Santiago el Pinar: One Square Mile of Mexico

WATCH: Santiago el Pinar is caught between tradition and a new Mexico

The ancient Mayan civilisation may have died out centuries ago, but their calendar only ends this year, prompting prophesies of doom around the globe.

But in parts of Central America and southern Mexico, where their descendants still live, people aren't expecting the end of the world just yet.

In the southern Mexican state of Chiapas, the Mayans are among the poorest people in the country, and in the town of Santiago el Pinar the government is trying to help them.

Above the green, coffee-covered hillsides, a strange suburb of colourful houses has appeared, but most are empty.

New facilities

The government has declared Santiago el Pinar a "sustainable rural city" and is throwing money there in an attempt to pull people out of poverty.

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"We are trying to find solutions that reduce poverty levels, and bring the community closer to basic services," said the architect of the project - and four others like it in Mexico - Marco Antonio Constantino. "People are dispersed around the area and live in poverty."

He says the theory is to bring them all into a western-style terrace and have everything nearby.

There's a brand new modern hospital, a factory where people make a little money on a basic production line, and a new warehouse for the coffee cleaning machines to come to and add value to the crop.

But the development experiment isn't quite working yet.

Mountains near Santiago el Pinar Mexico's southern Chiapas state is one of the country's poorest regions

People don't like change - especially these very traditional Tzotzil people of Chiapas.

They live in wooden houses amid their coffee bushes, with a pipe from a spring providing water and a flat patio to dry the beans, but they have dirt floors where they cook on wood fires.

The new houses are small, are mounted on stilts and have wooden floors - so people cannot cook in them. They end up building a separate kitchen themselves in the front garden, which fills with smoke and can't be good for their lungs.

Start Quote

It's a very beautiful place but the house is not going to last very long”

End Quote Andrea Montejo Resident

"When I first came here and saw the house I thought it was great," said Andrea Montejo, who liked it so much she was interviewed for a government propaganda exercise.

"I thought there would be water and a shower. But after I had been here for a week, 15 days, then 20 days, there was no water."

"It's a very beautiful place but the house is not going to last very long. It's going to rot. It's very fragile and falling apart. If it was made of concrete it would be much better."

The government said the lack of water is a teething problem. But most people don't want to move from their old way of life.

Modernity and tradition

In the hospital, Dr Leticia Castellanos is trying to bring down the high level of infant mortality and deaths in childbirth, but few of the local people are coming to the hospital.

"There's a massive difference in the way they see their world, and coming to a place like this where they are treated in a different way is a shock to them," she says.

Row of houses on terrace Authorities want the locals to move into modern housing

"For this reason, as doctors, we have to put ourselves in our patients' shoes and if they are scared we have to treat them well so they feel comfortable."

During the saint's day fiesta weekend, the touch of modernity sits alongside millennia of tradition, and centuries of Spanish influence.

The elders sit as the band warms up, and the first ritual of taking the clothes from the statue of San Sebastian and washing them comes to an end.

They are brought bottles of Posh - Mayan moonshine - and then cases of Coke for them to drink. Soft drinks are expensive and so they only drink them on special occasions.

Home-made fireworks are fired off at regular intervals as the alcoholic firewater is drunk.

People will accept new things here, but only very slowly and when it suits them, not when it's imposed on them from above.

Behind the crazy fiesta of Santiago el Pinar, people are picking their coffee harvest, and just getting on with what they do - working hard for little money.

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