The colonial buildings and small-town friendliness of San Cristobal are not the only charms of the city - also waiting to be discovered is an unshakeable pride in Mexico's indigenous culture
The first thing to strike a tourist entering San Cristobal de las Casas is the small-town beauty of the narrow, cobbled streets, lined with low, multi-coloured houses with brightly painted shutters and shop signs. There’s a distinct holiday air: cafes are invitingly buzzing, freshly-squeezed orange juice is sold from stands on the road, and the famously clear sunlight illuminates the surrounding hills of Chiapas.
It's a good place to start off in when travelling through Mexico, a country which, having one of the biggest capitals in the world, can seem intimidating. We arrived at the end of a sweaty 24-hour bus journey (and after five months of travelling through south and central America), and the place gave us a festively homecoming feeling.
However, while the colonial buildings lend the city a European familiarity, its culture is undoubtedly Latino - not least because of the intrigue surrounding the Zapatistas, a political group hailing from San Cristobal that campaigns for indigenous rights. Zapatistas reached the height of their activity in the 1990s, and violent suppression by the Mexican government in 1997 earned them folk-hero status. Their popularity with the masses is evident in the image depicting a masked, gun-toting Zapatista on a horse, ubiquitous in the markets and shops of San Cristobal, a favourite souvenir being a stuffed felt model of a terrorist astride a googly-eyed horse.
Markets and mole
The biggest and most diverse artisans' market is found outside the huge and intricately decorated church, San Domingo. It's possible to spend all day (and most of your money) wandering up and down the alleys of higgledy piggledy market stalls, fingering the bright, hand-woven cloth and trying on reams of beaded jewellery. You can find plenty of stalls selling exquisite jade and turquoise products, a speciality of the area. Make sure you go ready to barter: you can quite easily half the price originally offered to you. We particularly enjoyed rifling through the array of colourful, hand-made stuffed animals worthy of a place in Habitat, ranging from large elephants to tiny tortoises to monkeys dangling from long arms from the top of stalls.
Whether you’re a foodie or not, make your way to the refreshingly un-touristy and impressively varied local market, where there’s a huge selection of food products alongside household goods – polished pyramids of fruit and rows of yellow corn-fed chickens neighbour stalls selling hair grips, earrings and boot polish. Pull up a stool at a counter in the restaurant quarter and locals will be proud to serve you various types of mole, a chilli and chocolate sauce that may seem questionable to western tastes but is actually quite delicious. I ate it poured over cheese-filled tortillas - their ricotta-like cheese is also rather good. Mole is rich, so eat it in moderation (they tend to drown their food in the stuff) but you can't leave without a taste, and you'll impress the locals by telling them you've given it a go.
Culture and candles
Uphill from the town centre, nestled within the sun-dappled cobbled streets, is the beautiful colonial mansion Casa Na-Bolom where we experienced a tangible interweaving of European and Mayan culture. The building was founded by a Danish architect, Frans Blom, and his photographer wife, Trudy Blom, both of whom studied the Lacandon jungle and its indigenous people. The result is an otherworldly, eclectically decorated collection of rooms, centred round a leafy courtyard in which indigenous women sell visitors their wares. Their young daughters attached themselves to us - especially enjoying my blond hair, only stopping short of pulling out a handful to keep. They led us round the artifacts from indigenous communities that are displayed along with a selection of Trudy Blom’s photos, but I can’t promise the same service for everyone! When we arrived, all this was set to beautifully-played piano music drifting from one of the rooms: upon closer inspection, we found this to be a local boy playing a grand piano in the chapel, which apparently is a regular occurrence.
Feeling a bit guilty for enjoying this European-influenced culture so much, we took a day trip to San Juan Chamula, a tiny Mayan hamlet in the hills. While the market there isn’t all it’s cracked up to be (San Cristobal’s is far more varied and cheaper), you are able to have the most surreal religious experience of your life in the looming cathedral that borders the square. It is necessary to purchase a ticket costing around £3; you then step out of the sun into the cool shade of the cathedral – and into what feels like a parallel universe.
Inside, local families sit on a floor strewn with hay, setting out and lighting rows of candles in front of them (not sparing a thought for the potential fire hazard). The ritual then involves a sprinkle of fizzy pop and the killing of a live chicken, sometimes with a couple of eggs thrown in, accompanied by closed eyes and rhythmic chanting. They don’t mind tourists watching; indeed, it’s more a question of whether the squeamish tourist can bear to watch the fate of the hen. It’s an impressive sight though, to watch the flickering candlelight and traditionally dressed women carrying out a Mayan ritual, where the only influence of the Western world is visible in the bottles of Coca-Cola and 7Up.
If you fancy doing the journey to San Juan Chamula a bit differently, ie avoiding the uncomfortable and usually packed local buses, do as we did and travel there by horse. We were approached on the street by a friendly (and persuasive) lady, as most tourists are, and paid around £4 each for the round trip, inclusive of a taxi to where the horses are stationed. No experience is needed: the guide puts you on a very well-behaved horse and takes you on a relaxing ride through the countryside to San Juan Chamula. The ride back is particularly impressive, as the mountain views and then San Cristobal itself unfold ahead of you in the clear light that the region is famous for.
Where to stay
We stayed in a brilliantly centrally-located and homely hostel, Posada 5, which only cost around £2 a night. The 12-bed dorm has no bunk beds – a treat after five months of fighting over the bottom bunk. The room, decorated with hanging tapestries and Mexican bedspreads, is clean, airy and spacious, with floor-to-ceiling windows at one end, displaying a beautiful view over part of the city and the distant hills. We were baffled by its cheapness: the wooden kitchen has good facilities, there’s free Internet, a patio, and the staff are so welcoming that we genuinely felt we were staying with a Mexican family.