It just wasn’t time to leave San Cristobal after I got back from the bike trip to Palenque. Adrian moved on to a beautiful spot near Guatemala called Lagos de Montebello, and I ended up spending another week hanging around, half of it trying to recover from a sore throat and cough. I had a good time meeting the next couple waves of tourists that passed through the hostel and getting a health dose of Mayan culture. I took a guided tour up to the indigenous villages of Zinacatela and San Juan Chamula. I learned that there are 12 Mayan dialects in Chiapas, the main two being Tsotsil and Tsetsal. The economy of the highland indigenous is predominantly growing flowers, local businesses, handicraft production, and agriculture (mainly beans and corn). In the 70’s and 80’s, there was a wave of Evangelical Christians and other missionaries who came in and converted some of the indigenous. This caused problems in some communities and Chamula, which has an interesting mix of Catholicism with old Mayan rituals, ejected all the non-believers. I was told that even today, you cannot live in San Juan Chamula if you are not a part of their religion. In some ways I thought this was like taking a step backwards, but in all fairness, these people have suffered through a lot of outside interference and maybe this is a way to protect their culture and heritage from further outside influence. We took a look inside the church in Chamula and observed some of the interesting rituals. Shamans, or spiritual guides, lead prayers with fellow locals to help them get through hard times and sickness. Coca-cola and other sodas are used to promote burping, which apparently helps expel evil spirits. Hundreds of lit candles at all corners of the church and all over the floor give off an overwhelming exhaust. Green pine needles are brought in and spread around the floor as well. The catholic influence can be seen with the many statues of saints against the walls. These saints represent the Mayan gods of old and are still worshipped in similar fashion, just under a different name. I learned that the colorful clothing and different patterns in the dress of these Mayan people was originally instituted by the Catholics in order to help identify the respective groups. The traditional musical instruments include harp, guitar, violin, drum and flute and more recently the accordion. The story on taking photos is that they lose a part of their soul when you take a picture of them. It is not only photos that steal their souls but also accidents. Why some indigenous are willing to sell pieces of their souls for 5 pesos is a mystery to me.
I was able to catch more great live reggae shows during my extra time in San Cristobal. Other ways one could be entertained in the evenings is watching drum jams in the plaza with dancers twirling fireballs and batons, salsa dancing, or just walking around sampling street food and hot alcoholic fruit beverages called ponch. In our hostel, you could pass time reading in the sun on the patio, smoking herb, or chef it up with some of the international travelers for tasty collaborative meals. My personal favorite was cooking up space cake with Pancho for all to enjoy.
Yes, it was hard to move on from San Cristobal, the Qhia Hostel, but it had to be done. I figured I felt well enough to make the move and set out for the Guatemalan border. I spent one night in Comitan de Dominguez, a pretty town of 60,000 and then reached the border the following afternoon. I crossed into Guatemala and spent the night at the border town of Mesilla and met all kinds of interesting characters. One Honduran guy, about my age, was waiting for a guide to sneak him through Mexico and into the United States to hopefully find illegal work. The whole thing would cost his family about $4500. Talking to him about his future undertaking reminded me just how lucky I am to have been born in the U.S. While I have the opportunity to cross borders with ease because of my economic status, others are forced to take illegal risks to attain a better standard of living. Does this seem fair? I had many people asking me on the streets for help to get them to America so they could make some US dollars. One fact that shocked me is the amount of money that is sent back to families in these countries every year by the people that do make it to the US to work. It is billions of dollars.
I moved on from the border town and started cycling through the rolling hills of expansive valleys surrounded by tall mountains. There is no limit to where these people can plant their corn and beans. From the steepest mountains to the edge of the road, there was corn everywhere. My first day of cycling in Guatemala was challenging but scenic. Orange Crush signs now replaced those of Coca-cola that where so common in Mexico. Little kids shouted ‘Gringo!’ and sometimes chased me as I passed by small indigenous towns. I made it to the busy town of Huehuetenango in the afternoon and my sore legs weren’t the only things feeling the burn. My eyes and lungs had received a nice dose of the black diesel exhaust from the infamous chicken busses, motorcycles, and other autos that apparently are exempt from any kind of emissions testing. I wondered how anyone in this city lives past 30 with all the contamination in the streets. I met up with Adrian and settled into the budget hotel. We are taking an extra day of rest before setting out on an unpaved, scenic, and hopefully less traveled road into the mountains which will take us along the southern edge of the Chuchumantes Mountain Range. We’ll pass through some indigenous villages like the famous Mayan market town of Chichicastenango, and then eventually hit Lago de Atitlan where we’re likely to take an extended break to properly take in the amazing scenery of a lake surrounded by three large volcanoes topping 3000 meters and a land full of indigenous culture and laidback travelers.
Well, I don’t want to get too far ahead of myself. Guatemala is a budget traveler’s paradise. We are paying less than 2 dollars a piece for a bed and can usually eat a good meal for the same price. I thought it was tough getting out of Mexico, the 90 day stamp on my passport might be the only thing that pushes me out of Guatemala! We’ll see!
Peace and Love,