Speed of love in San Cristobal de las Casas

Published: June 5th 2016
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Today we were travelling southwest from Palenque to San Cristobal de las Casas.

We woke early, as we had a 7:20am bus to San Cristobal. Depending on the activity of the Zapatistas, the trip was going to take between six to nine hours. We were more than happy to contribute to the movement’s support for indigenous Mexicans, but the decision was out of our hands. The bus company makes a daily decision on the safest route from Palenque to San Cristobal.

We checked out of Hotel Xibalba, walked to the nearby bus station, had a quick coffee, loaded our packs into the baggage compartment and settled in our comfy seats. We were once again travelling on a luxurious ADO bus, this time with complimentary ear plugs for the movies (a welcome change from the last bus, which broadcast each movie – at volume – over the internal speaker system). We traversed mountain ranges for seven hours straight, eventually stopping at Tuxtla Gutierrez (the state capital of Chiapas) at 2:45pm. A decision must have been made to travel the longer, safer route. The bus emptied, but those travelling on to San Cristobal were asked not to get off by the driver. We left the Tuxtla Gutierrez bus station at 3pm, and for the next hour we crossed canyons, climbed steep mountain roads in smoke haze and gazed out the window at a landscape of burnt rocky earth on our way to San Cristobal.

After a long eight and a half hours on the road, we finally pulled into the San Cristobal de las Casas bus station at 4pm. We jumped into a taxi and sped through very narrow and busy stone streets to Hotel Parador Margarita, an unassuming but beautiful little place that you would hardly know was there. The only street frontage was a large iron door, but once open, we stepped into a lush green courtyard which our room opened into. We checked in, showered quickly and headed out on an orientation walk of the city. For the first time in Mexico, I needed warmer clothes. San Cristobal is in the highlands, so the evenings get cool. It seemed odd that we slept without sheets in Palenque the night before, but tonight we needed doonas (quilts).

We immediately loved the bohemian feel and atmosphere of this place. We loved the narrow stone streets and the soft pastel colours of the buildings. We arrived in the late afternoon on a Sunday, so the city streets were heaving with locals. We walked to the main plaza and past the cathedral on the plaza’s north side. The place was buzzing and it was hard to take everything in, especially considering our long bus journey. We walked to Tierr a Dentro (Centro Cultural Cafe) for dinner at 6pm, and we were hungry, as we hadn’t eaten all day. The cafe is run by Zapatistas sympathisers, and the walls were full of information on the movement and its cause. We welcomed the opportunity to share our food in this fantastic environment. We ordered a huarache combrado (an oblong fried masa base with toppings of res, chorizo, longaniza, pollo, salchicha and champinones) and tacos dorades (chicken tacos with lechuga, queso, crema and salsa). With the cool evening air in San Cristobal, I was able to enjoy my first red wine (vino de la casa) since arriving in Central America. Ren ordered a jugo rojo con beetabel, zanahoria y naranja (a red juice of beetroot, carrot and orange) and finished her meal with a chocolate flan. It was a fantastic evening, and a singer/guitarist played at the front of the cafe throughout the meal.

We walked back to our hotel via the main plaza to soak in the atmosphere of this vibrant highland city. Hotel Parador Margarita had a small bar just off the courtyard, so we settled in for a few drinks before retiring to our room relatively early. It had been a long day of travel, and we were exhausted.

We woke early at 6am, caught up on some travel writing and headed out into the streets around our hotel to find an interesting place for breakfast. With the help of a fellow traveller, we stumbled upon Tonantzin, a fantastic little corner cafe. I ordered the continental breakfast, which included excellent organic coffee, fruit and toast with homemade bread and jams (strawberry and mango), while Ren had a very weak tea, fruit and a fruit crepe. The food was excellent, as were the staff.

After breakfast we caught a public minibus to San Juan Chamula, a small village about 10km from San Cristobal. We arrived to witness a unique (and not terribly well organised) ritual which seemed to involve a ‘changing of the guard’ of local community leaders. Musicians were everywhere, flags were being carried in and out of the Templo de San Juan, and a small gazebo in the main plaza was housing a very intense community meeting. Ren was taking a photo of the Templo de San Juan when a few locals strode up to her and demanded to see the images on her camera. They wanted to make sure she hadn’t taken photos of villagers, which she hadn’t. With our cameras turned off and visibly not in use, we picked up a couple of amber pendants for Ren as we wandered around the village square.

