Montezuma’s revenge

I guess it was inevitable that the germs lurking in many corners would get us at some point and we were only just back in Mexico when Montezuma struck! Hence the delay in posting photos from San Cristobal de Las Casas and Oaxaca. Montezuma was an Aztec emperor with a fierce reputation who has given name to what is known in other countries as Delhi Belly or the Cairo Twostep. My attack was not sweet but at least it was short whereas poor Nick has been on & off for the last 3 weeks, possibly suffering multiple attacks. Once you’re affected you are probably more susceptible and he also suffered some ill-advised medicine which only made things worse (PS he is better again). Enough of that… In between days spent indoors we did see some lovely places.

From Guatemala we took a shuttle to Mexico where we had to walk across the border and get on another bus taking us straight to San Cristobal de Las Casas, a small town located at 2200 metres in the south-western state of Chiapas.

Passing small mountain villages
Passing small mountain villages

Our first couple of days in San Cristobal lived up to all expectations; we were staying with the lovely Sonia in her B&B where we awoke each morning to a feast of Mexican breakfast dishes. Originaly from New York City, Sonia is now a proud ambassador for Chiapas and what it has to offer on terms of food and handicrafts. Because of Nick’s tummy we weren’t able to make the most of our 2 weeks there but we had a great tour to a couple of Maya villages on her recommendation.

About half an hour outside San Cristobal we got to Zinacantan. It was Sunday morning so we met the residents both in church and at their weekly market.

The market wasn’t huge but where people came to stock up on items otherwise not available in the small town. Nearly all the girls and women, and some of the men too, wear the most beautifully embroidered flowery outfits.

Zinacantan market
Zinacantan market
Shopping
This is what they wear every day, not just on Sundays!
Always lots of coloured yarns and threads
Hence lots of interest in the brightly coloured yarns

Our guide was half Maya and half Spanish Mexican and you could tell he was well-liked by the locals, this made for a relaxed visit to a local family home where we watched the mother prepare tortillas, a thrice-a-day food staple. Most corn tortillas we’ve tried are rubbery and not very exciting but these were freshly prepared from the local Blue corn and came with spiced crushed pumpkin seeds and we finally got what tortillas are all about.

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All the women in the family, probably like all women in the this area, make beautiful embroideries and woven scarves which we could buy. As always we were mostly window shopping but a couple of Indian ladies (from India) in our group more than made up for our shortcomings.

One of the daughters with hand embroidered fabric
One of the daughters with hand embroidered fabric

Many Mayas practice a blend of Catholicism mixed with their own ancient religion. Here it was in quite a recognizable format although to them Jesus represents the sun which they worship, Mary the moon, the saints other traditional deities and so on.

Leaving the church in Zinacantan after service
Congregation leaving the church in Zinacantan after service

Next we visited Chamula, an even more traditional community which is self-ruling for the most part. Local and state police, priests and other figures of authority are only rarely allowed into town. A visit to the church here was a real eye opener.

The outside of the church in Chamula
The outside of the church in Chamula

Understandably they don’t allow photos to be taken inside the church. We so wished we could have taken some to share but not worth the risk, you’ll see why later – a photo would have been worth a thousand words but we’ll try to paint the picture with words…

First up there is no furniture in the Chamula church apart from the main altar at the back. The floor is covered in pine needles and the whole place is lit by hundreds if not thousands of candles. All the worshipers are gathered in small groups on the floor, most have come with a Shaman to get his or her help for a specific cause (anything from a physical illness regular doctors haven’t been able to cure to neighborly envy, heartbreak or to block revenge from a boy whose marriage proposal she declined). The Shamans melt the base of the candles (~100) then fill the surrounding floor to make a make-shift altar, there they burn incense, make offerings of Coka Cola in coke bottles and in more serious cases sacrifice a chicken (for women) or a rooster (for men) so as to gain favor with the gods. Coke is used as an offering but people also drink it to make them burp which they believe helps evict evil spirits.

The Chamula is a self styled Catholic church which bears no allegiance to the Vatican,  but although very pagan the modern world just can’t resist knocking. Apparently there was a Coke – Pepsi war at some point as to who would be their main “sacred” beverage provider and guess what? Coke won out. While we were there we saw 3 chickens loose their life and the whole thing was made more fascinating thanks to Cesar, our guide who managed to enlighten us with all the details in between the band of trombone players that entered the church in a loud discorded marching ceremony.

Chamula lady
Chamula lady in her woolly skirt

The Chamula women  wear the most striking outfit of a rough black woollen blanket which they tie around their waist during the day and sleep under at night, it kind of looks like a bearskin. Supposedly these blankets last a lifetime and you can tell the financial status of the ladies from the skirt – the thicker and hairier the more expensive it is. I sort of fancied one until Cesar told me they are very itchy.

Girls wearing the traditional skirt
Little village girls

Before we left Chamula we got Cesar to show us the local village jail which is more of an open holding cell, mostly for minor crimes and is located just behind the village square. At the time it was occupied by a drunk and disorderly local so again no photos but the reason for our interest was a story we had heard from Sonia. One of her previous guests who also visited Chamula, had taken photos of a religious ceremony and the locals confiscated his camera and threw him in that jail. He was kept there for a day and released in the evening when he was allowed to leave, but minus his very expensive camera! No outsiders have any authority there.

Now that we were familiar with the outfits from these two villages (the black woollen skirts for Chamula ladies and the beautiful embroidered flowers for Zinacantan residents) we were able to recognise them in San Cristobal where they come each evening to sell their wares. Easter must be the busiest time of year for Mexican tourist to visit and the town was packed.

