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Saturday, January 28, 2023

A return to Chiapas reveals what’s changed after 25 years

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Claire Tyrpak
Claire Tyrpak
Claire Tyrpak retired to Mérida in 2021 after a career managing programs for nonprofits, government and a university in the United States. She has been a world traveler since the 1980s and Mexico is the fifth country in which she has lived.
San Cristóbal, Chiapas, seems unchanged after 25 years, depending on where you look. Photo: Claire Tyrpak / Yucatán Magazine

My eagerly awaited return to Chiapas and its famed 16th-century colonial city was stalled a bit when bad weather prevented my plane from departing on time, so at almost 2 in the morning, I arrived at my hotel in Tuxtla Gutiérrez.

The next morning, after arriving in San Cristóbal and dropping my bags at the hotel, I finally got to see the city that had stayed in my imagination for many years. It looked much the same after 25 years: old colonial houses and buildings with terra cotta tile roofs, cobbled streets, and the high mountain light, all evocative of nearby Guatemala.

Indigenous women from San Juan Chamula appear in traditional dress in San Cristóbal, Chiapas. Photo: Claire Tyrpak / Yucatán Magazine

With time it became apparent that much had changed as well. It was no longer the remote, rustic sanctuary from the rest of the world. It was more modern and cosmopolitan. At first, I was admittedly a bit worried it had changed too much, but I found San Cristóbal to have done a good job blending the old and the new.

There were so many new shops, restaurants, markets, and vendors that it was almost overwhelming. Many handmade products such as clothing, jewelry, and dolls are for sale by Maya vendors on the streets, in the shops throughout the center, and in the markets, including the large tarp-covered market directly in front of Ex-Convento Santo Domingo. 

Since I had seen most of the intriguing sites around Chiapas, I spent my two-week trip beating the streets of San Cristóbal, taking in the roasted aroma of its famous coffee and the many sights and sounds that make this city one of a kind.

My only other trip here was during the time of the Zapatistas. They had used the early days of the Internet in a savvy way to become well-known international fighters for the rights of the indigenous people. It’s a bit different now, but I did see a few Zapatista dolls for sale as in the old days.

San Cristóbal’s streets are made all the more colorful with papel picado. Photo: Claire Tyrpak / Yucatán Magazine

There is an incredible amount of shopping for handmade local crafts and many modern “fast” fashion shops around the city center. I bought some light sweaters because it was cooler than I had planned. Macadamia nuts are a local delicacy sold by street vendors, and I hesitated to buy some because I had no way to break open their hard shells. One enterprising vendor took a hammer to some so I could enjoy this local treat.

There was so much to see and so many people to chat with as they hawked their wares, the artisans selling handmade blouses, and other items such as stuffed animals, and little clay jaguars.

The city has an abundance of restaurants and cafés to choose from. I ate daily at Te Quiero Verde, one of several good vegetarian/vegan restaurants. Another excellent choice is El Secreto, which offers fine dining in their main dining room and or in a garden next door.

Templo de Santo Domingo in Chiapas, Mexico, dates to the 16th century. Photo: Claire Tyrpak / Yucatán Magazine

I visited several small museums with excellent exhibits, including the Museo del Ámbar (Amber Museum) and Centro de Textiles del Mundo Maya. The textile museum has world-class collections of hand-woven textiles, including a few dating back to 1900. 

I stayed at Hotel Junvay, an attractive and comfortable gem of a hotel five minutes from the plaza, which is far enough away to be quiet and restful. The beds were plush with warm duvets, and my room had French doors that opened onto a small balcony overlooking the lovely center garden and a view of the mountains. It had warm touches such as exposed brick and wooden ceiling beams. It was a pleasure to return to every day after my treks around the city. The hotel has breakfast available, a concierge, and a laundry service.

The weather was volatile my entire stay, becoming cooler the second week, and there was plenty of rain, including a deluge from a cyclone. I found a pair of pink plastic boots at a little shop and carried them around in my backpack after soaking my shoes and jeans several times. 

The weather provided a welcome change from the strong summer heat of Yucatán, but warm clothes are a must.

In the second week of my trip, I learned of an event in the north of the city. A group of black-clad men carrying automatic weapons frightened the locals into taking refuge in shops for several hours, with the military only showing up after the men had left. The men shot into the air, burned tires and cars, and formed blockades in the area’s streets.

They were members of a local crime group called Los Motonetos, a reference to their motorcycles, and were fighting over control of a market in that area. While frightening for area residents, calm returned afterward. In the taxi back to the airport in Tuxtla Gutiérrez, I encountered two roadblocks, not an uncommon occurrence in the state of Chiapas.

On my previous journey, I saw most of the significant sites Chiapas has to offer, such as Palenque, which is one of my favorite Mayan ruins. I also took a boat trip on the Cañón del Sumidero and went horseback riding in the mountains up to the village of San Juan Chamula. 

Festivals are common in San Cristóbal, and while visiting, I experienced a few, including Corpus Christi. I also enjoyed parades, some music on the central plaza, and a food fair. There were daily fireworks at other festivals.

Having done my part to benefit the local economy, I look forward to returning to this fascinating region of Mexico.

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