We spent some time in the Templo de San Juan Bautista, where the floor was covered in pine needles and candles (which seemed to me to be a disastrous recipe for fire). After a stroll through the undercover market, we returned to San Cristobal on a public minibus, arriving at 11:30am. We wandered the bustling and fast-paced market (Mercardo Publico Municipal Jose Castillo Tielemans) on the northern side of San Cristobal before retreating from the late morning sun in the cool and dark Templo y Ex Convent de Santo Domingo de Guzman.

We wandered back to our hotel, donned some cooler clothes to cope with the escalating heat and climbed the many steps to the Templo de Guadalupe on the eastern side of the city. On the way we noticed a small shop (Pollos a la Lena) with chickens on a massive rotisserie over a massive naked flame, and the smell was unbelievable. It was 1pm, so we decided to drop in for lunch on our way back from the church. We both ordered a ¼ chicken, and it came with salsa, rice, freshly made tortillas, onions and chilli (the onion and chilli were roasting on a hot plate under the rotisserie). The taste was amazing, and the chilli was the hottest I have ever tasted. Luckily we’d ordered some cold drinks (coke and iced tea) with the meal – I needed an entire bottle of iced tea to cool the chilli heat!

Re-energised after lunch, we walked to the central plaza, dropping into Iconos Mayas on the way to pick up a Maya pendant for me and a Maya bracelet for Ren. In terms of the Maya calendar, my HAAB symbol is Zip and my Tzolkin symbol is Eb. I’d already picked up my HAAB symbol at Palenque, so I decided to get my Tzolkin symbol from San Cristobal.

According to the pamphlet that came with my pendant, people born under the sign of Eb are of a lively disposition – they need movement and life around them, but they make their decisions only after careful thought. They are dependable in marriage and enjoy travelling. They show solidarity, generosity and calmness, and they like to share their experiences, philosophy and humanism. They are kind, tolerant and understanding, particularly towards children. Because they think and act differently from others, they sometimes feel excluded and misunderstood, and they occasionally suffer loneliness. They have an inner rejuvenating fire which gives them a long life expectancy and a strong temperament (ready to face all challenges). Their associated animal is the wild cat; their element is earth; their colours are white and sky blue; their orientation is the setting sun; their key is the sacred path; and their development is experience gained from travelling and from contact with the wise. I was impressed with a few similarities in these traits, so I decided to wear the pendant for the duration of our trip (which culminates on my 50th birthday in Mexico City).

Ren’s Maya bracelet was going to take an hour to assemble, so we walked to the market (Mercado de Dulces y Artesanias) on the southern side of the city, where I was lucky enough to find a Mexican bracelet that I liked. We also checked out the amazing cakes and pastries in the market area. On our way back into the city centre, we walked past the Templo y Arco del Carmen and the Templo de San Franciso de Asis. We picked up Ren’s bracelet, headed back to the hotel to relax and then made our way to Kinoki, an independent theatre with two small viewing rooms that seat a maximum of 10 people. It was 5pm, and we’d decided to catch a film before dinner.

We settled in for a viewing of the harrowing documentary ‘Zapatista, Cronica de una Rebelion’ (Zapatistas, Chronicle of a Revolution). It was a slightly one-sided view of the Zapatista uprising, but we welcomed the opportunity to get a better understanding of the struggle of Mexico’s indigenous populations in Chiapas. While the production was poor, the message was hard hitting, and I couldn’t help but wonder how much stronger the documentary would have been with a good editor, director and producer.

After the documentary we walked to Restaurante Maya Pakal for dinner. We shared a plate of four quesadilles de maiz con jamon (tortilla filled with cheese and ham), and they were fantastic. The evening was cool, so I again enjoyed a copa de vinto tinto (glass of red wine), while Ren had an agua de frutas (pineapple fruit water). We walked back to the hotel and enjoyed a round of Hornitos de tequila with salt and lime – a great end to a fantastic travel day. We retired to our room, and while I headed straight to bed, Ren kept writing into the night.