The busy pedestrian area
The busy pedestrian area
Easter procession
Easter procession

Chocolate has always been a staple in Mexico and it’s big business here with lots of cafes to enjoy it in. I got into the habit of enjoying a hot cuppa each afternoon. The cacao is much less processed so you chew on small bits of cocoa nut as you drink it. Delicious!!

Street view
Street view
Fresh orange juice
Fresh orange juice
Beans and chillies...
Beans and chillies…
A view of San Cristobal
A view of San Cristobal
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View from the centre up the surrounding mountains
3 colourful churches, of more than 40 in the town
3 colourful churches, of more than 40 in the town
And colourful houses
And colourful houses

After San Cristobal we had planned to visit the beaches further west in Oaxaca state however after hearing about the calm turquoise water and white beaches in La Paz, Baja California from a guy we met, we decided to make a quick stop in the town of Oaxaca and from there fly to La Paz for some warmer weather.

Oaxaca is a 12-13 hour bus drive and our departure was delayed by a day because the bus got cancelled. This part of Mexico is plagued by road blockades where local residents block the road leading through their town to voice their dissatisfaction. Rumours had it this one was by taxi drivers uphappy with Uber (taxi service) being allowed to operate in Mexico.

Oaxaca is big enough to feel like a proper city but the old centre is small enough to walk around.

The centre of Oaxaca
The centre of Oaxaca

The overall feel is one of sophisticion, the shops sell lots of stuff that I would have liked to be able to buy and the restaurants definitely appealed. We weren’t there long enough to confirm this but Oaxaca is renowned for being one of the best places to eat in all of Mexico.

Very arty and cultural
Very arty and cultural. And colourful of course
Some of these measurements are maybe on the big side
Some of these measurements are maybe on the big side

One afternoon we took a taxi to Santa Maria del Tule to see El Tule, officially the world’s ‘stoutest’ tree. It’s got a circumference of 42 metres – other trees are older (this one is at least 1000-2000 years old) and some are taller but this has the most solid trunk.

It's big...
It’s big…
El Tule tree next to the church
El Tule tree next to the church
No idea where this big guy was off to?
No idea where this big guy was off to walking down one of the main streets in Oaxaca?

I was in Oaxaca in 2003 and loved it then and we loved it now. We’ll have to come for a longer stay another time…

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8 comments

  1. Karoline Werner says:

    Hej

    Good to hear you both are feeling a little better – I have just share your site with the to women I traveled with and think they will enjoying seen your post as much as I did ,we traveled lot of the same places and love San Cristobal. Like to hear more of the cacao drink . Much love karoline

    • Hi Karoline
      We have really loved our time here and I can only imagine all the adventures you would have had. Chamula probably hasn’t changed much in the last 20 years?!
      Knus
      Malene and Nick

  2. Henny says:

    Hvor ser det fantastisk ud! Spændende beretning og smukke billeder. Og godt I er ved godt helbred efterhånden. Har lige tilbragt en dag I Thisted med din mor I forbindelse med min mors 60 års fødselsdag. Hyggeligt. Hun nævnte at I muligvis tager forbi USAs østkyst, så jeg vil blot lige gentage at I er velkomne her i NJ suburbia (1 time fra NY) – hvis det vel at mærke er inden 31. juni hvor vi ikke længere bor i huset men er på vej mod Danmark. Og hvis ikke her, så ses vi jo nok et andet sted. Kram

    • Hej Henny
      Ja min mor fortalte at I var ‘surprise-gæster’ ved fødselsdagen. Vi kommer til NYC 10-18 Maj og vil meget gerne besøge jer en eftermiddag / aften hvis det kan komme til at passe. Jeg sender en e-mail.
      Knus
      Malene

  3. Hege says:

    Hey to you both,
    I haven’t checked in with you for a while so am sitting here with the morning coffee enjoying your travels! Sounds like the adventures are continuing to be enjoyable (minus the tummy upsets of course!), I can’t wait to at some point hear more about them, if you are planning to come back to Australia at any point that is? 🙂
    All well here in country South Gippsland, cold nights and warm days, lovely autumn colours, and still busy in the cottages 🙂 We are still clearing and doing a lot of work outside, and contemplating building a third cottage, in case we find ourselves without projects I guess…. 🙂
    Anyway, happy further exploring of this wide world, look after each other and have fun!!
    Hege xx

    • Hi Hege
      You paint such a lovely picture of your new life! I can tell you are really enjoying it and we look forward to visiting at some point. We’ll be back in Perth in December in time for Christmas and the Australian summer…
      Thanks for keeping in touch.
      Lots of love to both of you
      Malene and Nick

  4. Anne Swanson says:

    Fascinating read! Interesting mix of Catholicism and ancient traditions! Who lights all those candles???? Hope you are well again.
    Love to you both
    Anne

    • Nick and Malene says:

      Hi Anne
      It’s slow getting back my kilos and my strength but working on it, now on a little tropical island with only dirt roads a few restaurants and bars, quiet place and lots of empty beaches in the golf of Mexico called “Holbox” pronounced Holbosh, so working on it.
      To answer your question about the candles each shaman and their patient kneel and light candles making a little impromptu style altar by melting them to the floor. After that comes the cleansing ceremony with the coke the chicken etc. The village has quite a few shamans who are self taught and self appointed. The Church does not have a priest or bishop but the village appoints up to 150 religious leaders each year ( who cant work for that year) who must cover all the cost of running and maintaining the church and all it’s ceremonial needs. It’s an honor but also a huge commitment and financial burden.
      Love Nick

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