12/26/12 – be warned, this post is a long one
Christmas has come and gone during the 6 days we’ve been in San Cristobal de las Casas – we celebrated in true overlander style with Christmas lights, festive pinata bashing, and potluck dinner by the open air fireplace here at Rancho San Nicolas (no joke, good old Saint Nick). Team STT, Tranquilos, and our new German friends Claudia and Alex enjoyed a stellar evening of good food and good company in front of the fire, listening to more flavors of Christmas music than you can shake a stick at (Justin Bieber Xmas CD – who knew?).
The Burls grooving to some curiously good Justin Bieber Christmas tunes
Nothing like a good old traditional Christmas pinata bashing
Chestnuts roasting by an open fire – OK that’s actually the pollo asada staying warm, but roll with me here…
After a rainy start, San Cristobal has turned out to be an amazing spot. The weather has been crisp, clear, bluebird skies – warm in the sun and pleasantly chilly at night. We really scored on our choice of camping spot at Rancho San Nicolas – it is located on the eastern outskirts of town, far enough on the periphery to be forested and quiet but still within a 15-20 minute walk to the town center/pedestrian district. Only 80 pesos per person per night gets you water and electric hookups, nice gated grassy area free of sand, ants and mosquitos, clean bathrooms with hot water showers (if you keep it brief), wifi, and one very friendly little yellow camp dog who will steal your flipflops and your chicken if given the opportunity. A word of advice on getting to the Rancho – if you follow your GPS it will lead you across the center of the city through a tight maze of narrow cobblestone streets barely large enough to accommodate the Sprinter, let alone any larger vehicle. Instead, look at Google maps and find the Periferico, the ring road that surrounds San Cristobal. On the eastern edge of the ring, zoom in to find where the Periferico intersects with San Nicolas street – this way is about 100 meters of rutted dirt road but will get you essentially to the doorstep of the Rancho without having to traverse the entire width of San Cristobal.
Good news! We finally got a chance to bust out the mountain bikes for some real riding here. Bryan and Doug paid Joel from outfitter Los Pinguiinos for a guided ride on local trails. Bryan brought his GPS which allowed him to repeat the ride with me the next day, and then a third time again with Doug on Christmas day. The trail passes through a traditional Maya village, past a beautiful 18th century church, through the “cloud forest” above San Cristobal, and then finishes with a sweet downhill reminiscent of Bend, OR. The ride is about 24 km, and maxes out at about 8,000 ft elevation – having just come from sea level my lungs and legs were on fire, but it was totally worth it
San Cristobal was one of the centers of the Zapatista (EZLN) rebellion in 1994. Since that armed rebellion was quelled by the Mexican army, the Zapatista movement (focused on autonomy and equal rights for the indigenous peoples of Chiapas) has continued, but primarily as a peaceful effort to raise awareness of the plight of the people. San Cristobal remains a hotbed of Zapatista activity, as evidenced by the many shops selling EZLN propaganda, tee shirts, etc.. The vast majority of Zapatistas are members of the many Mayan tribes, so it was not unexpected when they chose 12/21/12 as the day for a San Cristobal protest. My photos do not do justice to the sheer mass of humanity slowly marching around the center of town, primarily because the photos cannot convey the silence of the people. 20,000 protesters in matching black balaclavas, uttering not a word – no conversation amongst themselves, no yelled slogans. It was eery and moving at the same time.
Zapatistas, 20,000 strong, men, women, grandmothers and children staging a silent protest by slowly marching around the San Cristobal central square in the pouring rain on December 21, 2012 – the end of the Mayan era of Baktun.
Another highlight of town was my visit to the Centro de la Medicina Maya. The museum itself is a pretty low budget affair, but worth a visit for the English language video they have of an interview with a Mayan midwife and the rituals and “cleansing” processes surrounding a live Mayan birth. The demonstration herb garden and the onsite herbal pharmacy were pretty cool too.
Mayan women purchasing herbal remedies at the pharmacy on the premises of the Museo de la Medicina Maya – a working clinic, herbarium, and educational center in San Cristobal
This post would not be complete without mention of our day trip to San Juan Chamula, a Tzotzil village about 14 km outside of San Cristobal. Chamula is known for many things – it’s status as the birthplace of the EZLN movement, it’s huge Sunday market where one can find amazing textiles from surrounding village weavers, and for it’s church. Man that is one funky church. Although it is technically a Catholic church, it has no altar, no pews, and there has been no mass held there in over thirty years. Instead, it is place where the native villagers blend their own unique version of religion – combining prayers to the many saints whose altars line the walls of the church with chicken sacrifice (yes we saw that happening) and various pagan cleansing rituals. It’s impossible to adequately describe and you’d have to see it for yourself to believe it because although outsiders are allowed into the church to observe the worshippers, there is absolutely, positively, 100% no photography allowed.
Church of San Juan in San Juan Chamula – nominally Catholic, truly Tzotzil
Leaving San Cristobal today, headed toward Palenque, the site of the December 21st non-end of the world