Where is it and why? San Cristóbal is the “cultural capitol” of Chiapas, a beautiful state in southern Mexico that boarders Guatamala. It’s about 80 km from Tuxtla Gutiérrez, the administrative capitol. We spent five nights in San Cristóbal for a few different reasons – it’s kind of “on the way” between Valladolid and Mexico City, I’ve never been there before, Enrique has been there before, several times, and loved it. I have friends that raved about their time there. And we had a friend coming to join our travels from NYC – his first time in Mexico! It seemed like a good place to start. Plus – coffee, chocolate, pox, and mountains. No other reasons needed.
How we got there: This is something to pay attention to, because it was really easy but it’s really not described in any kind of good way that I could try and learn beforehand. E and I decided to fly to Tuxtla Guiterrez (TGZ) from Cancun. The flight was only about an hour, and though we had to leave at 6am, it was worth it. We paid $80 USD for one-way tickets on Viva Aerobus, and that included paying in advance to check a large bag. There are also a million different ways to arrive via bus, but honestly? The bus wasn’t that much cheaper, and it would have been about 17 times as long. We missed out on visiting places along the way between Valladolid and San Cristóbal, and I know some of those places are truly beautiful. So if you have the time and want to explore, take the bus. A good rule of thumb in Mexico is to always take “first class” buses on longer-haul trips (4+ hours) and travel by daylight instead of overnight. That being said, there are plenty of places in Mexico that I would feel absolutely comfortable taking second-class or combi buses and traveling at night, even if I was alone. For example: Valladolid – Cancun, or Puebla – Mexico City. Anyway, we didn’t take the bus. We took a plane. It was a fantastic decision. TGZ is also only about 1.5 hours away from Mexico City by plane.
TGZ is a small, clean, neat airport. If you need to meet someone there like I did, you don’t have to make plans in advance about a location to meet – anyone coming through the arrivals gate will see you (it’s a very small airport). There’s a restaurant upstairs with perfectly adequate airport food (honestly, the molletes were great) and free wifi throughout the airport.
To get from the TGZ airport to San Cristóbal de las Casas, the easiest way to go (if you are 3 people) is to take an official taxi to the center of Tuxtla Guiterrez. Just tell the driver your ultimate destination is San Cristóbal de las Casas and you want to get there via collectivo, and he will drop you off exactly where you need to get the right bus. The Tuxtla Guiterrez airport is kinda in the middle of nowhere and the ride from the airport to part of the city where there are buses takes about 30 minutes. If I remember correctly, you need to pay for the taxi at some sort of official stand in the airport, so you’ll pay a real, set, legit price.
When you get out of the taxi, you’ll be around a bunch of large vans/small buses. Tell the guy who is standing around outside you’re going to San Cristóbal, and he will put you on the right bus. Our bus (more like a big van) was very modern and clean and could fit about 15 people. No one was standing up, but they do wait until every seat is full before they go (which doesn’t take long). That bus ride will take about an hour, and it goes through beautiful scenery, so sit by a window and enjoy. I wish I could remember exactly what we paid – but again, the prices are set. You will pay the same amount per-person as everyone else, so if you’re paranoid about getting ripped off (there’s no reason to be), you can watch what everyone else pays and comfort yourself.
Upon arriving in San Cristóbal, you are within walking distance to pretty much everything. You can also take local buses or local taxis around if you have a lot of bags. We opted to walk to our hostel, thinking it was a bit closer than it was, and wanting to explore … but we could have taken a taxi for something like 40 pesos. Next time.
How we got around: The city itself isn’t very big and we mainly got around by walking. You can also chose to cycle, though the streets aren’t very bike-friendly (hilly, cobblestone, potholes, uneven pavement, etc). I would have cycled if I was taking a trip out of the main city area, but to just get around the city center, my feet were the best option. To visit some of the nearby towns, we took a large van (that was part of the tour) and when we wanted to explore other areas around Chiapas, including the Zapatista Territory, we rented a car for the day. We chose the can rental place that was recommended to us by our hostel. I’m pretty sure the car had no insurance whatsoever and it wasn’t fancy at all, but it was perfect for our needs. Driving around the mountain villages in Chiapas is beautiful, but it’s a good idea if your driver has previous driving-in-Mexico experience. There was no aggressive traffic, and the roads were okay-ish, but you share the road with a lot of large trucks and motorbikes, and topes (speedbumps) are everywhere in various states of construction.
Where we stayed in San Cristóbal de las Casas: Nothing is better than a personal recommendation, so when my friends told me they loved their stay at the Posada del Abuelito, I didn’t really look around further. It was perfect for us – Enrique and I had a private room (with our own bathroom) and our friend Evan stayed in the dorm room. The posada was wonderful. There was definitely a younger, backpacker vibe, but E and I (35 & 42 yrs old) didn’t feel out of place (probably a lot to do with staying in our own room). There were friendly travelers from all over, lovely common areas, and incredibly helpful and friendly owners. The (free) breakfast was amazing, and the amount of heavy, wool blankets they provided was very generous. There is no central heating in the posada (or generally anywhere in Mexico). In mid-December, the days are rather warm – 16, 17 degrees Celsius. But the nights dip down to about 6-7 degrees, and frequently the insides of buildings feel even colder than the outside. If you go in the colder months, bring sweaters, socks, and bury yourself under those blankets. The bars and cafes tend to keep their doors and windows open no matter how cold it is, so the key word: layers. If you are used to central heating, it will be an adjustment for you.
