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San Cristobal de las Casas & San Juan Chamula, Chiapas

If Palenque is the magical capital of the state of Chiapas, San Cristobal is its mystical capitol. San Cristobal is the nexus of several indigenous peoples, each practicing different modes of spirituality, mysticism and magic. Centuries of being a crossroads of spiritual beliefs have left an indelible mark on the region.

An Apparition Accosts Me

Here’s an example. Decades ago, when I was a backpacker tourist, I came to San Cristobal in the night bus. It was bitterly cold. With an altitude of 7,218 feet (2,200 meters) nights are bone-chilling.  

Dia de los muertos San Cristobal

Wandering the deserted cobblestone streets, I was cold, sore, more asleep than awake. Suddenly, a black-wrapped apparition noiselessly appeared before me. It resembled a crone, draped in a black wool rebozo. Wordlessly, she pointed to a narrow door in the middle of the tightly packed stone houses lining the desolate street. Without a word, I followed her outstretched arm. Her other arm came out, palm flat in the universal symbol of payment expected. Without asking the price, I put some pesos in it. She whisked them away to the folds of her clothing and replaced them with a few coins in change. She opened a side door in the house with a bed and a nightstand, pointed to the blanket folded neatly on the bed. She shut the door and disappeared.

Nowhere else in Mexico could this have happened. Like most backpackers, I followed the recommendations in Lonely Planet. I was codo (cheap). I would never hand over money to an old woman on a deserted street, hoping she had something to do with a hotel or hostel. The spirit of San Cristobal overwhelms even the most practical. It’s like being enveloped in a fine mesh net woven by butterflies. You barely feel it, but it guides your actions as long as you are there.

What Makes San Cristobal So Special?

Mysticism aside, even if you don’t believe in it, San Cristobal is especially special in a country of special destinations. Artists flock to it. They say there is something special about the aura around the territory. They tell me that only a few places in the world have the atmospheric conditions that make greens greener, blues seem alive and color more vibrant. Seattle WA used to have this quality before pollution took over. Some areas of Ireland and France still have it. 

While you are likely to meet an artist or two if you stay in San Cristobal for any length of time, beret-wearing, paint-smock covered painters won’t inundate you as you would be in San Miguel de Allende. Nor will you find many who make their permanent home in the Chiapas city. My theory is that the magic muses are too intense to bear for long. 

Artistry aside, if you have any interest in the indigenous peoples like the Tzoltzil, Tzatzal, Lacandons, and others, the town is a living museum. Local Indians wear traditional clothing, not because of tourists but because that is how they dress.

Catedral de San Cristobal, Chiapas - photo by WIlliam Kaliher
Catedral de San Cristobal, photo by WIlliam Kaliher

The Catholic Church must have loved San Cristobal very much since they built dozens of churches in this outpost of Mexico. In keeping with the local traditions, they are brightly colored. The yellow Catedral de San Cristobal downtown is striking. The small blue and white Templo de Santa Lucia is pleasantly inviting. For hardcore church visitors, the Templo de San Cristobal pictured here can be reached by climbing a mere 240 steps up a steep hill. Or you could take a taxi and say you did. 

Templo de San Cristobal - climb 240 steps up, photo by William Kaliher
Templo de San Cristobal – climb 240 steps up, photo by William Kaliher
Templo de Santa Lucia, Chiapas, photo by William Kaliher
Templo de Santa Lucia, photo by William Kaliher

The Museo del Ambar de Chiapas is relatively new, having opened in 2000. You should visit it before you buy a piece of glass from a vendor who swears it holds the building block of a dinosaur.  

What I Would Pay For A Warm Bed!

You have two choices in hotels in the city. Either you can stay in historic, beautiful old hotels or you can spend big bucks and stay at a chain hotel with good heating. 

Casa Na Bolom is a hotel and museum, originally the home of the celebrated archeologist Frans Blom and his wife Gertrude Duby. These two did more to document the native peoples of the area and raise cultural awareness than anyone before or since. Their house has plenty of museum pieces, photos and atmosphere. 

