrounded by dead, brown pine tree branches on the ground. They looked to have been purposefully strewn about the area on top of dirt mounds and…headstones? Yep, it was a cemetery, but unlike any I had seen before.

Multi-colored Crosses and a Roofless Church

There were mounds rising from the ground and some had 2 or 3 colored wooden crosses at the head. Cesar, our guide, explained that the deceased could have multiple crosses here and that each color represented a different age group: white for babies, green or blue for children, and black for adults.

The now dead pine branches had once cut fresh and used to decorate the tombs during the recent Day of the Dead celebrations. The roofless church was one of many failed attempts by the Spanish to evangelize the town. 

Jail Cell in Chamula, Chiapas

Who’s That in Jail?

From the cemetery, we walked over to the plaza and passed by the town market on the way. Right next to some market stands, there was a building with open rooms with bars. These were the town’s jail cells.

Chamula is an autonomous town with its own justice system. And part of that system are the open jail cells for men. The public view is intended to shame the criminals for their offenses.

Chamula Market Day in Chiapas

Furry Wool Skirts

We kept walking and arrived at the plaza with the San Juan Bautista church at one end. Even though it was a Thursday, the plaza still had lots of produce stands and craft vendors. Some Chamulan ladies in furry black wool skirts were busy arranging oranges into perfect pyramids.

Sundays are the village market days in Chamula and the best time to visit to see the most action both in the plaza and inside the temple. Wednesday have the least amount of activity because it is believed that shamanic rituals should be avoided on this day.

Off Path Travels in San Juan Chamula, Chiapas

Entering the Mystical Church of San Juan Bautista

There was a large green cross covered in fresh pine branches in front of the church. The church itself is white with bright green trim along the top and on the arch around the entrance. There were some men sitting at a desk next to the main door.

Cesar went around to the side of the church to pay the entrance free for our group of tourists ($25 pesos) and came back to greet the men and usher us in.

Chamula Church Entrance in Chiapas

We were warned many times beforehand that photography is not allowed inside the temple. We all made sure to put away our cameras and phones before stepping in. There are many rumors about what has happened to tourists that break this rule.

I doubt the stories are true, but I didn’t want to find out first-hand. I double-checked my camera was stored well inside the backpack and turned off the ringer on my phone.

Pine Need Carpets and Copal Incense

We stepped through the small wooden door and into what seemed like another dimension. The windows provided little light and there were no lamps, instead hundreds of burning candles lit up the interior.

Only the most determined rays of sunshine shimmered through the haze of copal smoke and fell upon the banners of colored fabric hanging across the ceiling. The floor was padded with a carpet made of green pine needles.

The altar at the front was dedicated to San Juan Bautista (St. John the Baptist) instead of Jesus. There is no priest here and it is not recognized by the Catholic church, which is part of the reason why most Chamulans call it a temple.

Statues of saints in framed boxes with dozens of small mirrors hanging from their necks lined the walls, along with tables covered in glowing candles.

Coca Cola in San Juan Chamula Chiapas

13 Candles and Coca Cola

There were no pews in this church, just small groups of people kneeling or sitting on the floor. They created their own spaces, free of pine needles, and attached colorful candles in groups of 3 or 13 to the floor with the melting wax.

The color of each candle represents something they are praying for: green for a good harvest, white for an abundance of food, orange for understanding/tranquility, and black for protection from evil.

A variety of sodas were also arranged amongst the candles and chosen according to their color. Coca Cola (being black) is used to ward off the bad spirits.

Another drink used during the ceremonies is a local liquor called pox (pronounced posh). It’s usually kept in reused water bottles and considered a sacred part of the rituals performed by the shamans. Copal (a tree resin) incense is burned as another source of keeping evil away.

Chickens That Cure

The shamans in Chamula can be male or female. They are called upon to help people when they are sick, have misplaced their souls after an accident, or are having other life issues. They use eggs or live chickens during their cleansing ceremonies to pull the bad spirits or illness away from the human.

Volunteering as a Spiritual Leader

The spiritual leaders volunteer their services to the community for one year. Since it’s a great honor and source of pride to serve as a spiritual leader, there is a waitlist of up to 26 years. During the wait, they save money to be able to buy all of the materials they will need for ceremonies and rent a house in town that will be used solely for their services.

