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.
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. 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.
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.
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.
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. We visited the Sumidero Canyon, but we’re saving that story for another time…
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.
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.
We were even lucky enough to witness some traditional dancing at the main square, which was truly a treat.
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.
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. 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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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!