The Indians’ chapels: a tour awaiting tourists
By Antonio De Jesús Aguado
In the municipality of San Miguel there are approximately 240 capillas virreinales (viceregal chapels, also known as capillas de indios, or Indians’ chapels), and seven have been restored by the local government. These religious centers date from the 17th and 18th centuries and were constructed by missionary friars to attract the native chichimecas to Catholicism. In July 2011, local authorities presented a new tour package, the “Touristic Route of the Indians’ Chapels,” investing more than two million pesos in restoring a few of the small churches and upgrading roads, installing road signs, training guides and building a small parador, a stand where local vendors offer food, crafts and services), among other things. Now, one year after the project was launched, some guides and renters of horses have resigned from the project and some chapels have been closed owing to the lack of visitors.
The route of Capillas de Indios
For more than 20 years the local government has worked to restore the Indians’ chapels, and it was the current administration that concluded the work on seven chapels and developed the tour. The tour package was launched on July 12, 2011, by Mayor Luz María Núñez as a way to offer new opportunities for development to the inhabitants of the nearby communities and give tourists an opportunity to experience an indigenous tradition preserved by local families with roots in the Otomí culture.
The journey begins at the rural community of Banda, where there are two chapels, one dedicated to Our Lady of Guadalupe and the other to the Virgin of Loreto. The third chapel is in the community of San Isidro, where the parador is also located. Oaxaca is home to the fourth chapel, two are located at Cruz del Palmar (currently closed), and the last one, Capilla de los Tres Reyes Magos (Three Kings’ Chapel) is in the community of el Capaderillo.
In addition to viewing and hearing the history of the seven chapels, during the tour visitors can also visit about 20 other unrestored chapels, some deteriorated but still interesting. At Cruz del Palmar the chapels can be identified by their small towers. Although many of them are in ruins, some are being used as homes by their owners, such as the chapel owned by don Juan Espinosa, who said that his chapel belonged to his grandparents and now he and his family use it as a bedroom. Next to the church there is a small kitchen where they cook with firewood, and the smoke has impregnated the chapel walls. Don Francisco Romero, another resident, owns a chapel also and said “it was here when we arrived.” Currently, the chapel is surrounded by rooms of more modern construction, although don Francisco said, “I have respected the architecture, and it is here where we have our saints.” He also uses the chapel as a cellar.
Some churches have been closed
Despite the preparations that went into launching this tour, it has not worked out as the residents of the communities expected. For that reason, some have decided to resign as guides, such as don Atanasio Ramírez, who commented that at the beginning they had visitors but suddenly they stopped coming. “No one came to visit our chapels,” he said. They used to open on weekends, but “I was just wasting my time, because there were no tourists. I am a vendor, and the weekends are the best days for me. For that reason, I abandoned the project, and, after me, the other three guides also quit the capillas project.” According to don Atanasio, the lack of visitors resulted from poor coordination between local workers and the Tourism Council, but he also commented that the chapels at Cruz del Palmar do not have interesting paintings. However, he made it clear that “we have a lot to show and tell visitors, such as the history and life of our ancestors (the Otomies), the history of the community and anecdotes and interesting facts.” The chapels have been closed since December 2011.
Don Amancio Ramírez, who during the weekdays sells plants and also farms, is a guide at the chapel of San Isidro de Bandita in Oaxaca. He confirmed that the number of tourists is very low. “In spite of that,” he said, “we are here during the weekends, waiting to receive them and treat them very well so they will come back again and we can save our jobs here.” He also commented that at the chapel of San Isidro they explain the origin and meaning of the paintings, what the chapels were like in the past and how they are used now, as well as the traditions of the community. Don Amancio commented that a few weeks ago they received three groups of 40 tourists and that motivated them, although he said that some men renting horses for the tour got discouraged and abandoned the project, because “the people arrived at the parador but they did not rent the horses.”
A cooperative was created to operate the parador where locals would sell arts and crafts (not on sale currently) and food; restrooms are also available. Doña Felicitas García said that she works every fifteen days cooking food, but sometimes there are no people and they divide the food among the señoras working there, but later they must repay the money. According to señora Oliva Ramírez, they sell enchiladas, huaraches, gorditas and other dishes at reasonable prices. She added that the parador is open every weekend, although the municipality has not yet installed electricity.
The Tourism Council keeps working
Édgar Zamudio, coordinator of the program at the Tourism Council, said that the tour has gone well in the last few weeks and that currently they are working with those in charge of the open chapels, and next month they will work to convince those responsible for the closed churches that the tour can work. “Currently they are disappointed, but we will keep working to promote the package,” said Zamudio. He commented that even though the chapels are only open on weekends, on some occasions groups have shown up on weekdays and the chapels have been opened for them. They just need to contact the person in charge.
The chapels are open Saturdays and Sundays from 11am–5pm. There are local guides to explain everything about the churches. For independent visitors the cost per person per chapel is 20 pesos. Road signs guide drivers to the churches and patrolled parking areas are available. For more information, visit the Tourism Council at Plaza Principal 8, across from the Jardín, or call 152-0900 or send an e-mail to email@example.com