Set in a lush highland valley in the southern state of Chiapas, San Cristobal de Las Casas is a perfect choice for anyone ready to step away from Mexico’s better-known tourist destinations. We spent 10 days soaking up its colonial atmosphere and exploring nearby Mayan villages.
San Cristobal de las Casas is a colourful, colonial town with an almost alpine atmosphere and buildings painted in bright shades of pastel yellow, orange, blue, and purple. Walking along its narrow cobble-stoned colonial streets with white-washed walls, picturesque arcades and small tree-filled plazas is a feast for the senses. Smartly dressed musicians play soothing jazz from a gazebo, while locals chat on park benches, adding to the town’s decidedly unhurried atmosphere.
Although I’m sad to see dirty-faced Mayan boys and girls with dark, pleading eyes peddle bracelets, dolls, and multi-hued straps and belts, they’re doing what they’ve been taught.
I step off the bus in San Cristobal de las Casas, and know I’ve come to a place that’s cool, in every sense of the word. The fresh highland air feels great after the sweltering heat of the previous Mexico’s Colonial Towns.
The early morning light affords spectacular views of brilliant green mountains that enclose a labyrinth of cobblestone streets lined with crumbling, colonial mansions and pristine churches.
Everything I’ve seen this morning begs for more exploration, but right now all I want is breakfast after the overnight bus journey.
It’s 7am in the morning and after a hair-raising overnight bus ride from Oaxaca, picture this – 4 hours of winding hills, 2 hours flat and 4 more hours of winding hills. One great driver first half and one mad bus driver second half that I yelled at several times to slow down!
The cheapskate in me, now realises that I booked the 2nd class bus instead of first class – all to save 200 pesos… $16 – I won’t do that again.
We’re staying with Rachel and Endric at their Airbnb Apartment and we have an address and instructions which we hand to the taxi driver… in a flash we are standing outside a large red wall and somewhere inside is our apartment.
It’s definitely one of those secret mexican walls.
It’s early and I wonder if Rachel is ok with us arriving at this time. Of course she says and opens the secret door, my eyes feast on a beautiful green albeit overgrown courtyard, one excited dog and 2 cute grey kittens.
A little place just like home maybe? well not really, it’s what I call quaint – “Quaint” – translation ‘small, cozy with only a few amenities/cat/ dog’ and great WIFI.
From 900sqft in Oaxaca to about 300sqft – I’ll have to keep my elbows in. Our little apartment is ready for us so we dump the luggage and head off to get breakfast down in the village.
We find a little organic type bakery which actual turns out to be vegetarian – argh just when I felt like bacon and eggs.
Looking out into the street the Mayan women with babies tied in shawls implore me to buy dazzling textiles and gorgeous jewelry is spread over the pavement. In spite of my fatigue, I am at once energized and mesmerized by the ambience and feel of this pretty colonial town.
The next morning it’s time to check out some of that architecture that looked so tantalizing the day before. The cool mountain air is so refreshing, of course we are at 7200 feet.
Heading into town you can’t miss the Cathedral, decked out in bright red and orange, the cathedral, on the north side of the plaza, looks more like a pizza parlour than a church. But upon entering, I’ve no doubt this is a place of worship.
Five gilded altarpieces front a wall entirely covered in gold leaf and predominantly Mayan patrons softly chant Spanish hymns as birds chirp in the rafters.
A few blocks away, we come to the 16th century Templo de Santo Domingo, which is also crowded with Mayan worshippers. With its exquisite baroque stucco work, it’s no wonder this is considered the most beautiful of San Cristobal’s many churches.
The interior walls, as well as the elaborate pulpit, are sumptuously gilded. It saddens me that the Spanish spent lavishly on such ornate churches like the ones in Guanajuato, while the Mayan natives lived in wretched conditions.
Whatever injustices these people have endured, I’m humbled by the fervent religious devotion they exhibit today.
On the grounds outside, barefoot native women and artsy Mexicans conduct a vibrant market.
Stunning crimson and purple Mayan weavings with symbolic motifs are offered next to piles of jumbo papayas and heaping baskets of shiny orange habanero peppers, sensory overload in it’s finest form.
From Santo Domingo, we continue east along Chiapa de Corzo past restored old houses painted in flamboyant pastels and grizzled buildings that sell everything from local ceramics to DVD players. An old man leading a donkey piled with bundles of firewood ignores a line of aging vehicles honking to pass.
Scores of persistent, yet gracious Mayan women descend on me, urging us to buy their wares.
Sadly we spot Starbucks and Burger King – what the?
In a few minutes, we get to San Cristobal’s most famous attraction Na Bolom and a must for anyone wishing to learn more about the area’s indigenous people.
Na Bolom, which means “Jaguar House” in Tzotzil Mayan, is the former home of Swiss anthropologist Trudy Blom and her Danish archaeologist husband Frans. In the 1950s, they converted this beautiful colonial building into a research centre dedicated to recording and protecting Mayan culture. Trudy took more than 50,000 photos of the jungle-dwelling Lacandon Maya, and many are on display today.
