The second half of my trip to Mexico I spent in the southeastern most state of the country, Chiapas. Chiapas is inhabited by many indigenous people. Some of them don’t speak Spanish. They speak native languages. And the Chiapans, on average, are poorer than the rest of Mexico. Chiapas became world renowned when the Zapatistas (officially known as the Ejército Zapatista de Liberación Nacional – EZLN), a rebel group, forcibly took control of four Chiapan cities. Among their grievances was the poor treatment of the indigenous Mexicans living in Chiapas. Although there is no longer any violence, the EZLN remains a presence in Chiapas and continues with its struggle to uphold the rights of native Mexicans.
My trip to Chiapas took me to a number of Mayan sites near the city of Palenque, and then to San Cristóbal de Las Casas, a colonial city high in the mountains. San Cristóbal is named for Bartolomé de Las Casas, a Spanish friar who advocated for the rights of native Chiapans soon after the arrival of the Spanish. It is quite unfortunate that nearly 500 years later the Zapatistas still feel the need to continue his cause.
San Cristóbal is high in the mountains (very cold at night) and surrounded by indigenous pueblos, like San Juan Chamula. The entire area is covered by pine trees. I will be the first to admit that I did not expect to see any pine trees in Mexico. I visited Chamula and got to see the indigenous culture first hand. Most of the women and some of the men wear traditional garb. The floor of the church, whose colors reminded me of a candy store, is covered in pine needles, and the locals perform Catholic rites using candles, Cocal Cola, and chicken eggs. Unfortunately I don’t have more photos, because the Chamulans ask that you don’t take pictures of them or anything inside the church.
I love ancient Mayan cities, and I visited no less than four while in Chiapas. Palenque, Yaxchilan, Bonampak, and Toniná were all on my itinerary. Palenque is the most easily accessible and has some well preserved art, tombs, and pyramids. It is also known for its tower, unique among Mayan sites.
(my intention was to not be in the video at all, but my arm made a few guest appearances)
Next up were Yaxchilan and Bonampak. Yaxchilan had a very Indiana Jones undiscovered feel. It is also pretty remote. You can only access it by boat on the Usumacinta River, which is Mexico’s border with Guatemala. Many of the best preserved artifacts from Yaxchilan are now at the British Museum in London. Bonampak is a small site, but it has well preserved murals, still with their original colors. After Yaxchilan and Bonampak I ventured to Toniná, near the Zapatista territory.
In addition to the slew of Mayan site, Chamula, and San Cristóbal, I also visited Cañón del Sumidero (Sumidero Canyon, in English). In addition to the birds, monkeys, and crocodiles, it is the site of a grim story in Chiapan history. In the 1500’s, when the Spanish were fighting the native Chiapans, some Chiapans chose to leap to their death into the Canyon rather than be taken as slaves by the Spanish. You can see why Bartolomé de Las Casas felt the need to advocate for their rights, and they chose to name one of their paramount cities after him.