Up in the fresh mountain air

Published: October 15th 2016
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San Juan church San Juan church San Juan church

Photo credit Jess Fleming
I was a bit reluctant to leave the beach, especially with the prospect of heading back to the cold, and to another city. The 12 hour bus didn't sound too tempting either. We opted for another overnight bus, as although they're nowhere near as nice as Asian buses with beds, we don't feel as if we have wasted a day travelling. As soon as we got off the bus my spirits were much higher, breathing in the crisp fresh mountain air at 8am as the town was waking up, I knew I'd like it here.
The town is fairly small, and unlike Oaxaca the grid layout of the town is much easier to navigate!
Once we'd found a hostel we headed off to oh la la patisserie for breakfast. The hot chocolate here is so good! Much better than I've had elsewhere. So good I keep going back for more. We also met a lady called Nancy in the bakery who lives in Guatemala but does visa runs every 90 days, so uses it as an excuse for short holidays around the area. Nancy was full of good advice for both San Cristobal and Guatemala. We plan to meet her for
Graveyard Graveyard Graveyard

Photo credit Jess Fleming
coffee near Lake Atitlan when we get there too, as she told us she is a regular at Crossroads cafe in the main town.
On Nancy's advice we headed to San Juan Chamula, to see the church - the temple of San Juan (Saint John) and graveyard. To get a collectivo up to San Juan Chamula we had to go through the main artisan market. The market is a feast for the senses, with a huge variety of fruits and vegetables, as the mountain climate is better for growing produce such as strawberries, as well as beans, pulses, handicrafts, flowers, meat, clothes and everyday household items. We wandered around the market for almost an hour just taking it all in before finally heading off to find a collectivo.
Once we got to San Juan Chamula the church dominates the main square. You have to go to the tourism office and get a permit to enter the church, for only 25pesos. The church is quite unlike any other Church I've been to before. There is an obvious blend of Catholicism and local beliefs and traditions. On entering the church you first notice the pine needles. There are no pews, just an open plan room with a carpet of pine needles, which lend a pleasant aroma, mixed with traditional incense. This does make the marble floor rather slippery though! There are also thousands of candles spread around the church. This seems like it could be rather a fire hazard, but they don't seem to worry about such things. The walls of the church are lined with statues of various saints, which families come to pray to. There were many families gathered in front of various saints performing their traditional rituals. In front of each saint are lined of lit candles on the floor too, with an attendant doing the rounds scraping up the remaining puddles of wax after the families have departed, ready for the next family. Once such family I watched getting a chicken out of their bag, holding it by the legs and neck, and rubbing it all over the body of a family member. They then placed the poor chicken back in their bag and continued to pray. Unfortunately I never found out the basis behind this ritual, but it did certainly make for interesting viewing.
We couldn't take any pictures inside the church out of respect for the local Chamula people, as they are very private and do not like pictures being taken.
After we had finished people watching in the church we headed next door to the botanical gardens, where they showcase their efforts to preserve local plants and the knowledge of their uses in medicine and rituals. We then headed up the road to the cemetery.
The way to the cemetery is adorned with local handicraft shops. The crafts differ from those in San Cristobal, as they are all from the local tribe up here. We managed to successfully resist all temptation for shopping though, as so early in to our trip we don't want to be filling our bags!
The cemetery is interesting here. There are 3 colours of crosses used, white for children and infants, black for the elderly and blue/green for everyone else. Many of the graves appeared to be freshly dug over, despite some being fairly old, so we wonder if this has something to do with the day of the dead coming up. Some graves were also carpeted in a fresh layer of pine needles.
The next day we headed out on a tour to Sumidero Canyon. After a quick trip out to Oh la la for more pastries and take away hot chocolate we were picked up at our hostel for the hours drive out to the canyon. Here we took a 2hr boat trip through the canyon. The canyon is very impressive, with walls reaching 1km high in places. There are beautiful views along the canyon, and we were lucky enough to view some of the wildlife too. We saw 2 species of Iguana, 4 crocodiles and a monkey, as well as jumping fish and a wide variety of bird life.
The canyon is also plagued by a litter problem, from the rivers that feed it. To try to resolve this there are specialised boats to collect the rubbish, which we had to stop and applaud on our way past. Luckily there wasn't much litter when we visited, but apparently after heavy rains there can be a 1km stretch of impenetrable rubbish.
After our boat trip we headed to Chiapa de Corzo an old Spanish colonial town for a lunch stop. It was pleasant to walk around, but there wasn't much to see in the town.
Day 3 in San Cristobal has been dedicated to wandering the streets of

Photo credit Jess Fleming
the town and enjoying the sights. It is a very quaint and colourful town with brightly painted buildings and a large mix of different cultural tribes people. They can easily be identified by their tribal dress, varying from black sheepskin skirts to brightly coloured wraps. Sitting in cafes or along the street you are approached by a wide variety of people offering their wares and handicrafts, from jewellery to scarves and knitted figurines. We have also seen a group of boys with their mobile shoe shine enterprise. Unfortunately my flip flops are not worthy of this treatment, so I can't take them up on their offers.
We also wandered some more local handicraft markets with a wide offering of locally made clothes and goods, and indulged in a little shopping - a treat after we've been so restrained all trip!
San Cristobal is a very easy going relaxed town, where it's easy to while the day away between cafes, boutiques and food stops, taking in the sights and watching everyone going about their business. An ideal place to relax for a few days.
Next stop is Palenque for the ancient jungle ruins.

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