On one of my days out from San Cristobal I took a trip out to see life in a couple of traditional Mayan villages.
There are plenty of tour companies offering trips to the two closest villages, Chamula and Zinacantan. If you really hate taking tours, you could just drive out (or hire a taxi) yourself without taking a tour, but then you would miss out on all the excellent cultural information from the guide.
My Airbnb host recommended César to me, saying he was one of the best guides, so I went with him. There were eight of us on the trip and they then divided us up into separate Spanish and English tours, leaving just four of us per group, so it certainly didn’t feel like a tour in the conventional sense.
Our first stop was the village of Chamula, just a short drive from San Cristobal. Chamula is a self-governing autonomous community. They have their own council, voted for by the local people.
They are a polygamist society and a man can have as many wives as he wants.
There is very little crime within the community. They have two small jail cells (one for men and one for women) for petty offences. For more serious offences they have the death penalty (something not recognised in the rest of Mexico). The death penalty was last carried out on a couple of men who raped and murdered a local woman a few years back. The men responsible were beaten, strung up and then burnt to death.
The church is a big focal point of village life. From the outside it resembles a standard, Catholic church (it was built by the Spanish), however inside there is no alter, no pews and no pulpit. Instead the floor is covered in pine needles and the people light candles, placing them on the ground and chanting. Animal sacrifices are also often an important part of the rituals. It was a fascinating place (no pictures allowed inside, so you’ll have to go and see for yourself).
Their practices are a blend of Catholicism and more traditional religious practices that pre-date the Catholic church.
The priest has been largely banished, although he does come back from time to time to perform baptisms.
The second village we visited, nearby Zinacantan, was a little different. Unlike Chamula, there is no polygamy in Zinacantan.
César took us to a traditional home where the women and girls were involved in weaving, producing table runners, shawls and such for the commercial market. A table cloth takes around three weeks to weave by hand using these traditional methods. They sell them for 60 pesos (around £2.50).
The church in Zinacantan is more traditional. There were no candles on the floor and no Shamen sacrificing a chicken here; there were simply a few people praying to various saints.
Many travellers I met said that they felt uncomfortable visiting the villages, as if they were going to watch animals in the zoo. There is certainly an element of that and I also felt a little intrusive. However I think that if you go there with a genuine curiosity, rather than to gawp and point your camera at them, then it’s ok. Our bit of money goes to help the community in some way.