San Juan Chamula ’s colorful blue and white flowered Iglesia de San Juan Bautista is a deeply important place for villagers, and a must-see for visitors. Though it appears like any other church on the outside, it’s obvious from the moment you enter that it’s no ordinary Catholic space. (In fact, the only standard Catholic ceremonies conducted here are baptisms, which are conducted by guest priests since Chamula’s leaders won’t allow any permanent clergy to be placed here.)
A rich aroma greets you as you walk in the door: a mixture of pine, flowers, incense, and candles. The floor is covered with pine needles, cut fresh from the forest and carried here every Saturday. The statues of the saints are dressed in many layers of brilliantly flowered clothes with mirrors hung around their necks.
Most of the statues are now kept in glass boxes because villagers occasionally sought revenge when a request to the saint was not fulfilled. It wasn’t unusual for an angry churchgoer to break a statue’s finger off, turn the statue backward to face the wall, or even to take the statue outside and stick its head in the ground.
Hundreds of candles placed on the floor glow reverently in the dim light—red candles burn for someone who is ill, black candles announce death, but most are white and are part of detailed private ceremonies performed with the help of shamans for various daily or family matters.
Besides candles, ceremonies utilize chickens, eggs, posh (a traditional cane sugar liquor) and—amazingly—Coca-Cola and Pepsi. Belching is considered an effective way to rid the body of bad spirits; posh was used originally, but carbonated soft drinks do a far better job and were quickly adopted by Chamulan shamans.
Some see this as corrupting, but it can also be viewed as an example of Chiapas ’s indigenous people choosing certain modern creations to enhance traditional practices. And why not? They are not, after all, blind to the world around them.
Tickets (US$2) are required to enter the church; tour guides typically handle this for their groups, but independent visitors should stop at the tourism office, located in the city hall facing the central plaza, to purchase one.