A Summer Solstice Festival in the Mayan Village of San Juan Chamula

by Ekua on September 30, 2011 in Mexico,why i travel

When we step out of our beat up colectivo and onto the outskirts of San Juan Chamula, we are immediately engulfed in a festive atmosphere. The autonomous Mayan village already feels like a place where unique things happen, and we are fortunate enough to be there for one of their biggest festivals, Dia de San Juan.

Chamula (Dried Lake) is the original Tzotzil Mayan name for the village. The San Juan (St. John the Baptist) comes from the Dominican missionaries. It just so happens that San Juan’s birthday is at the same time of year as the summer solstice. This made him a prime choice of village saint for the sun worshiping Mayans in their syncretic religious practices. So every year, Dia de San Juan is essentially a summer solstice festival and quite a party for the people of the village.

In San Juan Chamula, we’ve been dropped off next to a fair that looks like it could be any fair in Small Town, USA. Every primary color is present in decoration of the rides, there’s a Ferris wheel, a carousel, and all sorts of finger foods and knickknacks for sale.

But most people are shorter than me (and I’m already short). The women have on long furry black skirts and wear their long hair in braids while the men sport furry vests and cowboy hats. This is definitely not the wardrobe of Small Town, USA. And instead of funnel cake, they’re selling churros.

Just past the fair, there’s a graveyard with crosses for headstones that look like they’re being swallowed by the earth. Down a washboard road, we find ourselves on a pedestrian lane lined with vendors.

It’s jam packed. We realize quickly that we have to allow ourselves to get swept up in the crowd, let ourselves be wedged between fur and braids. This is not a place that slows down for or accommodates foreigners.

We’re not really a tour group per se, just a group of hostelers and Couch Surfers who came over in the same colectivos. It’s not long before our large party has been broken into smaller ones and we try to look out for more manageable-sized groups in the abundant chaos.

We reach the town church which is known for its lack of pews and one of a kind rituals. We want to enter, but a man holds his hand out in the universal stop sign. We are not allowed to enter on the festival day. So we find a free spot in the town square and wait for something to happen.

Eventually men start pouring out of the church. They march around us on a bed of pine needles that encircles the square. Some of them haphazardly play a wide variety of instruments. A cacophony of sounds merges to form compelling music. It’s so disorderly that it works. The scene looks so strange and beautiful to my wide eyes and it begins to swirl around me.

I’m having the kind of travel experience that an experience junky like myself craves — the hard to define and often elusive “authentic” experience. The festival seeps into my consciousness and prods at corners of my senses that I was previously unaware of.

I have to use every bit of willpower I have to keep myself from taking my camera out of my bag and snapping away. San Juan Chamula is notorious for its distaste of photo-happy tourists. And because it’s an autonomous village, they make their own rules, which can potentially be harsh.

As I am thinking about this, dozens of men in furry vests clutching police batons come storming into the square. It looks like something is happening, and we’re not sure what. Then we see it, an Italian guy who works at the hostel we’re staying at is dragged out of the square by the Chamula police. His offense? Trying to take pictures. Later, he is released, and I notice a discernible smidgen of humility in his normally ultra confident demeanor.

The festival gets more intense as homemade firecrackers are set off more regularly. They are deafening and dangerously close to the crowd. My little group waits for a break in firecracker lightings and then we beeline for the nearest square exit while covering our ears.

The local women chuckle at me when I let out childish screams of surprise when I let my guard down and forget to cover my ears. In some parts of Mexico, it seems that there’s a cause for celebration and firecrackers every day. So to them, maybe it’s like white noise.

We find the guy who arranged our trip, the owner of the hostel we are staying at. He answers some of our questions about the village. I ask why some men have on white vests while others wear black vests. He explains that white fur means you’re part of the village’s government. It is very apparent that only men run the government in San Juan Chamula.

When a decent amount of us have somehow regrouped, the hostel owner takes us up a hill to visit his friend, a well known artist in San Juan Chamula. “Eh! Africana!” the charming old man says to me excitedly as he welcomes us to his patio.

We sit around a table and sample different flavors of pox (pronounced “posh”), the local moonshine. I’m not a big fan of it, but some are inspired enough to go to the corner store and buy more. It comes in reused plastic bottles with the bottle’s original label still on it.

As we chat, the daily storm clouds appear in the distance to warn us that the party is ending. We’re on our own for getting back to the hostel. I make my way over to a colectivo stand with a few others. Thick drops of rain begin to fall on us as we wait. We decide to get out of the long line and settle on a deal with some taxi drivers for a tiny amount more. As we leave Chamula, the crowds have dispersed. People will regroup at night after the rain stops and the festivities will continue, tourist free.

I wish I had pictures of this colorful festival to share with you or that I could find a video of it online. But in a time when you can be so easily distracted by trying to get the perfect shot, it’s good to have experiences where you have to be fully in the moment. And in a time when you have the ability to preview everything, it’s wonderful to have experiences where you have absolutely no idea what to expect.

{ 4 comments… read them below or add one }

Herbster October 1, 2011 at 8:51 am

That’s pretty cool. Ah yes, we should put the camera away more often. It is such a huge distraction, getting the good shot. Sometimes it is as though you are actually capturing a person. Privacy issue. Sensitivity issue?


Ekua October 1, 2011 at 7:58 pm

I love taking a lot of pictures in certain situations, but I think when it comes to events, it can be particularly distracting.

I often take pictures of scenes which may or may not include candid shots of people (like the ones above), but I think there’s a difference between trying to capture the essence of place and zooming in on someone because they’re a novelty to you.

I’ve often been surreptitiously photographed both at home and abroad. Sometimes it distinctly felt that the other person thought of me as a novelty and that was kind of annoying. I think if you’re going get up in someone’s face and take a picture, asking is key.

In Chamula, you can take pictures in the town, but at the church, photography is not allowed unless you have permission (which I think requires local connections).


Sunee October 4, 2011 at 12:31 am

I hear what you’re saying about taking pictures distracting one from the moment, but as I browsed through my photos of our most recent trip last night I realised that there are little things captured on camera that I had already forgotten about. Travelling solo, there’s probably not a lot you can do about it, but it really helps that my husband and I both have a camera to take pictures while the other one is absorbed in the moment. And when we’re both taking of the same thing, it’s interesting to see how our viewpoints differ 🙂


Ekua October 4, 2011 at 3:58 pm

I like to take a lot of pictures as you can see from my numerous photo essays on this blog. I’m talking more specifically about events. Sometimes you have to know when to put the camera away and just be in the moment. And in this case, on the day I was describing in this post, part of what made it such a unique experience for me was never having a clue about what was going to happen next (because I’d never seen a picture or video of it) and being totally absorbed in what was going on rather than attempting about capturing the perfect shot.

I would say that when I’m walking around a town solo, I often notice more than when I’m walking around with companions! I’m not distracted by conversation and I don’t feel bad for making someone stop all the time so I can take picture of something random. Even if I was traveling with someone, I would never put down my camera to let them capture a photo for me because I have my own point of view… this is how into photography I am 😛 The one time I do enjoy photographing places with people is when I am with people who enjoy photography as much as I do who notice unique things and don’t mind making a lot of stops.


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