A journey into the highlands of Oaxaca and Chiapas reveals Mexico's beguiling treasures: ancient civilisations, intoxicating rituals... and fried grasshoppers
The old man stroked his bristly white moustache, reached into his leather jacket, and pulled out a chicken. Grasping its wings to its body, he lifted it high into the air, towards the dark wooden rafters of the church – then stooped down to retrieve the Corona beer bottle at his feet. He took a long, deep draught. The chicken pecked at his buttons.
Across the floor, thousands of thin candles flickered in the gloom, their puddles of white wax seeping onto the stone. Like drunks, the spindly shafts leered over the dried pine fronds scattered between them – a makeshift carpet – but nobody seemed to care about the fire risk. I bit my lip and breathed in the sweet air: garden cuttings and birthday candles.
This was not the Mexico I’d expected. Where were the sombreros? The mariachi bands? The town of San Juan Chamula and its evocative church are untouched by the tequila-toting clichés of its nation – because this is a Mayan enclave, an autonomous community of native Mexicans. San Juan Chamula church (Shutterstock)
With flames dancing at his feet, the shaman circled his chicken over the heads of his followers – a young couple, their lips moving in imperceptible prayers. The man bowed while his wife swayed gently at his side, her eyelids drooping. A baby fed at her bare nipple and a toddler clutched at the black fluff of her goat-hair skirt, but she didn’t seem to notice.
“He is protecting them from anyone who wants to hurt them,” whispered Ricardo, our guide, as the shaman tucked away the chicken and reached again for his Corona chalice. The liquid inside was colourless – not beer. “It’s pox
, a corn liquor,” said Ricardo. “It’s an offering to the spirits and their ancestors.” A loud wail echoed through the church, a prayer from one of the other groups huddled in the candlelight. A deep shiver ran down my spine. Mother and child in San Juan Chamula (Shutterstock)
High in the hills of the state of Chiapas, these indigenous people have remained cut off from European influences – well, mostly. Fading effigies of the Virgin Mary overlook those shamanic rituals, a reminder that the church was built by Catholic Spaniards in the 16th century. Perhaps hedging their bets, worshipers decorate the statues with flower garlands and pine boughs – and maybe even pour them a little pox.
Ancient wonders brought to life
We'd arrived in Mexico a week ago, flying into Mexico City just three days after the Day of the Dead festivities ended. The capital was hungover: bunting drooped from the lampposts, and wonky posters flapped in the breeze. Statues of hollow-eyed skeletons slouched on street corners.
Even Ricardo – our guide for the week – was tired. But that might have had more to do with his three girlfriends. “I am Mexican,” he said with a smile and shrug. “I am a dancer, tequila drinker, gigolo… and a Catholic.” It was quite the opening gambit.
Clutching super-sized coffees, we headed to Teotihuacan, one of Mexico’s most well-preserved pre-Hispanic sites – just a 40-minute drive from the city. Pyramid of the Sun, Teotihuacan (Shutterstock)
Unfortunately, most of Mexico City’s revellers were working off their hangovers here. Locals don’t have to pay entrance fees on Sundays, so the crumbling city was alive with day trippers and sombrero sellers – and we joined them on the long hike up the Pyramid of the Moon.
My head spun with jetlag and vertigo as we scaled the stone steps, stooping on all fours to navigate the steeper sections. Vultures thermalled overhead, their wings silhouetted against the cloudless sky. The rock burned in the midday sun, but my fellow climbers were a jovial crowd, laughing and joking in Spanish. At the top we high-fived, giggling breathlessly – wide-eyed at the scene below.
