How to Visit San Juan Chamula & Its Church of Syncretism & Sacrifice

by | Last updated Jan 25, 2021 | Mexico | 0 comments

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San Juan Chamula is a place of the senses. In all my travels, there’s rarely been such a destination that’s shrouded in both a mesmerizing mystery and a powerful spirit of resistance as Chamula. But it’s likely you’ve never even heard of this unassuming town, as it’s not entirely what you’d call being on the tourist trail. Indeed, a visit to the indigenous Tzotzil village and municipality of San Juan Chamula in Chiapas, Mexico is nothing like you’ve ever experienced before.

That’s because this village is known for several interesting things: its indigenous people (the Tzotzil are of Mayan descent), its traditional clothing made of black and white sheep fleece sewn into skirts and jackets, and its one-of-a-kind 16th-century church in which thousands of candles burn and pine needles blanket the floor. Oh, and not to mention, where live chickens are sacrificed and burp-inducing concoctions of Coca-Cola and pox (p-o-s-h, the local liquor) are drunk for the purpose of healing one’s body and chasing out evil spirits.

Did I mention that Coca-Cola here is cheaper than clean water? Yep! In fact, the state of Chiapas in southern Mexico has the highest consumption levels of Coca-Cola in the world. The average Chiapaneco person drinks over 2 liters of Coca-Cola and other sugary sodas (i.e. Pepsi) per day. As such, the poorest people in Chiapas, including indigenous groups like the Tzotzil, suffer from increasing rates of heart disease and diabetes, which are the top two leading causes of death in the state.

As I said, visiting San Juan de Chamula and its syncretist religion is an experience you’re unlikely to forget. As you walk the length of the town, you’ll get to hear the Tzotzil indigenous language being spoken and witness the traditional dress of the locals.

If you’re nearby in San Cristobal de Las Casas, a day trip to observe the mix of Catholicism and Mayan beliefs inside the church of Chamula is a must – if nothing but to experience a small town in Mexico teeming with tradition.

Here’s everything you need to know to visit the indigenous village of San Juan Chamula in one day!

Ultimate Guide: How to Visit San Juan Chamula in Chiapas, Mexico

What to Know Before Visiting San Juan Chamula

Chamula is steeped in Mayan belief. And although it can be extremely tempting to capture in time the oft weather-worn visages of many the senior Chamula woman or man, it is extremely disrespectful to take one’s picture without first asking permission.

Many Tzotzil people have strong, traditional roots stemming from their religion which is syncretist in nature (a mix of beliefs). The Tzotzil of Chamula has essentially merged their nature-worshipping religion and mix of ancient Mayan beliefs with that of modern Catholicism. For them, taking a picture without their consent is like stealing a piece of their soul. So if you’re a photographer wanting to chronicle your journey in Chamula, do so with respect and caution.

Also, while taking pictures of the outside of the church and within the town itself is deemed OK, you’re absolutely forbidden to take photos or videos once inside the church where the locals are worshipping. If you’re caught, it will not be without punishment, plus you’ll inherit bad juju and a hefty fine of $3,900 pesos (or roughly $200 USD).

The cost to enter the church is $30 pesos. You can buy your tickets on the left side of the building in the botanical garden. If you understand Spanish OK, I’d recommend hiring the local guides outside the church who, for $100 pesos, will explain everything you see inside the church. It’s around a 10-15 minute explanation. (But if you don’t do that, no worries! I recount the details of what he told us about the church and its history down below).

How to Get to Chamula from San Cristobal

man hailing taxi in san cristobal de las casas mexicoPaul hailing down a taxi in San Cristobal de Las Casas

You can take a taxi or shared colectivo (white shared van) to get to San Juan Chamula from San Cristobal de Las Casas. As Chamula is located about 7 miles (11 km) outside of the city, it only takes 15-20 minutes to get there.

A taxi from the center of San Cristobal (near Plaza de La Paz) will cost you roughly $100-120 pesos one-way. A public van will be cheaper, at around $20 pesos.

