So, San Cristobal. But before that a quick last note on Oaxaca. They seemed to be tearing down the market stalls that clutter many of the downtown streets surrounding the Zocala (the town square). Yayyyy!!!! The square itself had become little more than a cluster of low slung tarps covering hundreds of stalls and dwellings of pop up tents. The square therefore no longer a focal point for the town. Walking through this area without paying careful attention meant being garroted or tripping over cables or small children. Of course, I could be wrong. It might all be something to do with Independence Day her in a week or so!!
|San Cristobal walking street|
Anyway San Cristobal at 2200m up is a little colder than Oaxaca. A charming town. Mostly single storey or at most two storey buldings. Not in the overtly colourful style of some places but still bright enough for you to know you are in Mexico. There are walking streets that are full of restaurants and nice shops which indulge the needs of the more wealthy. There are a few tourists but, more noticeably, there are scores of indigenous village people here. They come in daily to sell their wares. Most dressed in the normal embroidered, traditional clothes, but some, wearing a sort of black shag pile carpet that is wrapped around the waist and tied with a decorative scarf. Numerous children from 4 upwards are in the streets selling stuff too and it makes you realize how poor this country is and how the poor kids receive virtually no education.
We have been horse riding to place called Chamula about an hour outside of San Cristobal. About 14 people in total and a few guides. Many had never ridden and I, having been on a horse about 5 times and had a few lessons, was one of the more proficient ones. Although my seeming proficiency, I’m sure, was down to the intuition of my horse rather than my ability to control her with my heels, reins and clicking tongue.
This was Rachel’s first (and probably last) time on a horse. During the two hours of actual riding she came to realise that she didn’t particularly enjoy being on or about these beasts. And, when one fell backwards down a small incline, toppling the rider and resulting in both having to be manhandled from bushes her conclusion was set and she (and indeed most others) were happy to arrive back in one piece.
Anyway, in Chamula there is a church that practices a strange, bastardised version of Catholicism. There is all the normal Jesus on a cross and wax saints in class cabinets malarkey but that's about where the norm ends. Tables filled with thousands of flickering candles line the church walls and, instead of pews, the floors are empty apart from clusters of more burning candles. Often there is a thick covering of flammable pine needles as well to keep the pious on their toes in the eyes of God and the fire department. Gathered around these candles or in front of the glass cabinets are locals who drink coke which makes them belch and represents the bad spirits being expelled from the body.
|Borrowed pic from online as you can't take pics inside|
They then drink a clear liquid (sometimes alcoholic) which symbolizes taking in purity (or just getting quietly pissed in a church). Then there is the sacrifice angle!!! People take in chickens (just eggs if really poor) and break their necks. All very weird. Outside, we come a cross a group of men wearing full length shag pile carpet coats and holding sticks.
|Shag pile cops|
Turns out these are the local law enforcement. Something that didn’t seem that necessary since the square was surrounded with hundreds of armed police with riot shields standing ready for action. It turns out that a a couple of weeks ago these gentle townsfolk went rogue, formed a mob and bludgeoned the mayor!!! Apparently a prominent politician doles out several thousand Pesos to each of them yearly to ensure their votes. It hadn’t happen as expected in the previous fortnight and it was suspected that the mayor had pocketed the lot.
There is a fantastic place called the Sumidero Canyon near to Chiapas de Chorzo where you can take a boat ride for several kms down river. It is an amazing ride with the walls of the canyon steadily growing until they stand vertically either side of the river. Towering hundreds of metres high. Cactus and more usual vegetation cling to the sides and cast a further green hue on the already green slow flowing water. Where the slopes are not so sheer trees have managed to take root and are home to herons, pelicans and spider monkeys. Below them, in the murky water, are crocodiles (we saw several of 2 to 3 metres) who no doubt hope for a wrong footed monkey to provide a tasty meal. Aside from normal water falls we came across one that had formed calcified ledges on the canopies of trees upon which the fresh water splashed out to create a thin mist which glittered in the sunlight.
On one turn of the river we found a section completely covered in debris. A huge floating pile of vegetation, trees, plastic bottles and other detritus that had washed down the river and was being managed by floating garbage disposal boats. Finally the river opens to a small lake caused by a dam and here flocks of birds gather and flap about competing with one another to catch fish.
|Don't you hate it when there's a bit of litter in the river|
Our stay in San Cristobal has been with a talented musician – Carlo – who plays a plethora of instruments including bagpipes and accordions. He plays in several of the bars and along with his band makes and sells their CD’s which are a fusion of Mexican folk and Gaelic music. Very jolly. Music is plainly an important part of life in San Cristobal and on our last night with Carlo we enjoyed far too much drink and an Argentinian Folk band.
We are now on the bus to Palenque – an 8 hour journey through mountains and lush hilly countryside. It is truly a beautiful and diverse country but as with everything Mexican there is a twist.
On this journey it was first being stopped by, what we assume to be, police - although we saw no insignia. 5 men with utility belts and a couple wearing bullet proof vests directed the bus off the road to a slightly quieter side street and then commenced searching the holds of the bus and unscrewing panels all over the place. Poking in mirrors on sticks, shining torches and, presumably, looking for drugs or weapons or something. Bit scary since a few people looked decidedly nervous.. Next we drove past an articulated lorry on the side of the road. Its back wheels appeared to be hanging over a steep drop and the back doors were open. All around, like ants around a pile of sugar, there were dozens of people, young, old, some with wheelbarrows, some loading up cars with what looked like the looted contents of the trailer.
Finally at a ticket barrier of a toll road we were confronted with about 40 people, many with scarves pulled up for anonymity or protection from fumes, I cannot say. The payment booths were all unmanned and locked. But the barriers were manually operated by the crowd who still exacted a toll that was scrawled on a cardboard sign and collected the money in a cardboard box. There was no sense of danger and everyone just accepted it as a normal day on the wild west roads of Mexico.