Inside San Juan Chamula church, were locals everywhere, sitting and standing, chatting or deep in solemn prayer. Men ironed clothing and colourful ribbons with the utmost ceremony.
The women, richly costumed in their local, traditional weaves, sat cross-legged on a floor strewn with pine needles and metal bottle caps, mostly branded with the Coca-Cola label.
Before they were hundreds of burning white candles of different lengths, along with the limp body of a hen or rooster or rows of eggs.
Some looked entranced by the heady fumes of burning copal and the hypnotic tones of a group of men strumming harps and jangling bells.
I stood in the centre of it all and stared, trying to burn the sight into my memory forever. Photography was strictly prohibited, which was pure torture; this was one of the most intoxicating, foreign places I had ever visited.
The unforgettable San Juan Chamula church
The local church of San Juan Chamula, in a town in Chiapas not far from San Cristobal de las Casas, looks unassuming from the outside. Its simple, creamy white facade with marine green and blue trimming hardly suggests that you’re about to step into a magical realm inside.
Yet it’s renowned for the faith people worship here. It’s a blend of local traditional faiths, Catholicism, and the influence of former African slaves. They call it syncretism.
As I stood outside the church door, a splodge of primary-coloured green paint landed on my guide’s shirt. Above us, painters balancing on the church roof were lowering a rusty paint tin to the ground by a piece of string.
In the plaza, men in furry, black, knee-length ponchos and straw hats hung strings of multicoloured flags. Some boys nearby released handmade fireworks that erupted like gunshots mid-air.
San Juan Chamula was preparing for its most important annual celebration, the day of their patron saint San Juan de Bautista (John the Baptist) on 24 June.
Before entering the church, my guide warned me to bury my camera in my bag. Photography, he said, was punished with arrest. It was a challenge indeed to resist. Never had I been anywhere where my surroundings called for visual recording so strongly.
Inside the church
On first entering the San Juan Chamula church, I was engulfed in a thickly perfumed air and blinded by smoke. This was copal resin burning from basic wooden cups as a means of purification. After adjusting to the overpowering aroma, I was struck by an atmosphere oddly in tune with what I imagined a medieval market to possess.
There were no pews, indeed, no room for pews. And the more floor space available, the better for me as I walked with trepidation, fearful of knocking over the candles placed on the ground everywhere. Among the candles were glass bottles, mostly Coca-Cola bottles (although some were Fanta or clear, corked bottles of the local alcohol pox).
These bottles were revered just as much as the candles themselves, and every once in a while, someone would pop the lid, drip a bit of drink on the floor among the candles and take a sip themselves.
The only furniture inside were large plastic and metal tables the men used to iron. They handled the clothing as though they were Jesus’s original vestments.
In fact, that’s not too far off the mark. I was later told that this ceremony was unique to this month; the clothes are those of John the Baptist, to be paraded on his special day.
Processions of people passed. Some held wooden goblets of burning copal that made me sleepy. One of the women had a hen nestled under her arm.
It was only after my rendez-vous with my guide that the pieces of the puzzle came together. As a group beside us knelt among the pine needles and poured themselves copious glasses of beer, my guide enlightened me on the church’s idiosyncrasies.
What does it all mean?
The pine needles on the floor hark back to a time when the Mayans performed sacred rituals in their natural environment, inside caves and in forests. The sacrificed animals, eggs, and the Coca-Cola relate to a spiritual cleansing practice.
Chamula cleansing practice
When a Chamulan relative becomes sick, their loved ones approach a curandero, a local medicine man. This curandero is gifted with the ability to diagnose a person’s illness by the rhythms of their pulse.
If something is found to be wrong, be it physical, mental or spiritual (even a curse of the evil-eye), the relatives are told to meet him at the church of Chamula the following day with a shopping list of medicinal items.
These include, depending on the severity of the illness, candles varying in size and colour, drinks, and perhaps even a hen (for a terribly ill woman), rooster, or eggs.
Inside the church, the curandero lights the candles and moves the sacrificial animal over the invalid. Thus absorbing the disease, the animal must then be killed.
The curandero, so close to the illness, is also at risk of contracting it. As a preventative measure, he drinks. Copiously. And then he quite literally burps out the sickness.
In an ingenious, brazen, and possibly immoral attack of marketing, Coca-Cola Company infiltrated this traditional community’s spiritual practices by convincing locals that their fizzy drink was far more suited to the cause of burping than the traditional beverages.
In ‘sponsoring’ the communities and lowering the costs of their products, Coke has become the drink of choice for both spiritual and common purposes. Sometimes, this place of reverence is even called the ‘Coca-Cola Church’.
My guide explained all this and far more to me in unimposing whispers over the popping of fireworks outside and the instrumental music dominating the church interior.
I took one last look around me, trying to imprint the details of this place on my mind. The locals hummed conversations, their rustic faces lit up by dancing candlelight.
And then another procession passed, obscuring my view with smokey copal incense, and I turned to leave that intimate cultural display behind.
To this day, after ten years of travel, this experience remains one of the most profound, enlightening, and fascinating displays I have ever seen. And if you have a chance to visit San Juan Chamula church too, I highly recommend it.
All the details you need to know
The easiest way to access San Juan Chamula church is by tour from San Cristobal de las Casas. The day trip usually also includes a stop in neighbouring Zinacantan, as well as visits to tapestry workshops, and more.
The tour is well worth it for San Juan Chamula alone – but also because of the info you’ll get from your guide. To enter this church without understanding what’s going on would be a real shame.
But since it’s only 10km from San Cristobal, it is possible to jump on a collectivo at the intersection of Calle Honduras and Avenida 16 de Septiembre. You can even grab a taxi. Then just buy tickets into the church to the left of the entrance.
It’s fine to go any time, but be warned that it can get busy on Sundays when there’s a market on in the square. And good luck to you if you try to go there on 24 June!
Finally, I’m not kidding about the photography. Just don’t even try. I heard tales of people’s cameras get smashed, and worse. But also, it’s just plain disrespectful guys. These are some of people’s deepest faiths. Let them practise their beliefs in peace.
And if you’re looking for more awesome experiences in Mexico, my visit to Palenque was another highlight I must recommend!