Villages Around San Cristóbal
Surrounding San Cristóbal are numerous indigenous municipios (municipalities), each comprised of large and small villages and often encompassing huge swaths of rural territory. Municipalities are ethnically defined—Chamulans not only live in Chamula but share ancient ethnic bonds, distinct from Zinacatecans, Tenejapans, and so on.
Some share a common language (Tzotzil and Tzeltal are the most widely spoken) but just as many do not. Virtually all are “Maya” (as are the language groups) but the term belies the highland’s tremendous ethnic diversity.
Municipios exercise considerable autonomy from the state and federal governments; religion, land ownership, conflict resolution, policing, and punishment are all handled by traditional methods, completely independent of “Mexican” institutions.
Getting to the Villages
Every village is different, and options for visiting them vary accordingly. It’s possible to simply drive, bike, or take public transport to most villages and wander around for a few hours. (Plan to leave by mid-afternoon, as staying overnight, or even after dark, is not permitted.)
Tours are an excellent option, too, as you learn much more and tours often include visiting local families, something you’re unlikely to experience going solo. Guides also can fill you in on the various do’s and don’ts to be sure your visit is as respectful and unobtrusive as possible.
Rules about photography are taken very seriously in highland indigenous villages. It is absolutely forbidden to take pictures inside a church, of a religious procession or ceremony, or of any town official. In some towns, you are simply not allowed to take pictures at all. In others, landscapes and location shots are okay, but you should still be discreet.
Always ask permission before taking a picture of an individual person, such as in the market; if it’s a child, ask their parents as well. Be prepared to be shushed away, or asked for money in exchange. Refrain from attempting any clever photography, as locals are well aware of zoom lenses, cell-phone cameras, tiny point-and-shoots, etc.
If you do get caught taking a picture when you shouldn’t, officials may confiscate your memory chip (they know about those too) and issue a fine, usually US$50–150. Those who refuse to pay may end up in a village jail cell until they pay—really.
© Liza Prado and Gary Chandler from Moon Chiapas, 1st Edition