San Cristóbal is a lovely town in a lovely region. A lot of people come for the beauty, but the main thing that draws most visitors here is the highland Maya. They can be seen anywhere in San Cristóbal, but most travelers take at least one trip to the outlying villages to get a close-up of Maya life.

The Nearby Maya Villages & Countryside

The Indian communities around San Cristóbal are fascinating worlds unto themselves. If you are unfamiliar with these indigenous cultures, you will understand and appreciate more of what you see by visiting them with a guide, at least for your first foray out into the villages. Guides are acquainted with members of the communities and are viewed with less suspicion than newcomers. These communities have their own laws and customs -- and visitors' ignorance is no excuse. Entering these communities is tantamount to leaving Mexico, and if something happens, the state and federal authorities will not intervene except in case of a serious crime.

The best guided trips are the locally grown ones. Two operators go to the neighboring villages in small groups. They charge about the same price (175 pesos per person), use minivans for transportation, and speak English. They do, however, have their own interpretations and focus.

Pepe and Ramiro leave from Casa Na-Bolom for daily trips to San Juan Chamula and Zinacantán at 10am, returning to San Cristóbal between 2 and 3pm. They look at cultural continuities, community relationships, and religion.

Alex and Raúl can be found in front of the cathedral between 9:15 and 9:30am. They are quite personable and get along well with the Indians in the communities. They focus on cultural values and their expression in social behavior, which provides a glimpse of the details and the texture of life in these communities (and, of course, they talk about religion). Their tour is very good. They can be reached at tel. 967/678-3741 or chamul@hotmail.com.

Also, Alex and Raúl can be contracted for trips to other communities besides Chamula and Zinacantán; talk to them.

Chamula & Zinacantán -- A side trip to the village of San Juan Chamula will get you into the spirit of life around San Cristóbal. Sunday, when the market is in full swing, is the best day to go for shopping; other days, when you'll be less impeded by eager children selling their crafts, are better for seeing the village and church.

The village, 8km (5 miles) northeast of San Cristóbal, has a large church, a plaza, and a municipal building. Each year, a new group of citizens is chosen to live in the municipal center as caretakers of the saints, settlers of disputes, and enforcers of village rules. As in other nearby villages, on Sunday local leaders wear their leadership costumes, including beautifully woven straw hats loaded with colorful ribbons befitting their high position. They solemnly sit together in a long line somewhere around the central square. Chamula is typical of other villages, in that men are often away working in the "hot lands," harvesting coffee or cacao, while women stay home to tend the sheep, the children, the cornfields, and the fires.

Don't leave Chamula without seeing the church interior. As you step from bright sunlight into the candlelit interior, you enter what is sacred space for the Chamula. The air is heavy with the smell of copal, a native incense. Pine needles and lit candles cover the tile floor. Saints line the walls, and people kneel before them, praying aloud while passing around bottles of Pepsi-Cola. Shamans are often on hand, passing eggs over sick people or using live or dead chickens in a curing ritual. The statues of saints are similar to those you might see in any Mexican Catholic church, but beyond sharing the same name, they mean something completely different to the Chamulas. Visitors can walk carefully through the church to see the saints or stand quietly in the background.

Just to the south, in Zinacantán, a wealthier village than Chamula, you must sign a strict form promising not to take any photographs before you see the two side-by-side sanctuaries. Once permission is granted and you have paid a small fee, an escort will usually show you the church, or you may be allowed to see it on your own. Floors may be covered in pine needles here, too, and the rooms are brightly sunlit. The experience is an altogether different one from that of Chamula. You may be approached by children who will offer to show you to their home where their female relatives will most likely be weaving or working at some other craft.

Amatenango del Valle -- About an hour's ride south of San Cristóbal is Amatenango, a town known mostly for its women potters. You'll see their work in San Cristóbal -- small animals, jars, and large water jugs -- but in the village, you can visit the potters in their homes. Just walk down the dirt streets. Villagers will lean over the walls of family compounds and invite you in to select from their inventory. You may even see them firing the pieces under piles of wood in the open courtyard or painting them with color derived from rusty iron water. The women wear beautiful red-and-yellow huipiles, but if you want to take a photograph, you'll have to pay. To get here, take a colectivo from the market in San Cristóbal. Before it lets you off, be sure to ask about the return-trip schedule.

Aguacatenango -- This village, 16km (10 miles) south of Amatenango, is known for its embroidery. If you've visited San Cristóbal's shops, you'll recognize the white-on-white and black-on-black floral patterns on dresses and blouses for sale. The locals' own regional blouses, however, are quite different.

Tenejapa -- The weavers of Tenejapa, 28km (17 miles) northeast from San Cristóbal, make some of the most beautiful and expensive work you'll see in the region. The best time to visit is on market day (Sun and Thurs, though Sun is better). The Tenejapa weavers taught the weavers of San Andrés and Magdalena -- which accounts for the similarity in their designs and colors. To get to Tenejapa, try to find a colectivo in the very last row by the market, or hire a taxi. On Tenejapa's main street, several stores sell locally woven regional clothing, and you can bargain for the price.

The Huitepec Cloud Forest -- Pronatura, Calle Pedro Moreno 1 (tel. 967/678-5000), a private, nonprofit, ecological organization, offers environmentally sensitive tours of the cloud forest. The forest is a haven for migratory birds, and more than 100 bird species and 600 plant species have been identified here. Guided tours run from 9am to noon Tuesday to Sunday. Guided birding trips and general nature tours cost 70 to 100 pesos per person. Make reservations a day in advance. To reach the reserve on your own, take the Chamula road north; the turnoff is at Km 3.5. The reserve is open Tuesday to Sunday from 8am to 3pm.

Note: This information was accurate when it was published, but can change without notice. Please be sure to confirm all rates and details directly with the companies in question before planning your trip.