The highlands of Chiapas

Leaving the Pacific coast with eyes filled with sun, ocean and sand, I headed towards San Cristobal de las Casas, the heart of the Chiapas region. High in the mountains, it welcomed me with fresh morning air, chilly nights and heavy rains: the rainy season was starting to claim its territory. I discovered here a city of Spanish architecture and living pre-Hispanic traditions, graffiti walls and indigenous woman selling their crafts, dressed in black wool skirts.

One foggy morning we headed towards the Cañon de Sumidero, where trees grow on stones, and crocodiles bathe in the afternoon, and ibis birds nest. The little town of Chiapa de Corzo, that we also visited on that day, made me feel I’ve stepped into a slower rhythm of life, with vendors calling out their merchandise, people walking lazily, enjoying their ice cream or their fresh fruits covered in chili sauce.

But it was in the village of San Juan Chamula, some 10 km out of San Cristobal, where I came face to face with the life of the indigenous Tzotzil people, the true inhabitants of the highlands of Chiapas and one of the Maya tribes still living in Mexico. It was a Sunday, a market day, and fruits and clothes and little nothings were on display in the central square. People were drinking, eating and listening to the music played by one of the small bands around. But the sight that would turn to be one of the most impressive experiences of my year of travels was waiting for me inside the village church. Unfortunately, I could not take any pictures there, so I can only try to describe it to you… Imagine you step through the doors of what seems to be a fairly common catholic church, not entirely sure what to expect. Imagine that, the moment you enter, you are struck by the scent of pine and, lowering your eyes, you notice that the floor is completely covered with green pine boughs. Imagine that, in front of you, the big space of the church is lighted by candlelight, groups of tens of burning candles, neatly aligned in even rows, directly on the floor. Imagine that everywhere, in every corner and around every statue of a saint, there are fresh cut flowers. Imagine that long patches of fabric come down from the ceiling of the church and are fixed on the side walls, as if peaks of the mountains. Imagine that through all this, a murmur of voices, some louder, others more silent, reaches your ears. And that, after taking a moment trying to take all of this in, you start walking. And you start noticing details of rituals which belong to an era I had thought no longer existed in Mexico: people kneeled together in front of a ceremonial offering of drinks, food (or even live chicken), incantations uttered in the unfamiliar Tzotzil language, candles and incense sticks burnt on the floor. It is so that I was dragging myself around this strange church, impressed with the intensity and serenity of every scene, with the power of the belief which seemed to emanate from the prayers I was hearing, with the feeling that I was stepping into a place that which was both sacred and surprisingly alive. So much alive that I could almost feel it in my feet…

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