With more than 10,000 residents, San Juan Chamula is Chiapas ’s largest indigenous town, and the Chamula municipality—with some 60,000 residents—is arguably the largest indigenous polity in the New World. San Juan is Chamula’s political and religious center, and also the place most visited by outsiders, located just 12 kilometers from San Cristóbal .
A trip to San Juan is practically a given for anyone visiting San Cristóbal; it’s one of the most unique and fascinating places you may encounter in Chiapas.
Chamulan women are easily distinguished by their traditional dress, including white huipiles with simple flowers embroidered around the necklines and thick black wool skirts cinched with red belts. Many women also wear sky-blue wool rebozos (shawls) that sometimes hide a baby tucked into its folds. These garments are handwoven on a waist loom and generally are made of wool that has been carded by the women from animals raised on the family plot.
Chamulan men wear machine-made hats, western-style pants and shirts, leather boots, and long, woolen tunics; most men wear white tunics and the village leaders wear black tunics. A man also wears a special official dress of authority during the time he serves on the town council.
Women and little girls are often barefoot—it is partly a question of money, but it also stems from a traditional belief that the earth makes females fertile through their feet. Tourists often are tempted to give indigenous people or children shoes, but some recipients consider such unsolicited charity offensive; it’s better to donate shoes—or better yet, money—to organizations with established relationships with indigenous communities (ask about recommended groups at San Cristóbal ’s state tourism office).
Religious holidays are a unique times to visit San Juan Chamula, with its raucous celebration, solemn processions, and special ceremonies, all set against a backdrop of music, fireworks, and plenty of food and drink. During festivals, cargo-holders, town leaders, shamans, and ordinary villagers all wear special ceremonial clothing, all different depending on the wearer’s position but none without bright colors and exquisitely woven and embroidered designs.
Carnaval is San Juan’s biggest and most notoriously excessive celebration, lasting for a full week and including elaborate costumes, rituals, and role-playing. Whatever the occasion, be prepared to encounter dense crowds and a certain number of supremely drunk men. Remember, too, that taking pictures during festivals is prohibited.