The Magical City of San Cristobal de las Casas, Mexico

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

San Cristobal de las Casas. The Templo del Carmen. This temple is at the end of one of my favorite streets in town: Miguel Hidalgo
San Cristobal de las Casas. The Templo del Carmen. This temple is at the end of one of my favorite streets in town: Miguel Hidalgo

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.

San Cristobal de las Casas: The 100 steps up to the Guadalupe Church. With a heavy camera and tripod, the effort strained at 7am.
San Cristobal de las Casas: The 100 steps up to the Guadalupe Church. With a heavy camera and tripod, the effort strained at 7am.

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.

San Cristobal de las Casas: We found these building on our morning walk. The one to the left is a cafeteria painted in traditional Mexican colors. To the right, the blue and white Caribbean colors speak to my soul.
San Cristobal de las Casas: We found these building on our morning walk. The one to the left is a cafeteria painted in traditional Mexican colors. To the right, the blue and white Caribbean colors speak to my soul.

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.

San Cristobal de las Casas. The night market on the Zocalo. I purchased this blue table runner for our outdoor patio.
San Cristobal de las Casas. The night market on the Zocalo. I purchased this blue table runner for our outdoor patio.

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.

 
San Cristobal de las Casas. The vendors below have covered part of the church facade with permanent structures. I don't understand how this is allowed.
San Cristobal de las Casas. The vendors below have covered part of the church facade with permanent structures. I don’t understand how this is allowed.

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.

San Cristobal de las Casas. Kids selling fruit and vegetables at the market. I had to hide the camera as most were camera shy.
San Cristobal de las Casas. Kids selling fruit and vegetables at the market. I had to hide the camera as most were camera shy.

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.

San Cristobal de las Casas. Natives approach Allan selling goods. We wound up buying several items we didn't need like coin purses and bracelets.
San Cristobal de las Casas. Natives approach Allan selling goods. We wound up buying several items we didn’t need like coin purses and bracelets.

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. 

San Cristobal de las Casas. The parishioner lights the rocket with his cigar. I recall hearing at least 7 blasts that morning.
San Cristobal de las Casas. The parishioner lights the rocket with his cigar. I recall hearing at least 7 blasts that morning.

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.

San Cristobal de las Casas. The Santa Lucia Church still damaged from the 8.1 magnitude 2017 earthquake.
San Cristobal de las Casas. The Santa Lucia Church still damaged from the 8.1 magnitude 2017 earthquake.

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.  

San Cristobal de las Casas. I love this quaint hotel with one of a kind art, even though it has very bad acoustics.
San Cristobal de las Casas. I love this quaint hotel with one of a kind art, even though it has very bad acoustics.

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.

San Cristobal de las Casas. We flew Calafia Airlines out of Palenque on only a 30 minute voyage.
San Cristobal de las Casas. We flew Calafia Airlines out of Palenque on only a 30 minute voyage.

 


READ MORE ABOUT CHIAPAS, MEXICO 

20 Photos of Chiapas, Mexico that Will Compel You to Pack Up and Go

Cruising Through the Sumidero Canyon in Chiapas

The Sunday Market in San Juan de Chamula in Chiapas: An Exotic Exploration of the Indigenous

Top 10 Things to Do in San Cristobal de las Casas, Mexico

My 5 Favorite Things to Do in Palenque, Mexico

Purchasing Authentic Mexican Pottery in the Town of Amantenango del Valle

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Matt Weatherbee
Matt Weatherbee

Hi, I’m Matt.  In 2008 I quit my job, sold everything and drove from Boston to Mexico to start a business.  Now I live and work in the Carribean, and spend my free time traveling the globe.  Learn more.

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