21 Jun San Cristóbal de las Casas
San Cristobal de las Casas, once called the most magical of the Pueblos Magicos (a UNESCO World Heritage designation) by Mexico’s former president Felipe Calderón, is as beloved as it is beautiful. Nestled in the cold, high mountains of the Sierra Madre, you’ll find the beautiful colonial city, also known by its Tzotzil name, Jovel, which is recognized as the cultural capital of Chiapas. With a tourism and service-based economy, San Cristobal shares the fascinating history and rich culture of its indigenous inhabitants.
A European favorite, their influence has shaped the city itself. Apart from the Spanish colonial city center, with its cobblestone streets, red tile roofs, and wrought iron balconies with flowers, the effect of significant tourism and the influx of expat residents is visible in foreign elements of the city, like restaurants and nightlife, making it a hybrid of sorts.
Culture & Traditions
San Cristobal is a famous cultural hub because of the Tzotzils and Tzeltals who live in the surrounding area, creating intricate and spectacular textiles, needle work, jewelry in amber and jade, and even ironwork and ceramics. The market of Santo Domingo is a colorful and magnetic place, and it’s hard not to buy with so much beauty around you. (I go weak in the knees for textiles, so I’m done in pretty immediately.)
The Tzotil people wear a traditional outfit including a woven shirt and a lambswool skirt, dyed black with a large belt. It looks really interesting and warm, as San Cristobal tends to get quite cold, and they wear it for doing daily activities.
Celebrations are common (as they are in much of Mexico) and everything is an excuse to celebrate, including elaborate fireworks. One example that we had the privilege to witness was the Burning of Judas, which can be any hated figure – political, religious, military, foreign leaders, even celebrities. Firemen are involved to give the pretense of safety, but the fireworks injure onlookers anyway (something we were quite familiar with in San Miguel).
The area didn’t have a pre-Colombian city (as far as we know), though the Tzotzil name Jovel means “a place in the clouds”. It’s easy to see why; the cold and foggy mountain town appears to be masked in clouds. Founded in 1528 as a military fort by Diego de Mazariegos after defeating the Zoques in the north, he called it Villa Real de Chiapa. The valley did have a name, however: Hueyzacatlán Valley, meaning “pasture” in Nahuatl. After its founding, it underwent several name changes. San Cristobal, or Saint Christopher, was part of several of the names, and “de las Casas” appeared on the scene to honor Bartolomé de las Casas. The name we know today was finalized in 1943.
In recent history, environmental concerns have surfaced due to deforestation of the surrounding mountains. Despite the allure of caves and rivers which make for excellent eco-tourist destinations, the hills have been stripped of their native trees in logging operations.
The two main markets that we enjoyed getting to know were the food market and the artisan market. Quite close together, they are easy to visit in one day. The artisan market, which I described above, has an abundant selection of hand-woven or embroidered textiles, as well as jewelry. It’s not huge, but has more than enough variety and beauty to keep your interest. Not to mention that the textiles themselves are quite impressive, colorful and eye-catching.
The food market has several butchers, sweets stalls offering a wide variety of unique confections, coffee vendors, and a few flower shops. Deeper in the labyrinthine market, you’ll find where they sell chickens, ducks, and turkeys. Outside, vendors sit on the ground selling fruits, vegetables, herbs and natural medicines. Some stalls serve food, like sopa de pan (bread soup), asado coleto (a pork dish), saffron tamales, and drinks like atole de granillo and posh (a sugar cane based concoction). Don’t expect to see too many other tourists here; this is typically a gathering place for locals. The markets were one of my favorite parts of San Cristobal de las Casas.
One of the things I really enjoyed about San Cristobal was the abundant street art. Graffiti murals are everywhere downtown, covering the safety barricades around the structures affected by the earthquakes. Colorful and detailed art spans nearly every panel, and walking down one of these main streets feels like a walk through an art gallery. Not to mention that the facades of the buildings themselves are diverse and colorful. Walking the central streets is a very aesthetic experience. From Neoclassical to Moorish to Baroque, the architecture varies as much as the colors and art surrounding them.
(The above photo is from my phone … It’s a candid, but I wanted to share with you how beautiful the street art is.)
Here is a brief rundown of San Cristobal’s museums so you can dig deeper into the culture of the area.
Meaning house of the Jaguar, Casa Na Bolom is a museum and hotel in the former home of Archeologist Franz Blom and Photographer Gertrude Duby Blom. The couple did some incredible anthropological work in Chiapas, particularly with the Lacandon Maya, or Naha, (who we also had the privilege to visit after our trip to San Cristobal) and their work – spanning 50 years – included amassing one of the greatest collections of tools, crafts, archeological pieces and clothing from the region, as well as some colonial era religious relics. Apart from this impressive collection, Franz’ study which remains intact and houses over 10,000 tomes on the region’s history and culture. There are even magazines and sound recordings.
The Museum of Amber
Housed in the La Merced monastery built in 1537 as a fort to protect the Mercedarians of Guatemala, this museum is the only one like it in the Americas, boasting over 300 pieces of amber. The building’s history is also really interesting.
The Museo Mesoamericano del Jade
The Jade Museum contains pieces from many Mesoamerican cultures, such as the Olmec, Teotihuacan, Mixtec, Zapotec, Maya, Toltec and Aztec peoples, as well as a life-size rendering of the burial chamber of Pakal from Palenque, just as it was when the king was buried.
The Maya Medicine Museum
Dedicated to natural, indigenous medicine, this museum showcases the techniques, practices and medicines of the Tzotils, much of which is still being practiced today.
The Museo de las Culturas Populares de Chiapas
Museum of Popular Cultures of Chiapas is focused on promoting indigenous culture, honoring, valuing and regaining cultural knowledge and wisdom of Chiapas. The museum also sponsors events on these and other cultural themes.
Since the 2017 earthquake, all of the churches are closed except one, surrounded by temporary walls to protect the pedestrians passing by. Probably the most iconic one, the cathedral, doesn’t face the Zócalo but instead turns inward to the cathedral plaza, which contains its own atrium. We only got to see this one from the outside, and minimally at that due to the earthquake damage. The only one open when we were there was the Templo y Ex-convento la Merced.
The food is a bit pricey in San Cristobal de las Casas (by our standards anyway), but there is a wide variety of Chiapaneco food as well as foreign food, like Thai, Chinese, French, Italian and Continental fare. The foreign influence on the historic center is notable, with expensive boutique restaurant clusters serving up art and ambiance. Cured meats, brought by the Germans and Spanish remains in local dishes too, like chalupas. Don’t forget to try Chiapaneco mole and artesanal Tzotzil beer.
Places to Stay
Rossco’s Backpacker Hostel – we enjoyed our stay in Rossco’s so much we wrote about it here. Take a gander!
I look forward to going back to this magical city and spending more time trying to get beneath the shiny veneer of the tourism industry and to see more of the foundations of the city itself.
Have you been to San Cristobal de Las Casas? What did you think? Share your thoughts below!