San Cristóbal de las Casas is a special place in Mexico. Considered a magical city, it lies in the state of Chiapas, an area of Mexico with a well preserved indigenous culture specific to the area, where indigenous textiles are still worn by the Mayan people, both Spanish and indigenous languages are heard spoken on the streets in equal measure, and a mix of Catholic and ancient religions are practiced by the local people. I was first here back during my first two months on the road (you can read my blog post here about it), making my way from the jungle town of Palenque to spend a little over a week in the mountain town San Cristóbal. I then returned after making my way back north from Nicaragua, landing after a few days in Antigua, Guatemala, and ended up staying nearly three weeks. With colonial architecture, stunning views, indigenous communities lying just outside of the city, a distinct but not overwhelming expat presence, and loads of delicious coffee to drink, it’s an easy place to sink into and stay a while. So what did I get up to while I was there, and what would I recommend to you to get stuck into in this special city?
Climb Guadalupe church for an awesome view
Head up Guadalupe Street, one of the main streets in town, and make your way up the hill away from the center of town towards the church, which lies up a long staircase allowing for spectacular views overlooking the city. Go during sundown, when the golden light hits the city and makes everything glow.
Have a coffee on the pedestrian streets
Grab a spot at a table on one of the several pedestrian streets in the city and order a delicious cup of local coffee, listen to the talented street musicians, and watch the local women decked in clothes stitched with their communities traditional patterns walk by.
Eat in the local market
My favorite place for lunch was the local market. You know, the local market where only the locals are and the one gringo you see there is someone who thinks this is a place to just come see but not buy anything (I really did hear an English girl at my hostel describe it this way, and I could only feel bad for her knowing what she was missing out on with this mindset). I would head here everyday and make my way through the countless stalls selling local fruit and veg, spices, chiles, seeds, live (and dead) turkeys and chickens, household products, and freshly made tamales to get to the area of the market set up for folks to sit down at a table and eat what each stall had on offer. Most have the typical meat dishes, but I would always ask for the vegetarian plate and then specify- rice, beans, vegetables, and mole or the local sauce to spread over everything, topped with chiles to spice it up. Delicious, filling, authentic, and less than $3.
Eat some Focaccia
This might not sound like some words of advice you would expect to hear regarding Mexico eats, but trust me on this. San Cristóbal (as well as many parts of Mexico) has quite a number of Italian immigrants living there, and many of them have opened up restaurants and eateries. On the Guadalupe Street you will find a very small pizzeria, only big enough to fit one table. Go in and order the pizza, or even better, order the focaccia bread, and get ready to die. It is some of the best stuff you will have in your life. Who even needs to go to Italy anymore? Unfortunately I cannot remember what the place is called but it is something typically Italian referencing pizza. I will literally race you there for the last slice of focaccia bread with onions.
Buy all the things – and don’t leave without some Amber
Chiapas is one of the most economically poorest regions in Mexico, making it also an incredibly cheap place to be, even by Mexican standards. Thanks to the well preserved indigenous cultures, with textiles being an integral part of these communities, there are loads of beautiful items to see including clothing, bags, jewelry, etc. San Cristóbal has a well known daily market that sells all sorts of locally made items, and if you go you must make sure to talk to the locals and learn the stories behind the items. You will notice that the textiles can vary and this is no accident, as certain patterns and images represent different groups in the region.
Additionally, Amber, the gorgeous yellow stone, is native to the region and sold in droves in the market. Pick up a beautiful ring from a local artisan. Amber is an unusual stone because it is extremely lightweight, causing people to often question if a stone is real or not. To check the validity of the stone, just ask the seller to shine a light that they have on the stone. If it is real, the light will shine blue through the stone, whereas a plastic stone won’t change color at all.
My one issue with the market – it is not a safe place for people with poor impulse control and a love of gorgeous things 🙁
Eat some yummy vegan food at Todo Vegano
I obviously love eating local, and tended to get my meals from the local market in town, eating there for lunch and picking up food to cook at home for dinner. However, sometimes I am lazy for dinner and don’t want to cook, but the market will be closed for meals. So what does this vegan do? Well, in San Cristóbal, it is not that hard, as it is full of vegan options. And I can highly recommend this one in particular called Todo Vegano. It is all food to go, walk in and look at the options and pick what you want to have packed up, ranging from thai curry and dumplings to pizza and lasagna. It is run by a mother and daughter from South Korea who are just absolutely lovely. I absolutely recommend you stop by for their delicious grub.
Learn about the Zapatista movement
Take a cab out past San Juan Chamula, the popular village for tourists to vist just outside San Cristóbal, and make your way to Oventik. A Zapatista village, it maintains sovereignty from the government and you must ask permission at the entrance in order to enter. I have chosen not to share any photos of that experience here out of respect to the village’s generosity for showing us their home. A must-see to learn about this important revolutionary movement throughout Chiapas.
I only include this in here because I met a lot of people who visited Palenque as a day trip. For starters, Palenque, another town in the state of Chiapas, is a 4 hour drive IF the roads are not blocked off (in which case it is an 8 hour drive), and they were both times I visited. If you like getting up at dawn and getting home at midnight and running around in the heat of the jungle all day, go for it. I would however not recommend this if you can. Palenque is a magical place to stay in and take the time to see on it’s own, not just take on as day trip from San Cristobal. If you go, make sure to stay at Mayabel on the jungle road, which is walking distance to the ruins, have a tamale after you’ve seen them, and go to El Panchan for dinner to enjoy some live music and pasta. Also make sure to visit Roberto Barrios, a very un-touristy, absolutely stunning waterfall that lies within Zapatista territory.
Where to stay
Posada del Abuelito – best place ever. There is a reason it is rated the best hostel in all of Mexico and top three in North America. The space is beautiful, well maintained and constantly cleaned, the beds are super cozy, there are lots of bathrooms with hot water, the breakfast provided is amazing, and the staff are just the best.
Casa Gaia – super awesome. Only a couple blocks from Posada del Abuelito, the staff are super nice and it is never crowded because there are not a ton of beds. The prices seem to be about the same and they also serve a yummy breakfast, have a kitchen and cozy beds.
Posada Ganesha – on the other side of town from the other two. I did not stay in the main hostel, but rather a separate building that they have recently taken over, so cannot speak to that experience. However, where I stayed, was absolutely lovely. Private rooms with roof access, a shared kitchen, but no breakfast as you are on your own in this building. Gorgeous older building with lush greenery decorating it.
San Cristóbal is officially one of my favorite places in the world and I could definitely see myself living there at some point, it really has everything and the best vibe around.