We woke early and caught up on our travel writing before walking to El Quijote for breakfast at 7:30am. We ordered huevos fritos (fried eggs with ham and chips) and hot cakes with marmalade (along with fruit and coffee). We sat upstairs and looked out over the main street, which was a great, but the food was poor. When a city consistently offers incredible food, it’s such a letdown to have something mediocre.

We decided to take a day trip outside San Cristobal. We left at 9:30am and drove to Tuxtla Gutierrez (the state capital of Chiapas), approximately 45km from San Cristobal. We wound our way out of the highlands, plummeting from 2,000 metres to 400 metres above sea level as we made our way to Chiapa de Corzo, a small township 12km east of Tuxtla Gutierrez.

We were heading to the jetty on the Grijalva River, our starting point for the Canon del Sumidero river canyon tour. We arrived at 10:30am, jumped out of the minibus, donned our lifejackets and clambered into an open speedboat. We sped up the river, stopping every so often to watch vultures, cormorants and the occasional crocodile. The valley walls were almost vertical in places, rising up to 1,000 metres above the river surface. During the Spanish conquest, indigenous Mexicans jumped to the deaths from these cliffs, opting for death over capture.

We sped further into the river canyon, stopping at various spots to view the resident wildlife. We didn’t have an English speaking guide, so a tri-lingual (and incredibly altruistic) German passenger translated for us. We eventually ended at a concrete wall holding back the river, with hydroelectric turbines being used to provide electricity to the Chiapas region. A huge statue took my interest on the river bank near the dam wall, and I was about to take a photograph when our German translator told us it was dedicated to the hydro-electric engineers. I immediately put my camera down. Ren laughed and told everyone on the boat why I hadn’t taken the photo. We were travelling with an engineer who informed me that without engineers I’d still be living in a bark hut. I took his point, but statues of revolutionaries are much more interesting. 😉

We retraced our route along the Grijalva River at high speed until we arrived at our starting point. We clambered off the open speedboat, jumped into the minibus and headed a few blocks into the township of Chiapa de Corzo. We arrived at 12:30pm, walked around the main plaza in the searing heat of the midday sun before bee-lining for a row of street food stalls along one side of the plaza.

Our noses led us to a tiny stall with a sign that read ‘Pollos Asados al Carbon’ (Roast Chicken Coal). There were a few plastic tables under cover at the back of the stall, and the smell of roast chicken was strong in the air. We sat down and a woman came and asked us what we wanted (in Spanish). She couldn’t speak English, but we gleaned from her explanation that they only offered chicken – full chickens and half chickens. I opened my writing pad, drew a circle, divided it into quarters, pointed to one of the quarters and asked if she offered quarter chickens. She smiled politely, took my pen and wrote ‘¼’ on my writing pad. I was so embarrassed. We asked for two ¼ serves with a beer and coke, and within no time at all we each had a ¼ chicken on a plastic plate with a plastic spoon, rice, pasta, slaw and green salsa. It was absolutely fantastic, and we couldn’t believe how such an intense flavour was possible from a hot plate on the street. A very friendly Mexican guy (Jesus Arturo Molina Ruiz, yes he wanted us to know his full name) at the table next to us helped us with our order, and he continued chatting with us throughout our meal.

We finished our meal, said goodbye to Jesus and explored the stalls around the main plaza before making our way back to the minibus. We began the steep ascent into the highlands of San Cristobal at 1:30pm and eventually arrived at our hotel at 3pm. We picked up our laundry, had a quick shower to warm up (the temperature had dropped considerably on our return to the highlands) and headed out into the streets of San Cristobal for one last time.

We walked to the Plaza 31 del Marzo, stood and admired the Catedral and then zig-zagged up the steps of the Templo del Crito de San Cristobal, where we looked out over the city and identified all the places we had visited over the past few days. We zig-zagged back down the over-grown steps and kept wandering the city streets, dropping into the Casa Mazariegos (Centro de Convenciones) at the request of a young soldier to view an army propaganda display. Since returning to San Cristobal from Chiapa de Corzo, we had noticed a strong army presence throughout the city, and the image of a young indigenous boy (barely four years old) completely mesmerised by the Mexican army forces storming his city streets has haunted me ever since – it was so terribly ironic and saddening.

