San Juan Chamula is a special place. Not far from the highland town of San Cristobal, a trip here is an eye-opening journey into a fusion of religious beliefs and indigenous life. Rich in color, community, and culture, Chamula is home to a vibrant market, a unique church, and atmospheric cemetery.
Life here revolves around the church; people dress in traditional clothing, and speak Mayan languages; festivals blend ancient tradition with Catholic customs. Not wholly Mexican, but not wholly indigenous, the village is an autonomous entity tucked in the mountains—a place that truly needs to be seen to be believed.
Why You Should Visit San Juan Chamula, Chiapas
Situated in the Chiapas highlands, San Juan Chamula is rich with religious traditions and indigenous culture. It’s here in this captivating village that the Tzotzil Mayan people live, 99.5% of whom can speak one or more indigenous languages.
High up in this beautiful location (2,200 meters, or 7,220 feet, to be exact), the town itself is blessed with a unique autonomous status within Mexico—as it has its own police force, Mexican national police or the army are barred from entering.
Even time here is different: Chamula time ignores Mexican time zones in favor of its own.
This fiercely independent town has seemingly always been that way. As the center of Chamulan religion and culture for centuries, the town fought off the Spanish in 1524 and went on to rebel many times throughout the centuries. In 1869 they even staged a massive attack on San Cristobal—a colonial settlement around six miles away.
Religion in San Juan Chamula plays an important part in everyday life. There’s a mix of indigenous Mayan beliefs and Catholicism at work, leading to a syncretic belief system in which Saint John the Baptist is revered above Jesus Christ. There are other interesting parts to this religion, such as how Coca Cola is used in some ceremonies.
In short, San Juan Chamula is a fascinating place to visit in Mexico. People here still wear traditional clothing, there are many interesting sights and activities to experience, and a lot of history to learn about, too.
What To See And Do In San Juan Chamula, Chiapas
Though San Juan Chamula is relatively small, it’s such a unique place that there are a surprising amount of things to see. The town attracts visitors who come from within Mexico and further afield to learn all about it.
Templo de San Juan
At the heart of San Juan Chamula is the Templo de San Juan, or Church of Saint John the Baptist. Situated in the central square, it’s a beautiful sight; a colonial-style whitewashed building dating from 1538-1545, with decorative blue and green archway patterns and floral designs. It’s a little different to traditional Catholic churches in Mexico, and not just on the outside.
For one thing, inside this church there are no pews and no aisles. No masses are held. Instead, worshippers sit quietly on a floor strewn with pine needles (an allusion to the ceiba tree, sacred in Maya tradition), praying to colorful statues of saints.
Ceremonies inside the church are held with the aim of asking for blessings; giving thanks for the blessings and to request healings. They are led by a curanderos (traditional doctor – not a “shaman”) whose healing rituals often involve drinking Coca Cola or other carbonated drinks; that’s because burping is thought to expel evil spirits. Other items used in ceremonies include eggs and bones; and chickens are also ritually sacrificed by wringing the neck. Chickens are thought to replace the bad-spirit in the ill human: it’s like an exchange.
There are also candles burning in a rainbow of colors throughout the church. Candles in different colors represent a specific request made to the saint – each color has a specific meaning.
Edging the walls of the nave of the chapel are images of saints holding mirrors; their placement is believed to ward off evil. Above the altar, you can see a lion, an eagle, a jaguar and a bull— symbolic creatures pointing to a rooting in a much older religious tradition.
The bells of the church ring 3 times per day – at 6:00 am and 6:00 pm, to honor the movement of the sun: sunrise, midday and sunset.
The church is a reflection of the history of San Juan Chamula—a combination of half a millennium of Spanish rule, which tried to entwine its own Catholic religious beliefs with native Mayan practices.
Note that no pictures are allowed inside the church; it’s a sacred place. This is something that is absolutely prohibited. If you do try to take a picture, don’t be surprised if your camera gets taken from you and you may even get a fine of up to 3900 MXN (around $200 USD). I’d recommend not even having a camera in your hand; make sure it’s in your bag or pocket before entering. Taking pictures of the church’s exterior, on the other hand, is ok.
