Not so much a village as a roadside settlement, Oventik is one of five original Zapatista administrative centers known as caracoles (literally snails or shells), though in this context the meaning is more akin to “hub.”
Located a short distance past San Andrés Larrainzar , Oventik is the most accessible of the caracoles—notwithstanding the masked guards at the large entrance gate—and is easily reached by car or combi from San Cristóbal . Visitors vary widely in their reviews of Oventik; some find it to be a fascinating peek into the day-to-day working of the Zapatista movement, while others find it exasperatingly bureaucratic and ultimately a bit dull.
Few disagree that it’s an attractive place, ensconced in pine trees and an ever-present mist, with large colorful murals on virtually every building.
The EZLN established Oventik and the other caracoles in 2003, after the Mexican Congress adopted a much watered-down version of the 1996 San Andrés Peace Accords, and the Supreme Court rejected hundreds of legal complaints over the law’s inadequacy, particularly regarding indigenous autonomy.
Each caracol has a Junta de Buen Gobierno (Good Government Council), which is made up of non-military representatives from its affiliated communities and whose work includes maintaining communal schools and clinics, gathering information and issuing reports on the Mexican army’s movements in their area, collecting taxes, and mediating local conflicts.
The Juntas tend to be excruciatingly inefficient due to the frequent rotation of their members and an affinity for paperwork, but the Zapatistas deserve credit for realizing, at least in part, one of their central goals: autonomous self-government for (some of) Chiapas ’s rural and indigenous communities.
A visit to Oventik begins at the gate, where you have to present photo identification to the masked guard; they’ll ask for a passport, but a driver’s license suffices. (You should never hand over your passport unless absolutely necessary, here or anywhere.) You’ll be escorted to a series of colorful clapboard buildings manned by masked representatives; each time you’ll be asked your name, profession, and reason for visiting and your answers painstakingly noted in large registers. Eventually you will meet with a member of the Junta, who approves (or disapproves) your visit. The whole process can take hours, most of which is spent waiting around. Needless to say, it’s best to arrive early.
Once approved, you can wander Oventik’s lone road, talking pictures of the murals (but not of people), eating at the small restaurant, or shopping in the artesanía shops. Foreign volunteers and local residents come to Oventik for administrative matters, and they are interesting to chat with (if open to talking). Staying a few days can make for a much richer experience—bunking in the community school or with local families, and visiting outlying villages. However, it must be arranged with the Junta over a series of visits, and isn’t always possible—don’t show up planning to stay the night.