We dropped into Kinokocina (a small bar associated with the cinema we’d visited the night before) for a drink on the way back to our hotel. We sat watching the hordes of people on the street below as we sipped our drinks, and we wished (that age old travel wish) we had another week to spend in this amazing city.

We headed back to the hotel, organised our packs for the long ten hour bus trip the following day, picked up a cafe con leche (coffee with milk) from the cafe across the road and then headed out to dinner at Cocoliche at 7pm. This retro bohemian place was buzzing, and the service was excellent. We shared a del mar salad (lettuce, grilled salmon, avocado, mango and red pepper) and quesadillas with arrachera (tortillas filled with cheese and skirt steak). The food was amazing, as was the atmosphere! With the cooler night air, I enjoyed a red wine (tinto de la casa) for the third night in a row, while Ren had a mango juice with vodka.

We finished our meal, headed back to the hotel, had a drink in the cosy hotel bar and retired to our room at 9pm. We caught up on our travel writing and posted our Playa del Carmen blog, before crashing at 11pm. We were leaving Mexico the following day and crossing into Guatemala, with a ten hour bus journey from San Cristobal de las Casas to Panajachel.

We were catching a bus from Palenque to the city of San Cristobal de las Casas in the Central Highlands of Chiapas State, and it was a very early (6:50am) start. We walked to the bus station and bought a coffee and chocolate milk to have with our breakfast of mixed pastries we’d picked up in a bakery the night before. Our ADO bus was first class, with headphones and drinks supplied. We also had male and female toilets on board, which was just as well, as it was going to be a nine hour trip!

I spent the first four hours writing, but then fell sleep for an hour or so. We had expected the bus to make a few stops every few hours, but it seemed the driver was going to plough through the entire journey without a stop. I started to think about driver fatigue, especially when we got to a section of really windy road. The mountainous terrain did not deter the driver from taking every single corner at full speed, so I was glad we were sitting at the back and couldn’t see the road. At one point our bus was stopped and boarded by a security agent who walked through the aisle as if they were looking for someone, and then randomly asked a woman for her ID. We finally stopped after seven hours at the very large city of Tuxtla Gutierrez, and half the bus emptied out, so we spread out and rode the last hour or so in comfort.

‘San Cristobal de las Casas’ has always sounded incredibly exotic to me, so I was excited to finally be travelling towards it. We began ascending the hills and eventually pulled into the city’s bus station. It had been a long travel day.

Sitting in a gorgeous highland valley surrounded by hills with pine forests, the cooler climate and fresh mountain air of San Cristobal (over 2000m above sea level) provided some respite from the jungle heat we’d experienced in Palenque. I’m sure the higher altitude was also affecting us, but I wrote it off as general tiredness.

Our hotel – Parador Margarita – was the best hotel we’d had on the trip to date. The large and comfortable rooms were set around a well maintained garden courtyard, and we had a cute little hotel bar that we made good use of. It was close to 5pm and the temperature was dropping fast, so it was actually a little chilly for the first time on the trip! I had packed long sleeve tops and a hoodie that had been sitting unused in my pack, so I was happy to get a chance to wear them.

We walked around the city for about an hour. It was Sunday evening and everyone seemed to be out and about. San Cristobal is beautiful with cobblestone streets and colonial Spanish architecture. It has managed to balance a lovely old-world colonial feel with strong indigenous roots, and its biggest selling point (for me) was its walkability, with a number of pedestrian only streets. There were brightly painted houses, churches with imposing Mexican baroque facades on every square, and plazas brimming with street carts and cafes.

We’ve visited many historic and colonial towns, and generally, money is only spent on restoring and maintaining buildings in the central blocks of the old town. However, all the areas we wandered through in San Cristobal were beautiful and (mostly) well maintained. To me it was almost like a bigger, slightly edgier Antigua (Guatemala).

The central Plaza 31 de Marzo was a nice place to absorb the energy of the city. We walked down Real de Guadalupe and Avenida 20 de Noviembre before settling on the Zapatista supporter’s Tierr a Dentro restaurant for dinner (a very bohemian and comfortable internal courtyard that has been converted into a restaurant). It was surrounded by shops selling t-shirts and indigenous outfits, and all of the businesses use their proceeds to support the Zapatista movement. The heart of the Zapatista movement is in Chiapas, San Cristobal and the surrounding mountains.

