San Cristóbal de las Casas

Chiapas, Mexico


This colonial mountain town is as colourful as it gets. It is great for people-spotting over a cup of hot chocolate because the people here are colourful too. But driving round San Cristóbal is like being trapped in an endlessly entertaining, but ultimately frustrating, video game. There is No Way Out. Until you meet Antonio Banderas…


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We got to San Cristóbal by rental car from Tuxtla Gutiérrez, a delightful one-hour drive up and over the passes of the Chiapas highlands, and then a swirling run down into San Cristóbal, which is still 7,200 feet above sea level. And then the fun starts. We had intermittent SatNav; I think San Cristóbal blocks it to preserve its mystery. At one moment, we were negotiating the narrow, crowded streets, oohing and aahing at the intensely colourful houses, but beginning to wonder why, despite our twists and turns, we were always approaching Avenida Insurgentes from the wrong direction. Or even worse: the market. Very colourful, but a nightmare to drive through. We knew our accommodation was near the hills – but which hills? Everywhere we looked there was a hill view. Two basic pieces of advice in San Cristóbal: walk, don't drive. And never ask a local for directions. They really have no idea.

 
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We had booked a house via airbnb so we eventually called our landlord Rodrigo. He knew exactly where we were. We desperately peered about us for clues and said, 'We're at (some obscure) restaurant,' and he calmly said, 'OK, next left and second right'. Try doing that over the phone to a stranger in your own town! When we finally said, 'We're outside a sports ground', instead of saying 'How could you possibly drive straight past the house?' he said, 'OK, I'll send Victoria to collect you. What colour is your car?'

 
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This is the city the Spanish built for themselves in the cool mountain air. From its foundation in 1528, for seven years it was called 'Villareal de Chiapa de los Españoles' to distinguish it from 'Chiapa de los Indios' (modern Chiapa de Corzo, just east of Tuxtla) where they originally settled, but they left it to 'los Indios' because it was just too hot. Every little street is a rainbow of Mexican colours mixed with solid Spanish studded doors and elegant Spanish balconies. We briefly sorted ourselves out in our charming accommodation at La Casa del Abuelito and then agreed to call a cab, which Victoria had recommended.

Enter Antonio. His first question was, 'What colour is your house?' That's San Cristóbal de las Casas in a nutshell. When I asked his name, he said, 'Antonio Banderas'. I promptly said that I would be Catherine Zeta-Jones for the evening. He took us through a totally unpaved maze of back streets lined with wooden shacks.

 
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We went straight away to the zócalo, the main square, known as Vicente Espinoza park, where we did a little evening exploration of our own. It is the meeting place for San Cristóbal’s locals and tourists. The bandstand in the middle of the park had marimba musicians playing, which lit up the nights for locals and visitors alike. Our friends Michelle and John immediately felt like dancing. This is the starting point for tourists who are boarding or getting off of their buses, to begin their walking tour of the city. Surrounding the plaza you will find the Cathedral, San Nicolas temple, City Hall, Casa Mazariegos and Los Portales.

 
City Hall on the left. Los Portales on the right.

City Hall on the left. Los Portales on the right.

Los Portales.

Los Portales.

 

There was plenty more to see in the morning. I have described the Jade Museum (Hammocks / Museums) and Chocolate and Cacao Museum (Hammocks / Museums) but watching passers-by from one of the many restaurants and cafés or strolling around the streets yourself (not driving) is a real pleasure, a continuous kaleidoscope of rich colours. Add a special coffee blend from the beans that grow in Chiapas and the evening is perfect! In contrast with my home town, Playa del Carmen, San Cristóbal also has joined-up pavements and effective gutters, so you can safely stare at the architecture and mountain vistas without having to watch your feet.

 
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As for the colourful ambience, we could instantly feel the welcoming atmosphere and cultural richness, coupled with a bohemian flair, which attracts many visitors and a flourishing expatriate community. It’s also the best hub from which to explore the surrounding indigenous villages. For the indigenous shamanic rituals we went to Chamula. We witnessed San Cristóbal preparing for the Domingo de Ramos (Palm Sunday), which includes a procession of the people carrying palms, representing the branches the crowd scattered in front of Jesus as he rode into Jerusalem. A group of young people were purposefully marching along the streets with palm leaves and a ladder to decorate the street lamps.

 
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San Cristóbal de las Casas is an interesting blend of the old and new world, of political struggle (the Zapatista uprising) and the people who have stayed true to their indigenous cultures and tongues. The city was designated a Pueblo Mágico (Magical Village) in 2003 because much of its culture is associated with the indigenous population of the Tzotzils and Tzeltals. They walk about the city selling their artefacts, often wearing their traditional costumes. While we enjoyed watching their colourful dresses, it was admittedly pretty emotional to witness their poverty.

 
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When we left the city for the long drive over the mountains to Palenque, we called Señor Banderas because he'd offered to put us on the road. We hurtled purposefully through the city streets in the wake of his cab. And then our hearts began to sink. He was leading us high into the hills along a rocky unpaved trail. There seemed absolutely no purpose unless we were going to be kidnapped by the Zapatistas and ransomed. How much would they get for a rather elderly mixed bunch: Slovak, Welsh, French and American? I began to imagine I could see their piratical banner (a red star on a black flag) among the thickening jungle. We climbed higher and higher. Antonio, where are you taking us?

And then, just as I was convinced that I would never see home again, we joined a surfaced road, buzzed down to a major junction, and Antonio leapt out and indicated our direction with a flourish. All for 50 pesos! Señor Banderas, you're a gentleman, and I will never forget you or your colourful city. But next time, I'll walk.

 
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Mix & Match:

From San Cristóbal you can take trips to the places of magnificent natural and historic beauty for which Chiapas is known. See my posts for the places we visited: Sumidero Canyon, Chiapas Highlands, Lacandón jungle, Lacanjá Chansayab, Lacanjá ruins, Chamulá village, ruins of Palenque, Bonampak, and Yaxchilán.