Impressions of San Cristóbal de las Casas: I was rather in love with the entire state of Chiapas the minute I landed in the airport. The drive to San Cristóbal was so beautiful, and the roads in Tuxtla were chaotic and loud and Mexican. We were arrived on the 9th of December. As we walked through the city we passed through the Zocolo and there was a massive parade going on for what I’m sure was a reason but we couldn’t quite tell what it was. The city was full of fiireworks popping, colors, people shouting, music, and happy chaos. The air was fresh, in that specific way mountain air is. I was delighted – it was the complete opposite of Valladolid. As much as I enjoyed my tranquillo stay in Yucatan, my mouth was watering at the sight of all the new food options and my ears and eyes were delighted to see a part of Mexico that felt a bit more familiar.
I suppose I could write pages about this city, but I’m trying to just stick with impressions and suggest a few things to do. The streets were completely uneven and mostly cobblestone. The sidewalks were raised off the street by a good half-meter or meter in some places. When it was cloudy or after sunset, it was cold. Not freezing, but cold. Street sellers are everyone, selling pretty much everything (though the only thing you’ll want right away is a sweater, which you will have zero problem finding). The food – from restaurants or street food or ingredients purchased at the market – it’s all incredible and affordable. The people are, overall, incredibly friendly. Drink pox and mezcal. Eat everything, deal with any stomach consequences later. Talk to everyone, walk around, find the hiking trails that start in the city and take you up the mountains in no time. Wear layers. Always wear layers.
Every day I was overwhelmed by everything we did and saw, but at the same time, we kept feeling like we weren’t doing that much. We visited two indigenous communities, San Juan Chamula and Zanacantán, and we did that through the organized tour the posada put together. I am usually not one for organized tours at all, but this was a really great exception to make, and I would highly, highly recommend it. We spent hours in each community with a very experienced, knowledgeable, indigenous guide. He knew the people in the communities well, he spoke the local language, he was able to advise us on when it was ok to take photos and when to leave our cameras in our bags. My general feelings about guides is that they make me miss out on a more authentic experience, and it this case it was the exact opposite. We had time to wander about on our own, which I really appreciated.
Another day, in our rented car, we drove up the village Oventic in Zapatisa Territory. This we did totally on our own. It was almost the 20th year anniversary of the uprising, and Enrique (who works with indigenous issues and who happened to be in Chiapas 20 years previously) was incredibly motivated to visit the place where it all started. When we entered, we had to provide our names and reasons for visiting – and here again, I might recommend that instead of doing this on your own, maybe try to find a tour group of some sort. The residents of the village were incredibly friendly and let us in, and they want to tell people their story and have visitors, but – they want to tell their story. Because Enrique is a university teacher and does talk about the Zapatista Uprising as part of his lectures, they were happier to let us in and spend time with us than if it had just been me and Evan saying “we think this is so fascinating and we just want to hang out and see what’s going on.” But after we left, Enrique explained that they are more willing to spend more time with say, university classes, or researchers, or NGOs, or maybe a per-arranged group, then just three random tourists.
Anyway, we entered, and were accompanied by one member of the community the whole time. He seemed maybe 18-25 years old, soft-spoken but very friendly, and advised on us what was ok to photograph and what we shouldn’t photograph (nothing crazy, just don’t go up to people and take pictures of them if they don’t want, but feel free to take pictures of the murals, landscape, etc). Enrique and our guide spoke the whole time while Evan and I took pictures and wandered around. It was one of my favorite parts of the trip – being in the village, understanding it’s proximity to the other villages and the nearest city, and then imagining the revolution starting and what the revolution became – it was absolutely amazing to see this all with my own eyes. I highly, highly recommend visiting this place.
Another day we went hiking. Another day I suffered a bit the consequences of too much Mexican street food and took it easy. Another day we visited the churches and markets and I did some shopping. There are tons of bars and restaurants, everything within walking distance. We went out at night and got swept up in the festivities surrounding the 12th of December – el Día de la Virgen de Guadalupe – which were non-stop, insane, loud, and amazingly fun. People were constantly running to get to one church or another, carrying the Virgin with them. Parties were happening at the church, around the church, behind the church. Parents dressed up their kids, the fireworks kept going off, dogs were barking. But when we were ready to go to bed, our posada was a wonderful place of tranquility, and we slept buried under 5 wool blankets.
San Cristóbal de las Casas is worth more than five days. The state of Chiapas is a place I could see myself traveling around for months. Word of advice, if you are driving around from one place to another and you happen to see sings like this:
… you stop and eat some of the most delicious food you’ve ever had. The most delicious food in Mexico always seems to be at the most basic roadside restaurants. Even if you’re a vegetarian, go in and get a quesadilla. It will be one of the best you’ve ever had.
San Cristóbal felt incredibly safe. While I was with my traveling companions a lot, I also spent some time on my own, and didn’t think twice about it. There are tons of travelers in this town from all over the world, including lots of solo travelers – so other than exercising the same type of precautions you’d practice in any other place, the only advice I’d have is to go with patience (things happen – parades, traffic jams, protests – so take it easy regarding schedule) and remember to be respectful. Don’t shove your camera in the face of an indigenous woman selling sweaters on the street and don’t assume you know everything because you read an article on Wikipedia.
And really, bring sweaters if you go in the winter.