From Mayan to modern – culture flourishes in Chiapas, Mexico

“There’s lots of music with famous artists…there’s theater, talks, exhibits and literature.”

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Mexico’s southernmost state barely registers with those of us looking for a sunny break. Without the easy familiarity of beach resorts like Puerto Vallarta or Cancun, plus a longer travel time to get there and less English spoken by locals, Chiapas takes more effort, but the result is grand – a rich and authentic Mexican culture at every turn of the road.

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Start in Tuxtla Gutierrez, the state capital and home of the Marimba Museum as well as Marimba Park, one of the city’s most popular spots. It is believed that enslaved Africans brought the marimba – a type of wooden xylophone – to Mexico, but it is so ingrained in Chiapan life that they are credited with perfecting it. Watch couples dance to the lively, distinctly chiapan beat of several marimba players on Wednesday, Thursday, Saturday, and Sunday nights at seven.

Marimba players performing in Chiapas, Mexico.
Marimba players performing in Chiapas, Mexico. Photo by Getty Images

Across the street at the Marimba Museum, you’ll see dozens of styles of marimbas and an audio kiosk where you can hear famous pieces performed by different players. Better yet, hit the road and listen to the melodic sounds of the marimba carried by the warm evening breezes in public parks throughout the state and especially in Comitan, San Cristabal de Las Casas, Chiapa de Corzo, Tapachula and Palenque.

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Between the modern city of Tuxtla and the colonial city of San Cristobal in the Chiapan highlands are Tzotzil Mayan communities that have retained their traditional customs, musical and otherwise. A must-see is San Juan Chamula with its bustling Sunday market. Women in scruffy black woolen skirts sell everything from fresh produce and spools of thread to cheap plastic toys and household items. Prosperous-looking Mayan men favored white wool, worn in long leather-belted tunics over crisp white shirts and trousers.

Don’t overlook the modest white plaster Chamoula Church built between 1522 and 1524. More Mayan temple than Catholic church, thousands of candles flicker in the dark and families sit on the ground praying and celebrating. sometimes perform a mixture of rituals. These involve drinking Coca Cola (burping is believed to expel evil spirits), sacrificing a live chicken, and rubbing smallpox on one’s body (pronounced “chic”, it’s bootleg booze at corn base).

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It looks like a church but this building in San Juan Chamula is more of a Mayan temple.
It looks like a church but this building in San Juan Chamula is more of a Mayan temple.

“They come to the temple when they have a problem,” says Nichim tour guide Ramses Borraz Balinas. “It could be someone is sick, your sheep are sick, maybe you have a bad neighbor.”

From Chamula, it’s an eight-kilometer walk past sheep farms, kale fields and surprisingly large modern houses to the Tzotzil community of Zinacantan, where women contribute to the local economy by weaving. As you enter the city, you will see colorful skirts and blouses hanging from shop doors. A visit here can include lunch in a weaver’s house, where you can watch young women kneel before looms (girls start weaving around age 10) and buy some of their beautiful creations.

Lunch includes mashed corn soup punctuated with chunks of pork, as well as countless stacks of tortillas. washed with pozol – a sweet drink made from corn and cocoa – and followed by a shot of local smallpox flavored with cinnamon or hibiscus, it’s a satisfying meal.

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The state produces 60% of Mexico's coffee beans.
The state produces 60% of Mexico’s coffee beans. Photo by Suzanne Morphet

Along with corn and cocoa, coffee is another staple in Chiapas life. The state produces 60% of Mexico’s coffee beans, according to Segundo Guillén Gordillo, owner of Corazón del Café, a boutique hotel near the historic center of Comitan, one of pueblos magicos (magical cities), each room named after a variety of cafes.

In early December, the town square of Comitan is ablaze with Christmas decorations and the annual four-day International Festival of Culture and Arts is underway in honor of Rosario Castellanos, a famous author and poet who grew up here at the beginning of the 20e century. “That’s great,” Gordillo said. “There is a lot of music with famous artists…. there is theatre, debates, exhibitions and literature.

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To learn more about the pre-Hispanic folk art called AC, you must visit the town of Chiapa de Corzo, the only place where it is practiced. Artisans use oil from an insect called cochineal, with paint, to prepare and lacquer dry gourds and small boxes. Traditionally, AC was women’s work, but men have recently joined their ranks, says Segundo de Jesus, 31, who started when he was 15 and continues now AC to live.

Chiapa de Corzo is also home to the famous Nandayapa Vargas family, who have been making marimbas by hand for over a century. In addition to exporting marimbas around the world, the four third-generation brothers also give educational concerts to help visitors understand the history and evolution of the musical instrument.

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With its green courtyard, Hotel La Ceiba offers visitors a pleasant stay in the city of Chiapa de Corzo.  SUZANNE MORPHET
With its green courtyard, Hotel La Ceiba offers visitors a pleasant stay in the city of Chiapa de Corzo. SUZANNE MORPHET

If you visit Chiapa de Corzo in January, you are in for a treat. Every year, between January 4 and 23, townspeople hold their Fiesta Grande (Great Feast), honoring three saints with music, dancing, religious ceremonies and feasting. The women wear embroidered satin blouses and loose, ruffled skirts, while the men wear carved wooden masks, blond “wigs” and striped ponchos. From early morning until late at night, the men – known as the parachicos- dancing and shaking maracas. In 2010, UNESCO recognized the dance of the Parachicos as Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity.

During your stay in Chiapa de Corzo, Hotel Ceiba is a pleasant place to stay. The owner supports local artists, invites musicians to perform and serves dishes with typical ingredients such as chilpilin, a green leaf similar to spinach or watercress.

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If you are going to:

Many tour operators in Chiapas can organize multi-day tours with English-speaking guides, including ATC Tour Operators

For day tours, try Ian Ord, a Canadian expat living in Mexico who operates where the sidewalks end

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