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Wednesday, 4 August 2010

Chiapas, Tuxtla y San Cristobal de las Casas

Leading on from my excursion to D.F I travelled back down south to meet up with Luz Castillo as she agreed to be my tour guide for the duration of my trip to the state of Chiapas. She has a vast knowledge of the area as she lived there for around 5 years. We made a plan to travel down to Chiapas,the southernmost state in Mexico which is located in the south-east of the country . It is bordered by the states of Tabasco to the north, Veracruz to the northwest, and Oaxaca to the west. To the east it borders Guatemala, and to the south the Pacific Ocean. Our plan was to travel to the state capital of of Tuxtla Gutiérrez, visit Luz's brother who lives there, and then move on to San Cristobal de las Casas, which is about an hour away by bus.

On arrival in Chiapas Luz's brother picked us up and took us to his house to drop off our things and after being fed and watered we made our way into the centre of Tuxtla to have a look around. We spent the day taking in the city and in late evening time we ended up in a park in the city centre were a local band were playing traditional local music and a a wide range of old and young people were dancing in the evening sun. The constant sun has a really positive effect on the states of mind of the people here. Its so much easier to wake up in a better mood when its sunny and warm outside than facing going out into the cold and rain. People are always spending time outside, sitting in the streets in front of their houses, socialising and taking in the evening sun. It has such a large impact on the way people live their lives and how people feel on a day to day basis, in comparison to living in a cold,wet and constantly cloudy climate. After experiencing the climate here, the weather in Ireland and the UK is definately not something which calls me to return!

We left for San Cristobal de las Casas at 10 o'clock on the bus and arrived around 11. San Cristobal is located higher up into the mountains than Tuxtla, so the climate there is a lot cooler, and way cooler than where I live in Ixtepec. So on getting off the bus we were immediately struck by the cold air. Living in such a hot climate in Ixtepec felt like a total struggle at the start but slowly I became accustomed to it, to where it doesn't bother me as much, but even with that I was looking forward to a break from the heat. Stepping off the bus was the first time since the start of March that I have felt anything like being cold, but I quickly got over the novelty of it when we had great difficulty finding a hotel room, and ended up walking around in the cold wearing only our summery Ixtepec clothing.

San Cristóbal de las Casas is a city in the central highlands of the Mexican state of Chiapas. The city is named after Saint Christopher and Bartolomé de Las Casas, a Spanish priest who defended the rights of indigenous Americans and was the first bishop of Chiapas. The city was the capital of the province of Chiapas, and state capital from Mexican independence until 1834, from 1835–58, 1861-64, and 1868–92, when the state government was definitively moved to Tuxtla Gutiérrez. For thousands of years, Maya peoples, ancestral to the present-day Tzotzil and Tzeltal peoples, have continuously lived in settlements in the general area of the modern city of San Cristóbal.

San Cristóbal is a strikingly beautiful place. Brightly coloured houses, rows of red-tiled roofs, churches and old colonial architecture are set into rolling green mountains.

It is a town rich in indigenous culture and history. The building below, called 'Na-Bolom’, which means ‘Jaguar House’ in Tzotzil Mayan, is the life-work of Swiss anthropologist Getrude Duby and her husband, Franz Blom. Originally built as a religious seminary, this colonial building was bought by the couple in the 1950s. They converted it into a resource center, dedicated to the understanding and preservation of Mayan culture.

Throughout San Cristóbal, the indigenous Mayan women and children sell their wares upon the pavements, everything from rugs, belts, food, cloths… and a lot of little dolls with wooden guns and woollen balaclavas. These dolls wearing balaclavas that the Maya sell are effigies of rebels from the Zapatista National Liberation Army(Ejército Zapatista de Liberación Nacional, EZLN). Centuries of corruption and inequality came to a head in 1994, when the EZLN initiated an armed uprising and took control of San Cristóbal de las Casas and three other towns in Chiapas. The insurgency was timed to coincide with the singing of the North American Free Trade Agreement. The Mexican government responded rapidly, driving the rebellion into the countryside. 150 people were killed in the conflict.

One of the most recognisable figures of the movement, Sub-Commandante Marcos, has become something of a folk hero. Images of his balaclava covered face, smoking a pipe can be found all over San Cristobal, on t-shirts, posters and buildings.

Photo curtesy of

Chiapas is one of the richest states in Mexico but suffers from massive inequality and poverty. The conflict in Chiapas has done a lot to bring to light the problems faced by Mexico’s indigenous people. Since 1994, the Zapatistas have been in a declared war "against the Mexican state," though this war has been primarily nonviolent and defensive against military, paramilitary, and corporate incursions on their territory. Their social base is mostly rural indigenous people but they have some supporters in urban areas as well as an international web of support. In 2006, the latest political initiative of the Zapatistas, the Other Campaign started from San Cristóbal at the beginning of the year.

The poverty that exists amongst the indigenous local people is really apparent in San Cristobal as they ply their trades amongst the rich tourists who frequent the region. There is no minimum wage for the locals who live there, no minimum age for employment and no health conditions that qualify anyone to be exempt from working. The choice that the people face is to do everything they can to make enough money to be able to feed their families or starve. Women in their 70s and 80s down to the young children are out on the streets day and into the night selling whatever they can to make a living. The systems of welfare and healthcare get criticised at home a lot, but the reality is that people can survive without work and live a dignified life with access to health care. Of course there are people that get left behind because they are unable to use the systems in place, and yes poverty exists for the very vulnerable people but being here really puts it in perspective how well supported people are at home and how ridiculous some of the complaints can be.

After spending a few days in San Cristobal, we planned to travel up to the ancient Mayan Ruins in Palenque, visiting Mishol ha and Agua Azul on the way there. Until the next blog.........

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