From the arid, cactus-strewn deserts of Chihuahua to the foggy, mysterious mountains of Chiapas, Mexico offers a huge variety of landscapes. The 120 million inhabitants of Mexico also reflect this diversity. The mega-rich of Mexico City live only a few hours drive from people living a way of life that’s remained practically unchanged since the arrival of the Spanish. And sprinkled throughout the country you’ll find surprising little places - towns, villages and communities that are so unique as to seem otherworldly.
1. Chipilo - Where Mexicans speak Italian
Language enthusiasts looking to hear the dulcet tones of Casanova’s native dialect need not travel to Italy. A Venetian language is still spoken in the remote town of Chipilo, Puebla, where the majority of inhabitants are of Italian origin. The diaspora language is currently spoken by the descendants of some 500 19th century Venetian immigrants to Mexico. The linguistic variety, brought by dairy farming migrants, is also spoken in parts of Veracruz and Queretaro, although Chipilo remains the iconic cultural center of Mexico’s Venetian community. In total, Mexicans speak about 60 other languages too, with most of them being indigenous to the country.
2. Chican - Mexico’s sign language village
A large minority of the inhabitants of the tiny village of Chican in the Yucatan peninsula are deaf, and almost everyone uses sign language - whether teachers, shopkeepers or farmers. The Californian writer Louise Stern, who was herself born deaf, has written a novel using the extraordinary setting. As part of the research for the book, called Ismael and His Sisters, the novelist stayed with a family in the village, in which 10 percent of the population of approximately 300 are deaf. “Everyone signs, deaf people and hearing people,” Stern said of the experience. “I am interested in sign language and how it changes your relationship to the world. It is my language, the language of my family, the language of my community, and I feel very passionate about it.”
3. Juchitan - Mexico’s matriarchal society
One market town in the steamy Isthmus of Tehuantepec has achieved world-wide renown for the matriarchal nature of its society. The city of Juchitan is the center of Zapotec culture and its colorful traditional dress was famously adopted by Frida Kahlo. Women dominate the local markets and the economic life of the town. They also have a reputation for taunting male locals. “Women are public figures here,” said Marina Meneses, a sociologist who moved to the region to raise her son. “Women are the main organizers.”
The town priest, Gaspar Cabrera, was shocked when he was sent to school in neighboring Veracruz at 13. “In my village, our life revolved around my mother and my grandmother,” he said. “When I got to Jalapa, I found out that women had to wait until their husbands got home to decide whether children could have permission to go to a party.”
To Cabrera, Juchitan is far ahead of the rest of Mexico. “We men do not feel oppressed. This is simply a more egalitarian reality. In this aspect, Zapotec culture is more advanced, and European culture is catching up.”
4. San Juan Chamula - The church in Chiapas
The wide diversity of cultures in Mexico is responsible for its long history of syncretism – the fusion of different strands of religious belief. One of the most striking examples of this is found in the remote mountain town of San Juan Chamula in the state of Chiapas. In the church it is illegal to take photographs, but smoking and drinking are encouraged. Inside, there are no pews or altars and the stone floor is covered with pine needles. Glass cases resting on tables contain statues of Catholic saints, each with a mirror hanging from its neck. The statues are used to represent Mayan gods and worshippers bring beer and Coca-Cola as offerings. Live chickens are often carried in to be slaughtered at the altar. While San Juan Chamula is nominally Catholic, priests rarely make an appearance. It is pretty obvious to all that villagers have taken back the church for the old gods of the Maya.
5. Real de Catorce - The ghost town
The old silver mines of Real de Catorce have long been abandoned, but Mexico’s most extraordinary “ghost” town still attracts pilgrims, drawn to its reputation as a shamanistic center. The town is situated four hours drive from the city of San Luis Potosi in the state of the same name. Visitors can only reach it by travelling over miles of mountain road and through a two kilometre tunnel. This geographical seclusion creates a powerful sense of mystery, and both local Catholics and Huichol Indians make pilgrimages to the mountain town. The Parish of the Immaculate Conception has a long established reputation for miracles, while the Huichol indigenous tribe believe the region to be the birthplace of the sun. The town also has ample supplies of the hallucinogenic plant peyote, so attracts a year-round supply of “hippy tourists.”