How to Visit San Juan Chamula, the Mystical Town of Chiapas


What You Need to Know Before You Go to San Juan Chamula

I first heard about San Juan Chamula on a boat trip near Holbox in the Yucatan Peninsula.

Eduardo told me, “Chiapas is amazing, and you have to see the town of San Juan Chamula. The church is… well, you’ll see. It’s hard to describe. But you need to keep an open mind.”

He was on his way back from his trip across Mexico, while I was just starting mine. We were going in opposite directions. He piqued my curiosity!

Two months later, I finally arrived in Chiapas and was eager to visit San Juan Chamula. I went there the day after I reached San Cristobal de las Casas, wondering about its famous church.

Now, as I write this, I realize that I still don’t fully understand what I saw that day. The truth is that it was unlike anything I had ever witnessed before.

Here is My Guide to San Juan Chamula so you can discover this mystical town for yourself:

What is San Juan Chamula?

San Juan Chamula is a small town in Chiapas, Mexico, about 6 miles away from San Cristobal de las Casas.

It is inhabited by a Tzotzil (Mayan) community that preserves its traditional culture and customs. You can recognize them by their black or white sheep wool clothing, worn by both men and women.

What makes San Juan Chamula so special is that it has its own autonomous government, independent from the Mexican authorities. The community enforces its own laws in a very strict way.

As a visitor, you must respect the rules. The most important one is that you are not allowed to take photos or videos inside the church, or you could face serious consequences. Your camera could be smashed, or you could be physically attacked or jailed for a few hours.

So, please be careful and don’t risk it.

traje típico San Juan Chamula
traje típico San Juan Chamula

What to see and do in San Juan Chamula?

1. The church of San Juan Bautista

I was expecting to see a simple but imposing church, given the mystery that surrounds it. But, to my surprise, its facade is colorful, delicate, and cheerful, contrasting sharply with my impression of what lies behind its doors.

Before we enter, our guide, Ernesto, stops us and reminds us: “Please remember that it is forbidden to take pictures. The community does not tolerate it, and it can have serious consequences”.

I understand. We go in.

As my eyes adjust to the dim light and the strange scene before me, I freeze and blink involuntarily, as if moistening my eyes would help me see better.

This is definitely not a conventional Catholic church. There is a remarkable religious syncretism here, blending Catholic elements and Mayan beliefs.

The air is heavy, filled with smoke from the countless candles placed on the floor and on the altars with the saints.

There are no benches, the floor is covered with pine needles. They symbolize the mountain where they prayed before the arrival of the Spaniards, and which is still considered a sacred place.

Small groups of people kneel directly on the ground and pray fervently in the Mayan language.

I am fascinated and intimidated.

As I walk through the church, I notice a tourist observing one of the small groups. I decide to join her.

In the center, an old woman holds a live chicken in her hands and makes a circular motion as she prays. It doesn’t take a genius to know that this chicken will soon be killed and I don’t want to watch it.

I move on. But then I notice that every group has a hen or a rooster. Some have already been killed and are lying on the ground. Those that are still alive are in the hands of a healer, or waiting for their fate in a box or bag.

There are also several bottles of Coca-Cola and pox (a liquor from Chiapas) to accompany the ritual.

After a few minutes of exploring the church on our own, we return to the guide who explains what we have just witnessed:

  • This community is not isolated from the rest of the world, so they are aware of the health system and can access it, but it is very expensive for them, so they prefer the church as an alternative. Especially because, according to their beliefs, illness is caused by wrongdoing. So it is better to go to church.
  • They mainly perform healing rituals, but people also come to pray for their well-being.
  • The groups are led by an ilol, a healer, who can be either a woman or a man. The term “shaman” should not be used because it is considered disrespectful.
  • A hen or a rooster is selected according to the sex of the sick person, believing that the bird will absorb the disease. For the healing to be effective, the animal must be sacrificed and thus eliminate the disease.

The ilol will also absorb part of the disease, so he has to burp to relieve it (hence the importance of drinking soda).

  • The candles have different colors that indicate the severity of the problem: white candles mean that the issue is not very serious, while colored candles mean that it is more complex.
iglesia san juan chamula
iglesia san juan chamula

san juan chamula chiapas méxico

2. The market

The market is the lively center of the community and a must-see to experience the local culture.

It stretches from the main square in front of the church to a two-story building on the right. Don’t hesitate to explore the upper floor, where you can find cozy stalls selling local food.