The Fresh Scent of Pine

After exiting the church, we visited one of the spiritual leaders’ houses (photos not allowed). The houses are all clearly marked by an archway of branches and flowers at the entrance. Unfortunately, the spiritual leader wasn’t home, but his wife was.

She was busy arranging copal into several volcanic rock incense burners in the shape of jaguars. She was surrounded by piles of instruments, firecrackers, candles. There was a large wooden hut with a roof made of freshly cut pine branches which took up most of space in the room. Inside there was an altar with a saint statue and many more floral decorations.

The Village Watering Hole

There had just been a very important celebration the night before and it seemed two of the revelers were still at it. A very drunk, yet happy and calm, man walked over to our group and introduced himself… about 5 times. Our guide explained that there were no bars in town and alcohol was only served at the spiritual leaders’ houses.

That explained why these two men were still here. He handed our new friend some pox, which he quickly downed in one gulp and then he went on his way. We were also given a shot of pox. I sipped it and the strong alcohol scorched its way down my throat. I think I’ll stick to mezcal.

San Lorenzo Zinacantán

Zinacantan Chiapas

We hopped back into the van and drove about 10 minutes to the neighboring town of San Lorenzo de Zinacantan. Zinacantan means “place of the bats.” We were dropped off at the main plaza to explore the churches.

Zinacantan Church

A Dining Table in a Church

Unfortunately, the large, main church had been heavily damaged by the recent earthquake and was closed for repairs. However, we visited the a smaller church housed in a temporary tin roof building next to it.

These places of worship are similar to the one in Chamula, but with their own twists. The church had a large rectangular dining table in the middle and the same framed boxes with saints lined the front. There were tons of beautiful fresh flowers and lots of light streaming in from the windows.

Zinacantan Temporary Church

The temporary building seemed more like a regular Catholic church. It had pews and a group of women praying in rows while holding a bible.

Both churches were decorated with a massive amount of beautiful, fresh flowers. This was in part because of yesterday’s celebration. Also because flower production is one of the main sources of income in the town. Tons of greenhouses everywhere!

Laying Down the Law

Zinacantan Shoes

After the church, we peeked into the judicial center of this autonomous town. A room with 3 important looking men at a table at one end and rows of benches facing them. The men wore heavily embroidered purple shirts – the traditional clothing in Zinacantan – and the women wore shawls and skirts made in the same style.

Visiting an Indigenous Family’s Home

Zinacantan House

Speaking of which, another main source of income for many in this town is textile production. We visited the home of a family of weavers that used the traditional (pre-hispanic) back-strap looms to create stunning clothing, tapestries, blankets, and tortilla warmers that they sell to the tourists that visit.

Zinacantan Weaver

We were mesmerized by a young girl rhythmically weave the colors of yarn in and out of the fabric attached to the wall while leaning back on the strap to hold it taught. Her grandmother sat on the ground embroidering a shirt by hand.

Zinacantan Tapestry

Coffee for 20

We were welcomed into a small stand-alone room made of clay and straw. It turned out to be the kitchen. There was a cabinet in the corner with too many mugs to count. My only-child mindset made me assume that they must be for tastings of some sort for larger tourist groups.

Zinacantan Kitchen

I was totally wrong. This was the one kitchen for an extended family with over 20 people living on this plot of land. Cesar explained that married couples usually move into their parents’ homes and that this kitchen was the production hub to feed the entire family.

Zinacantan Corn

He opened a back door which revealed a picturesque landscape with a mountain backdrop full of crops, colorful clothing drying in the sun, and farm animals.

Chamula Church Archway in Chiapas

Chamula & Zinacantán in a Nutshell

There are tons of things to see and do near San Cristobal de las Casas and visiting both the towns of Chamula and Zincantán should be on the top of your list.

But, if you’re limited on time, experiencing the unique and mystical blend of religions inside Chamula’s temple should be your top priority.

Don’t visit San Cristobal de las Casas in Chiapas without seeing one of the most unique churches in Mexico (and maybe the world): the San Juan Bautista Church in San Juan Chamula.

Visiting Chiapas? Check out our other posts:

Have you ever encountered a unique melding of religions during your travels? We’d love to hear all about it in the comments below.

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