After the overnight bus (11hrs!!) from Oaxaca we arrived in San Cristobal de Las Casas, a city nestled in the mountainous area of Chiapas. It is a much more touristy destination in comparison to the previous cities we visited. Western food e.g hamburgesa, pizzas etc can be found easily which suited me fine after a dodgy stomach in Oaxaca! It is also much cooler so a jumper comes in handy. The pedestrianized streets make for easy strolls whilst admiring the views.
We stayed in Posada del Abuelito for 4 nights which cost 1360 pesos \ 62e. It was a nice hostel with great breakfast but sometimes it felt like we were sleeping in the common room due to the lack of soundproofing, cue the earplugs and eye masks!
There are a number of tour options available from San Cristobal. We did two, Cañón del Sumidero and San Juan de Chamula.
This included a 2 hour boat trip through the canyon and a 1 hour stop-over in Chiapa de Corzo. We completed this with Jalapeno tours and it cost 250 pesos pp. The hostel can booked it for us but if you book direct with the company I believe it is 200 pesos pp. We spotted spider-monkeys and the shiny whites of a number of crocodiles. That and the pockets of rubbish floating in the water meant a quick dip was definitely not on the cards! The highest canyon cliff stands at a staggering 3300 feet!! It was quite spectacular. The other highlight was the Christmas tree structure formed on the side of the cliff due to a waterfall overhead.
Overall I would rate this tour a 3 out of 5. Mainly due to the sad face on the spider monkey as he waited for the tourists to arrive, the herding of tourists onto boats and witnessing the human influence on this natural resource. Word of advice – bring small change as the driver stops at the dam and asks for a tip. Our driver got a 2 euro coin as we had no change! Also the trip was all in Spanish however I would not let that influence your decision as its the sights you take the tour to see.
Cañón del Sumidero
The “Christmas Tree” Waterfall
At first I was not interested in doing the tour to the village of San Juan de Chamula as I thought it was just another village, but thankfully my mind was changed as it turned out to be one of the best tours I have ever been on. We completed the guided tour with Alex and Raul Tours and it costs 250 pesos pp. We just showed up at the cross in front of the Cathedral at half 9, the starting point of the tour. Our guide Ceasar was excellent, he had perfect English and was very respectful to the cultures and traditions of the native people. As part of this tour we visited two villages, Chamula and Zinacantán.
Church and graveyard on the outskirts of Chamula
Chamula is a self-governing town with its own time zone where Tzotzil is the main indigenous language spoken. Our first stop was the graveyard where different coloured crosses can be seen indicating the age of the person that died – white for a child, blue/green for an adult and black for the elderly. The locals were preparing the graves for Dia de Muertos with pine needles and marigolds when we visited.
The market in Chamula
After a short walk to the main square we stopped to view the jail, consisting of two rooms, in which the male inmates can be seen from the street, serving as a form of public shame. The government does not provide inmates with food so it is down to public donations on whether they eat! Depending on the severity of the crimes committed, lynching is a potential outcome which makes for a very low crime rate. This is also the place to see an authentic traditional market.
The exterior of the church appears to be a normal example of a Christian church, white with ornate green detailing, however with the sudden ignition of two hand-helded fireworks marking the arrival of the spiritual leader, we could tell this was no “normal” church. The inside of the church is an experience for the senses, from saints lining the walls to pine needles covering the floor and what seemed liked thousands of candles illuminating the area. It had a true spiritual ambiance. As you walk through the church you may spot a chicken, coke, fanta or sprite, materials that are needed depending on your aliment/spiritual cure being sought.
Depending on the respite you need you sit in front of the saint associated with it. There are no pews so you kneel or sit on the floor. I think the most important thing to remember during your visit to this church, is that it is a place of spiritual sanctuary so respect the natives and their culture, and of course do not take photos! After our visit to the church we visited the spiritual leaders house, where the shrine was ceremoniously set up for their chosen saint and we tasted posh, a sugar cane based alcohol. It is not possible to take photos inside the church or spiritual leaders house so to see it you really have to visit.
The famous church of San Juan Chamula
In Zinacantán we viewed the Church of San Lorenzo. Unfortunately it had been damaged in the earthquake but a temporary church had been set up which contained the saints, and this church had pews! We got the opportunity to visit a natives house where we saw weaving in action and viewed the very basic yet functional kitchen.
Overall it was a very interesting tour learning about the natives traditions and when we arrived back in San Cristobal we could now tell what village the women came from, women from Chamula wore woolen skirts, and women from Zinacantán wore skirts with flowers embellishing the bottom! Handy!
Some weaving in action!
Tip: bring change for tips/donations to the churches, and get a guide as there is so much to learn, you will miss out by doing it yourself.
We had one full day to explore San Cristobal and it happened to be raining but thankfully, being from Ireland, we were prepared and it did not deter us from an enjoyable exploration. From our hostel we walked for about 20mins to Orquideas Moxviquil, the botanical gardens (ferns, orchids, mosses etc) so it is very much doable on your own. The witty security guard first asked us for 50 pesos each per activity (climb and visit the gardens), then 30 pesos per activity, until we were eventually charged the correct amount – 30 pesos for both. Wits required at all times when paying!
This was a nice climb and was a good way to spend a few hours. The rest of the day was spent walking around San Cristobal admiring the many churches, Templo de Santo Domingo, Catedral de San Cristobal de Las Casas and Iglesia de Guadalupe. Most of the churches were blocked off for restoration work so we could only view parts of the exterior. We also strolled around the markets looking at the traditional handmade crafts and clothes, our favourite market was beside Santo Domingo church.
Hiking the sendero in Orquideas Moxviquil
Cathedral of St.Christopher
The stairs to Guadalupe Church
A lot of people recommend doing the free walking tour (tips are welcome I hear!) as it brings you to the main sights within San Cristobal and you get the chance to taste some of the food offered by the local restaurants however as it was a 3 hour tour we were lazy and did not partake. There are a number of museums to visit too if that tickles your fancy – textile, Mayan medicinal, chocolate, jade, amber, however we did not visit any during our time there.
San Cristobal is definitely worth the visit even with the long bus journey to get there. It was a different experience from the rest of Mexico, the cooler temperatures helped, and added yet another new perspective to Mexican life and culture.