Have you ever been somewhere and felt immediately at home there? That’s exactly how I felt about San Cristóbal de las Casas.
Perhaps it was a combination of being so. damn. ready. to arrive after my disastrous trip to Guatemala, and the fact that my boyfriend was waiting for me with freshly bought tamales in hand, but San Cristóbal was a big surprise to me. A surprise in the sense that I just immediately loved the place.
However, I should preface this gush of hyperbole with the fact that I did not travel there during peak roaming hippy traveller season, and so likely avoided the worst of the overcrowding. In fact, and unsurprisingly, it was only on the weekend that I saw the main andadores crowded and a little overwhelming. During the week however, it was calm, peaceful and quite honestly, a fucking lovely place to be.
So anyway, disclaimer over with, what makes San Cris so great?
IS SAN CRISTÓBAL DE LAS CASAS MY NEW FAVOURITE PLACE IN MEXICO?
First of all, I love how politically engaged Chiapas is as a whole. This is a state that’s still protesting the forced disappearance of the 43 Ayotzinapa students three years on from the events themselves. Some, like my boyfriend, suggest that they ought to move on from this singular, admittedly pinnacle, event that occurred in the state of Guerrero, simply because so much shit goes down in Mexico (and in the very state of Chiapas itself no less) on a daily basis. I, on the other hand, think that their continued ‘keeping alive’ of this atrocity is symbolic, a symbol of continued rebellion against the oppressive and corrupt Mexican government. And I don’t have any problem with that.
However, the thing I really loved about San Cris, and the thing that will undoubtedly keep me going back were the artesanías. I’ve travelled extensively through Mexico and I can say without a shadow of a doubt that San Cris (and Chiapas as a whole) had some of the best and most affordable artesanías I’ve ever seen in their principal market.
In fact, it was only after visiting this market that I read it was a fairly tourist oriented attraction (not really a shock, given that locals aren’t in the market for fucking pom poms and felt animals every day of their lives), but it still felt very different to every other tourist market I’ve ever been to. Notably, the prices were pretty damn reasonable from the get go and I didn’t find myself wanting to negotiate over anything because it was all SO worth what the stallholders were quoting me.
No, unlike most artesanía markets in Mexico, where haggling is practically a given (and a necessity, if you’re not working with a Western wage and don’t wanna be ripped off), the problem wasn’t finding something worth buying, it was knowing when to stop.
I could have bought a whole alphabet of felt letters, and I can’t tell you how pissed off I was when I saw the giant versions right after buying my petite iterations. I bought a cushion cover for a future furnishing in a house I don’t even own and don’t plan on owning in the near future. Fuck knows what I’m going to do with it in the meantime, but it is so beautiful and it cost me 150 pesos.
And don’t even get me started on the friggin’ pom poms. If it had a pom pom on it, I bought it. I bought pom pom keyrings, hanging decorative strings dotted with fluffy little balls of joy, a.k.a. pom poms, and even a moon shaped trinket with a pom pom hanging from it. What will I do with all these whimsical treats, you ask? Your guess is honestly as good as mine, but I just couldn’t help myself. I swear, my future house is going to look like a damn Mexican marketplace. Is that OK? I don’t know, but it’s too late now.
I really had to hold back on buying heavily embroidered shirts too, because I’m about to go travelling for six months and there’s only so much I can realistically carry. Regrets? None.
Outside of the market the San Cris shopping spree continued, and I picked up so many postcards and stickers that I honestly don’t know where in the world I’ll stick them. Even so, I’m a sucker for anything that I can make into some kind of elaborate and time-consuming keepsake craft at an undefined point in the future. (Remember that time I kept every single ticket over the course of a year and then spent an entire year compiling them (plus photos) into three full scrapbooks? Yeah, final year of university was a bizarre and stressful time for us all, and some channel that stress differently to others.)
Beyond an uncharacteristic enthusiasm for shopping though, San Cris also left me with an uncharacteristic lack of things to say about the local food, which is especially odd given that I can usually rattle my through most of the main dishes of a city (a la Puebla) in just a few days. (I guess I was just somewhat distracted by pom poms in San Cris, I don’t know if you’ve noticed?)
However, what I can say about this pueblo mágico city in Chiapas is that it is all about dat coffee (and café) culture, as well as, oddly enough, tapas. There were some great tapas places on the main strip, namely the famed Viña del Bacco which offers small but sufficient glasses of Spanish Tempranillo for only 20 pesos, accompanied by some complementary tapas. Then you have the further-up-the-street El Cau, which has far superior and equally as free tapas but a slightly higher price point. A Mexican beer will set you back 30 pesos (still cheap af to be fair) and a specially requested, not on the menu calimotxo was just 40 pesos. For comparison, an artisanal Tzotzil beer at Viña del Bacco was 55 pesos (and I can’t recommend it highly enough either, btw).