Most impressive is the stately Blom research library, fitted with dark wooden tables and leather armchairs. “There are more than 10,000 volumes here on Chiapas rainforest ecology and Mayan culture.
Across town in search of a ‘cooked bbq chicken for dinner’ we stumbled on a decrepit set of stairs up a steep hill to the Guadalupe Cathedral.
Oh what the hell – forget dinner let’s go up here instead.
From the summit, the Guadalupe Cathedral watches over the town. At this altitude the climb requires a little more effort, but the imposing views make my puffing worthwhile.As I gaze over the red-tiled roofs and green plazas sprawling below, I hope that the next day’s trip to the indigenous villages will be half as memorable as this one.
Chiapas is also rich in natural resources, but it seems the native people have shared little of that wealth. Many villages still practice subsistence farming and have no running water or electricity.
Little villages and native people sounded interesting, so I went on a search…a little bit of googling uncovered a fantastic guide to escort us to some of these local and indigenous villages.
It’s been sensory overload so far in San Cristobal… but there was much more to come in this charming place.
The next morning, we met Cesar at the meeting point for our tour of the villages. Cesar – a born and bred local guide.
As we head out of town to the village of San Juan Chamula, we learn of the fiercely independent natives here that practice a unique religion that combines Catholicism with ancient Mayan rituals. “Ask before taking anyone’s picture,” he warns. “They believe that cameras steal part of the soul” he says and take a picture inside their church and you’ll likely to end up in Jail… seriously!
We soon reach the village, and park near a cemetery adjacent to the ruins of an old church. “Black crosses indicate people who lived to an old age,” Cesar tells us, “while the white crosses are for those who died young.”
There are too many white crosses, I notice.
As we approach the village, a lively and busy market is underway in the town’s main plaza and we’re excited to learn that we here on a day where the local mayor is changing over, so there are extra celebrations and everyone is out and about.
People are dressed in the traditional Mayan garb – the women are in embroidered blue blouses over black wool skirts while the men sport black wool tunics. The templo de San Juan Chamula a white stucco building with a lovely floral motif above its arched doorway, is the village’s most imposing and interesting structure along with the 3 Green Mayan Crosses.
Inside the church is a place I could have stayed for hours just watching the rituals.
Hundreds of flickering candles and fragrant pine needles are scattered across the floor amidst clouds of incense. Villagers chant and pray before statues of icons with snapshots attached. Many are of children. “These are photos of deceased family members,” Cesar whispers.
For several minutes I stand there awestruck, not sure which way to look, moved beyond words by the powerful scene before me. Read the full blog post about San Juan Chamula here.
One of the great natural wonders of Chiapas and near San Cristobal de la Casas is the mighty Sumidero Canyon. With walls over 3000 feet high the canyon was formed over tens of million years, it’s not to be missed on a trip to San Cristobal.
Our tour started at Chiapa de Corzo, and headed downriver to the Chicoasen dam in a fast powerboat.
Glancing high into the sky the stone walls towering 3000 ft above I felt a bit like a pimple in the river. My favorite part, however, was probably El Arbol de la Navidad (The Christmas Tree), a unique waterfall spilling down the side of the canyon… and of course we were suitably cooled off when the boat ventured underneath the waterfall!
There’s also a lots of wildlife around the canyon. In one spot, there were large amounts of what appeared to be some sort of vulture. There are also lots of other birds — herons, egrets, and the like, which we saw throughout.
And don’t forget to look down also there are masses of crocodiles also living in the river!
Our boat angled in close for us, I’d say we got within ten feet or so of most of them. When you get closer, they open their mouths, I suspect, as a warning to stay away!
The tours are typically in Spanish, so if you don’t speak much Spanish, you may miss out on some things, but lucky for us there was a great girl fluent in both languages that did a lot of translating for us.
It was another epic day in Mexico.
San Cristobal de las Casas enjoys warm days and cool nights throughout the year. The wet season (May-September) is a bit warmer while the most tourists visit from June through August. January through April is probably the best time to visit, but be prepared for chilly evenings.
The nearest major airport is in nearby Tuxtla Gutierrez, which is an hour away by shuttle. Most people arrive by bus. The main terminal is about six blocks south of the city centre. First-class coaches run daily to Cancun, Merida, and Villahermosa, as well as other major cities. We also booked our minivan service into nearby Guatemala.
San Cristobal de las Casas is a budget traveller’s dream, where cheap hotels and hostels abound. A dorm room with shared bath can be found for as little as $5USD, while a clean single with private bath goes for under $20USD.
Several colonial mansions have been converted into impeccable four-star hotels, offering luxuries like fireplaces, Jacuzzis and loads of old-world charm for around $70US for a double. But for us as always we prefer a self contained apartment where we can cook if necessary and we found Rachel and Endric’s place on Airbnb a perfect place for that. If you want to try Airbnb sign up here and get some free credit from me.