How to Get to Oventic, the Rebel Headquarters of the Zapatista Army of National Liberation
This small village is one of the five caracoles of the Zapatistas, a peaceful, ultra-leftist, indigenous, revolutionary group in Chiapas.
I’m sure, since you’re the adventurous type, that you’ve always wanted to take a solo trip to the misty jungle mountains of Chiapas, to visit one of the rebel strongholds of the Zapatista Army of National Liberation.
But if you’re also like me, you’re completely baffled, probably, about how to begin, like trying to figure out the first step for stuffing a Thanksgiving turducken.
In 2015, I went to Oventic, one of the seven outreach caracoles of this ultra-leftist revolutionary group, and now I’m going to show you how to get there yourself.
Who Are the Zapatistas in Mexico?
If for some strange reason you’ve never had the inkling to visit the Zapatistas, and don’t know what they’re about, they are a group made out of the area’s many indigenous tribes, who live in autonomous villages in the Chiapas highlands.
Since 1994, when these peasant farmers and day laborers stood up in armed conflict against the Mexican government, these various and distinct ethnic tribes have come together to form a leftist political and militant group, self-organizing their own autonomous villages, health care services, and education system. Their governments are formed by members of the village, and women are required to make up 50% of the town council’s seats.
What Are the Zapatistas Fighting For?
So you might be wondering, after all of this, why are the Zapatistas fighting the Mexican government?
Basically, for equal rights and opportunities for the indigenous peoples of Mexico, who had been enslaved by the Spanish conquest and have been living in subjugation ever since.
As Subcomandante Marcos, the movement’s visionary and poetic faux-leader, explains in the First Declaration of the Lacandon Jungle:
We are a product of 500 years of struggle: first against slavery, then during the War of Independence against Spain led by insurgents, then to avoid being absorbed by North American imperialism, then to promulgate our constitution and expel the French empire from our soil, and later the dictatorship of Porfirio Diaz denied us the just application of the Reform laws and the people rebelled and leaders like Villa and Zapata emerged, poor men just like us. We have been denied the most elemental preparation so they can use us as cannon fodder and pillage the wealth of our country. They don’t care that we have nothing, absolutely nothing, not even a roof over our heads, no land, no work, no health care, no food nor education. Nor are we able to freely and democratically elect our political representatives, nor is there independence from foreigners, nor is there peace nor justice for ourselves and our children.
But today, we say ENOUGH IS ENOUGH.
Part of this fight for peace includes educating people in schools and meetings about the dangers of neoliberalism and corporate capitalism, which ravages countries such as Mexico in many ways, such as bequeathing special water rights to international conglomerates such as Nestlé and Coca-Cola.
The indigenous groups would hop through the jargon and call that stealing their land.
One of the Zapatista’s first actions was to institute the Women’s Revolutionary Law and women’s rights are a core foundation of el Zapatismo.
Where Do the Zapatistas Live?
20 years since their initial uprising, the Rebel Zapatista Autonomous Municipalities control about a third of Chiapas’ territory and they keep the government out.
Mexican police, military, and federal and state government officials are not permitted in Zapatista territories. In fact, even everyday citizens, which might include hippies from Mexico City or crazy gringos from the US, need permission to enter some villages.
These villages, scattered all over northern and eastern Chiapas, are carved out of areas of dense subtropical jungle, which the Zapatistas used to their advantage, hiding soldiers and the movement’s leaders during the turbulent initial years of the Zapatista uprising in the 1990s and early 2000s.
Oventic is a Zapatista Outreach Center
One of the villages which allow, and encourage, visits from outsiders is Oventic (o-ben-TEEK), located about an hour north of San Cristóbal de las Casas. It’s so secret, apparently, that you can’t even find it labeled on Google Maps.
So let me show you where it’s located and where, if you choose to accept your mission, you’re headed. Then later I’ll show you the exact taxi stand in San Cristobal de las Casas that you need to go to in order to get there.
What Should I Know Before Going to Oventic?
You’ll want to bring identification and, to be safe, be sure it’s your passport. How carefully you’ll be scrutinized upon arrival will depend on who you are, where you’re coming from, what your purpose is at Oventic and the current level of alert. The Mexican government will still sometimes harass Zapatista communities, outright or through guerrilla subterfuge.
As of 2017, things are relatively calm and your presence in Zapatista territory will not be unwelcome, nor should it come as any surprise to anyone you meet on your taxi or combi ride to Oventic. I was a little nervous, I admit, to go there myself, but it’s really just another beautiful pueblito in Mexico.
One that’s under guard by men and women whose faces you don’t see because they’re masked in black ski masks, yes. But from behind those masks always peer two friendly, welcoming eyes that reassure you that you’re in the right place.