Andrew and I shared a huarache combrado (an oblong fried masa base with toppings of res, chorizo, longaniza, pollo, salchicha and champinones) and tacos dorades (chicken tacos with lechuga, queso, crema and salsa). Andrew ordered a glass of red wine for the first time on the trip, and I had a jugo rojo con beetabel, zanahoria y naranja (a red juice of beetroot, carrot and orange). I was quite full after this, but I saw that they had chocolate flan on the menu, the waiter promised me that it was only a small piece of flan, so I ordered it. What he hadn’t told me was that the small piece of flan was attached a huge piece of chocolate cake!

After dinner we walked back to our hotel and sat in the very cool hotel bar and had an enjoyable night cap before crashing for the night. It almost didn’t matter that my pina colada was full of sugar, as it had equally large amounts of alcohol.

We had a relatively earlyish start planned, so we walked out looking for a breakfast place at 7:30am. We had a few options but decided on a small cafe called Tonantzin, as we spotted Logan already eating there. Andrew ordered the continental breakfast, which came with organic coffee, fruit and homemade toast with lovely strawberry and mango jams, and I had a fruit platter and a gorgeous fruit crepe. Apart from my giant cup of very weak tea, the breakfast was fabulous, and Andrew enjoyed the best cup of coffee he’d had on the trip so far (even better than in Antigua, Guatemala). The cafe used a local single plantation coffee, so we checked it out as a potential coffee to take home. We’d intended on buying some beans, but the packaging wasn’t secure and we weren’t sure it would meet Australian Customs entry requirements. The mornings, like the evenings, were quite cool, and I had to wear a hoodie and trousers for breakfast.

After breakfast we met Fabian in the hotel lobby and set off for a day trip into the hills. San Cristobal is in the heart of Mexico’s indigenous land, and we took the opportunity to check out the surrounding small villages in the valleys beyond San Cristobal, which are populated with Tzotzil and Tzeltal villages. The villagers have maintained their tribal traditions, customs and various traditional costumes.

We walked across town to the colectivo (public minibus) area near the main market and caught a colectivo to San Juan Chamula. It was a slightly gloomy village with a heavy air to it, and it was a bit intimidating. The women wore shaggy black woollen skirts and the men wore cowboy type hats and either black or white shaggy woollen vests, depending on their status in the village. They also wore heavy expressions that matched the outfits.

Even though the Tzotzil Maya people of Chamula identify as Catholic, polygamy and ancient rituals are very much part of their life. The Cathedral of San Juan Bautista is a classic example of the curious mix of Catholicism and pagan traditional beliefs in some of these areas. Shamans or curandero (traditional holy men) come here to carry out blessings and purifications, sometimes with chicken sacrifices.

We were given strict instructions that photos were forbidden in the main church, and that the locals didn’t take kindly to the rule being broken. A few of these ancient indigenous villages were exempt from Mexican law and allowed to administer their own tribal laws, which not surprisingly err on the side of corporal punishment. There were rumors of tourists who’d been expelled from town and had their cameras confiscated for disobeying the ‘no photos’ rule. They seriously meant ‘no photos’. Fair enough.

A few minutes after we arrived, a few shots rang out, as did a few fireworks. We realised there was a procession of some sort, and guys on horseback and a small band were leading the way towards the church. Apparently we’d chanced upon the ceremony of the changing of city and security officials.

The procession was still a way off, so we walked into the church courtyard. The striking looking church had white stucco walls and ornate and colourful floral designs. We paid a guy an entry fee and walked in through the heavy wooden doors. I could easily imagine that this church was exactly as it was a few centuries ago. The air was heavy with burning copal (traditional incense), and the only light in the gloomy interior was from hundreds of candles. The floor was covered with pine needles. Apparently the pine forest was considered to be holy in pre-Hispanic times, so when the Spanish constructed churches and practically forced attendance, the locals literally brought their beliefs into the church.