Under a shimmying heat haze, the ancient city's main concourse stretched out into the middle distance. This was the Street of the Dead, where crowds gathered to watch human sacrifices to appease the gods: one throat cutting per day, with a black obsidian blade. Today, however, the execution platform was an impromptu sunbathing spot, draped with pouting teens wielding selfie sticks. Obsidian knick-knacks glinted at the feet of souvenir hawkers. Souvenir sellers at Teotihuacan (Shutterstock)
2,000 years ago, a realm of palaces and temples would have lined the street, but now only a handful of flat-topped pyramids remain. The peaks of the Sun and Moon structures – the biggest, brooding stone pyramids – echo the shapes of the mountains that loom in the distance. Their angular shadows, though softened with age, hint at the hard edges of life in their heyday.
A hand-crafted heritage
After a night back under the fug of Mexico City, the highway to Puebla felt like my first gulp of fresh air. Emerging up into the rolling hills, we soon swapped concrete tower blocks for brightly-painted villages where chickens and children ran wild. Iztaccihuatl volcano (Hazel Plush)
Ricardo danced to the stereo as we drove higher and faster, the rhythms of his mariachi CD blasting through our open windows into the fields of cauliflowers and sun-drying maize. Like a Teotihuacan pyramid, Popocatépetl volcano towered in the middle distance – quiet for now, but wisps of cloud trailed from its summit like the ghost of an eruption.
It might lie in the shadow of an active volcano, but Puebla’s spirits are bright. It’s a living and working Unesco World Heritage Site, renowned for its palatial Renaissance and Mexican Baroque architecture – all voluptuous domes, fiddly frescoes and grand marble columns. Church of Santo Domingo (Hazel Plush)
The Church of Santo Domingo is the finest example of this architectural prowess: it was originally built by indigenous Mexicans, but when the Spanish spotted it they claimed it for themselves – and little wonder. We gazed, slack-jawed, at the tiny gilded flowers and angels carved into almost every surface, framing vast paintings of the Virgin Mary and glittering in the ceiling’s curvaceous eaves. “They call it the Golden House,” whispered Ricardo, as I tried to resist running my fingers over the gold leaf.
Outside, the streets of orange and yellow-painted houses sizzled in the sun. We mooched under the shade of shop awnings, munching on honey-glazed nuts and cola, cooing at the old-style VW Beetles that rattled along the road. Puebla's VW factory was the birthplace of almost 1.7 million Beetles between 1954 and 2003; when the last one rolled down the production line, it was accompanied by a lone mariachi crooning a farewell ballad. VW Beetle, Puebla (Hazel Plush)
A more delicate handiwork awaited behind the blue and orange tiled exterior of Talavera Uriarte – its jazzy exterior a clue of what lay within. Tables bowed under the weight of pottery dining sets, tea pots and vases, all hand-thrown and hand-painted – and, I worried, ready to be hand-dropped onto the stone floor.
I gingerly examined a sugar bowl, daubed with orange, red and navy glaze to match its psychedelic companions, and fell instantly in love. The fingerprints of the craftsmen marked the bowl's unglazed belly like an unofficial maker's mark. I peered through a murky glass window into the workshop to watch the artisans teasing lumpy clay shapes into slender vases, their hands orange with clay slip. Talavera Uriarte (Hazel Plush)
Tall stories and treasures
More hand-made treasures awaited at our next stop – but with a much dodgier provenance. The four-hour drive from Puebla to Monte Alban in Oaxaca had left us stiff-kneed and road-weary, so we weren't our sharpest when we encountered Jose, a silver-tongued merchant who lingered on the lower slopes of this pre-Hispanic fortress.
“She is over 2,000 years old,” he whispered as he pressed the statuette into my hand. We sat cross-legged on the dry grass, relishing the dappled shade of the cotton trees. Apart from the butterflies dancing on the breeze, we were alone.
“She is Chicomecōātl, the Aztec goddess of plenty. See how her colour has lasted all these years?” The icon lay snug in my palm, light grey with hints of rusty red on her belly and feet. “I found her under a tree, in my field – she was buried treasure.”
I was surely being spun a line – but I was loving every minute. It was an enchanting story: who wouldn’t want to believe that you could find a 2,000-year-old Zapotec artefact in your back garden? “If people found out I had found this on my land, they would take my home and dig it up for more,” said Jose, a frown wrinkling his leathery forehead. “That is why you should buy it.”
