San Cristobal’s Indigenous Markets
Without a doubt, the highlight of any trip to beautiful San Cristobal de las Casas in Mexico’s southern state of Chiapas is a visit to the bustling indigenous markets full of Tzotzil and Tzeltal people. We decided to plant ourselves in the idyllic, colonial-era town for a couple of weeks to explore the markets as well as those in Tenejapa, Zinacantán, and Chamula.
Each market is an extraordinary event, a feast for the senses and a quick course in the diversity of the region. Traders descend from the hills wearing beautiful traditional clothing marking them as members of different villages. Non-indigenous visitors might be surprised to see twenty women sitting together in basically the same outfit. But this clothing has meaning in Chiapas: it ties the people together and displays their heritage. It’s a modern-day sign of the tribal unity of the past and present.
Market days are also the perfect place to experience the wild blend of Mayan tradition and contemporary life that makes the region so fascinating. Stop a moment to take it all in. Listen to the people bargaining in their Mayan languages, Spanish, and English. Witness the Sunday blend of indigenous religion and Catholicism. When was the last time you saw someone sacrificing an animal at church? But even if you have no interest in the culture, these markets are exciting, chaotic shopping opportunities. Whether you are looking for traditional textiles, street food, or bootleg DVDs, they’ve got it all!
Start out in San Cristobal
San Cristobal de las Casas is easily one of Mexico’s most atmospheric cities if not THE most atmospheric. We set out through the beautiful cobblestone streets taking in the gorgeous pastel-hued colonial architecture as we searched for markets. There are people selling stuff everywhere in little street-side tiendas, food stalls, and church squares. But for people-watching, culture, and Chiapas at its best, you can’t beat the Mercado Viejo.
“We spied several women selling traditional meringue in cones…”
The market is a treasure trove for photographers, shoppers, and those wanting to get a taste of local life. We waded through chicken stalls, mango vendors, and flower shops. We explored a virtual sea of fruits and vegetables, some of which were totally foreign to us despite the fact that we have explored much of the tropical world. We spied several women selling traditional meringue served in cones, and others selling big baskets of local strawberries. They were absolutely delicious! However, I strongly advise that you stay away from both because we paid dearly for our bravery. (Damn you, Moctezuma!)
And the fantastic indigenous clothing! We did occasionally see some men showing off their native threads, but the women were clearly the stars of the Mercado Viejo. Keep your eyes peeled for the black, rug-like skirts of San Juan Chamula. The women of San Andrés Larráinzar wore white huipils with a distinctive reddish embroidery across the breast and shoulders. For us, the elaborately embroidered designs of San Lorenzo Zinacantán were the highlight, so we decided we needed to head out to Zinacantán to check out their Sunday market.
Catch the Colorful Chaos at Zinacantan
It’s quite easy to take a tour of the regional markets with companies based in San Cristobal, and if you are in a rush or you want cultural interpretation, that’s a good idea. But we wanted to take our time experiencing Zinacantán. We also wanted to get to the markets early enough to see the procession of people heading to church, so we decided to visit using local transportation.
Early Sunday morning is when the good clothes really come out. We showed up right on time and were rewarded with a National Geographic moment of crowds of locals, both men and women, filling the church square decked out in their Sunday Mayan best. I might add that because we took local transportation and arrived before the organized tours, there wasn’t a tourist in sight, so we had the church square and the vast Zinacantán market all to ourselves for almost 90 minutes.
The Tzotzil speaking people of Zinacantán wear intricately embroidered clothing with a unique floral pattern in shades of red, hot pink, fuchsia, and purple. We had seen the same clothes in San Cristobal, but nothing quite as spectacular as the vast crowds in the church square here. Several of the men wore long, black, wool, poncho-like garments that went all the way down to their feet. And some people were even wearing traditional wood and leather sandals. Very cool!
“These ribbons are meant to represent the feathers once worn by Tzotzil men.”
Interestingly, some older men wore broad-rimmed palm hats with a fringe of long ribbons draped down over their shoulders. A bit of internet research suggests that these ribbons are meant to represent the feathers once worn by Tzotzil men. Apparently, this clothing style reveals a link between the Mayan Zinacantecos and the Aztec culture found in central Mexico.
