While in San Cristóbal de las Casas we decided to go horse back riding through the country side to a small village. Technically this would be my first time on a horse (the ride I took in Peru hiking through the Salkantay Pass to Machu Picchu was a mule) and I was so excited! This would also be Travis’s first ever horse ride. We were picked up, myself, Travis, Matt and Monica, another hostel dweller, by Juan in his old pick up truck. His son hopped into the truck bed, which was full of huge sacks of maiz, and laid down to have a snooze, so that we could all squeeze into the back seat. We cruised to the edge of town where his pasture was located and then all got ourselves acquainted as best we could with the four horses. They didn’t speak much English (our guides, not the horses :P) so we just sort of went with the flow – which was a little unsettling since, you know, we were about to get on these huge beasts and had absolutely no idea what we were doing – Monica was the only one of us who had any experience with horses. I picked the smallest horse- thinking this would be a good idea, however that didn’t quite work out in my favour. I had the only horse who was clearly either overweight or pregnant, her side stuck out implausibly far, and she was the only horse without a sort of bit (which I am thankful for in the sense that it meant my horse was far more comfortable) but it also meant I had no control whatsoever.
But, on the bright side, at least I didn’t have Matt’s horse, who was a rambunctious bugger and was constantly nipping at the other horses and rolling it’s eyes back in his head and snorting! Needless to say we were a bit of a motley crew with our horses as we set off with our esteemed leader, 13 year old Miguel, a true vaquero, his legs already bowed from a life in the saddle, who enjoyed showing off by getting up in his saddle mid trot and then sitting down backwards and riding thus. I chatted with him as best I could in my broken Spanish and learned that he spoke four languages…four!
The ride was beautiful – we took a back dirt road that soon turned into open field and then stunning forests. I soon learned that my horse enjoyed stopping for no reason whatsoever and refused to move anymore while the others moved on. I gave nudges with my heels, tried smacking my lips like Miguel to make the sound they know so well, hopped up and down in the saddle, smacked her on the rump – but all to no avail. I was but a fly to her which she flickered her tail at; she took absolutely no notice of me. Poor Miguel had to come back over and over to get his horse to nip at mine to get her moving again. This happened, oh I don’t know, 15 times on our ride! I’m lucky I wasn’t left behind! I figured out in the end that my horse seemed to be terrified of the other horses, and just did not want to be anywhere near them, the poor dear!
Other than the funny personalities of our horses, and our complete inability to know what on earth we were doing, we had an amazing two hour ride. Eventually the beautiful nature turned to a paved road which I wasn’t fond of, especially for the horses to be walking along with us on their backs in the heat, all uphill. Eventually we made it to the village, tied off the horses and Miguel told us to be back in an hour, while giving us directions to the church – for that is what everyone comes to this village to see – Iglesia San Juan. We heard interesting stories from another fellow at the hostel about his visit to the church, a story which involved him watching a chicken being sacrificed right there in the church. Needless to say we were intrigued. We walked through the town and through the bustling market perched just in front of the churches courtyard, as we happened to be there on a Sunday. It looked just like any another church, the hundreds I’ve seen in Mexico, but this one is different. Very different. You pay a small fee to enter as a tourist, to help cover costs in the community and then ensure you put your camera away; pictures are absolutely not allowed to be taken (you can actually be thrown out of the town, or have your camera smashed); it’s rude and rather vulgar anyhow to be snapping photos while people are taking part in serious spiritual ceremonies.
The second I nervously stepped through the heavy wooden doors, my breath caught in my throat. It was the strangest, most beautiful church I’d ever seen. There were no pews. The entire floor was covered in pine boughs, their scent mixed heavily with the thick smoke of burning copal incense that hung in the air. Shrines to hundreds of Saints covered every inch of the walls around the entire perimeter. And the most breathtaking of all were the candles. Thousands upon thousands of candles burned, their ethereal light flickering through the heady air. The entire place was aglow, like nothing I’d ever seen before. They burned atop heavy tables in front of every shrine. And in front of many of these shrines were huddled small families, kneeling, engaged in a spiritual ceremony. One, often the matriarch would be speaking lowly, in Tzotzil, running her hands over the afflicted person. Coca Cola or Pox (a local liquor) would be drunk, and sprayed on the floor, candles would be lit and adhered right to the bare floor where they had cleared a space from the pines boughs. Sometimes, a chicken would be used to pull the malady from the inflicted and absorb it, and then the chicken killed and disposed – an exorcism of sorts. Thankfully we did not witness this.
