Mayan Medicine in Chiapas, Mexico

A travel story

Manu hesitates as he tries to spin delicate fibers of Tsotsil/Mayan wisdom into course and comprehensible Spanish threads.

Growing up in the highlands of Chiapas, and constantly moving between the indigenous communities in the turbulent municipalities around San Cristobal de Las Casas, he has a deep appreciation and connection to even the smallest parts of the earth, and an innate and healthy disregard for things you can’t climb or eat for breakfast.

From our initially brief exchanges, I quickly learn that he has long been fascinated by sustainability and self-sufficiency, concepts that became increasingly popular when the EZLN (Spanish acronym for the Zapatista Army of National Liberation) arrived to the communities he lived in as a child, but that have been present in the way these communities sustain themselves for centuries.

When his silence finally breaks, my introduction into ancient wisdom is: “Well… there’s a simple way to say this, and a not simple way.”

This holds for most of the things you learn in Chiapas.

Earlier that day Manu had accompanied me to the home of a Medicine Man named Don Juan, perched on the side of a hill clad in banana trees and tropical shrubbery in the faraway town of San Juan Cancuc.

Don Juan had emerged from the entrails of his house looking much more the indulgent grandpa than Medicine Man, and began by leading us straight to a prayer room containing an altar, two bottles of Pepsi, black walls caked in the sacred soot of copal and candle smoke, and one sullen-looking patient lying on a woven mat on the floor. Don Juan showed no qualms or even the slightest concern over our presence in this hallowed room. Even the patient, who quite openly rested or agonized on a woven mat on the floor, I’m not  sure which one, appeared accepting of us while our hungry and fascinated eyes scanned the scene and tried to memorize every detail, down to the ashen, sinister quality conferred to this room by its dark color. Within it, you are practically enclosed in a cave.

Before moving us into the glorious, edible, and wild confusion of plants, trees and insects that make up his garden, he mentioned that the patient suffered from an affliction of the chul’el or soul.

Once we had smelled, touched, tasted, and chewed on medicinal plant life to our heart’s desire, our visit ended with a blessing for which Don Juan lit 12 candles, doused us in richly perfumed copal smoke, and chanted well-wishes in Tsotsil before offering us a sip of a hard transparent liquor called Pox (pronounced Posh). We left feeling strangely satisfied as we ambled back to the bohemian playground of San Cristobal de Las Casas.

During the journey, and after much searching and hesitation, Manu decided on the following translations for the enchanting Tsotsil phrase Lekil Kush le’hal: in simple terms it amounts to good living, but in non-simple terms, if you may kindly dig this, it can be interpreted as “being in synchronicity with everything in existence from the diminutive parts of the earth to the cosmos.”

He then continued the lesson with the equally profound Bolol tzo bol, which refers to the management of all your thoughtfeeling, and what you express through this.  In Spanish the words merge into each other melodically, sentir meaning feeling, and pensamiento meaning thought, resulting in the divine sentipensamiento, as opposed to the more awkward combination that it formulates in English. The specialization and separation of thought and feeling appears to have been considered thoroughly besides the point by Mayans, who preferred to draw less distinctions and dwell more in the truth of duality.


After discussing other beautiful sayings and phrases, we pause for a moment to consider how hungry we are. We did after all spend the morning traveling to San Juan Cancuc, one of the poorest areas in all of Mexico, to meet a vestige of sacred Mayan knowledge, with its intrinsic and inseparable combination of science, philosophy, spirituality, and religion.

Later in the day, my mind returned to Don Juan and how a person’s chul’el can loose its state of health, and I slowly became aware of how seasick and weary I felt when I first arrived to San Cristobal, thanks to all the classically modern reasons: pressure, stress, dissatisfaction, and an occasionally faltering sense of self. That day however, Chiapas decided to present me with all the appropriate cures: copal, incense, candles, herbs, liquor, pepsi, prayer. Indeed, after only a couple of weeks I was feeling much more relaxed and deeply renewed.

Just like Mayans made no distinction between philosophy, science, astronomy and religion in their thought, Chiapas never demands that you choose just one current of its manyfold offerings.  I get to rejoice in its culture, nature, tradition, spirituality, modernity, comfort, hardship, adventure, hell even shopping, galore, sometimes inseparably bound together, as in the dualities of nature-spirituality, culture-tradition, and shopping-culture if you happen to be a fan of the multicolored textiles of the highlands.  It’s an appropriate place to be spiritual and well, anything you want, as you inch slowly, sometimes painfully and strangely in the middle of normal life chaos,  towards some sense of synchronicity with everything in the cosmos.

During my stay in Chiapas I submitted a version of this story to the World Nomads Travel Writing Schlarship Competition, you can check it out here:


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