Every year in January the small Mexican town of Chiapa de Corzo holds a gigantic festival and party. There is a fair, and fireworks, and processions celebrating the town’s patron saints. Fruit is hung from the rafters, men dress as women and women dress as men, and Parachicos and Chiapanecas in extravagantly colourful costumes parade through the streets. It’s a two-week spectacular and we attended for the final eight days.
Days one, two, and three: The Dazzling Rhythms of Tradition
Days four, five, and six: Chasing Chuntas
Thirty-five million years ago, with nobody watching, the earth moved, and the crust cracked open. Over the millennia water poured into the crack forming a river deep in the earth. Wind and water created a canyon thirteen kilometres long and up to one thousand metres deep. Today it is known as Sumidero Canyon, and is surrounded on both sides by the wilderness of Sumidero Canyon National Park.
22 January 2017. On the seventh day: Early morning in a boat on the river. Despite having no sleep the muscles unwind and the heart rejoices. The river flows by me and through me and I feel myself relax. It’s a welcome break from the wild confusion of the festival. The water is soothing like a balm.
Several dams have been built along the 480 kilometres of the Grijalva River. As a result the Sumidero Canyon became navigable. Our journey takes us through the canyon
past lazy iguanas sunning themselves in a tangle of branches along the shore,
past a large preening committee of vultures on a white stone bank,
past flying egrets,
and so to the Christmas Tree.
During the wet season the water streams down here bringing with it silt and debris from above. Gradually over the years the debris clung to the cliff-face forming deeper and deeper “shelves”. Seeds arrived on the wind and moss and plants covered the shelves all the way down to the water.
We go all the way to the top of the dam. On the way back
our guide spots a crocodile resting in the mud and tangled branches of the shore, sadly surrounded by seven discarded plastic bottles. We are not in pristine wilderness here and the truth is a little jarring.
It moves like a hot glacier. It has the fiery passion of the tropics, the smiling warmth of joy and excitement, and colours hot enough to light up the world, but it is nevertheless a glacier. It forges ahead slowly, powerfully, and imperceptibly, plowing over everything that would stand in its way. The grand procession of the penultimate day of the Fiesta Grande de Enero will not be stopped. Everything and everyone that could hinder it is crushed. Entire families of Chuntas,
surge relentlessly forward chanting, dancing, shaking their rattles, hollering, and laughing.
We’d been told that the parade would start at two. When we get to the town square we are told 4.30 so we return at that time and still there’s nothing happening. Don and I go our separate ways. I see likely participants – a couple of cross-dressers,
and several chuntas.
The men dressed as women are the traditional Chuntas, though now families dress up together. They represent and honour the servants of a wealthy Spanish woman who helped the village during a famine in the 1700’s. They all seem to be headed in the same direction so I follow them hoping to find the beginning of the parade.
I can see I need to be quicker. I double back and head down a side street. I’m walking way faster than I should be, and know I’ll pay for it later, but I’m so focused on my goal that it doesn’t matter. Down the side street I finally see the parade at the end of the street behind a wall of people. I hear the glacier surging forward, but it is impossible to get to it. Behind me, resting on a stoop is a weary deer and her boyfriend. She is dressed to entice people to take photos of, and with her, for a fee. It’s a day to make some money for those who are creative enough to take advantage of the situation. By this time, though, she is too tired to even react when I photograph her. Beneath all that makeup she has the most astonishing green eyes.
Turning around I decide to head back to the town square where I somehow manage meet up with the glacier as it heaves past me, all bright smiles and wild colours.
I need to move. There is a barricade of people behind me, body to body. I push part way through and can go no further. I’m not afraid, just stuck, with one foot on a step, the other dangling towards the step below, and my camera clutched tightly to my chest. I think it is only the people pressed all around me that keep me upright. I stay this way for a minute or two then realize that I must myself become a glacier and simply plow forward. I escape to the relative sanity of the colonnades on the south side of the town square, and then move to the west side. At this point I decide I’ll simply stay put and wait for the procession to come to me. There’s seating all along one side of the street where people are waiting, and in the middle of the street more people are gathered. Some, like me, have come to see the show; others are participants waiting to join in. There’s music of course. There’s always music. I watch enchanted as a couple of children dance to the beat,
and another, a tiny Chiapaneca, poses for the camera just as she’s been taught.
Across from the seating I find myself a position standing on the curb. There is a wall behind me, and people all around. There is nowhere to move but at least I’m in front and can see whatever is to come. It’s dark now and the hot glacier finally arrives.
The mood is different – crazier, louder, more excited, more joyous. It’s a parade and it’s a wild party.
Suddenly I’m surrounded by four women from the parade and one of them thrusts a shot glass in my face. My first reaction is to refuse but it’s clear they will not take no for an answer. So I down it, whatever it is, and then take a handful of spicy peanuts from a bag offered to me by one of the other women. This is a fiesta! You don’t refuse a drink!
The glacier is wide and powerful and takes whatever room it needs. My feet are trampled, first one then the other; a flying rattle hits my camera. Often I have it clutched to my chest as I press back against the people who’ve squeezed in behind me. Suddenly one of the chuntas leans in and sweaty kisses me on the forehead.
And the next thing I know four Chuntas have pulled me right into the middle of the parade and are dancing around me. I dance too for a while then inch my way back to the curb and watch as the revelries continue.
I know there is much more to come but it is dark and I’m weary so I decide to go home. Somehow I manage to cross the glacier, but then come to another barricade of people at the entrance to the street where our hotel is. It’s about ten feet thick but I’ve had practice now. I push my way through and escape to the other side. Somehow, miraculously, I still have my camera, and all my limbs. Don is already back at the hotel, and I’m surprised to discover it’s only 7.30.
23 January 2017. On the eighth day: we rested. We went for a stroll by the river and ate seafood-filled avocado at a restaurant overlooking the water. Then rested some more. In the evening we returned to the town square to find some Parachicos and Chiapanecas still marching, but we didn’t follow them. That was so yesterday. And the day before, and the day before. We wandered into the church. All the pews had been removed; people were wandering about, collecting things to take home, saying their good byes. It was all winding down, and in the middle of this vast space two Chiapanecas plopped themselves down on the floor and shared phone photos.
24 January 2017. On the ninth day: after a lazy start we took a taxi to the nearby town of San Cristobal de las Casas.
The Fiesta Grande de Enero is held each year from January 8th to 23rd in Chiapa de Corzo, Chiapas, Mexico
Next post: San Cristobal de las Casas
All words and images by Alison Louise Armstrong unless otherwise noted
© Alison Louise Armstrong and Adventures in Wonderland – a pilgrimage of the heart, 2010-2017.