There was a much wider selection of saint figurines than you would normally see in any one church, and they were in locked wooden boxes with candles burning for each one. On closer inspection they weren’t saints as we know them – they were actually angry looking Maya gods who bore saint’s names.

There weren’t any pews and the congregation sat cross legged on the pine needle floor in little circles. I found it odd that they weren’t facing or focusing on the church altar, but were instead fixated on a particular saint or the curanderos (shamans) in the middle of each group who had been employed to pray on their behalf.

There was a ceremony of lighting and handling candles, and there were bottles of soft drink and eggs in the prayer circle along with herbs and flowers. I was later told that shamans believe that an egg absorbs sickness, and depending on the level of illness, it escalates to a live chicken being sacrificed. There were quite a few chickens in the church, some already sacrificed and others in plastic bags awaiting the inevitable.

I couldn’t get my head around the fact that one of the curanderos was holding a bottle of alcohol, and another was holding a beer… then I realised that some people seemed to be drunk, very drunk. Apparently, Mayas believed burping released evil spirits trapped inside the body. The random high stack of soft drink bottles in a corner now made sense.

The biggest difference from your average Catholic Church was the fact that the main altar didn’t have a crucifix or any statues of Jesus or Mary. Instead, it had a statue of John the Baptist (given it was the Cathedral of San Juan Bautista), and people were walking right up onto the altar. I followed suit, but it felt seriously wrong, so I got out of there really fast. I can say without a shadow of a doubt that it was the most bizarre experience I have ever had in a church. We all walked out of there looking like we needed some quiet time to process what we’d seen.

We walked into the church courtyard where a sort of flag and incense ceremony was taking place with very official looking men handling two flags that had been removed from the church. We‘d been told that no photos were to be taken in the church and that no photos were to be taken of people without their permission. However, we’d been freely taking photos of the church façade with no problems. So when we exited and saw the ceremony in front of the church, Logan took a photo of it. Before we knew it, there was some yelling, and a few guys walked towards Logan and asked him to delete that particular photo while they watched. They then advanced on me, as I had my camera out too… they looked at my photos, and when satisfied that I hadn’t broken their rules, I got a pat on the shoulder and off they went. It was all a bit intense, but I agree with their stance.

We walked around the rest of the town centre, but due to the ceremonial gatherings and people, we were limited in the photos we could take. The main source of income for the village is from small scale vegetable farms, so the local market was full of vibrant local produce and was very interesting to walk through. Amber is also a local artisan product, and there were many people selling amber products. With Fabian’s help I bought two amber pendants.

I didn’t take a liking to Chamula when we first arrived in the village, but after spending some time there I respected the villagers for being resilient enough to fight off conquistadors and Christian missionaries, and for taking on the Federal Government for their traditional rights. So of course they were going to be weary of outsiders and protective of their culture. Hats off to them. I would even say that tourists shouldn’t be allowed to enter their church.

When we had finished wandering through the Chamula markets, we caught another colectivo from the village back to San Cristobal. In San Cristobal Fabian took us on a market and fruit tasting tour, as we had been asking a lot of questions about the local fruit. We sampled jocote (also called Spanish plum, a tart reddish yellow thin skinned fruit), bananas, blackberries and guavas. I wasn’t a fan of the jocote, but the tiny but very sweet bananas were my favourite. We then walked to the Santo Domingo market that encircles the Templo de Santo Domingo to a point of strangulation. The beautiful baroque exterior of the church gave way to an opulent and heavily gilded interior. I normally don’t like overly lavish design, but there was something I liked about this church.

By now the day had heated up and we walked back to the hotel so I could shed my hoodie and long trousers. The temperature fluctuations between day-time and night-time were quite drastic, and I had multiple wardrobe changes during the day.

The hills east (Cerro de Guadalupe) and west (Cerro de San Cristobal) of the city had the best views of San Cristobal, and each had a church on top. We decided to tackle Cerro de Guadalupe first, as it was closer to our hotel, so we climbed the many steps to the Guadalupe Church. It was quite high up and there were nice views of the narrow streets and rooftops, although the view was somewhat restricted by the dense tree coverage around the church. The walk up Cerro de San Cristobal was steeper and harder, as the steps were oddly wide and uneven. The church was in disrepair (as were the surrounds), but the view from the top was postcard worthy with vivid colours of San Cristobal glowing in the afternoon light, and green hills surrounding it.