The church is open 24 / 7. Admission to the church is 30 MXN ($1.50 USD). You can purchase your ticket at the tourist office just beside the main square. You are obviously free to visit the church by yourself, but if you speak Spanish you may hire a guide for around 100 MXN ($5 USD) to get a 15 to 20 minutes explanation of what goes on inside the church.
Chamula Cemetery and Burnt Temple Ruins
Near to the Templo San Juan are the ruins of an older church—the 17th-century Church of San Sebastian (destroyed by fire in the 20th century)—where you’ll find the village graveyard. It’s another fascinating insight into the local fusion of Tzotzil Mayan religious beliefs and Catholicism.
The graves in the cemetery display yet more of the nature worship at the heart of this traditional town. Graves are marked with mounds of earth, on which are placed piles of pine needles, again a symbolic offering reflecting the revered ceiba tree.
Traditionally, crosses on the graves here were painted different colors depending on who had died. This is no longer practised, but there are still signs of the old tradition: black is for people who died at an old age; white is for those who died young; blue is for others.
The cemetery is a quiet spot that becomes a vibrant place on Day of the Dead (All Souls Day), when family members come to decorate graves with marigolds and other colorful flowers. It’s not just a time to lay flowers, however, with bands playing music, people picnicking and general celebration in the air.
The same rule here applies if you want to take photos of people; ask permission first, and keep a respectful distance from people tending to graves.
The town’s market takes place in the central town square, in front of the Templo San Juan. The plaza positively pops into life with various stalls displaying many sights, sounds, and smells.
Taking place on Sunday, the market is actually surprisingly busy. People flock from neighboring villages to come and trade their wares at the market, buy goods themselves, and worship at the unique church. It’s also busy with tourists; this is when most visitors come to explore.
The market makes for a lively, atmospheric addition to town. Stalls selling all manner of items sit in the shade of colorful canopies—from hats and maize to textiles and goat hair. It’s an authentic market that’s not filled with souvenirs and trinkets, but instead is for local people to buy essential items.
Shopping in the market is also a great way to see Chamulan people in their traditional clothing. Men wear white wool tunics, and sometimes black wool when it’s colder; women usually wear white or blue blouses, with woolen shawls. Curanderos wear a black tunic with a white scarf on their head. All of it is handmade and can be bought at the market.
This outdoor market is a must-visit and shopping here is a fantastic way to give money to the local community, while also picking up some unique items to take back home. It may seem a little more expensive when compared to the prices of the market at San Cristobal, but the money is going to a good place.
As a tourist, you may be asked for money or followed by persistent vendors trying to sell you items. It’s best to politely say “No, thank you” and move on.
Practical Information For Visiting San Juan Chamula
Now that you know how amazing San Juan Chamula is, and what fascinating sights and sounds you can expect to see here, it’s time to figure out the practical side of things…
When to visit San Juan Chamula, Chiapas
Timing your trip is pretty important. Visiting just about any time of year is interesting, but if you time your visit to San Juan Chamula just right, you’ll be there to see some amazing things. And in terms of the weather, you may want to plan your trip depending on what your preference is.
Day of the Dead or Dia de los Muertos falls on November 2. Come during this time to see the cemetery brimming with people, visiting their relatives’ graves and decorating them with color. It brings a lively atmosphere to the usually peaceful graveyard; there are even brass bands that play here, too.
Another prominent festival that you may want to check out in San Juan Chamula is Carnaval. Falling sometime in February or March each year, it’s a pretty interesting time to visit the small town. This event is very much fuelled by pox (a locally alcoholic beverage). Troubadours wander the streets wearing tall pointed hats edged with colorful tassels, chanting, and strumming guitars.
It marks Catholic Carnaval in the Easter calendar, of course, but it also marks the “lost days” of the ancient Maya calendar, which split a year into 18 months of 20 days each. This left 5 so-called lost days, the observance of which is reflected during Carnaval in San Juan Chamula.
There’s also Fiesta de San Juan Bautista. Beginning at the sunset of June 23, this is a religious celebration marking Saint John’s Eve, which also falls near the summer equinox. Expect much excitement, pox-drinking, and the carrying of flags.
