chiapas

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Way back we spent a lovely week exploring San Cristobal de las Casas in Chiapas, Mexico.  Home to both local craftsman as well as foreign artists San Cristobal is a shopper’s dream.  Tom and I definitely did our share of perusing the markets but our best find comes from Bela who showed us the most amazing shawl in modern colours.

Often the Mayan fabric, thought intricate and impressive, has pretty brash colours, at least to my eye, so when I saw a hand-woven scarf with rich purples mixed with bright lime greens and tiny details of teal I was interested to find out who made them.  Leave it to the French to track down a women’s co-operative of weavers, suggest a few modern colour combinations and, as they say, Voila!  Amazing fabrics in great colours.  Bela explained where the co-op was (well sort of) and we decided to track it down before we left.

On a whim, after returning from a visit to San Juan Chamula, I pulled Tom off the bus in the middle of nowhere convinced that the co-op was close at hand.  The soccer field and a white building where the two main landmarks Bela mentioned and after a bit of aimless wandering a group of construction workers pointed us in the right direction.

We arrived to a few small buildings, a play park and a couple of cars.  We poked around and were greeted by friendly gal who took us straight to the stock room.  Shelves from floor to ceiling were jam-packed with thousands of scarves, table linens, bags, tea-towels and shawls. It was pretty overwhelming and even more overwhelming to think every item was woven by hand, thread by thread.  We treated ourselves to a few things.

Scarf
Modern Colours

Jolom Mayaetik, meaning “Mayan Women Weavers”, is a co-operative made up of 250 women from 11 different communities within the Chiapas Highlands.  A group of three women from each community form a General Assembly. The General assembly represents the co-op with different organizations in both Mexico and other parts of the world.  The women in Jolom Mayaetik are trained on the back-strap loom as well as the pedal loom and, for some, the sewing machine.  Many of the women receive training in book-keeping, administration and design.

Backstrap Loom
The products at this collective are by far some of the nicest weavings I have seen thus far.  Expect to pay fair prices, quite a bit more than in the markets.  You can check them out here (though the link seems to be down at the moment) or if you are in San Cristobal take a bus to La Quinta San Martin, get off at San Martin, walk to the right until you come to a big white house.

San Cristobal de las Casas is an absolutely charming town set in the highlands of Chiapas. It was a surprise to come into this colonial town after spending the previous two weeks on the beach and we were caught scrambling for warmer clothes as we pulled in.

The Spanish founded the settlement in 1528 but the area was a refuge for Mayan communities years before the Europeans even set foot in the area. Located right in the middle of deeply indigenous areas, San Cristobal is a place where modern life and Mayan rituals come face-to-face making it a must-see when traveling in Mexico.

And, of course, who isn’t the tiny bit interested in the Zapatistas. So far things have remained calm since the 1994 EZLN uprising took place but you can sure see their influence in the community and, perhaps, this is why there seems to be a relatively happy feeling amongst the community (or maybe not…depends whom you talk to). And, if you are interested, you can visit them…safely. A guide we met told us they were happy to receive tourists to promote better understanding of what the EZLN stands for since, as they say, the media portrays them unfairly. I was curious but we did not have enough time to visit, perhaps next time.

We found our parking lot and happily unloaded our things into the cutest little rental apartment ever. Not much to rave about on the outside but once inside we were happy to discover a fairy-tale like cottage complete with a small courtyard, big wooden furniture and a real fireplace!

The apartment we stayed in is one of three on the property and if you are looking for a place to stay in San Cristobal we would highly recommend it. Located about 3 blocks from the centre of town it has everything you could need including Internet. And if you have any questions just ask Bela, who owns the bed and breakfast next door, she has lived in the area for 15 years and is a very interesting lady.

We spent our time here mostly wandering around on foot and snapping photos. Well, that is not completely true we did quite a bit of shopping as the markets are full of indigenous crafts – we stocked up on adorable hand-made toys, shawls, scarves, leather products and a few other tidbits…now we just have to figure out where to put them all in the car!

We checked out two interesting museums, the Maya Medicine museum which explained the used of herbs, candles and health practitioners used by the indigenous community. Did you know if you are born with 6 fingers you are marked by god to be a healer?

Na-Bolom, the other museum, is the former home of Swiss anthropologist Trudy Blom and her husband, Danish archeologist Frans Blom. They explored the ancient ruins in the area and studied the Lancadon people of the Chiapas area. Today it is a support and research centre dedicated to protecting the indigenous cultures as well as the local environment. It has a great collection of photos, artifacts and a massive library. I was please to see that Trudy was a gal after my own heart as she had a very extensive collection of jewellery! You can rent rooms, volunteer and hold conferences at Na-Bolom.

A highlight of the week in San Cristobal was coming across a mariachi serenade while we walked home one evening. Traditionally in Mexico the young man calls in mariachis when he is proposing to his girlfriend. So cute! And the really drunk friends are pretty amusing as well.


Mariachi Serenade in San Cristobal from Kels M on Vimeo.