San Cristóbal: Lots to Love
I don't know exactly why I get such a warm and fuzzy feeling in San Cristóbal de las Casas. I do love the climate, with sunny days much of the year, and cold, crisp nights where jeans, sweaters, and boots are not out of order. The scent of burning cedar and pine wood spices the air; houses and even some hotels are heated by fireplace. The mountains, dense with forest, are visible from most anywhere in town. And at the end of the day, the air takes on a magical hue.
Beyond its physical charms, San Cristóbal has museums that to me are more interesting than those with historical documents or dioramas of dinosaurs roaming the earth. El Museo de la Medicina Maya is a venue for healers to share folk medicine and practices perfected over the centuries, including herbal remedies, prayer and other rituals, and midwifery. The Amber Museum is a great place to learn about this beautiful, fossilized resin---which comes from nearby mines in dozens of shades from red to white and the more typical golden hue. You can purchase jewelry and carvings in the gift shop with confidence that they are authentic.
The Jade Museum has examples of this stone, which was highly esteemed by the classic Maya elite and traded throughout the region. Sergio Castro caters to speakers of English and other languages, offering nightly guided visits of his collection of hand-woven and embroidered clothing and cloth.
Other interesting museums include the Museum of Popular Cultures, with regional handcrafts, and the Na Bolom Cultural Center, the former home of European immigrants who shared their home for decades with the Lacandon Indians, a small group of jungle-dwelling Maya who to some extent maintain their simple and autonomous lifestyle today.
More Than Museums
Colonial San Cristóbal is compact, and these museums are all are short walk from la Plaza 31 de Marzo, the main square. Downtown streets are crowded with a nice mix of services: cafés and restaurants, small hotels, galleries, bars, and plenty of shops.
The capital of Chiapas during the Spanish colonization, San Cristóbal was abandoned in favor of Tuxtla Gutiérrez to punish its citizens for siding with the Royalists in the War of Independence. This may have been a blessing, as the mountain town's physical isolation and lack of consequence to colonial businessmen and bureaucrats kept it provincial and therefore helped preserve its traditions and beautiful buildings.
Today, even non-church-goers will be drawn to the town's striking cathedral, its façade a profusion of stylized stucco designs in gold, red, black, and white. Not coincidentally, these colors represent the four cardinal directions, an important aspect of the Maya cosmovision. Five centuries after Spanish colonization, the Maya---the largest indigenous group north of Peru---give Chiapas its extremely ethnic and unique character, seen reflected in its art, music, and the faces of its people.
The cathedral isn't San Cristóbal's only example of exotic ecclesiastic architecture. Every few blocks there are exceptional and well-preserved churches. One of the most striking, 16th-century Santo Domingo, has a lovely baroque façade crowded with vines and flowers, leaves and angels. This stunning temple is simultaneously elegant, earthy, and other-worldly. The open-air atrium bustles daily with an extensive handicrafts market where you can buy weavings and woolen mittens, leather hats and purses, embroidered clothing, and T-shirts bearing the likeness of Frida Kahlo, Che Guevara or your favorite Zapatista rebel.
But Is It Safe?
Every time I tell fellow Americans that I'm traveling to Chiapas, they say "But isn't it dangerous?" My answer: "No, it isn't." Although the Zapatista uprising of 1994 was a war of words right from the beginning---with virtually no danger to travelers---15 years later, many still link this state's name with danger and violence. Along with its neighbor Oaxaca and the three states of the Yucatan Peninsula, Chiapas is among the safest places in Mexico. Its negative stereotype really must go; it's a shame for so many to miss out on Chiapas' charms. The state offers numerous waterfalls and lovely lakes and rivers, fabulous Maya ruins not overrun with tourists, and wildlife seen nowhere else in Mexico.
San Cristóbal's magic is more than the sum of its parts. Wherever you look or point your camera, you'll see charming colonial-era structures; there are excellent-value hotels, great shopping and restaurants, and a lively nightlife scene. Easily accessible are traditional towns and villages with their own idiosyncratic churches and markets, places where people converse in their native tongue and wear clothing woven on back-strap looms and from thread spun by hand after sheering their sheep.
In San Cristóbal, the red-tile roofs have been burnished by centuries of sun and rain; white and brightly colored adobe buildings are mostly graffiti-free. It's one of the most charming and idiosyncratic cities in Mexico, and well worth an extended visit.
For more information about San Cristóbal de las Casas and details about venues mentioned in this article, please see our Travel Guide.
SAN CRISTOBAL DE LAS CASAS LOCAL LISTINGS