And in terms of weather, because it’s high altitude and surrounded by mountainous landscape, the weather in San Juan Chamula is pretty changeable. In the summer months, temperatures can soar, while winter temperatures can be particularly chilly. Downpours can also occur with little notice.
How to get to San Juan Chamula from San Cristobal
The main town nearest to San Juan Chamula is San Cristobal, which is at about 7 miles (11 km). Depending on how you travel, the journey takes about 15 to 30 minutes. You have several ways of getting there.
If you have your own car, the drive to San Juan Chamula is an easy and pleasant one. You won’t have troubles parking your car in town.
Taxis from San Cristobal de las Casas to San Juan Chamula charge about 100 to 120 MXN ($5 to $6 USD) one-way.
By Public Transport
You can take a colectivo, which leaves every 5 to 10 minutes, and most of which depart from the Mercado area of town at Calle Honduras; it costs around 20 MXN ($1 USD), which you’ll pay as you disembark.
It’s easy, and a quick ride. You’ll be dropped off right in the center of Chamula, conveniently allowing you to enjoy exploring the town. To get back, hop on a colectivo back to San Cristobal; you can catch these at the same spot, which will be marked. Alternatively, you can hop in a taxi.
By Guided Tour
Finally, you also have the possibility of joining a guided tour departing from San Cristobal de las Casas – usually from the square by the Cathedral. Guided tours cost around 300 MXN ($15 USD). While that does seem expensive compared to the colectivo, you’ll get a guide at your side who’ll explain the history and significance of San Juan Chamula. Tours here are usually half-day, but if you want to make the day longer you can also include hiking in the tour.
I have been to San Juan Chamula 3 times, and I wholeheartedly recommend joining a guided tour – your experience will be much better. The best guide in the area is Cesar, who works for Alex y Raul Tours. He speaks perfect English, and he’s incredibly knowledgeable. You can reach him by email at email@example.com. Alternatively, you can book your guided tour online here.
Tips for visiting San Juan Chamula, Chiapas
Here are a few more tips to make the most of your time in San Juan Chamula.
Ask per mission before taking photos
Chamulan people also do not like having their photo taken—even if they’re far away from you. Always ask permission first.
Furthermore, and to reiterate, taking photos inside the Templo San Juan is forbidden. You risk having your camera taken from you and having to pay a fine, not to mention greatly upsetting the local people. On the back of your ticket for the church are printed a list of rules for the church (one of which also includes not wearing a hat inside).
So as tempting as it is to take photos inside the church—it’s a unique, powerful space, after all—take mental pictures for your memories instead! Even taking notes in the church is not allowed, so it really does need to be a visual-only experience.
Note also that animal sacrifice may be involved during your visit to the church, which may be distressing to some visitors.
Hire a guide
Guides can be hired cheaply outside the church, but this is usually a service offered only in Spanish (make sure to agree on a price before setting).
Don’t hire children as a guide
If children try to advertise themselves as guides, do not hire them; they should be in school.
Pack carefully for your day
Another tip is to pack accordingly. You should prepare for all weathers, so take layers of clothing in your bag, making sure not to forget a waterproof raincoat.
Visit Zinacantan too
Finally, another tip is to visit the nearby Zinacantan – a local Mayan village known for textiles and weaving. There are no colectivos going there, but it’s a 15 minutes drive in case you have your own car; or you can get a taxi for around 100 MXN ($5 USD). Guided tours to San Juan Chamula typically also go to Zinacantan.
You can book tours to San Juan Chamula that also go to Zinacantan here.
Make sure to read my other posts about Mexico:
- The Best Things To Do In Chiapas
- The Best Guide To San Cristobal De Las Casas
- The Best Travel Tips For Mexico
- How Not To Get Sick In Mexico
- The Best Itinerary For 3 Days In Mexico City
- The Complete Guide To Visiting Teotihuacan
- The Best Mexico Itinerary
- The Best Beaches In Mexico
- The Best Things To Do In Yucatan
- What To Eat In Mexico
- The Best Tours In Oaxaca