San Cristobal de las Casas doesn’t feel like Mexico. For one thing, the city is located in the state of Chiapas, which is more green and jungley than Mexico’s arid north. For another, the architecture looks different with its layers of red tile roofs and stout, bright plaster walls.
I recall San Cristobal as reserved but also exotic with just a soupꞔon of magic lurking beneath. Kind of like a house with a blandly respectable exterior that conceals a riot of color and luxury behind the plaster faꞔade.
But maybe I was just tired.
I arrived in San Cristobal after a long bus ride from Oaxaca. It was early morning, and the city was just waking up. I decided to walk to the zocalo (central plaza) from the bus station with my list of hotel possibilities in hand. I felt more self-conscious and disoriented than usual—maybe I was just suffering from a touch of travel ennui. After all, I’d been on the road for months. I was losing the sharp edge of curiosity and motivation that ignites the travel fire. Mine was definitely sputtering at that point.
I didn’t find any of the hotel possibilities, but I did find a hotel–of sorts. Top floor. Simple. Shared, “rustic” bath. The next day I upgraded to a better room with an en suite arrangement. I’ll share a bathroom if I have to, but I don’t relish the dark stumble in the middle of the night nor dodging other customers for a morning shower.
The indigenous people (Mayan descendants) in San Cristobal wear extravagantly embroidered shawls and skirts or sheepskin with the wooly side out–skirts (for women) and vests (for men). It’s a bulky look. Also, I remember feeling cold, although I’m not sure how that could be possible. I hadn’t felt cold in Mexico since it snowed in Creel, far to the north.
San Cristobal is a pretty town—one of Mexico’s finest. There are pedestrian streets, shops, restaurants, a nice plaza. More Europeans than Americans seem to travel here, which is a shame, because it’s worth a peek behind the curtain.
The beautiful Mayan ruin of Palenque is an easy 4-hour bus ride from town. (IMHO, Palenque is NOT a day trip. Both San Cristobal and the ruins deserve at least a night or two.)
San Cristobal is also known for amber because mines are located nearby. It has a strong and unique indigenous culture, although the variety of artisanal products isn’t as great as Oaxaca. Still, the craft market is lively and interesting. Ditto for the produce market where locals shop.
Another draw are the villages surrounding San Cristobal where religious traditions walk a narrow and tortured line between paganism and Catholicism. (I believe the term is “traditional religion.” Pope John Paul II said to leave these folks alone and let them do their thing.) More on this later.
San Cristobal is delightful to wander around in. Amber jewelry is everywhere. The craft market has the usual cornucopia of humanity plus handmade items I hadn’t seen before.
Overall, San Cristobal has a good mix of tourism and the activity that tourists attract–restaurants, artesanal products, a sweet ambience–without overwhelming ordinary life. Plus, the town is small enough to be walkable—from the plaza in the center to the Guadalupe Church high on the hill.