Why isn’t the bus moving? I strain to look out of the foggy window from my aisle seat. After two hours stuck in late afternoon Mexico City traffic, we finally start rolling, the bus grinding its gears up the mountain pass between the two big volcanoes on the way to Puebla: Popocatépetl, which recently re-activated, and Iztaccíhuatl, long dead, rocky and snow-capped at the peak. All I can see through the darkness are tall trees and mountain slopes in silhouette.
The right lane of the highway is choked with perigrinos, pilgrims marking the birthday of the Virgin of Guadalupe by taking long trips on foot or bicycle. December 9 isn’t really her birthday, but it was the day when Indian peasant Juan Diego saw her apparition on a hill in the outskirts of a much smaller Mexico City in 1531. But the smiling guy in the seat next to me calls it her birthday.Juan Diego’s visions (she appeared to him four times) accelerated the conversion of Indians during the Spanish conquest, a time of great turmoil in Mexico. She not only appeared to a native person, lending great legitimacy to the Catholic Church, but she was dark-skinned. The native Mexicans then found it much easier to bestow the spiritual attributes of their many nature-based gods on the Catholic saints. Now, while God and Jesus are certainly important, most good Catholics have a special saint or Virgin (an image of Mary, Jesus’ mother) to pray to.
Each saint accepts specific petitions for favors, such as help with health, work or love. But the Virgin of Guadalupe is by far the most revered. She offers general protection to all. Most homes and small businesses have an altar to her or at least a picture. The pilgrimage is often a gesture of gratitude for favors previously bestowed on the pilgrims, although I’m not sure why they are going away from Mexico City, rather that toward it.
Trucks accompanying the pilgrims are decorated with plastic flowers and flashing Christmas lights, along with big pictures of the Virgin. Some even have big white statues. Other vehicles include cars with little yellow sirens stuck on the roof above the driver’s side. Sometimes beat up buses follow the runners, many of whom carry crosses or images of the Virgin.
On the bus a loud, obnoxious movie about aging cheerleader rivals is playing on small televisions poking out of the ceiling. Themes of leftover high school awkwardness translated into Spanish blast through the otherwise quiet bus. Its toxic music is just loud enough to penetrate my earplugs during noisy musical numbers and frequent bouts of bickering. Still, most of the bus is asleep. A guy behind me loudly speaks something other than Spanish into his cell phone, evidently a dialect native to Chiapas, Mexico’s southern jungle/mountain state and my destination.
I have now made five visits to San Cristobal de las Casas. This gorgeous colonial town in the mountains of central Chiapas was called the most magical of magic towns by former president Felipe Calderon. The magic towns program designates certain colonial towns as especially lovely – they are given funds to aid their preservation and promoted for tourism on billboards and magazine spreads.
In San Cris, hippies from Mexico and beyond sell jewelry and exchange greetings with traditionally dressed Mayan women selling fruit and their own handicrafts. Its center can be seen in half a day with slow walks down narrow cobblestone streets, up staircases to hilltop churches, and into its massive market, where you will reenter the ¨real¨ Chiapas, a place of great natural beauty and deep history.
Each time I use one of the cheap bus lines that make the 14-hour trip direct from Mexico City for as little as 300 pesos, about 25 dollars. In the high seasons of late December and late July the price goes up to 350, or 400 if your Spanish is bad. But this is a lot better than the “official” buses that leave from established stations and cost as much as 1,500 pesos, or 120 dollars. You are better off flying, which should be cheaper if the tickets are bought with anticipation.
These “third-class” buses leave from sketchy parts of the city. The buses for Chiapas leave from near the Candelaria metro station. Tianguis, small market stalls of clothing and food hanging from wire frames painted white, line the street. Prostitutes beckon at all times of day and morning. The offices for buses to Chiapas – there are at least four – are found across a small park before a gleaming church, its benches full of homeless people and drug addicts. A mess of buses is jammed onto a side street. They all leave in the late afternoon.
This trip is one of the most comfortable I’ve ever had. No breakdowns, no crying babies, no bad smells from a malfunctioning bathroom. The sun rises over a wide valley, pockets of green forest in the mountains and rolling hills all around. The bus slowly wakes – cell phones ring, people cough and children softly whine.
A few hours later I arrive in San Cristobal around 8 in the morning. Fog drifts off of mountains thick with trees. The dry air is chilly. I make the short walk across the now-familiar town to my favorite hostel. But that’s another story.
Ted Campbell writes about travel, music, culture, food, and mountain biking. He lives in Mexico and writes a blog called No Hay Bronca.
Read Ted's other Expat Focus articles here.