Saturday, January 7, 2012

Chiapa de Corzo -- The Cathedral of San Domingo

Chiapas, Mexico
(no camera)

George and I have spent nearly three weeks in the state of Chiapas, drawn here by my new work. While we are excited about what this job means for me, we have been very discouraged by the living situation. We are in a small, bright orange apartment in Tuxtla Gutierrez, a bustling city with almost no green space. I say that it is like living inside a traffic cone ... and that is actually a very good analogy. On previous weekends, we explored two outlying communities in hopes of finding alternative housing. The first, San Cristobal, offers a cooler climate and charming amenities but is at least a 1.5 hour commute each way, probably 2 hours each way given bus schedules. The second, Berriozabal, is a town with a small zocalo (green space) but no housing available. Today, we ventured to Chiapa de Corzo, about an hour away. Here is what we found.

A river runs through it. A big river. Grijalva formed the Sumidero Canyon which was, we are told, on the short list for an updated list of the world's greatest wonders. No wonder. It is truly breathtaking, and the river is beautiful in itself, wending along jungle-covered banks, lush green offset by snowy white egrets.

We, of course, are water people. Simply the site of the river calms us. If we were to find a home in Chiapa de Corzo there will, no doubt, be a boat building project in our future. Wood is plentiful here, and George comes alive when creating something. He has to assess the currents, but a double kayak would probably make sense.

The chicken bus (so dubbed by our friend, Louise) bounced us along to Chiapa de Corzo for ten pesos each. The town's "bienvenidos" sign marked the start of cobblestone streets, and we disembarked to find ourselves in a colonial town, a refreshing change from Tuxtla Gutierrez. Ahead of us was a 16th century Moorish-style fountain, and beyond that the river and cathedral. There was a massive carnival being set up, since next weekend is the town's largest celebration -- The Fiesta Grande -- which celebrates its three patron saints. (More here.)

We skirted the carnival and found our way to the glorious river. Dozens of high-powered skiffs stood ready to take tourists up river and through the canyon, where you're likely to see crocodiles and be allowed to peer into a few of the caves used by Mayan traders before the conquistadors' arrival. (Several are being excavated now, by archaeologists.) We walked the river's cobbled edge the short distance it extended upstream, then up a wide and winding stone staircase. Unfortunately, there was a stench. Nonetheless, we lingered for the view.

I mentioned the crocodiles to George, and he pointed to two men standing in the river, waist-deep. Apparently, no crocodiles; though we never did see the hombres' legs. They were assisting several men who, ashore, were winching up metal handrails that rose to the surface among great clouds of silt. (These appeared to have fallen from a boardwalk near the river's edge and lodged on the river's bottom.)

We strolled towards the cathedral, and were astonished at its size. A whitewashed building with a simple exterior, it is the largest church we have seen in Mexico. It extends about the length of an American football field. We were about to walk its length when a scene across the narrow road caught our attention. Several men were using adzes and smoke to work wood. Were they making dugouts? We crossed over and saw they were simply making rough-hewn wooden beams; using the adzes to peel the bark and the smoky fires to preshrink the beams.

We entered the cathedral and were impressed by its spaciousness and simplicity. Many craftsmen were at work. A man greeted us in Spanish, waving us towards a group near the altar, which is a vast, gracefully carved piece of work in unstained cedar. (They hope to gild it.) We followed his lead, passing several objects dated from the 16th century, and realized the bell tower was open for tourists. What a treat!

We climbed the winding keep, and I remembered hearing that they always corkscrew in a direction that gives advantage to right-handed soldiers who are above. In other words, when winding your way up the narrow, stone steps, your right arm will be close to the wall -- enough so that you couldn't thrust your sword upward very well if you weren't left-handed.(George and I would have had an advantage there.)

After about ten minutes we reached the top and exited onto a small rooftop. The views were lovely, and included a peek at the cathedral's main roof line, now below us. We could see where those rough-hewn wooden beams were headed: half the cathedral's roof had been fully removed. She was awaiting new stays in her corset. After several minutes spent admiring the view, I entered the belfry.

What a treat! Two massive weathered bells, one of them deeply cracked, and two smaller ones off to the side (all of them stoppered, of course.) Works of art and historical artifacts. I wish I could done a tracing of the raised text and fancily scroll-worked crosses that adorn them. One was cast in 1576. Imagine the church commissioning bells to be cast, and then the journey from Spain, across the Atlantic, and somehow (George thinks overland, but I wonder about the river) inland to this town. There's a story to catch the imagination!

Since our camera was lost a few weeks ago, I'll link here to another blog with photos of the place. (We plan to replace our camera while we're in the States later this month.)

We wound our way back down to terra firma and sought out the public market, where we lunched. Feeling tired, we hiked back through the town's streets, scouting for potential rentals. We like the town. It has character. Unfortunately, it gets even hotter than Tuxtla ...

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