Traveling northwest from Guatemala, we reach Chiapas. Mexico's southernmost state is referred to as "Mundo Mayas," the gate to the world of the Mayas. At 6,900 feet, in a densely forested valley in the mountains of the Sierra Madre, lies San Cristóbal de las Casas. This lively town is a unique mixture of Spanish and Pre-Columbian architecture and culture. Street vendors sell tropical fruit and cotton candy. Immediately, when riding our KTM 640 Adventures through the narrow cobblestone alleys lined by low houses with colored facades, we feel at home.
Descendants of the Mayas mainly inhabit the highlands around San Cristóbal de las Casas. If spoken at all, Spanish is their second language, with various Mayan languages and dialects being the norm. In the village of Chamula, the tribe of the Tzotzil still cultivates their indigenous traditions and ways of life. Word has it that they perform unique religious practices. Our curiosity aroused, we decide to head in that direction.
The ambiance of the church in Chamula is dark and eerie. A dim light falls through the dirty colored windows. The floor is carpeted with pine needles and the flames of hundreds of candles flicker in the gloom. Clouds of incense penetrate the air. Images of saints line the walls. "They exorcize here," someone whispers. "The Catholic priest has long escaped." Making ourselves as inconspicuous as possible, we sit down in a corner and wait for what will happen.
A family gathers in a circle on the floor. Her face wrinkled by the sun, an old woman sweeps away the pine needles and puts three dozen candles in their place. Then she starts chanting in a monotonous voice. The chicken they brought nervously jerks in the fingers of its minders, sensing perhaps that it is doomed. The mother rubs her daughter's body with eggs and bones, murmuring words we do not understand. Then the chicken is beheaded. After each one takes a long swig from a bottle, oblations in the form of tequila, blood and Coca-Cola are dribbled onto the ground. The ritual lasts an hour.
Puzzled, we leave the church behind and sit down on the stairs at the far end of the zócalo (market square). Another unexpected occurrence is to come. We watch a funeral procession cross the square. The wooden coffin rests on the shoulders of six men. They put it down right before us and open the lid! An old man with his white sombrero resting on his belly looks as if he is peacefully asleep. After he has been granted one last "glimpse" of his village, the coffin is closed. They walk away with it, leaving us stunned.
Chiapas made world headlines in 1994 when the rural population of one of the poorest areas of Mexico united in an uprising. Under the leadership of Subcomandante Marcos, a modern Robin Hood, rebels raided the arsenals of the police stations, freed the prisoners, and handcuffed the governor in his official residence. He was released a few months after with the following sentence: "Until the end of your days you have to live with the dishonor of having to be at the mercy of those whom you have humiliated, displaced, robbed and killed for so many years." The people and the army fought for twelve days and then agreed on a ceasefire. It did not take long, however, before the fights flared up again. Many innocent people were massacred. Chiapas has not yet found its way back to normality either, and frequent police roadblocks are constant reminders of a divided society.