San Juan Chamula, a small town located 10 km (6 miles) northwest of San Cristobal de las Casas, is home to a fiercely independent Tzotzil community. The Tzotzil Maya are one of the largest indigenous groups in Chiapas, making up roughly one third of the state’s indigenous population.
San Juan Chamula is one of several Tzotzil communities located in the highland towns outside San Cristobal and one of three Tzotzil districts that together comprise the group’s ceremonial center. The town also serves as the main hub of religion and commerce for the Tzotzil Maya in Chiapas.
You can identify the people of San Juan Chamula by their traditional dress. The men wear black or white wool tunics called chujes that are belted around the waist. The women dress in embroidered huipils (blouses) made of cotton or satin blouses, shawls and long black linen skirts.
The Chamulans are talented artisans who produce high quality handmade embroidered blouses, bags and weavings. The best places to shop for these items are at the local artisans’ market, the Sunday tianguis (weekly open-air market) in San Juan Chamula or in crafts markets in San Cristobal.
You’ll want to step inside San Juan Chamula’s church, the Cathedral San Juan Bautista. Statues of saints line the interior walls and the floor of the church is covered in pine needles and lit candles. Visitors are welcome to observe the prayer rituals, but it’s forbidden to take photos inside the church.
The Tzotzil Maya of San Juan Chamula practice some interesting religious rituals that blend pre-Hispanic traditions with Catholicism. There are no pews and no alter inside their church. Instead, worshippers kneel on the floor, lighting candles and chanting. The rituals often include an abundance of soda and posh, an alcoholic beverage made from sugarcane. They also practice several ancient healing rituals, some of which use eggs, bones and live chickens that are sacrificed in the church and later eaten as a sacred meal or buried in front of the homes of the sick. Nearby you can also visit the town cemetery and ruins of the old church of San Sebastian.
The Museo de Medicina Maya (Mayan Medicine Museum) in San Cristobal focuses on the history and theory of indigenous Mayan medicine, including many of the rituals that are practiced in San Juan Chamula. If you're interested in learning more about these fascinating traditions and beliefs, it's well worth a visit.
San Juan Chamula is an important destination for Chiapas tourism and best visited with a knowledgeable local guide who can provide insight into the unique customs and traditions of the Tzotzil Maya.