San Cristobal Indigenous Woman, photo by William Kaliher

Even the historic hotels downtown, like the charming Diego de Mazariegos, Ciudad Real Centro Histórico, and the favorite for charm, Docecuartos lack a heating system. Some have rooms with fireplaces, but most just give you more blankets. If you are very lucky and know how to plead and tip, a bellman may magically produce a space heater (calentador). 

I stayed at the Fiesta Inn on the southern end of town and although it is pricey; it had a superb heating system–like they piped steam from Hell. It was just what I needed. 

San Cristobal Indigenous Woman in Square – Chiapas. Photo by William Kaliher

RV Parks

Bonampak–on the highway to Tuxtla. Also handicapped accessible hotel. Any size rig can fit here.

San Nicolas–on the east side of town. Only small rigs and tenters.

San Juan Chamula

No visit to San Cristobal would be complete without a stop at San Juan Chamula. This is a Tzotzil community that even today practices syncretism – a melding of spiritual/mystical rituals from the Chamulas and the Catholic Church. The Chamulas are Tzotzil people, who are descendants of the Mayas

The chief attraction is the San Juan Bautista temple. The most important takeaway from this article is that they absolutely permit no photographs inside the church.  Photographers are not particularly welcome in the town, but tolerated. If you want to photograph people, point to the camera and to them in a pantomime of taking a picture. Most often you’ll get a no or even a scolding, but eventually someone will let you take a picture. Some of these people will ask for a donation. I usually pay it here. One time I didn’t ask, took a surreptitious picture and just as I thought I was getting away with it, the old woman turned and stared at me with malevolence. She gave me the evil eye that lasted for days and magically disappeared when we drove over the Oaxaca state line.

While it is a Catholic church, it has no priest. One comes from San Cristobal once a week to say Mass. The rest of the time, it is open and more Chamula-like practices prevail. There are no seats or benches. They cover the floor with pine needles. There are alcoves with statues of Catholic saints. Local people pray directly to their saint of choice rather than to them as intercessors to relay their message to God. 

Getting There

If you are  driving from Oaxaca, just take MEX-190 to Tuxtla Gutiérrez, turn right to San Cristobal. `From the Gulf of Mexico route, keep on MEX-180D until just past the turn for Coatzacoalcos. Turn right on MEX-145D to Tuxtla, turn left to San Cristobal. Although there is a direct route from Palenque, we suggest checking with the Highway Patrol to determine its current safety level. It often has problems. (please don’t forget to get Mexico insurance your motorcycle, car, truck or RV with MexInsurance®).

Map with preferred route to San Cristobal Chiapas compliments of Mexico Mike Nelson
Map to San Cristobal Chiapas from all points (click to download) – courtesy Mexico Mike Nelson

But Wait, There’s More!

San Cristobal is just the gateway to some of the most marvelous natural scenery in Mexico. Cañon Sumidero has boat rides through the peaks of now flooded mountains. You’ll see crocodiles and other creatures. 

Sumidero is NE of San Cristobal on the road to Tuxtla Gutiérrez. It’s 30 curvy miles and is doable as a day trip.

You can reach the following as day trips from San Cristobal, but I don’t recommend it. They would be two interminable days. You could take a tour bus so they can do safely the return trips at night. My preference is to stay at the charming little-visited town of Comitán. I’ll give you the lowdown on it.

The Lagunas de Montebello is a series of differently colored Alpine-like lakes. There is even a hidden cenote I can tell you about.

El Chiflón is a series of 5 waterfalls in one location. I am a waterfall junkie and I think they are among the best in Mexico. 

El Chiflon Cascada Quincanera, Chiapas.  Photo by William Kaliher
El Chiflon Cascada Quincanera, Chiapas. Photo by William Kaliher

All these will be in a subsequent article here, Southern Chiapas

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