Fiestas in San Juan Chamula

Wild west cowboy hats, knee length tunics of white or black lamb’s wool, and hands inside tunics at chest height all distinguish the Tzotzil community of San Juan Chamula from its neighbor Zinacantan in the valley next door. I call it a cowboy town, a bit rough and ready for action.


The church in the center of town is what draws most visitors to Chamula. It’s here that Maya beliefs and traditions prevail over Christian practices. Statues of Catholic saints clothed in layers of heavily embroidered Maya textiles carry mirrors around their necks. Some say the mirrors allow spirits to travel to and from other realms. Others say that the mirrors ward off evil spirits. Believers light hundreds of candles and sit on the pine needle-strewn floor to pray.  Some bring chickens as sacrifices. You may see a shaman or “ilol” who diagnoses patients and spiritually cleanses the sick by passing an egg over the body of the ailing person. People toast the saints with alcoholic “posh” and drink Coca Cola to expel evil spirits through belches.


The air is heavy with the smell of burning copal. Light streams in through windows and cuts the smoke into rays of gray. On special days musicians play a repetitious dirge on guitars and accordions.  During celebrations there are so many people packed into this tiny church that you can hardly breathe. No photographs are allowed, so I often pretend that I have a James Bond camera in my right eye. I mentally “click” to remember the unbelievable scenes in Chamula’s special space.


During the frequent fiestas teams of men light firecrackers outside the church. It’s best to stay clear of these gatherings since getting too close to the explosions can jangle your brain cells. Depending on the celebration, the saints are brought out on palanquins that are carried on shoulders and paraded around the church courtyard. During Carnaval in Feb/March, men in cone-shaped hats with ribbon streamers run and dance in groups as they blow their horns. A man with a jaguar or ocelot skin hung from his shoulder moves through the crowd with his group of noise-makers. Sometimes you can sneak a photograph. Sometimes you can’t. Asking for permission from an authority is the best practice lest they confiscate your camera or give you a wrap on the wrist. This is a fascinating town just 20 minutes from La Joya Hotel San Cristóbal.


A story about the life of the indigenous people of Chamula 40 years ago lies between the covers of Crazy February: Death and Life in the Mayan Highlands of Mexico, by Carter Wilson, University of California Press, 1965.



Celebrations in San Juan Chamula

Jan1                 Change of government officials

Jan 18-20         Dia de San Sebastian

Feb/Mar           Carnaval – week before Lent

Mar/Apr            Semana Santa, Easter morning

May 3               Fiesta de Santa Cruz

June 22-24       Dia de San Juan Bautista

Aug 4               Dia de San Dominic

Aug 8-10          Dia de San Lorenzo

Aug 30             Dia de Santa Rosa

Sep 21             Dia de San Mateo

Oct.1st SundayDia de la Virgin del Rosario

Nov 1-2            Dia de los Muertos y Dia de Todos Santos

Dec 12             Dia de la Virgen de Guadalupe

Dec 24             Noche Buena

Dec 31            Change of government officials and those in charge of the saints

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