There are also small shops in the nearby streets. You can find everything you need, from fruits and vegetables, to clothes, to handicrafts.

san juan chamula village
fresh fruit in San Juan Chamula
mercado san juan chamula
mercado san juan chamula

3. The ruins of the church of San Sebastian and its cemetery

Another must-see in San Juan Chamula is its cemetery, across from an abandoned church.

It is a special place, where the tombs have no tombstones, but colored crosses that show who the deceased was: white for a child, green for an adult, black for an elderly person.

cementerio san juan chamula
cemetery san juan chamula

How to visit San Juan Chamula?

With an organized tour

This option is ideal if you want to learn more about the history and culture of San Juan Chamula from a knowledgeable guide. I chose this option and I was very happy with it!

The tour includes pick-up and drop-off in San Cristobal de las Casas, as well as visits to San Juan Chamula, Zinacantan (where you can see the local handicrafts and taste the pox), and other nearby attractions. The tour lasts for about five hours, from 9:30 am to 2:30 pm.

If you are interested in this tour, you can book it here:

On your own (no agency)

Entrance to the church costs 30 pesos per person.

You can reach San Juan Chamula from San Cristobal de las Casas by yourself in three ways:

  • By public transportation: take a colectivo from the San Cristobal market to the San Juan Chamula Bus Terminal for 20 pesos (one way). The ride takes about 40 minutes.
  • By cab: expect to pay around 100 pesos for the trip. You can find cabs in the main square of San Juan Chamula for the return trip.
  • By car: drive for 22 minutes via Puerto Caté – San Cristóbal de Las Casas and Calzada de la Escuela.

My advice
Be careful when walking in isolated areas and come back before dark. During the day and in downtown streets, you should be fine.

Where to Eat in San Juan Chamula

There are few local restaurants where you can eat well on a budget. I personally liked Nichim, a stone’s throw from the church. It’s a restaurant with very good service, and a variety of dishes with good value for money.

Where to stay near San Juan Chamula?

San Cristobal de las Casas is a great base to explore the nearby indigenous communities, such as San Juan Chamula.

If you are looking for a place to stay in San Cristobal de las Casas, here are some of my recommendations for different budgets:

  • The Coffee Bean Hostel: A very cozy hostel with nice common areas, a restaurant and bar, a garden, terrace with hammocks, pool tables and several breakfast options, starting at 12 $usd in a shared dorm!
  • Parador Margarita: Only 3 blocks from the main square and the bus station, it is a small haven of peace with a garden and very comfortable beds. Wifi and breakfast are included, only 46 $usd per night!
  • Hotel Diego de Mazariegos: A magnificent 18th century mansion with a preserved Mexican colonial style, a charming interior courtyard with a fountain and classic decoration in warm tones. The hotel has two restaurants and a bar. Wifi and breakfast included, from only 73 $usd per night!
  • Casa Lum Hotel Boutique: My favorite hotel in San Cristobal de las Casas! It is a small and sophisticated hotel decorated between modernity and traditional design. Includes a great restaurant, a terrace with a panoramic view over the city and a garden. A few steps from the main square, it is the ideal place for lovers, from 164 $usd per night!

Rent a car in Mexico

Renting a car is for sure the best way to explore Chiapas and make the most of your stay!

To rent a car, personally, I always use, for a few reasons:

  • You can easily compare the rental cars prices between all the agencies: for sure the easiest way to find the best rate!
  • Cancellation is often offered free of charge: no need to worry if you change your mind
  • Rentalcars offers full insurance coverage at a lower price than the rental companies, so it’s an instant saving with no effort

Simply click on the green button to find your rental car at the best price:

How to find the best price for your flight ticket

To travel to Chiapas, you will need to take a connecting flight from Cancun or Mexico City, as there are no direct international flights to this destination. The airports in Chiapas are Tuxtla Gutierrez, Palenque and Tapachula.

If you are looking for a cheap flight to Chiapas or an international flight to Mexico, I suggest you use our flight comparator in collaboration with Skyscanner. It will help you find the best price for your trip!

Book your trip now and save money!

You’re traveling in Mexico? These articles will help you!

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visit san juan chamula chiapas


I have created this blog to give you all my best tips to plan your next trip to Mexico, regardless of your budget. I share detailed itineraries, advice about places to visit as well as recommendations for transportation, hotels and restaurants. I hope I will also help you to discover amazing off the beaten path destinations in Mexico!

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