You won’t be allowed to photograph any of the people who live or work in Oventic, but you will be allowed and (again) encouraged to photograph its marvelous revolutionary murals.
You’ll probably be asked why you want to be there. You don’t have to be a photographer or writer to visit or require a special excuse. Just tell the masked guards who greet you at the gate that you’re interested in learning more about the Zapatistas. If you have a specific purpose for going, tell them that. They even wouldn’t mind if you have a few questions for them, sitting down with you in one of the psychedelically painted buildings for an interview.
There are times that entry into Oventic might not be allowed, so before heading there I recommend you check first with one of the Zapatista stores in downtown San Cristóbal for the most up-to-date current status of entry to Oventic. You might also ask if there are any upcoming events being held there or at CEDICI-UNITERRA, the Zapatista university, located on the northwest edge of San Cristóbal.
If you arrive on the right day, you might even get to see Subcomandante Marcos smoking his famous pipe and speaking during one of the many juntas or meetings, which are sometimes open to the public. (Follow the Enlace Zapatista page on Facebook to keep abreast of upcoming events, which are sometimes announced publically only days in advance.)
How to Get to Oventic, Mexico
1. Start at the Plaza 31 de Marzo in San Cristóbal de las Casas
To get to the taxi stand, start at San Cristóbal’s main plaza, Plaza 31 de Mayo, which is of course located in the center of the city.
At the northeast corner of the plaza, locate the northbound street Avenida General Urilla. The street sign is on the left, as you can see.
If you turn around in the street map above, you’ll see the plaza behind you. Walk north, away from the plaza, on General Urilla for eight minutes and you’ll arrive at the old market, the Mercado Viejo.
2. Pass the Mercado Viejo
After eight minutes walking, you’ll arrive at this wonderful explosion of a market, which sells amazing fruits and vegetables stacked into pyramids. This is, pretty sure it goes without saying, a great place to grab an amazing southern Mexican breakfast before your trip to Oventic.
Using this market as a landmark, you know that you only have to continue walking north for four minutes (300 meters) before you arrive at the taxi stand to Oventic.
3. Arrive at the Taxi Stand to Oventic
Look for this taxi and combi stand on the same street you’ve been walking on, 950 meters from the plaza where you started.
This is where you’ll catch a taxi or a combi to Oventic. Combis are shared vans which commonly substitute for buses in southern Mexican states such as Oaxaca and Chiapas. They take specific routes through a city or between towns, picking up and dropping off people wherever they want along the way.
Tell one of the waiting drivers that you want to go to Oventic. A combi leaves every 30 minutes or so or whenever enough commuters arrive to fill it up.
If you decide to go by combi, which I recommend, you’ll probably be joined by several indigenous women traveling back to Oventic with their purchases from the Mercado Viejo, just down the street from the taxi stand. I was the only gringo traveling to Oventic.
As of summer 2015, the price for a combi from this taxi stand in San Cristóbal to Oventic was around 30 pesos. Hiring a normal taxi to take you there cost around 300 pesos. Prices might be slightly more expensive two years on due to the 2017 petroleum price increases and their widespread ramifications on the Mexican economy, on everything from tortillas to cooking gas.
Here’s a map of your complete route from the plaza to the taxi stand:
It’ll take an hour to get to Oventic. If you are sensitive to motion sickness, you might make preparations before you leave, because you’ll be traveling deep into the Lacandon Jungle and the roads are winding.
What Happens When You Get There?
You’ll be taken for a tour around the small town, which is aligned in two lines along one central road. Your guide, who will be wearing one of the signature black balaclavas, will show you the murals, which carry messages of action, change, revolution, evolution, nature, history. Even Black Lives Matter was represented here as early as 2015, not long after its founding.
Though Oventic is located deep in the Chiapas jungle, its citizens are well-aware of events removed from their own lives and connected with activist groups and humanitarian organizations all over the world. Subcomandante Marcos was using the internet in the mid-90s to issue his communiqués to the world from the Lacandon Jungle.
During your visit, you’ll be taken to several wooden buildings with items for sale from women’s art collectives, which includes lots of embroidered textiles. You’ll also find Zaptista t-shirts, caps, books, videos, and handmade items. So be sure to bring some pesos to spend (especially because your money will be going directly to the artists).
To return to San Cristóbal at the end of your visit, which will last about an hour for a normal tour, just wait at the gate for the next combi or taxi headed back in the opposite direction. You probably won’t have to wait more than 30 minutes. All the combis passing in the reverse direction should be directly direct to San Cristóbal.
Enjoy Your Trip to Rebel Territory
Hopefully I’ve answered all your questions. If I’ve left anything else, please ask away in the comments below. And remember…