San Cristobal de las Casas: Mexico’s Cool Colonial City

Dariece Swift author's bio Goats On The Road

Our bodies slid from left to right, from one side of our seat to the other, as our bus driver took the seemingly endless hair-pin turns at full speed.

Trying to fight off the inevitable nausea and motion sickness was the ultimate goal of this 5 hour journey from Palenque to San Cristobal de las Casas (San Cristobal), which took us from a mere 60m to an altitude of 2,200m and into the mountainous, rugged hills of the Chiapas State.

With each ascending, winding turn, the scenery changed and so did the climate. The tropical air, palm trees and thick humidity soon dissipated and we embraced the cool air and familiar pine trees.

Alrededores de san cristobal
Pine trees in San Cristobal (by Leo via Wiki Commons)
San Cristobal is located in Chiapas, the Southernmost State of Mexico. Set in a small valley surrounded by pine-forest highlands, this charming colonial city is the perfect place for exploring. There are numerous things to do in San Cristobal de las Casas to keep you busy for at least 5 days. 

This State has the second largest indigenous population in the country and surrounding San Cristobal are dozens of Tzotzil and Tzeltal villages, just a short bus ride away. With many pedestrian-only streets, narrow cobblestone lanes and numerous towering churches and cathedrals, this is a great place to stay a while, and is one of the best places to visit in Mexico.

Nature & Landscapes

The first thing we noticed when arriving in the city were the mountains. We had become so accustomed to the flat terrain of the Yucatan area, so it was a breath of fresh air (literally) to be surrounded by such wild nature.

We had read about the San Cristobal Church and the Guadalupe Church, each set at opposite ends of the city and were really looking forward to visiting them. The only catch was that we had to hike up many uneven steps to reach these sights. We made our way slowly up the steep rock-cut stairs, taking our time not only to rest, but to enjoy the unbelievable views over the city down below and the surrounding mountains.

san cristobal de las casas mexico
Views over San Cristobal de las Casas city

The churches were beautiful and there were only a couple of people around. We sat and enjoyed the serenity and peace at these viewpoints before slowly venturing back to the maze of streets and speeding cars in the city below.

guadalupe church san cristobal de las casas
Views from Guadalupe Church

Although nature and mountains can be seen while staying in the city, there are many natural sights just outside of San Cristobal as well. The towering Misol Ha waterfall, Sumidero Canyon and the cascading waterfalls of Agua Azul are all great day trips from the city.



The Coffee & Cafe Culture

There seems to be a growing cafe culture in this city, which gives it a bit of a European feel. Tourists and locals alike spend hours a day enjoying a cup of Chiapas’ finest beans. Producing 4 million sacks of coffee each year, Mexico ranks 5th in the world behind the likes of Colombia and Brazil. We would spend our mornings lazily sipping on a freshly pressed cup of coffee while planning out our day. During the evenings we would wander by different cafes and be enticed inside by the strong waft of coffee beans and vibrant live music.

coffee san cristobal de las casas mexico
Nick under the umbrella – A beautiful area to enjoy a cup of coffee

Churches, Convents & Plazas

While exploring the city, we stumbled upon many pastel coloured, historic churches, convents and plazas. Some we planned to visit, others we were pleasantly surprised by as we rounded the street corner.

templo de santo domingo san cristobal
Beautiful Templo de Santo Domingo, one of the many gorgeous churches here

We were even lucky enough to witness some traditional dancing at the main square, which was truly a treat.

dancing san cristobal de las casas
Traditional dancing in the plaza

The Plaza 31 de Marzo, Templo de Santo Domingo and Church of Santiago were highlights for us. As far as walkable cities go, San Cristobal is one of the best! With many pedestrian-only streets, sauntering around this city while gazing up at the architecture and mountainous backdrop was an enjoyable experience.

plaza 31 de marzo san cristobal de las casas mexico
Plaza 31 de Marzo and the surrounding areas are great for walking and people watching

Markets & Food

One of the things that we really enjoy when travelling is visiting the local markets. The hustle and bustle of the vendors setting up their goods, people bartering for products and the overall vibe makes for an authentic and exciting experience. This is one of the best things to do in Mexico as a whole. 

We explored the Municipal Market not only for pure enjoyment, but also with a purpose. We were on a mission to purchase local produce for dinner. We browsed, sniffed and felt the fresh fruits and vegetables before deciding on some we liked. The market was hectic, loud and a lot of fun to visit.

market in san cristobal de las casas
Selling chickens and roosters in the Municipal Market

The candy and crafts market near the San Francisco Church was also a highlight. Here we wandered through the many aisles of sweets and textiles and even got lost in the maze of shops a few times.

sweets market san cristobal de las casas

Not only are there food markets in San Cristobal, there are many art and textile markets as well. The indigenous people of Chiapas are known for their fantastic weaving skills; colourful blankets, scarves and clothing can be found for sale all over the city. We explored the daily, tented crafts market near the Templo de la Caridad where bohemian travellers and local Chamulan women sell everything from bracelets to leather bags. Even though we weren’t there to purchase anything, it was a colourful and lively place to wander through.

Blinded By The Beauty…

Many people come to San Cristobal for a couple of days and are blinded by the bright churches, lively squares and colourful traditional clothing that is worn by the local people. It’s easy to come here as a tourist and only see the surface charm. But as each day went by in this city, we began to notice certain things. We learned more about the ill-treatment of the indigenous people and the high levels of poverty that this state is plagued with.

church of santiago san cristobal de las casas
Bright Church of Santa Lucia

As far as natural resources are concerned, Chiapas is the richest State in Mexico, yet economically it is the poorest. An astonishing 70% of people live below the poverty line. There is an embarrassing lack of resources for the inhabitants here (mainly the peasants, farmers and indigenous people).

