High in the Chiapas mountains, 68 kilometers from the state capital of Tuxtla Gutiérrez, the lovely colonial town of
San Cristóbal de Las Casas is a favourite destination for travellers.
With its cobblestone streets, centuries-old adobe houses, plant-filled patios, Baroque churches and vibrant street life, it's a fascinating place to spend a few days or longer.
Surrounding San Cristóbal are the beautiful Maya highlands, one of the most deeply-rooted indigenous areas in Mexico.
After the collapse of the lowland Maya civilization more than 1,000 years ago, the remote Chiapas highlands were a refuge for the ancient Maya. Today, while important cities like Toniná and Palenque now lie in ruins, Maya culture still thrives in the many Tzotzil and Tzeltal villages that surround San Cristóbal, where ancient traditions in dress, religous practice, festivals, crafts and language blend with elements of the modern world.
The Maya are also an important part of everyday life in
San Cristóbal. As well as forming an ever-growing proportion of the population of the city, they come to buy, sell and interact with the outside world. Many beautiful Maya crafts and textiles are on sale in the city's handicraft markets and shops, and the indigenous food markets are some of the most lively and colorful in Mexico.
Maya culture today
In 1528, Diego Mazariegos conquered Chiapas and under Spanish colonial rule the highland Maya suffered enslavement and the loss of their lands. They were forced into villages and made to convert to Catholicism.
Remarkably, in spite of centuries of oppression, the highland Maya have continued to hold on to their unique cultural identity, a testament to the strength and resilience of their traditions.
Today, most highland Maya live in scattered parajes (rural hamlets) in the mountains surrounding the villages, which are primarily market and ceremonial centres, and make their living by subsistence farming.
Their religious life is nominally Catholic, but this Catholicism is actually a blend of ancient Maya beliefs, Catholic beliefs, and also of their own interpretation over the last 480 years or so.
Their religious beliefs go hand in hand with some unique forms of social organization, such as the system of ranked religious offices known as cargos ('posts' or 'duties'). Occupying an important cargo and so serving the community wins a man great prestige and honor for the rest of his life.
The highland Maya live within the rhythm of the seasons and keep up the elaborate round of religous festivals. Living between earth (tierra) and sky (cielo), and depending upon the sun and rain and fertility of the land, they have a deep respect for nature, and most households engage in the sacred duty of corn farming.
Each village in the highlands has its own distinctive style of dress, and the women of the highlands are known for their skilful weaving, a tradition that has been passed down from mother to daughter since ancient times.
Their textiles are some of the most exquisite in the Americas, with intricate designs that date back to the Classic period. Like planting corn, weaving is perceived as a sacred duty that illuminates the presence of god and the ancestors in everyday life.
Over 1.25 million indigenous people live in Chiapas, mostly descendants of the great Classic Maya civilization of AD 250-900. The indigenous Chiapanecos live within various ethnic groups spread out across the state (including the Tzotziles, Tzeltales, Mames, Choles, Zoques and Lacandónes, amongst others), each with its own language, traditions, costumes and belief systems. The highland Maya, the Tzotziles and Tzeltales, are the largest communities, totaling over 800,000.
With its colorful colonial towns, impressive mountains and lakes, magnificent ancient Mayan ruins and remote indigenous villages, the beautiful state of Chiapas is a photographer's paradise.
In the villages, however, many highland Maya dislike having their photo taken, and there are times and places when photography is absolutely forbidden (such as inside churches and during certain religious celebrations). But there are lots of opportunities to take some wonderful photos, and we will guide you know when and where this is so