Into San Cristobal de las Casas

*This is part 2 of a 13-part series. Read part 1 here.*

What are you, insane or something?!

The response is typical when telling friends and family back home, “I’m hitch-hiking through Mexico.” Subsequent is a barrage of stern don’t-you-watch-the-news’s and does-your-mother-know-you’re-doing-this’s that, although well-meaning, are largely misguided as they are the product of a mainstream media whose only message is fear.

That said, yes, there are dangers.

But there is danger in everything — including the assumption that every stranger is out to get you. While the media promotes such thinking because a frightened society is a malleable society, it is in fact an insidious notion that dismantles communities, erodes trust and instigates isolation. Hitch-hiking combats this idea by shrinking the world and (usually) demonstrating that most people are friendly, helpful and curious.

That said, yes there are risks.

Graffiti from San Cristobal de Las Casas
Graffiti from San Cristobal de Las Casas

In the curving basin below a gentle hill on Highway 199 just outside Palenque, a midnight blue SUV rumbles onto the shoulder. I lower my thumb.

“Adónde vas?”

“Ocosingo, por favor.”

“Si”

My travel partner S and I drop our backpacks into the truck — there is an audible thump and the vehicle sways lightly – then exchange nervous grins.

“Kids – in the back!” the mother orders good-naturedly, and the strawberry blonde pubescents scramble backwards one row as if collecting road-weary strangers is perfectly typical for a Tuesday afternoon. S and I clamber inside and we’re soon on our way. The mother, we come to learn over spicy potato chips and succulent sugar cane, is a native Mexican who has traveled extensively throughout the region. The British father is a journalist for the Economist and provides us with background on Chiapas and the Zapatistas.

SubMarcosHorseFromAfar
Subcomandante Marcos, main spokesperson for the Zapatista Army of National Liberation

Predominately composed of Mayan communities in rural Chiapas (though supported worldwide), the Zapatista Army of National Liberation achieved international recognition in 1994 as NAFTA came into effect. In an attempt to further a nascent globalization, this legislation widened the gap between rich and poor and stripped such communities of ecological wealth.

Land reform, indigenous control of local resources and government democratization are the pillars of the Zapatistas’s cause, and were fought for quite physically during the rebel groups early days. Twenty years ago, Ocosingo – the town we are now driving toward — witnessed an armed clash between the Mexican government and the Zapatistas.

Suffering tremendous casualties, the Zapatistas retreated into the surrounding jungle. Days later, a peace treaty was signed in San Cristobal de las Casas and the rebel group switched from firing bullets on the streets to firing words on the internet.

With well-wishes and a few stalks of sugarcane, we alight from the SUV in the very town where the pivotal battle was waged and the state’s future was molded. Nowadays, Ocosingo is a forgettable conglomeration of corner tiendas and dusty calles. Our next ride is from a coffee shop employee in his mid-20s whose light-speed Spanish is surpassed only by his NASCAR-esque driving. Together, we zip through the pine hills and foggy valleys to San Cristobal de las Casas.

SanCristobalPark

Officially designated as a Pueblo Magico, San Cristobal de las Casas receives government funding to maintain its cultural niche. Populated mostly by Tzotzil and Tzeltal Mayans (although a substantial number of extranjeros reside here as well), it was founded by conquistadors in 1528 and has endured more name changes than CIA personnel. It is uniquely characterized by a fusion of colonial architecture and indigenous traditions.

Quaint is an understatement — even the shadows are charming! Fashionable tourists in knitted scarves stroll the pedestrian streets beneath the soft amber of the streetlamps while live music jangles from within the hip bars.

The following morning, S and I meander to the market: a labyrinth of tents sprawled before a crumbling church hawking everything from hammocks to breakfast (but not breakfast in a hammock unfortunately). We procure gluttonous bowls of juicy fruit and flakey portions of creamy pastries for less than $4 USD each, then gorge ourselves in the central plaza while watching shoe-shiners and university students begin their days.

In the crisp Mexican highlands, coffee is a deity and thus we wander into a glorious temple (chic cafe) for a cuppa salvation. As we gaze at the gossamer spirits that writhe in the dissipating steam, we are suddenly interrupted by a tinkling squeal. It is M, a guest from the hostel in Guatemala. She and a few friends are venturing to a syncretic church in a neighboring village and invite us along.

Exterior of the famous church in San Juan Chamula
Exterior of the famous church in San Juan Chamula

San Juan Chamula is an autonomous village aligned with the Zapatistas and has its own police force, with federal forces barred from interfering. Tzotzil men in chujes and women in huipiles vend leather purses and embroidered blouses in ramshackle tiendas that lead to the central church, San Juan Bautista.

In lieu of traditional pews, the floor is strewn with boughs of pine needles, which is kind of a fire hazard given all the lit candles teetering upon the cement floor, but nobody seems to mind. Wooden effigies of Catholic Saints line the walls as local genuflect before them with all the ritual accoutrements: sweating Coca-cola and Fantas, bitter posh (sugarcane alcohol) and fluttering chickens.

It is somewhat perturbing that the religious libations include sugary drinks produced by mega corporations that are akin to new conquistadors abolishing ancient traditions, but Mexico is rife with paradox and contradiction. Cameras are forbidden.

A chicken squawks nervously as it twitches inside a plastic bag restrained by an elderly woman rhythmically chanting in Tzotzil tones. Her family reclines nearby. Tourists — myself included — sneak around as apprehensively as the chickens, aware that we are crashing the sacredness yet nevertheless craving a looksee.

Maybe some places are better left alone, but how does one know if they never go inside? As I head for the door, the chickens shrieks ominously.

But there is a decrepit cemetery beckoning…