The “Hippie” Takeover of Chiapas

by Ekua on September 24, 2011 in Mexico,rantastic

In my not so raving reviews of a certain foreigner scene I encountered in Chiapas, Mexico, I think it’s important to note that before I set foot in the state, I was already wary about some of the travelers and expats I might encounter there.

The first tip off came on my very first visit to Mexico City in June of 2010. I was sitting at a hostel computer chatting with a fellow hosteler from Switzerland. He was dressed in a manner that would lead people to believe that he figured himself to be a hippie.

That night, I was preparing to leave for Cuba in the wee hours of the following morning. I knew I’d be disconnected in Cuba, so I was making sleeping arrangements for when I returned to Mexico and went straight down to Oaxaca.

The guy from Switzerland kept looking over my shoulder at my computer. “Why are you going to Oaxaca?” he quizzed me.

“Well, I heard Oaxaca is a beautiful city,” I replied, thinking that was a reasonable enough response.

But it didn’t appease him. “Don’t go to Oaxaca! Oaxaca is ugly. Go to Chiapas!”

WTF?

He was unique and extreme in his pushiness, but I wondered what his projected persona combined with his love for Chiapas might say about the scene there.

When I made it to the wonderful and complete opposite of ugly state of Oaxaca, I linked up with an extraordinary writer who was based in Oaxaca city at the time. We met up several times and had great conversations about Oaxaca state and beyond. After I returned from a visit to Mazunte, a beach town on the Oaxaca coast, we found that we had similar views about the hippie expats there in that we were both perplexed by their arrogance. She had recently visited San Cristobal de las Casas in Chiapas and said that she’d found a similar scene there. I was equally repelled and curious about seeing it for myself.

Flash forward a year. There had been a lot of space between the formation of the previous year’s prejudgements and my actual arrival Chiapas. And then I encountered the El Panchan scene and it all came rushing back. I’d just had a sleepless night in a jungle in Southern Mexico thanks to 12 hours of techno music. I might as well have slept next to a warehouse rave in any concrete jungle in the world.

But despite a severe lack of sleep, I’d had an amazing day of sights — Palenque, Misol-Ha, and Agua Azul. At the end of the day, I was sitting in a restaurant with open walls at Agua Azul to escape the rain and take in the beauty of the stormy day.

I’d finished my torta and moved on to reading a book when a trio of hippie garb-clad 20-something guys from Europe occupied a table between me and a Mexican family. They immediately took out an iPod, hooked it up to some mini loudspeakers and began to play techno music as loud as the volume would go.

I didn’t understand this. Why would you override the soccer game the family who ran the restaurant was watching, the conversations, the peace, the thunder and rain and thundering waterfalls with your techno music? I knew that they sure as hell wouldn’t have the audacity to do that a restaurant or cafe in New York, Paris, San Francisco, Berlin — even the most casual one. Why was it okay to do that there? Because we’re in Chiapas? I asked them to turn it off.

The following day I moved onto San Cristobal de las Casas. I could immediately see why people compared it to Oaxaca. They’re both cities surrounded by mountains with lots of rows of short and colorful colonial buildings. The indigenous populations have a large impact on both cities. Both are associated with popular uprisings.

But the atmosphere in each city is very different. While Oaxaca has its touristy restaurants and shops, the city’s focus seems to lie in promoting all things Oaxaca. In San Cristobal there are certainly aspects of Mayan culture present, but it felt like the bulk of the shops and restaurants were more focused on appealing to “hippie” tourists.

I know some people want that kind of familiarity when they go abroad, but for me, travel is largely about the opposite, especially in a place that has such a strong culture. There are places in the world that naturally have that bohemian feel, but in San Cristobal, it lacked genuineness. It felt put on by monetary desires — a “this what people who come here want, so this is what we’re going to give them” mentality. Although it is dressed up differently, the ideas behind the tourist set up of San Cristobal are not all that different from the ones that create coastal resorts, places the hippie tourists in San Cristobal would likely sneer at.

On my last day in San Cristobal, I stopped by a craft market to buy some Chiapaneco gifts and souvenirs that I wouldn’t be able to find elsewhere in Mexico. This market was full of Mayan women and a few men selling lovely woven handicrafts, amber jewelry, and more. But interspersed were a few non-local hippies, some of them selling trinkets decorated with images of marijuana leaves.

And can you guess who had more customers than almost every other stall at the market? Tourists in their flowy skirts and gauzy shirts and contrived pale dreadlocks flocked to these vendors.

Technically, these salespeople had as much of a right to be there as the indigenous women. They probably went through the same process and payment to set up a stand in the market. But to me, it’s disrespectful, arrogant, and straight up thievery to take away customers from the indigenous women at the market with crocheted weed paraphernalia.

I hope you don’t think I am a hippie hater. I do live in San Francisco after all, a city that played a key role in creating the genre as we know it today. There are people I know here who I respect immensely and if I had to label them, I’d call them hippies. They are people who not only believe bettering the world, but have committed both their work and personal lives to doing so, despite the difficulties and effort it requires.

A key difference between them and the so-called hippies I encountered in San Cristobal is action. Where the hippiedom I respect continues on with a to-do list left over from the 60s and adjusts to the problems and needs of modern times, hippiedom in Chiapas is often just about the look. It’s arrogant and standoffish towards fellow foreigners whose style doesn’t fit in. It romanticizes about the hedonistic aspects of the 1960s counterculture but offers none of the sacrifice that went with those times. It feels entitled to El Panchan and San Cristobal.

Perhaps a key difference in the way Oaxaca and San Cristobal have evolved is that Oaxaca has a mestizo population with weight in the city whereas San Cristobal is largely indigenous and white. A large poor indigenous community that keeps to itself makes San Cristobal ripe for takeover by even those with the best of intentions.

