It was 11 p.m. and a driving drizzle fell down on San Cristóbal de las Casas. I had just arrived from Palenque after a bumpy ride through the mountains of Chiapas and just wanted to call it a day.
San Cristóbal de las Casas is a historic but provincial city in the state of Chiapas. Despite its rich history, the city is not a big urban center of regional significance by a long shot—which is not necessarily a bad thing. Unlike in neighboring Tuxtla Gutiérrez, where “progress” and urbanization led to the destruction of historic buildings, San Cristóbal de las Casas has kept its vibe and charm.
San Cristóbal de las Casas was terra incognita for me. I grew up in Guadalajara, which is pretty far in terms of distance but even farther in terms of history and culture: Guadalajara is one of the biggest cities in Mexico, and the local culture is basically the stuff of stereotypes: Tequila, Mariachi, and most of the things that come to your mind when you think of the country come from there. Chiapas, on the other hand, is like another world: First of all, the state is in the Maya zone of the country. The landscape is different, as it is jungle. The indigenous languages spoken there are different to the ones in my region. We drink Tequila, they drink Pox (pronounced “posh”). And I, despite having grown up in Mexico, had never come into contact with this colorful part of the country, so needless to say I was stoked to discover it!
I looked at the map to find my hostel, which luckily wasn’t that far from the bus station. As I started walking in the direction of my home for the next couple of days, I remember noticing the size of the buildings downtown and getting an unequivocal small town feel—more so than in actual small towns.
At an elevation of over 2,200 meters, San Cristóbal de las Casas is the cultural capital of the state of Chiapas. The streets are lined with tiny, single-story houses, and its sidewalks are made of massive slabs of stone that get very slippery when it rains—like when I arrived. The core of the city center has been renovated and it’s sparkling clean, which is a result of the city being listed as a Pueblo Mágico in order to attract tourists.
Now, you may say that San Cristóbal de las Casas is very touristy, but the city and region desperately needed this influx of people. See, Chiapas in general was somewhat screwed before it was put on the map. First of all, the remote location of the state on the border with Guatemala made it difficult for tourists to get there. Also, there was an armed insurgency there in the 90s that went on until recently, which made the Mexican army a fixture in the region. That crippled the development of the state, which is as it is one of the poorest in the country. Now, San Cristóbal de las Casas and the rest of Chiapas is on the map and seeing huge numbers of tourists, which is greatly stimulating the local economy.
After a good night’s sleep and a nutritious breakfast of huevos rancheros and coffee, I set out to discover the town. The rain from the previous night had given way to sunlight and warmth, and the streets of San Cristóbal de las Casas were full of people.
On the main pedestrian streets, countless expats mixed in with ethnic Tzotzil women in traditional dress. There were a few reminders of the city’s connection with the Zapatista insurgency from the 1990s in the form of cafés and restaurants ran by revolutionary collectives that support Zapatista communities.
The route took me to the top of a hill crowned with a church, the main square and the streets of the city center. Revolutionary street art with references to Zapata and calling for solidarity with Kurdistan were everywhere. Then, while passing by the main square, I stumbled upon a walking tour and decided to join the group.
Now, for some reason I don’t usually do walking tours but this one was definitely the highlight of my stay. Even though we visited some of the same places I had seen earlier, I got a lot of information about them and got to see some new details—such as, for example, a snake’s tail that descends down the dome of a church, which represents the tail of Kukulcán, the feathered serpent, and was added during colonial times to convert the local Maya population to Christianity.
We also went to a very chill art house with an awesome terrace that I would have probably never found otherwise. To close the tour we visited a local pox distillery, which is a traditional Tzotzil liquor made of sugar cane drank everywhere in the region (and which I had never heard of), and got an excellent introduction to the beverage from a very knowledgeable German woman who gave us a brilliant presentation in perfect Spanish. Before leaving, I exchanged contact information with the tour guide and two German travelers whom I would see the next day.
San Cristóbal de las Casas offers two very interesting contrasts, one refreshing and the other one very sad. First off, it is one of the most traditional cities I’ve visited. Also, the indigenous presence is very strong, and the Tzotzil language can be heard everywhere. At the same time the town has an international feel thanks to the many expats who now call the city home. I met a few expats from Europe who told me that they had stayed after falling in love with the city while traveling; both spoke excellent Spanish and were very respectful of the city and its traditions.
San Cristóbal de las Casas also offers a sad contrast. While the city has never looked nicer, the endemic and structural poverty that affects the local indigenous population is very visible in the streets of the city. The state of Chiapas has the largest proportion of indigenous people in the whole country, but their communities suffer from a lack of education, investment and opportunities. This inequality is still product of the city’s brutal colonial past. It is impossible to walk in the city center without being approached by indigenous children selling stuff and asking for money, even at night. The level of poverty and lack of opportunities for the indigenous population is heartbreaking, and it is also one of the main reasons why the EZLN, of Zapatistas, rose up in arms in Chiapas in 1994. I didn’t observe that much poverty anywhere else in Mexico during my trip.
The following day, after a day-trip to the Tzotzil community of San Juan Chamula (about which I will write a separate article), I returned to San Cristóbal de las Casas to basically just enjoy the rest of the afternoon. Accompanied by my friend Philipp (who traveled with me this whole time) and the two German travelers I had met on the tour the previous day, we returned to the Colectivo Mudra house to chill overlooking the rooftops of “San Cris.” We were then joined by a Norwegian girl, and later a group of English and German travelers sat at our table. The vibe was relaxed and positive, the clouds were turning from gold to bright orange as though they were on fire, and the nostalgic sound of live Cuban music provided a lively background to our conversation.
I didn’t want that moment to end, as it perfectly encapsulated what traveling means to me: Connecting across cultures and enjoying new places with like-minded people. It was probably one of my favorite moments during the whole trip. Funnily enough, the city is named after St. Christopher, who is the patron saint of travelers. Now, God knows I’m not a religious man and don’t believe in saints, but I thought that there was no better setting to have such a realization (an epiphany, if you will) regarding the importance of travel in my life than that terrace overlooking San Cristóbal de las Casas.
It was time to leave the state of Chiapas and head to my next destination: Oaxaca.
Alternative things to do in San Cristóbal de las Casas:
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