I gave in. Maybe it was the heat; maybe it was Chicomecōātl's charm; or maybe it was the romance of Jose's yarn. Grasshoppers danced in the undergrowth as I tucked the tiny treasure into my pocket and crunched up the pathway to Monte Alban's summit, serenaded by cicadas that hid in the white-blossomed casahuate trees. Casahuate trees (Hazel Plush)
It was these flowers that gave Monte Alban, or White Mountain, its name: when the Spaniards chanced upon this Zapotec city in the 16th century, they fell for its sweet-scented petals. Had they arrived 1,500 years earlier, they would have suffered a more bloodthirsty welcome from its 25,000-strong population. This was the seat of regional power, with a fearless army and an appetite for daily human sacrifices.
The top of the mountain was lopped off by the Zapotecs around 500BC, and the stone was used to build lavish palaces, temples, and houses high above the valley. Today, you can clamber up onto the roofs of those crumbling temples, or peer into the depths of ancient tombs. I traced my fingertips over pain-contorted faces carved into rough stone panels, created as a warning for would-be invaders. They looked less menacing with a frame of wild daisies. Monte Alban (Hazel Plush)
Grasshoppers and grog
With just eight days in Mexico, we'd made it our mission to eat as adventurously and as often as we could manage. Home-made enchiladas in Mexico City, darkly-delicious mole sauce smothered over chicken in Puebla, cloudy tequila in a roadside tavern... but when faced with chipolines
– fried grasshoppers – I met my match.
In the tree-lined courtyard of Hacienda San Agustin, a restaurant on the outskirts of Oaxaca City, Ricardo and co were already tucking in – but I was still 'building' my dinner. First, a flat taco, with a smear of chili salsa and a few strands of stringy Oaxaca cheese. Next, a slab of pink salami, poking out like a wayward tongue, and then... eventually... a dusting of grasshoppers, their spindly legs breaking off with my touch. Chipolines taco (Hazel Plush)
I bundled it up and took a big bite before I had time to think twice. Not quite as bad as I expected: nicely lemony, but toe-curlingly crunchy. I washed it down with a glug of beer and took refuge in a bowl of 'Mexican caviar' – aka refried beans. Later, in Oaxaca's market, I watched little kids scoop up great handfuls of chipolines, nibbling on them without a care in the world. I felt like a terrible wimp.
Armed with more palatable road trip snacks, we spent the next day driving to San Cristobel de las Casas, a whopping eight-hour journey into the state of Chiapas. “This is Highway 190,” said Ricardo; “also known as the Pan-American Highway. It goes from Alaska, aaaaall the way down to South America.”
This was the Mexico I’d expected. Candelabro cacti dotted the scrub-choked roadside, their spine-covered arms outstretched to the sky. We overtook a horse and cart weaving lazily, the only other vehicle on the poker-straight highway. Its trailer was piled high with agave cacti, destined for a mezcal
It was 11am: prime time for a snifter of the local liquor. Indicating to nobody in particular, we turned off at a red-painted farmhouse, a sun-bleached ‘fabrica de mezcal’ sign swinging from its porch. A lone horse slowly circled a grindstone, squeezing out the juice of agave hearts, which then trickled into a beaten-up jerry can. My nose fizzed with its bitter-sweet tang. Fabrica de mezcal (Hazel Plush)
“After fermenting for eight days, its is distilled in an oven,” explained el jefe
(the boss) of the fabrica, resting his generous belly on the wooden bar top. “It is put in a barrel for 6 months to make reposado
mezcal, or up to five years for añejo
mezcal. You want to try?”