I understand why people love Chiapas. It’s a fascinating part of the country and it’s not a Mexico that you expect. In my life, I’ve been blessed with abundant opportunities to view beautiful scenery, and I would say that Chiapas holds some of the greatest. The perseverance of the Mayans in Chiapas is enticing and inspiring. I would go back to Chiapas and I’d highly recommend it to others.

So go on and explore Chiapas. Claim your love for it. Just don’t claim it.

{ 14 comments… read them below or add one }

Herb September 25, 2011 at 8:58 am

Everybody thinks I’m square, ’cause I have short hair. But deep inside, beats the heart of a hippy.

Peace, Love and Happiness!
Or, I’d love to drop out, but my Mom won’t let me. She’s 91.

Oh yeah, and most important, END THE WAR!

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Ekua September 25, 2011 at 10:40 pm

Herb – I can always count on you to leave the most random comments, haha 😛

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Terri- Try Anything Once September 25, 2011 at 6:34 pm

Interesting. I’ve also experienced some of this “faux” hippy-nes on my travels, but this sounds a bit insufferable.

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Ekua September 25, 2011 at 11:16 pm

The hippie traveler scene didn’t bother me when I encountered it in SE Asia a few years back because there was a culture of openness that went with it (at least at the time). This scene was closed off and kinda holier than thou… for no apparent reason. And imposing. Not sure why I’d want to stay at a Hindu-themed guesthouse in Mexico, but they have that kind of thing there. Like I said, I’d go back to Chiapas, but I’d find a base that’s more down to earth than San Cristobal.

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Sarah Menkedick October 2, 2011 at 6:56 pm

Spot on, Ekua! You’re so even-handed and diplomatic even when you’re pointing out something you find problematic. Particularly loved your ending. Thanks for sharing – hope you’re doing well!

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Ekua October 2, 2011 at 9:27 pm

Thanks, Sarah!

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Marie October 3, 2011 at 12:49 pm

Why the techno? WHY!?

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Ekua October 3, 2011 at 4:51 pm

Oh, I was always wondering the same thing! Those guys with their iPod reminded me so much of the guy from the hostel in the DF in 2010. You might remember him! I don’t know when bad techno became such a big part of postmodern faux hippie travel culture. I have a suspicion that it has some roots in those full moon beach parties in Thailand. I never saw that scene for myself when I was there, but from what I know about it, it seems like people are trying to create that same kind of thing in the Palenque area on weekends… which is kind of absurd if you’re even slightly in tune with the culture and history of the area.

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Liz Cotterell October 13, 2011 at 3:33 pm

Interesting to read your impressions of San Cristóbal. I was there a couple of months ago after visiting for the first time 4 years ago and boy how things have changed. The foreigners have taken over – the costs have gone up and, while you can still find the local flavour, it’s getting more difficult to have authentic experiences there. Chiapas is still my favourite state in México but San Cristóbal is no longer my favourite town 🙁

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Ekua October 13, 2011 at 7:47 pm

Thanks for sharing your thoughts, Liz. When I talked to people who visited San Cristobal several years ago about some of the things I discussed in this post, I definitely got the impression that it’s changed a lot very recently.

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Elizabeth May 8, 2014 at 2:16 pm

Hi Ekua,

I was wondering if you felt the presence of the Zapatista movement while in San Cristobal?

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Ekua May 8, 2014 at 5:39 pm

Not really aside from a few EZLN tags around the city. But outside of San Cristobal, there were definitely some villages where I saw much more EZLN signs and paraphernalia. Here’s an interesting story by Sarah Menkedick about visiting Zapatistas: http://matadornetwork.com/network/the-perils-and-possibilities-of-revolutionary-tourism-a-visit-with-the-zapatistas

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Elizabeth May 9, 2014 at 11:04 am

Thanks, Ekua. Menkedick’s story does a nice job of illuminating many of the tensions that accompany tourism, poverty, and politics. I’m hoping to enter the mire myself, and there’s a part of me that’s interested in the tourists in the region as a social and economic phenomenon.

On that note, in the reading I’ve done travel-blog and article wise on the tourism related to the Zapatista movement it seems the foreigners, tourist or expat, incite a considerable amount of vitriol. However, I’ve yet to see an article that really extends a voice to these so-called exploiters-of-culture, rather they’re usually painted in broad brush strokes (i.e. they rarely have names, background stories clarifying the extent of their assumed privilege, or their personal reasons for being in the area, etc.) I agree with Menkedick’s assertion that more conscientious traveling requires a self-awareness on the part of the traveler, but I also think such awareness should extend to the fellow travelers as well, who often find themselves bound to the same types of sweeping generalizations that can characterize assessments of the Zapatistas or other local or indigenous cultures. It just seems too easy to pit the privileged against the poor without providing the nuances of the individual stories on both sides. Not to suggest there isn’t truth in the stereotypes, but I do think the showing versus the telling of good writing can reveal more than just the sad fact of the concomitant exploitation of the extreme disparity in wealth that capitalism breeds.

Well, that was probably more than you were interested in! As you can see, I’ve been reading solo on this topic for much too long now. Thanks for sharing the article, it’s much appreciated.

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rocco p January 22, 2017 at 12:01 am

yeah, you sure nailed it. oaxaca city was great for exactly those reasons, and also the fancy restuarants were also not fake fancy, but felt overall quite respectful of the local flora…

i was wanting to go to the coast in oaxaca but fear just what you describe in mazunte.

in the middle of beautiful Crete i was also up all night in the town of soughia due to eurohippie ravers…

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