Further on from the church square, the vast open-air Zinacantán market was a sight to behold. Hundreds of women bargaining over boxes of colorful wool, vegetables, and elaborate textiles. We first assumed that the textiles were meant to be sold to tourists, but actually, we saw several local women buying huipils there. After taking our time at the market, we took a local colectivo to Chamula.
Witness Mysterious San Juan Chamula
We actually visited Chamula twice, once during the chaotic Sunday market and once mid-week to visit the town’s famous church, Iglesia de San Juan. You can visit both on the same day, but we felt the church was a bit too overwhelmed on a Sunday to really appreciate its uniqueness.
The Chamula open-air market is every bit as chaotic and atmospheric as Zinacantán’s , although a touch less colorful. Here women wear a very distinctive shaggy, rug-like, wool skirt known as a nagua. We really didn’t see anything like it anywhere else in Chiapas. Apparently, sheep have a very distinct place in the village of Chamula and wool production is traditionally a major industry here, so I assume the quirky skirt is connected to that. Men wear a white wool vest called a chuj.
While the market is a big draw, the real reason to come to Chamula is to visit its incredible “church.” I’m putting the word church here in quotes not to be sarcastic or cynical, but rather to emphasize that most visitors will not recognize the rituals and atmosphere they discover within this house of worship.
We entered to discover a simple room, no paintings or ornamentation on the walls or ceiling. There were no pews, no confessionals, and the ground was covered with a carpet of pine needles. Along the walls, there were statues of saints, some of which were represented by animals.
“… without pausing at all, she snapped its neck!”
The woman nearest me was reciting a prayer in Tzotzil as she arranged full bottles of Coca-Cola in a line in front of a saint. She reached into a basket, pulled out a live chicken, and, without pausing at all, snapped its neck! Umm, wow! I glanced around and witnessed the same ritual over and over. Sometimes, they used offerings of Pepsi instead of Coke, but each time they sacrificed a chicken to honor the saint. These sacrifices lay bare the connection to the region’s ancient Mayan past.
Caution at Chamula, Tenejapa and Lesser Visited Markets
The indigenous people of Chiapas are truly fascinating… and traditional. Visitors, including myself, are eager to photograph what they discover in locations like the Iglesia de San Juan and in the markets. But taking pictures is a VERY sensitive subject in the region. Obviously, photography is banned in the church where people are worshipping, but it can also be a major issue with people in the streets as well. Always ask to take a photograph, and when someone says no, don’t take pictures.
“… when someone says no, don’t take pictures.”
That rule is doubly true in less visited market villages such as Tenejapa. When we arrived, we discovered a very picturesque procession of the town’s men, all wearing hats with ribbon fringe. It was quite a sight as was the equally impressive market, with beautifully dressed locals all haggling in Tzeltal. But when I took my camera out of the bag, I got the serious evil eye. Clearly, pictures were not going to happen. In fact, we didn’t take a single picture in the town, which is totally OK. If locals say don’t want their picture taken, we respect that. (The picture of the man in the hat above was taken at the textile museum in San Cristobal.)
Some visitors in the past have been less respectful and we have heard stories of photo-hungry tourists being attack by mobs. We’ve even heard stories of tourists being killed in villages in neighboring Guatemala. Even if you see locals photographing their friends and family with their phones, ask before you act. But as long as you ask and follow local advice, you will be totally fine.
Market Days and Tips on Getting to Markets
San Cristobal – Every day
San Juan Chamula – Sunday
Zinacantan – Sunday
San Andres Larrainzar – Sunday
Tenejapa – Thursday
San Pedro Chenalhó – Saturday
Tours to various markets are available from agencies in San Cristobal. This is a good option for those with limited time, those who want a guide, or those who wish to visit more than one market in a single day. For travelers who prefer to visit independently, colectivos and smaller shared taxis depart on market days from various points around the San Cristobal produce market. To find exact departure locations for each market and to reconfirm market days, ask the San Cristobal tourist information.