It was a good idea at the time. We sampled el jefe’s full stock of mezcal – from the 50% proof to the sickly-sweet concoctions (cappuccino, tamarind, strawberry et al), while our long-suffering driver napped in the car. “Bring out the scorpion!” bellowed Ricardo, relishing this opportunity to show off his national hooch, and sure enough the boss brandished a golden bottle with an ominous black figure within. Mezcal tasting (Hazel Plush)
The rest of the drive passed in a happy haze of stereo karaoke, rude jokes and sunburnt landscapes. I scrawled illegible lines in my notebook, waved at kids hanging off the back of pick-up trucks, and danced to Ricardo’s favourite Santana album while he texted his girlfriends.
Fuelled by fresh coconuts from roadside stalls and local beer from the petrol stations, we sang our way southwards – up into the mountains, while yellow and white butterflies boogied in front of the windscreen.
The next morning, I could sympathise with that mezcal scorpion. The city of San Cristóbal de las Casas was just waking up as we headed out, a few scraggly dogs stretching in doorways. A red and yellow cathedral with big Baroque arches and pointy turrets sat like a gaudy birthday cake in the centre of the zocalo
, the main square. I slipped my sunglasses on and bought an orange juice from a sleepy-eyed street vendor. Cathedral, Cristóbal de las Casas (Shutterstock)
“Don’t eat breakfast,” Ricardo had warned: today, we’d be dining in the home of Tomasa, a local woman, who lives with her three daughters and mother in Zinacantan. The town of indigenous Mexicans lies in one of San Cristóbal’s neighbouring valleys, but it couldn’t feel further away.
Cloaked in smoke and perched on a tiny milking stool, Tomasa checked the heat of the fire before placing a flat pan on its flames. She took a round sheet of dough and pressed it onto the metal, a single spotlight of sun illuminating her makeshift workspace.
The bitter shock of black coffee and cinnamon was gradually clearing my head, but this was like no other kitchen I’d ever seen: garlands of fat sausages swung from the ceiling above her fire, slowly twirling in the smoke, while scrawny chickens scratched in the corner. Tomasa cooking breakfast (Hazel Plush)
The dough puffed up like a rugby ball, and she flicked it into a basket. A tortilla – just in time for breakfast. We feasted on the unleavened bread, sausages and ubiquitous chilli salsa, my tongue sizzling as we discussed Zinacantan’s fledgling tourist trade.
Until recently, Mexico’s indigenous towns have remained closed to outsiders, but now travellers can pay a modest levy to visit. We’d handed over 15 Pesos to enter Zinacantan’s gates, but Tomasa wouldn’t accept payment for her food. “My kitchen is not a business,” Ricardo translated. “Business is for outside – my kitchen is my home.”
I was concerned that Tomasa’s community wouldn’t share her modesty. Zinacantan was clearly enjoying the spoils of its new tourism revenue stream: I’d spotted at least two busy construction sites when we drove in, and a fledgling flock of souvenir-sellers plying their trade. Traditional weaving in Zinacantan, Mexico (Shutterstock)
But perhaps I needn’t have worried. When we’d cleared our plates, we drove to San Juan Chamula – home of that chicken-wielding shaman. In the flickering candlelight, he began to moan a soft prayer, beseeching the Virgin Mary and her benevolent spirits to keep his followers safe from harm. I gasped as he held the chicken aloft once again – would he throw it to the rafters? Wring its neck? Slit its throat with an obsidian knife?
A tap on my shoulder shattered my reverie. A flat-capped security guard stood sour-mouthed behind us, cocking his head towards the door. We had outstayed our welcome. We’d followed the rules obediently and observed everything from a distance – but for no particular reason, it was time to go.
In other towns, I might have kicked up a fuss – but not here. We’d found the ‘hidden’ Mexico, and it deserved to stay that way. I just hoped the chicken escaped with his neck intact. We'd seen life at its most intriguing, religion at its most intoxicating – but some scenes just aren’t supposed to be gawped at. The author travelled with Tucan Travel, on an 8-day tailormade Mexico Express tour. The itinerary includes all of the attractions described above – and more. From £1,419 per person. For more information, click here
Main image: Church of Our Lady of Remedies, Puebla (Shutterstock)