Both the taxi and colectivo will drop you off at the main square in Chamula, right in front of the church. Once there, Chamula is very pedestrian-friendly and you can get around quite easily.

Once you’re ready to head back to San Cristobal or go visit the other indigenous village of Zinacantan known for its textiles and artisan weaving, then simply return to the square and hail down a taxi or colectivo. The colectivo from Chamula – San Cristobal only costs $18 pesos/person.

Note: We were told there were no colectivos that traveled between Chamula and Zinacantan. We asked several people and they all said the only way to get there was via taxi, which cost another $110-120 pesos. It takes about 10-12 minutes to get to Zinacantan from Chamula.

About the San Juan Chamula Church

Although it’s not that often, both national and international tourists make the trip to Chamula just to see this mystifying church. After all, the San Juan Chamula church is the only one of its kind in all of Mexico, Latin America, and even the world!

So what makes the church in Chamula so special?

San Juan Chamula Church & Square with Chamula Locals in Chamula, Chiapas Mexico

San Juan Chamula Church and Local Tzotziles Indigenous PeopleThe San Juan Chamula Church 

History

As Andres, our Spanish guide explained to us, the Mayans fiercely revolted against the Evangelical beliefs of the Spanish conquistadors, who arrived in southern Mexico in the early 16th century.

While other towns and cities across Mexico converted to Catholicism without so much of a fight, the Tzotzil Mayans of the Chiapas Highlands decided the same fate would not become them so easily. At first, they fled, leaving the Spaniards practically barren of both slave labor and material goods. So the Spanish returned to the Gulf coast and then the Tzotziles returned to their communities.

But once again, the Tzotzil would not accept the religious beliefs and traditions of the Spanish. A bloody war endured for one year before the village leaders agreed to compromise with the conquerors.

The result? The Tzotzil would use the church as a place of worship, but they would worship how they pleased.

As for the actual construction of the church, although the dates painted outside the church read 1522-24, the real construction dates happened between 1538-1545. Lastly, the village and church are named after the patron saint of San Juan.

Chamula in modern history has been an important political and social seat for the Zapatista movement in southern Mexico.

Inside the Church

Inside, pews are replaced with pine needles covering the floor. Thousands of candles illuminate the walls and their smoke, along with the incense of copal resin, perfumes the air.

On either side of the church walls are wooden cabinets, inside which stand Catholic Saints and Virgin Saints to represent the sun (the “Father”) and the moon – essentially the yin-yang of the Mayans. The balance of nature.

Instead of confessing to a Catholic priest or reading scripture from the Bible, Tzotzil families sit gathered around hundreds of candles melting into the tiled floor. In front of them sit the ceremonial essentials, comprising of Coca-Cola (or other bubbly soda), pox, candles, flowers, and if a member is seriously ill – a live chicken waiting to be sacrificed.

The church bells chime at 6 AM, noon, and 6 PM, not to call upon the people to gather in the church, but rather to honor the movements of the sun, precisely at sunrise, mid-day, and sunset.

As the Tzotzil people strongly connect to the earth, they worship the sun and nature’s delicate balance. This explains why they incorporate elements of nature inside the church – hence the sacredness of the pine tree and its needles, which they also use to cover grave mounds in the local cemetery.

sunflowers and flowers in chamula mexicoFlowers, particularly sunflowers, are used for ceremonies inside Chamula Church

chamula cemetery covered in pine needles with temple san sebastian in the backgroundThe local cemetery with graves covered in old pine needles

The 3 Types of Ceremonies

The Chamula church is open 24 hours, 7 days a week. It never closes. And ’round the clock, dozens of unpaid locals volunteer to maintain the church by scraping and removing dried wax, replacing old pine needles with new ones, and making sure families have the necessary tables and candles to worship.

As our guide explained, there are 3 types of ceremonies happening all the time within the church:

  1. Asking for blessings
  2. Giving thanks for said blessings
  3. Healing

When the Tzotziles get sick, they seek out the local shaman or religious leader who then feels for their pulse and recommends natural healing practices or prescribes certain remedies such as the burning of certain colored candles or offering different types of flowers to this saint or this virgin inside the church. As such, the inside of the church is literally covered in both candles and florals from back to front and top to bottom and you can see families lighting candles underneath a specific saint or several, depending on what they are asking or giving thanks for.