According to Wikipedia and the Edinburgh Chiapas Solidarity Group, 18 out of every 100 people 15 years or older cannot read or write. Only 38% of homes have clean drinking water, 15% have drainage systems and less than 30% have access to electricity or gas.

There have been uprisings and rebellions against the Mexican Government in the past, with the most famous being the Zapatista uprising of 1994, which took place on the day when the North American Free Trade Agreement came into effect. The Zapatistas fought (and still fight) for autonomy of the State of Chiapas, support of indigenous people, public health, women’s rights and more.

Final Thoughts

Despite the in-your-face poverty and repeatedly saying “no, gracias” to 3-year-old children trying to sell us bracelets and blankets, we really did enjoy our time here. We weren’t ignoring the issues of Chiapas, but we’ve travelled to many 3rd world countries in the past and have experienced this type of poverty before. We chose to help where we could and to enjoy the city for all of the positive things it has to offer tourists.

san cristobal de las casas mexico
Enjoying the beautiful city of San Cristobal with some freshly made ice cream!

On the surface, San Cristobal is the perfect retreat for the weary traveller, and to the naked eye, this is a city full of stunning sights, historic wonder, affordable textiles and gorgeous landscapes. But dare to dig a little deeper and you’ll find a culture and history that is as windy and bumpy as the bus ride that gets you here.

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Have you ever been to San Cristobal, Mexico? How did you feel about the poverty there? Share your experience with us below!


Dariece Swift author's bio Goats On The Road

Written by

Dariece Swift

Dariece is a co-founder of Goats On The Road, and an expert in saving money, finance management, building an online business and of course... travel. She loves meeting new people, trying new cuisines, and learning about the unique cultures of our world. She has over 12 years of experience helping others to realize their travel dreams and has worked in numerous jobs all over the world to help pay for travel.

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14 thoughts on “San Cristobal de las Casas: Mexico’s Cool Colonial City”

  1. I love San Cristobal! I took a spur-of-the-moment side trip there a few years back. And while I was completely caught off guard by the cold weather (I was packed for the tropics), I enjoyed everything about it. San Cristobal one of those cities I will definitely return to and can completely imagine living in.

  2. I tried to visit San Cristobal traveling solo last month by ADO bus from Palenque. I researched it online and I found it should take about 5 hours to get there. I bought my bus ticket which said “San Cristobal” on it and checked my bag on the bus to San Cristobal. There was only about six people total on the bus which left Palenque at noon. I did not fall asleep, but stayed awake to watch the scenery. About 6:30 PM, we rolled into a city (this was the first stop). I assumed that this city was San Cristobal–and that somehow we had just ran late. I hired a taxi to take me to “Iglesia Santo Domingo”. We pulled up in front of a church and the driver said it was “Iglesia Santo Domingo” but it didn’t look at all like the photo of the famous church in San Cristobal. I showed the photo of the church to the driver and made me understand in my limited Spanish that “this Iglesia Santo Domingo” was about an hour away but he could take me there for an extra fee. Confused as to why I was not in San Cristobal, I walked around the area he dropped me off at, then took a taxi back to the bus station. I discovered then that I was in Tuxtla-Guttierez, and I still don’t know how the heck that happened. Did the driver “forget” about me or did he just decide not to stop in San Cristobal? I don’t know because now it was too late to ask. From Tuxtla, I continued on to Oaxaca on an overnight bus. I was on a tight schedule and had just was trying to have at least a few hours to see the highlights of San Cristobal, and unfortunately didn’t have time to go back there–so I missed it entirely. I was so bummed, and am still upset as to what happened, but now I know that I do want to come back some day to explore the area in more depth…

  3. Hi Justine,

    Although we loved the cool weather, it was a bit shocking having come from the humid tropics down below! We wore our jackets, pants and hiking shoes the whole time. San Cristo is just one of those magical places, we could see ourselves living there one day as well – for a few months 🙂


  4. I spent about 4 days there back in 2012. Great little town though I have to say I preferred Oaxaca which is where we went next. Sumidero is pretty cool though.

  5. Hey Grant,
    I’ve heard great things about Oaxaca as well. Unfortunately, we didn’t have a chance to make it there – yet. I can’t imagine anywhere being better than San Cristo, so I’m sure we’ll love Oaxaca 🙂


  6. We’re spending the month in San Cristobal, and seeing your pictures I realize we passed you in the market a few days ago 🙂 Your pictures came out great! Our rental is only a few blocks away from the market , so we have been making a trip almost daily to pick up fresh fruit, vegetables, rice, bowls, sponges, balls for the kids, actually basically everything. Hope you are enjoying your time here as much as we are 🙂

  7. Hey guys!

    It sounds like you’re having a great time in San Cristobal…although I’d like to say we saw you too the other day, it’s impossible – we left San Cristo about 2.5 months ago 🙂

    Happy trails!

  8. I totally fell in love with San Cristobal, which I wasn’t sure would happen because it’s so touristy and the food isn’t top-notch by Mexican standards (although I did find a few gems). But I loved the street art and galleries, met so many fascinating people, adored the crazy municipal market as well as Merposur further south, and the surrounding villages Chamula, Zinacantan, Oventic and Tenejapa.

  9. Yeah Definitely, amazing place to be. the town has a lot of offer. I spent more than 1 week , fell in love with the modest and calm streets and super laid back ambiance. The town has a little hip feeling to it, also there are amazing hostels to stay at, I stayed at Panda hostel, superb location and amazing architecture, would recommend you to stay there, the staff helped me to find hidden gems in the town.

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