On the way up the Guadalupe hill we saw a restaurant (Pollos a la Lena) cooking chickens in a large rotisserie, and it looked and smelled so good that we returned for lunch after visiting the Guadalupe Church (I also found out that I don’t mind climbing hills if I have a food related motivating factor to look forward to!). We ordered a quarter chicken each, and the meal came with tortillas, rice, salsa, grilled white onion and a jalapeno chile (that had been cooking under the chicken rotisserie). It was a phenomenal meal and the deliciousness explained why the take away window was two deep with locals the entire time we were eating. Andrew and I have always thought that we could handle the heat of jalapeno chiles without a problem, until we had the ones that came with this meal. My eyes filled with tears, and I thought my head was going to explode! Andrew had gone very quiet so I realised he was struggling with the sudden and intense heat from the chile too. But I kept trying to conquer the jalapeno for the rest of the meal anyway – it was really hot, but really good.

We walked back down Real de Guadalupe to the city centre and looked for a jewellery shop that specialised in Maya calendar signs that Andrew had seen the night before. We found Iconos Mayas and proceeded to question the excellent woman running the shop about our Maya signs and the different Maya calendars that existed. She gave us a print out of a conversion of our birthdays from the Gregorian calendar to the Maya calendars. Andrew’s Tzolkin sign was Eb and he got a lovely silver pendant of Eb on a leather necklace. My Tzolkin sign was Imox and my HAAB sign was Chen, and I had them both made into a bracelet with a piece of jade. My bracelet came with a pamphlet explaining that people born under the Imox sign usually have cosmic powers and are predisposed to becoming Maya spiritual guides. Apparently people of this sign were unusual, eccentric, hardworking and daring. 😊

While my bracelet was being made, we explored the striking city gate Arco del Carmen and the colourful artisan market nearby. The cute artisan sweets stalls were fabulous. It was a visual demonstration of how much Mexicans love sugar. They had candied every type of food imaginable, and there were also cakes, pastries and sweets. As much as I wanted to try everything, it was a pity we were too full from lunch. I was pretty impressed with the quality of the handwoven woollen fabrics – it’s a good thing I’m not a shawl or poncho person, or I would probably have bought a few dozen of the beautifully designed snug woollen designs! Andrew had been looking for a bracelet since arriving in Mexico and found a lovely leather bracelet that had a strip of woollen weaving in a local indigenous design.

The afternoon had started to cool, so we backtracked to the hotel to get changed into warmer clothes before meeting Fabian and the group for a film date. Cinema Kinoki was showing a film called Zapatistas, Chronicle of a Rebellion. It was a film on Zapatista history from their early work (protesting the signing of the North American Free Trade Agreement with the US and Canada) to about 2006. This was a propaganda film in every sense, and despite the fact that I disagree with armed conflict and abhor violence, I still agree with their political agenda to give indigenous people a voice, and I have sympathy for the fact that they seemed to have no support from any of the major political parties. I enjoyed my first ever Nutella coffee while I watched the longer than anticipated film.

It had rained while we’d been watching the film and the cobblestone pavements had become very slippery… especially in the older streets where the stones had been polished by thousands of feet over hundreds of years. They had no grip whatsoever.

We headed to Restaurante Maya Pakal for dinner that night. We were still very full from our roast chicken lunch, so we only shared the quesadilles de maiz con jamon (tortillas filled with cheese and ham) – they were excellent, but the other dishes around the table got mixed reviews.

We retired to our ‘private’ hotel bar and had a round of tequila. The brand was Hornitos de Tequila, and we’d been joking about our horny tequila drinks… I think the barman was a bit baffled about why we were laughing so much. We’d had such a fabulous travel day that we felt like the luckiest people on earth.

The next morning we had a hurried (and disappointingly substandard!) breakfast at El Quijote and rushed back to the hotel, as we’d booked a tour with a local travel agent to visit Sumidero Canyon. Our group was picked up from our hotel along with nine other tourists for the forty minute trip to the dock closest to the canyon. On the way we noticed lots of women carrying long stemmed roses and lots of families with brooms, buckets and flowers heading to the cemetery. We assumed it was Mother’s Day in Mexico (10th May).