In extreme cases, when someone falls very ill, the spiritual leader will prescribe a 1-hour healing ceremony, during which a live chicken is sacrificed (by wringing the neck). The chicken, or gallina in Spanish, is believed to replace the bad spirits within the ill human with new life. It’s an exchange. During the ceremony, prayers are said in the local language. You can also observe the families – even children – drinking pox and Coca-Cola to burp out evil spirits. After the ritual, the chicken is taken home and consumed as a chicken stew. This is believed to complete the healing process.

As much as I can try to describe it in words, nothing beats seeing it in person. The ancient beliefs and practices coupled with the traditional style and decor of the Catholic church will invigorate your senses.

Other Things to Do & See in Chamula Mexico

After your visit to the church of San Juan Chamula, you should stick around to explore the town a bit more! We walked around for another hour, checking out the botanical garden in the backside of the church, the plaza, the cemetery, and we ate at a local restaurant for lunch called Restaurante Nichim.

The Chamula Market

market in chamula mexico

Chamula Market

You can shop for clothes and produce at the local outdoor market, which is impossible to miss as it takes place just in front of the church. As a tourist, you will be asked for money by street sellers young and old. A woman trailed us around the entire plaza asking for pesos for tortillas.

Shopping in the market is a great way to support the local Tzotzil people and vendors while getting to observe local life and seeing the different styles of the traditional clothes of Chamula.

The black skirts that the Chamula women wear (Mujeres Chamulas) are easy to spot and very popular. Black sheep fleece clothes indicate common use by the citizens, whereas the white fleece clothes indicate a status of authority or political influence.

Tip: The market in Chamula seems to be more expensive than the one in San Cristobal – at the Mercado Santo Domingo. Many women from Chamula make the journey to San Cris to sell their goods at the market and on the street because there are more tourists there.

The Local Cemetery & Burnt Temple Ruins

cemetery and burnt temple of san sebastian in chamula, chiapas mexico

painted wooden cross with pine needles in chamula cemetery, chiapas mexico

Another thing to see in San Juan Chamula is the ruins of the burnt Temple of San Sebastian and the local cemetery. Both are located on a small hill a few blocks away from the church, just off to the right side of the entrance to the town.

Here is another opportunity to see how much nature plays a significant role in the Tzotzil culture and religion. The mounds of earth, indicating the graves, are covered in pine needles while the crosses are painted in various colors.

A small Chamula boy, named Fabien, tried to sell me some of his little bracelets and trinkets. He spoke to me in both Spanish and French, which he learned from his mom. He has currently been out of school for nearly a year due to the pandemic. That said, you can expect to find many children “vendors” alone or accompanying their parents or older siblings as they try to earn an income for the family.

RELATED: 5 Adventurous Things to Do in El Arcotete Ecotourism Park (Chiapas, Mexico)

Final Thoughts

San Juan Chamula and its syncretist church alive with Mayan tradition is a place you just have to see for yourself. It is one of the most unique and greatest churches to visit in Mexico. 

The Tzotzil indigenous group and their culture, customs, traditional dress, and beliefs will leave you in both awe and wonder. They were one of the very few indigenous groups to rebel so fervently against conforming to the Spanish way. What you see today is the result of a centuries-old mixing of pre-Hispanic Mayan beliefs and that of Evangelization.

I hope this guide to Chamula inspires you to visit Chiapas and the indigenous villages that call these highlands home! If you have any questions or thoughts (or anything to add/correct), please drop them in the comments below!

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Hi, I’m Bri! I’ve been slow traveling around the world in search of new adventures since 2013. I have lived in 8 countries on 4 continents including Nepal, Mexico, Colombia, and parts of Europe! I created this blog to inspire others to live a life of adventure, seek out meaningful experiences, and to travel slowly and mindfully. Join me on this journey and let’s tick off our bucket lists! Read my story here.

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