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Thursday, December 8, 2022

The charming and eclectic San Cristóbal de las Casas

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Carlos Rosado van der Gracht
Carlos Rosado van der Gracht
Born in Mérida, Carlos Rosado van der Gracht is a Mexican/Canadian blogger, photographer and adventure expedition leader. He holds degrees in multimedia, philosophy and translation from universities in Mexico, Canada and Norway. Sign up for the Yucatán Roundup, a free newsletter, which delivers the week's top headlines every Monday.
The colorful Cathedral of San Cristóbal de Las Casas established in 1539 is in the heart of the city. Photo: Carlos Rosado van der Gracht

There are few if any cities in Mexico more charming than San Cristóbal de las Casas.

San Cristóbal has a very special charm with its old cobblestone streets and dozens of churches up on hills. Photo: Carlos Rosado van der Gracht

San Cristóbal de las Casas, or simply San Cristóbal, is well known for being a melting pot of Colonial Spanish tradition and indigenous influence.

A colorful night time scene in San Cristóbal reminds us to “live and let live.” Photo: Carlos Rosado van der Gracht

Founded in 1528 by Diego de Mazariegos, San Cristóbal served as the Capital for Chiapas until the mid-19th century.

Despite having a reputation for being very tranquil, San Cristóbal de las Casas is no stranger to the hustle and bustle of everyday life. Photo: Carlos Rosado van der Gracht

Though in “southern Mexico,” San Cristóbal feels like a different world when compared to the Yucatán Peninsula.

The state of Chiapas is known for being incredibly lush and full of steep mountain passes and waterfalls. Photo: Carlos Rosado van der Gracht

For starters, there is the weather. Being over 7,200 feet above sea level, San Cristóbal can actually get quite cold — especially in the mornings and evenings. 

Colonial era structures line San Cristóbal’s Calzada de Guadalupe. Photo: Carlos Rosado van der Gracht

Though snowfall in the city is rare, it has actually happened on a couple of occasions, most recently in the winter of 2021.

Snowfall is rare in the highlands of Chiapas, but when it does happen it causes much consternation. Photo: Courtesy

Unlike Yucatán, Chiapas and the region surrounding San Cristóbal is extremely mountainous. As a result, the city and its countryside are hilly and photogenic.

Vista of San Cristóbal from one of its several steep hills. Photo: Carlos Rosado van der Gracht

Another difference between San Cristóbal and cities like Mérida or Valladolid is the architecture.

San Cristóbal’s baroque-style cathedral has been the city’s most important symbol since the 16th century and is also known as the Cathedral of Peace. Photo: Carlos Rosado van der Gracht

Architecture in San Cristóbal more closely resembles that of Central American cities like Antigua in Guatemala or Granada in Nicaragua than anything in the Yucatán Peninsula. 

This makes sense when we consider that the Soconusco region of Chiapas once actually belonged to Guatemala and for a brief time even declared independence as its own nation. 

Since the 1990s, San Cristóbal has become a hotspot for bohemian travelers looking to get a taste of “the real Mexico.” Photo: Carlos Rosado van der Gracht

The entirety of what today is Chiapas joined Mexico in 1824, but Chiapanecos like to joke that they actually annexed Mexico and not the other way around. 

A couple of young girls from the nearby town of Zinacantan pose for a photo in San Cristóbal de las Casas. Photo: Carlos Rosado van der Gracht

Though San Cristóbal is home to a large number of indigenous Maya, it is important to note that these are not the same Maya you will find in the Yucatán Peninsula. 

Some of the Maya groups of Chiapas include the Tzotzliles, Choles, Zoques, and perhaps most famously, the Lacandon. 

Upon the arrival of the Spanish, the Lacandon opted to retreat far into the jungle to avoid conquest and Christianization. Photo: Carlos Rosado van der Gracht

In Chiapas, every major community has its very own traditional dress, often made of wool to help keep warm during cold nights.

An indigenous couple walks down the streets of San Cristóbal wearing traditional garb. Photo: Carlos Rosado van der Gracht

The downtown area of San Cristóbal de las Casas is quite large and features colorful city markets where locals and visitors are able to buy just about anything. 

Markets in San Cristóbal are particularly great when it comes to buying heirloom seeds and produce, including giant red beans and several varieties of corn. Photo: Carlos Rosado van der Gracht

Another commonly noted aspect of San Cristóbal is its wealth of wonderful hotels and restaurants.

Cafes are abundant in San Cristóbal de las Casas, as this region of Chiapas produces some of the best coffee in all of Mexico.

Though traditional Chiapaneco food, mostly tamales, can easily be easily found in San Cristóbal, there is certainly no shortage of great international cuisine — including French, Italian, American, and Japanese 

San Cristóbal is also home to several great museums, including Museo NA Bolom housed in a brightly colored neoclassical Casona which originally was a seminary when built-in in 1891.

The Nabolom museum was founded by the Danish explorer Frans Blom. Today the museum serves as a cultural center focused on the preservation of the environment and Chiapaneco culture. Photo: Carlos Rosado van der Gracht

Of the many communities surrounding San Cristóbal, one of the most famous is San Juan Chamula. The town is well known for its “insurrectionist past,” as one of the hubs of the EZLN guerilla who picked up arms against the Mexican state in 1994. 

In 1994 the Ejército Zapatista de Liberación Nacional, or EZLN, occupied several communities in Chiapas including San Juan Chamula, Ocosingo, and much of San Cristóbal de las Casas. This is in order to bring attention to the plight of its impoverished indigenous community. Photo: Wikimedia Foundation

San Juan Chamula is also famous for its church, a rather extreme example of religious syncretism in the modern age. 

Walking into the Church in San Juan Chamula is an exhilarating experience, as it is unlikely to resemble anything you have ever seen before. Photo: Carlos Rosado van der Gract

Taking photos inside San Juan Chamula’s church is strictly forbidden, so don’t even try it unless you want to spend the night in a holding cell.

Technically taking photos of the exterior of the Church in San Juan Chamula is ok, but I usually choose to take my shots from far away so no one feels uncomfortable. Photo: Carlos Rosado van der Gracht

Within the church, it is possible to see the effigies of local saints presented with offerings including bottles of beer or cola, as well as animal sacrifices, most often chickens.

If you go

Getting to San Cristóbal by land is not hard, but can be a bit of a long haul if you are departing from the Yucatán Peninsula or Mexico City. 

As the roads are extremely mountainous, and the weather very unpredictable, we strongly suggest you take a bus if you decide to travel by land.

A shot out the bus window traveling up the mountains on the way to San Cristóbal de las Casas. Photo: Carlos Rosado van der Gracht

Though there are few direct flights to San Cristóbal, the airport in Chiapas’ capital of Tuxtla Gutierez is a great option.

If you fly or bus into Tuxtla Gutierrez you may want to stop on the way to the famous Cañon del Sumidero, a deep natural canyon located just north of the city of Chiapa de Corzo. Photo: Carlos Rosado van der Gracht

If you are traveling by land from Yucatán, it’s perhaps a good idea to spend a night in Palenque, as the bus ride from Mérida to San Cristóbal is over 12 hours.

If you have never visited the archaeological site of Palenque, taking a day in the nearby town on your way to San Cristóbal makes a lot of sense. Palenque is fantastic. Photo: Carlos Rosado van der Gracht

Another great stop up the mountains to San Cristóbal is the archaeological site of Toniná, a staggering ancient city with one of the largest pyramids in the world. 

The enormous acropolis in Toniná Chiapas is a sight to behold. Photo: Carlos Rosado van der Gracht
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