I immediately felt strange. Firstly, like I shouldn’t be here. This was a sacred space where people were going about their daily spiritual rituals, and yet it was crawling with tourists, who were just watching what was happening around them. It was uncomfortable and a feeling I’ve not really encountered before. And yet this visit was something that was encouraged – but I wonder if it was solely for the profits that the community obviously needed so badly?
The uncomfortable feeling never left, so instead of looking at the people, I let my eyes wander around the church and walked about ensuring I kept out of the way of anyone engaged in their ceremonies. Walking around I noticed several families had a chicken sedately sitting in a satchel, or one lay dead on the ground beside them. After one quick trip around the church I returned to the back and found a place to seat myself. I felt nauseous. Overwhelmed. Overstimulated. I felt the on the verge of a panic attack and I had no idea why. I worked through it with all of my coping mechanisms to calm myself, cool myself and steady myself until the feeling eased a bit. I was so confused as to why this sudden feeling came over me, but I attribute it to overstimulation. The anticipation of seeing this place, wondering what we would encounter, coupled with the intense smells, the sights, the sounds. When I felt I could stand again, I moved myself into a corner as a crowd of locals came in, playing these incredible instruments, chanting, singing, drumming, and another band came behind playing an entirely different kind of music, and a crowd followed. An image of Guadalupe was reverently placed, prayers were said, copal incense burned and as quick as this procession happened, it was then gone. The place was quite again.
While I can describe what you may see here, it’s impossible to describe what you will feel here. Spirituality. Power. Enchantment. Sacredness. Guilt (it feels wrong to be watching people during intimate spiritual ceremonies). I suppose it affects everyone differently, but it was a really powerful and overwhelming experience, and I was quite glad to walk out of the front doors into the bright sunshine and clean air to get my feet back under me and process everything. I was also relieved to hear I wasn’t the only one who was feeling so strange and overwhelmed.
The strange collision of Catholicism and traditional Indigenous beliefs is what make this church so unique, so fascinating. I can’t find the most reliable information online, but it seems there has been a very long 500 years of conflict between the colonizers and the Indigenous people in Chamula regarding religion, which has ended with the Catholic church being used as a sacred space for traditional pre-hispanic worship. Which I think is a wonderful ‘fuck-you’ by the indigenous people. Spaniards were known to tear down Indigenous places of worship to build their own church atop of, so to take the Catholic church over and continue to practice traditional Indigenous beliefs in is at least one way they have been able to protect their history and culture and take back a little of what was torn from them during colonization. San Juan Chamula is a passionately proud town.
We walked back to our horses, a tad late, as it was terribly easy to loose track of time in the church. We mounted up and made for home, while the sights, sounds and smells of the church echoed in our heads. The ride back was rather exciting as my horse decided to run a few times which, while slightly terrifying, was also terribly exhilarating! I had been left behind again as my horse decided to have one of her breaks on a narrow forest path, thick with trees. Finally she decided to get moving again, and we gently walked through the thick forest alone. And then, perhaps in an effort to catch up, she took off and ran us out of there full tilt. Thankfully I kept my cool and somehow stayed in the saddle! The others said they saw me take off in the forest and were a tad worried, but since we were all at the mercy of our crazy horses, they merely wished me luck as I bolted through the forest!
It was a truly incredible first experience on horseback, and while not the most informative, it was a beautiful ride to see some of the countryside in Chiapas, to visit a unique village, and of course, to see the intriguing and dazzling Iglesia de San Juan.