Tucked in a valley atop the foothills of southern Mexico, San Cristobal del las Casas mesmerized me with its authenticity and charm. There are few spots on earth where I could immediately envision myself living. But San Cristobal is one of those magical places. We’ve only just returned from our week long sojourn, but I’m already dreaming of returning.
Most of all San Cristobal is authentic. From colorful architecture to the indigenous markets, this city engages and entertains visitors with genuine experiences. I’m just amazed by the diversity of this mountainous municipality.
The Magical City of San Cristobal de las Casas, Mexico
The Sights of San Cristobal de las Casas
The colonial city of San Cristobal oozes beauty. Cobblestoned streets are highlighted by vibrant architecture topped with red-tiled roofs. Never once did I encounter an avenue I deemed unappealing.
At sunrise my friend, Janet, and I strolled the streets visiting the colonial churches. We summited one hundred steps to the white and yellow Iglesia de Guadalupe. Then we admired the twinkling city lights reflecting off the hillsides. Over the horizon we searched for other chapels to chase.
Upon our descent we intentionally took back streets. A long wall painted in a mosaic pattern of the sky and hillsides led to a bright yellow hotel accented with pink bougainvillea wrapped around a second floor balcony. Around another corner pastel colored homes finished in green, pink and blue contrast their stone foundations.
Throughout the city buildings are painted beautifully in a rainbow of colors. Janet and I are both stunned by the chroma of this place. Since most structures are painted in my favorite shades, I felt like San Cristobal was made especially for me.
The Shopping in San Cristobal de las Casas
At 6pm the craft market starts in front of the main cathedral on the Zocalo. Indigenous vendors set out their native artistry on blue tarps. Colorful crafts tantalize like hand-sewn table runners, guayaberas and wide-brimmed hats. The selection of goods is varied, affordable and attractive. Since it was only three blocks from our hotel and in the center of town, we visited almost every night.
What you don’t find here, you can encounter in other locations either with wandering vendors or at local stores. At one particular place on Guadalupe Street I purchased a unique orange, red, green and yellow stripped wedding gown. It’s unparalleled in it’s quality and craftsmanship. Allan says it look unflattering on me, but I think otherwise. When worn with a belt the cloak’s creativeness and authenticity makes me feel like a Mayan.
From Guadalupe we wandered over to the artisan market in front of the Santo Domingo Church. This permanent bazaar contains many of the same type of goods as the night market, but with a better selection. It’s become so popular the booths have multiplied to the point where they now cover part of the church. Although I applaud the industry of the indigenous, I mourn the now obscured intricately carved wooden church facade.
To recover from my shock I stop by a local cafe to enjoy some dark Mexican chocolate laced with chili. It tastes tantalizing along with my Chiapas coffee. A culinary respite offers the perfect pause before shopping for some guayaberas. There’s a wedding we have to attend in August in Maine, and I’d like to show off a colorful linen creation with turquoise highlights.
The People of San Cristobal de las Casas
Allan and I remark how friendly and polite the people are in San Cristobal. While sitting in a cafe, strangers say hello and strike up a conversation. They are curious about us and excited to share how much they love Mexico. We feel welcomed and at home.
Mostly though, we are moved by the indigenous population. The experience is so raw and genuine. For example, on a sidewalk nearby sits an older lady with gray hair, hard eyes and dark, winkled skin. Her feet are bare and covered in dirt. She’s wearing the customary black goat-haired dress and customary purple top. When I pass by I place money in her hand. I can tell she needs the cash, and that I’m positively and directly impacting her life with my donation.
Walking down the same street, a pair of older women with three kids in tow approach us selling their homemade crafts. They hold up wads of multicolored threaded bracelets, hand-sewn belts and brightly knit bags. A kaleidoscope of colors glistens as they move their arms in the air.
They look like they just walked out of their mountain village. And we have front row seats to view their original craftwork. Allan and I buy a few belts and brackets, more than we need. We can always use them as gifts, we reason.
The Sounds of San Cristobal de las Casas
At 5:45am we awoke to the sound of loud bangs. Even from the comfort of our hotel room we could hear the distinct blasts. We had been told the local churches release rockets instead of ringing bells, but we didn’t expect the noise to be so loud.
Apparently local parishioners set off the rockets to celebrate their patron saints. One morning I went for an early morning hike to see for myself. I climbed up three hundred steps to the Mirador de la Escuela Sol Maya church.
There an older looking cowboy used his cigar to light a hand held rocket. Seconds later the pyrotechnic shot from his grip and exploded in the sky. Then a motley crew of band members played joyfully as the notes carried over the hillside. All of this racket happened before 7am in the morning.
As much as I found the intrusion annoying and inconsiderate, I do appreciate the uniqueness of the custom. In all my travels I’ve never witnessed such an odd practice. Next time I think I’ll stay in a hotel with better soundproofing. However, even my friends who live out of town say they can hear the blasts as well.
Where We Stayed in San Cristobal de las Casas
We chose the cute Posada de la Primera with original artwork and colorful decor. Although the walls are paper thin, I adore this quaint hotel. However, if you are a light sleeper perhaps choose something that’s a bit more insulated. I recommend staying within a few blocks from the Zocolo.
Getting to San Cristobal de las Casas
San Cristobal’s location in the mountains of southern Mexico has helped preserve this charming colonial city. At an elevation of 7,200 feet (2,200 meters), the only ways here are either driving through the mountains from another location like Palenque, or flying into the Tuxtla Gutierrez airport.
We flew Calafia Airlines out of Palenque on a thirty minute flight which cost only $60 USD per person. Driving from the same city would have taken well over six hours. Plus fying is much easier and safer.
Once in Tuxtla, take the public bus, a taxi or drive your rental car for the hour commute up the mountain to San Cristobal. Although the drive is interesting, you may find you don’t need a car once you’re in the city. Personally, I rented a vehicle but then rarely used it.
Since you don’t need an auto within the city walls and traffic can be heavy, you may just skip the car rental. There are many affordable tour agencies like Otiza to explore places like the Sumidero Canyon, Amantenango and Chamula. Plus you don’t have to worry about parking.
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