As for the coffee shops, given that I was sending off my first ever pitches to online publications, I was all about that café hopping life in the few days I spent in San Cristóbal. Places I found with great Wifi, ambient but not-too-loud background music and pleasingly uninterested staff were Frontera, just down from the artesanía market and El Carajillo on the main strip. They weren’t the cheapest, but they were great for sitting down and getting some work done, all while being left in peace by the workers. As for breakfasts and sheer quirkiness of decoration, I can’t recommend La Tertulia highly enough. My huevos motuleños, as part of a generous breakfast package, were a delight. Another spot with a decent breakfast deal is Natura Café, on Calle Real de Guadalupe, and for sheer good value, get off the main circuit and head to Libre Café, which was just down the road from my Airbnb and had the coolest designed menu (visually speaking) I’ve ever seen.
Overall, I really didn’t want to leave, and for a trip where I was all about getting to the next destination, I think that says a lot. And, before you say it, it wasn’t just burnout. San Cristóbal, miraculously not as tourist-filled as I hear it normally is, was delightfully pastel hued, with cafes and coffee galore, plus some picturesque viewpoints and irresistible artesanías. In short, it combined all the things I love about a city into one neat, Chiapan package. Plus, it has delightfully cool mornings, toasty afternoons and reliably spectacular rainstorms that let me get away with wearing the thick, comforting scarfs which are my staple fashion statement in the UK, but typically relegated to the back of my wardrobe over Mexican summers.
I know, I know, this perspective is influenced and shaped by many factors, such as the presence of my boyfriend, the absence of party hostel wankers and a distinct dip in tourism due to the rainy season, but I stand by what I’ve said so far, especially as I felt super safe there too. After being in Guatemala, living in DF and visiting Monterrey on the reg, being able to walk around carrying my laptop (as it didn’t quite fit into my bag) made for a refreshing change of pace.
IS SAN CRISTÓBAL DE LAS CASAS MY NEW FAVOURITE PLACE IN MEXICO?
I don’t want to fully commit to a yes, because 1) that feels dramatic and 2) it feels vaguely like I’d be cheating on Guadalajara a bit. Even so, I did really enjoy my time there. Therefore, I would hesitantly say that, yes, actually, this is my new favourite place in Mexico. I felt right at home there, comfortable, like I was just slotting effortlessly back into place, despite it being my first ever visit. In fact, I really wish I wasn’t leaving Mexico so soon (update: I already left), just so I could go back and coffee drink my way around the place.
Although, while I immediately felt at home there, I don’t think I would want to make it my home. Instead, it feels like the place you escape to for a week to just get away from it all, and that’s fine. Everyone needs a place to do nothing and San Cris might just be that place for me. Still love you though, Guadalajara. And you too, Zacatecas. Don’t worry.
Editor’s note: This piece is my personal reflection on a fleeting visit to San Cristóbal de las Casas and accurately reflects how I felt while I was there. However, I didn’t want this post to be anything more than a superficial reaction, so there are many things I purposefully didn’t discuss, numero uno being the poverty levels.
San Cristóbal de las Casas lies at the heart of one of Mexico’s poorest states, Chiapas, and you will see people of all ages selling goods and begging on the streets, including the very old and the very young. While it sounds vaguely ridiculous to say, to me, this is something that has become somewhat and sadly ‘normalised’ after two years of living and travelling through Mexico. This is not to say it doesn’t impact me, though.
However, for many visitors to San Cris this outward display of extreme poverty in the very heart of one of the more touristy cities in the state is too intense, too uncomfortable and too offputting. My response to that is, yes, being confronted with poverty while sipping a coffee and buying artesanias is all of those things, but it’s also something going on in every single Mexican city, many of which people won’t even think twice about visiting. Case(s) in point: very popular Puebla, which is the 3rd poorest state in Mexico, and Oaxaca which is the 4th poorest.
I’m not saying you should overlook this poverty, nor dismiss it because you want to ‘have a good time’, but if your first reaction is to feel uncomfortable in a specific place simply because the wealth disparity there is more apparent, or more in your face, than other destinations, you might want to consider what’s making you uncomfortable. Is it the fact that you can see what’s happening, or the fact that it’s happening in the first place?