Visiting ancient Maya ruins, and reading about the sudden “collapse” of Maya cities a thousand years ago, you might get the impression that Maya civilization is a thing of the past. In fact, Maya people, communities, and culture are very much alive and thriving — some six million people speak a Maya language, from the Yucatán Peninsula to Honduras, including, of course, Chiapas.
Outside of big cities, the Chiapanecan population is mostly Maya, making it possible for travelers to learn about, experience, and appreciate their cultures.
San Cristóbal de las Casas
A number of excellent museums in San Cristóbal de las Casas offer an introduction to living Maya cultures. Museo Na Bolom is dedicated to preserving Lacandón culture; it is housed in the former home of an anthropologist-photographer couple who were among the first foreigners to maintain contact with the reclusive group.
Museo de la Medicina Maya has excellent displays on traditional Maya medicine, including medicinal plants and different types of healers. Museo de Trajes Regionales Sergio Castro is a private collection of the different shawls, tunics, and other traditional garb used throughout Chiapas, each specific to a particular region.
San Cristóbal also is home to thousands of indigenous Maya, whom you’ll encounter on a regular basis in the plaza, markets, and city streets.
San Juan Chamula and Zinacantán
Just a few kilometers from San Cristóbal, these Tzotzil Maya towns are the easiest and most popular indigenous communities to visit, whether by tour or on your own. San Juan Chamula is especially intriguing — among other things, the town church has no pews or priest, and is used for traditional healing ceremonies that mix pre-Hispanic customs, Catholic saints, and modern accoutrements, like paraffin candles and Coca-Cola.
In Zinacantán, you’ll be invited into local homes to see how textiles are woven by hand or using a back-loom.
Outlying Towns and Villages
As fascinating as Chamula and Zinacantán can be, they also are quite touristed. Not so in the outlying towns and villages, where you may well be the only foreign visitor in town.
Oxchuc is a bustling Tzeltal Maya community, with a historic church and vibrant Saturday market.
The Lacandónes are one of the best known Maya groups, as well as one of the smallest — numbering only around a thousand people in all, they are descendants of Yucatec Mayas who fled into the Chiapanecan rainforest to escape Spanish domination.
© Liza Prado and Gary Chandler from Moon Chiapas, 1st Edition