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A place that reignited a passion for travel, and I can’t show anyone – San Juan Chamula, Zinacatan




Sumidero Canyon, Mexico

The high walls of Sumidero Canyon

As we rattled along the Sumidero Canyon in a motorboat I was distracted. Something that’s been bothering me for a while now, after travelling for so long, is that certain beautiful aspects of travel can become mundane.  The captain was doing his best, but after watching thousands of ibis take flight in the Venezuelan Pantanal seeing a pair of pelicans isn’t mind-blowing. Memories of tip-toeing barefooted through a Gambian crocodile farm at midnight makes the sight of a lone basking alligator merit a brief – “Oh, okay”.

Birds in Sumidero Canyon

Birds in Sumidero Canyon

Sumidero Canyon is reasonably pretty, but I couldn’t get as enthused as some of the other passengers, as was a bit jealous. The same goes for crossing rope bridges, doing bungee jumps and sitting on the beach.

The worst victim of this is churches.

Everywhere in the world there are churches, temples and shrines and an endless stream of visiting tourists. The two worst places for this were Egypt and South East Asia.

On a group tour of Egypt we averaged 2-3 temples a day. Somewhere between starting in Cairo and finishing three weeks later in Karnak I became completely “templed out”. A year later I went on a Thailand, Laos, Vietnam, Cambodia circuit. Wherever we stopped, there was always a nearby “unique” temple that I felt like I ought to see or I might be missing out. By the mid-point of the 6-week trip I was skipping the temples, and finding cooking classes or bike rides to get away from it all.

So when we arrived in San Cristobal the evening after Sumidero Canyon and I asked what was interesting nearby, I was a bit depressed that the overwhelming response was that I just had to see San Juan Chamula – a church. “Oh, okay”.

Main square of San Juan Chamula

The main square of San Juan Chamula

San Juan Chamula

A short collectivo ride got us to the village of San Juan Chamula. The surprisingly large town square was dominated by a tall white church. Our driver stipulated we could go in but must not take any photos. Previous tourists had disregarded this warning and had their camera forcibly removed and destroyed. There’s no police or military allowed here to keep order – the Chamulas have their own enforcers.

Packing the cameras away, we went inside.

The first thing that struck me was the lack of furniture. The central area of the church is bare, with just green pine boughs scattered across the floor. The walls are lined with wooden statues of local saints – some wear mirrors to deflect evil, others are stored upside down as punishment for letting the previous church burn down.

San Juan Chamula Church

San Juan Chamula Church – this is as far as the camera goes

The church of San Juan is considered a hospital. People come from the surrounding countryside to pray and heal the sick. Despite the number of worshippers, there hasn’t been a congregation for years. Instead the individual devotions here draw on pre-Mayan influences, some Catholicism and one or two unexpected new ideas.

The church has 5 types of lloles, or shaman: bone, plant, animal, mountain (for general prayers), and blood. Depending on whether the illness is physical, psychological or spiritual, these lloles will prescribe different forms of prayer.

The Chamulas kneel on the floor, set up their candles and sacrifices, and then chant in an arcane form of the Tzotzil language. These prayers release the sickness from the diseased souls.

The more severe the illness the more candles and more colours of candles are required. Also eggs, flowers and petals can be waved over the patient to draw out the sick spirits. In severe cases a chicken may be killed to remove curses. Eating the meat would pass on the curse so is avoided, although the sullied meat can be intentionally fed to enemies.

The sickness released into the air must then be breathed in by the praying people. To avoid becoming ill themselves they then burp to force out the disease. In the past people drank chicha or Pox (pronounced Posh, a 38% proof cane alcohol) to induce burping.

At some point, representatives of Coca-Cola came to the town and sponsored huge advertising signs, a local football field (and some say the local mayor). Once everyone was drinking Coke they planted the idea that their drinks were specially designed to produce spiritual burps. The subsidised drinks are much cheaper than the local Pox, which may have swung the townspeople more than tradition.

Now the worshippers can be seen sipping from bottles of Coke and Fanta to produce their burps. There’s no-one drinking the unholy flavour of Pepsi.

The roof of San Juan Chamula has banners arcing upwards to symbolise the original mountain setting, and the floor is strewn with pine needles. The church is cleaned out and the pine branches replaced every three days. We were there early on the third day, and the heady smell of pine, hazy smoke and burning copan resin leant an otherworldly feel to the whole proceedings.

I didn’t take any photos of the inside, but did find one on the web, here. I’m torn about linking, but it seems too high quality to have been taken surreptitiously.

There are also a couple of videos on YouTube from less scrupulous travellers, but I’m definitely not going to link those. If you do seek them out, take note of the outrage in the comments section from both Chamulas and more respectful visitors.

Despite it being understandably forbidden to interact with any of the worshippers inside San Juan Chamula church, it was incredibly interesting, and definitely one of those utterly unique, possibly once-in-a-lifetime experiences that I relish, and worthy of a whole lot more than an “Oh, okay”.

I appreciate that having too much choice, time and freedom to travel is not something to take for granted, but are there any once places that you see on route and where you once marvelled, you now just think “Oh, okay”?





Since leaving London in 2006 I’ve travelled, worked, volunteered and lived in over 90 countries. Highlights so far would be driving along the Silk Road from Beijing to Istanbul, a complete circuit of South America and volunteering with Habitat for Humanity in Costa Rica. I’m currently back in Beijing, as a base to visit more of Asia and attempt to learn Mandarin.


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