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A Volunteer Vacation on a Mexican Ranch

Travelers Can Explore Chiapas’ Backcountry and Get to Know the Tzotzil

Rancho Chichihuistan is listed on World-Wide Opportunities on Organic Farms, www.wwoof.org, and on www.Idealist.org as a place to volunteer on an organic farm. The rancho, which is operated by American expatriates Miles and Sean, is in the highlands above the town of Teopisca, Chiapas, Mexico. Teopisca is on the Pan American highway just south of the old colonial capital of Chiapas, San Cristobal de las Casas, and an hour north of the Guatemalan border. The scenery on the highway is spectacular and improves as you take the rough gravel road further into the highlands toward Chichihuistan.

The rancho, which is really a small farm, has an adobe-style ranch house with two dormitory rooms that each accommodate six people. Arrangements can be made in advance for an additional private room for two people. There is also plenty of room for pitching tents under the pines just outside the ranch house door.

Summer rains have been sporadic in recent years so the organic gardens have not always been workable. But while you’re there, and if the rains do come, there is plenty to do in the garden or in caring for the chickens and possibly a pig. Or you may be put to work on a building project. The ranch, at 7,000 feet in elevation, recently built a greenhouse for tomatoes. If the greenhouse is a commercial success, more will be built and operated in partnership with neighboring indigenous families. If you don’t work on the greenhouse project you may be asked to add to the collection of wall murals that grace the exterior and interior of the ranch house. Miles is currently looking for someone to paint a mural of native birds.

Meals at the rancho are served family-style, and fresh squeezed orange juice is always available. Miles is an accomplished cook and he’s willing to accommodate special dietary needs if given advance notice. Culinary whims are not gratified, however, since the nearest markets are more than an hour away in San Cristobal.

Miles and Sean have carefully made friends with their Tzotzil neighbors. The Tzotzil, who were sympathizers of the armed Zapatista uprising in Chiapas a decade ago, are not generally outgoing toward outsiders. However, thanks to the effort Miles and Sean have put into building relationships, their Tzotzil neighbors visit regularly. Most speak Spanish but some speak only Tzotzil.

Sometimes the neighbors join guests in a modest fiesta or share a meal in the ranch house. Occasionally the Campo Grande band, a folk singing group from a neighboring community, will come by and a larger party will form around a bonfire.

While we were there, we spent much time with Candelario Garcia. “Cande,” as his family calls him, helps around the rancho. He’s also a champion horse racer. One day Cande invited us to visit his family at their thatch-roofed home, and on our last night at the rancho, we shared the evening meal with him and his family.

Since water can be scarce at Rancho Chichihuistan a well was recently hand dug. But water is still precious. Visitors are encouraged to use the pleasant pine smelling outhouses rather than the flush toilet.

There is no public transportation to Rancho Chichihuistan, so arrangements must be made with Miles or Sean in advance. They are glad to pick you up or drop you off at the bus station in San Cristobal.

If you want more of an adventure than gardening and singing around bonfires, Miles, or Sean, will work with you to put together day- or week-long jaunts that can include white water kayaking, touring Mayan ruins, visiting indigenous farmers, or general sightseeing in the backcountry of Chiapas. You’ll want to go over costs for lodging, food, and transportation with Miles. For our group of six, we each paid $25 per day for meals and lodging. Transportation was extra.

There is no telephone at Rancho Chichihuistan, so for more information, contact Miles at ranchochichi@yahoo.com.