church san juan chamula

Although I’ve come across a number of incredible sights I couldn’t or wasn’t allowed to capture on camera, the Church of San Juan is one where it wouldn’t matter. Behind this deceptively normal exterior in Chamula, Mexico, is where I witnessed the strangest customs I have seen, smelled, or felt in a religious building.

The Mayans Of Chamula

Located in southern Mexico, Chamula is an autonomous state inhabited by the Tzotzil, a Mayan people. Chamula itself is completely autonomous within Mexico, where by law, Mexican police or military are not allowed to enter and Spanish is a second language. The Tzotzil have their own police force for protection against crime but also loss of cultural heritage. Cameras should be pointed carefully as the Tzotzil believe having their picture taken robs them of one of their souls.

cross chamula

  • You’re risk losing your camera for taking pictures you shouldn’t.

But beliefs in Chamula are much more integrated with the outside world. Although the Tzotzil’s religion is polytheistic, when the Spanish brought Catholicism to the area in the 1500s, it was absorbed to fit existing traditions. This explains why there’s a church in Chamula, a Mayan town of 77,000, in the first place.

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Jesus The Sun God And Chicken Therapy

For example, the moon god is interpreted as Virgin Mary while Jesus might be the sun god. Walking into the Church of San Juan the first sensation is of pine leaves altering your step. As you look up from the pine leaves which obscure most of the stone floor, you notice a haze produced by thousands of candles burning around your feet. Candle flames illuminate Tzotzil worshipers looking up to murals of Christian saints as they burp Coca-Cola and posh, a liqueur made from sugar cane.

chamula graveyard

Families huddle around colored candles, praying in the Tzotzil language for alleviation from ailments represented by various wax shades. Particularly bad spiritual cases require the help of a shaman, who takes a chicken the suffering have brought, then rubs it on them.

church san juan chamulaPulse, Pulse, Snap

As the confused bird is rubbed up and down the side of the afflicted in the shaman’s right hand, the left is taking the human’s pulse. It’s believed during this process that negative energy is transferred from person to chicken; once complete the shaman snaps the chicken’s neck. Followed by sips of cola and shots of posh, enthusiastic belching finalizes the cleanse.

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How To Visit The Church Of San Juan

San Juan Chamula is about 10 kilometers (6 miles) from San Cristobal de las Casas, the largest city nearby. (In San Cristobal don’t forget to visit one of Mexico’s quietest churches.) Local buses are available as are guided tours, giving you the advantage of a local who shows you around the neighboring areas. Most transportation leaves in the morning, returning in mid-afternoon; enough time to see the highlights. The Church of San Juan is open 24 hours with a nominal entry fee. Or course, no photos are allowed.

I visited the Church of San Juan with friend and fellow travel blogger Wandering Earl and while he has no photos to add you can read his description of The Most Amazing Church Iโ€™ve Ever Seen and Canโ€™t Show You as well.