San Cristóbal de las Casas
San Cristóbal de las Casas owes its name to the legendary Bishop of Chiapas, Bartolomé de Las Casas, who stood up for the indigenous population in the 17th century and is still revered today as a “patron saint of the people”.
The town is picturesquely situated in the fertile high valley of Jovel, surrounded to the west and east by three thousand metre peaks. It is an important market place for the Indian population. Many of the Maya descendants now make their living by selling handicrafts to the ever-increasing number of tourists who visit the capital of the Zapatista uprisings of the 1990s.
The centre of San Cristóbal is characterised by different architectural styles: You will find baroque, plateresque and neoclassical buildings and churches side by side. San Cristóbal’s Cathedral dates from the second half of the 17th century and was restored in the last decade. It is still not the most beautiful church in the city, this title goes to Santo Domingo, with its ornamental façade it is among the most impressive Baroque buildings in the region.
The possible activities range from courses in traditional medicine to photo workshops. San Cristóbal de las Casas is also the starting point for tours to villages such as San Juan Chamula and Zinancatán and the surrounding countryside, which are ideally accompanied by local guides.
The surrounding area
San Juan Chamula is a Tzotzil community 10 km northwest of San Cristóbal de las Casas, which has a rare autonomous status. This means that neither the military nor the regular police have access to the community, instead it has its own police force. The main attraction for visitors to San Juan is its church, whose interior smells of aromatic herbs, the smoke of copal resin and the pine needles that cover the church floor. Figures of saints are lined up along the walls of the church and decorated with mirrors against the evil eye.
Zinacantán, also a Tzotzil community, is situated just south of San Juan Chamula. The name means “place of bats” translated from the Nahuatl. The Tzotzil name “Sots’leb” has the same meaning. Laurentius (San Lorenzo) is Zinacantán’s patron saint just as John the Baptist is worshipped in San Juan Chamula. Unlike in San Juan Chamula, the church of San Lorenzo in Zinacantán has benches; there are no indigenous healers practicing inside the church. Instead, there is a distinctive floral decoration, an indication that flower cultivation plays an important role in Zinacantán. According to the indigenous tradition, the community members are obliged to pay so-called Cargos (unpaid services to the community) or Cooperaciones (a kind of local tax).
For a better understanding you should take a guided tour instead of visiting on your own (if the groups are small).