Sumidero Canyon is at a much lower altitude than San Cristobal, so we were back in stiflingly hot and humid weather. When we got off the bus, I had to strip a layer of clothing off that had been sorely needed at the start of the journey in brisk San Cristobal. When we arrived at the dock I realised we were about to be subjected to a mass tourism activity… there were people getting fitted for life jackets and then piled into small basic fibreglass speed boats. The bi-lingual guide we had expected never eventuated, so one of the other passengers was kind enough to translate for us.

The speed boat took us down Rio Grijalva, and within a few kilometres the river gradually narrowed while the cliffs on both sides got dramatically higher and steeper. At the highest point, the cliffs jutted 1.5km into the air. It was dramatic and thrilling, and the view was spectacular. However there was a dark tale that went with the cliffs over the river – a legend is told that an entire local indigenous tribe opted to jump from the cliffs into the river rather than be captured by the Spanish. The Sumidero Canyon is quite an important part of Chiapas and is featured on the Coat of Arms.

We saw a very healthy range of birds – turkey vultures, pelicans, herons and cormorants. We also saw beautiful rock formations, a grotto to Mary, a couple of spider monkeys, a greenish iguana and an impressive Cayman crocodile swimming in the water. The boat ride was very fast, so the breeze kept us cool, but when we reached the dam (where we stopped and turned around for our return trip), we realised how very hot it really was.

The tour included a stop at the town of Chiapa de Corzo. It was as hot and humid as the canyon, and by now the afternoon sun was merciless. Our chief aim was to seek shade, and this determined how we walked around the town. We first walked into the central plaza and looked at a very Moorish looking structure that housed a fountain. We were on a mission to find a lunch spot, and on the way to look at the cathedral just off the plaza we spotted a few food stalls that looked OK. We doubled back to one that was grilling chicken and sat down to whatever they served us. Even though we had no common language, we managed to muddle through that we wanted a quarter chicken each (with Pictionary skills from Andrew). A guy sitting next to us wanted to practice his English and came over to chat until the meal came out. The meal consisted of very tasty chicken, rice, slaw and a pasta salad of sorts, with a green salsa. It was the highlight of a day that had been a little disappointing thus far.

After lunch, again hugging shade in the arcaded government building, we walked around the square. The shaded portico was full of handicrafts and local sweets. We also found a way to get up to the second level of the government buildings for a better perspective of the town.

It took an hour to drive back up to San Cristobal. After our day trip in unbearably humid weather, we were really glad to be back in the crystalline mountain air. As with most places we visit with a central plaza, we always gravitate towards it. San Cristobal’s plaza had a central bandstand instead of the usual fountain, and it had been converted into a cafe. On the northern side of the plaza, the very large yellow and red Cathedral sat quite imposingly. And the other sides of the plaza held arcaded buildings that housed shops and banks.

This part of Mexico is well known for two magnificent products – their coffee and chocolate production. Mexicans may produce fine coffee beans, but sadly most coffee we tasted had been stewed in a percolator. The coffee culture in Guatemala was much more to my taste. However, I’d heard good things about the coffee here and I was eager to try it. We visited a few specialist coffee shops that promoted local coffee from this region, as we wanted to support the small-scale (usually indigenous) coffee growers in Chiapas. Not surprisingly, the history of the coffee industry of the area was a highly exploitative one until recent community-based efforts to protect the smaller growers were introduced. The organic coffee at Tonantzin was the best of the coffees Andrew (who drinks far more coffee than me) had tasted on the trip so far.

One of the first things we’d noticed in San Cristobal was a massive army presence around the plaza and surrounding streets. While walking down a pedestrian street, we were invited by an army officer to enter an army museum of sorts. We weren’t totally sure what we were supposed to be looking at, as there was an oddly curated group of things on display – old photos of people of importance, old bank notes, a copy of the constitution and poster sized promotional photos of army hospitals where wounded civilians were being treated and soldiers were giving water to ingenious persons etc. We thought it quite funny that 24 hours ago we’d been subjected to Zapatistas propaganda and now we were being subjected to army propaganda. I’d really wanted to take photos of the army trucks parked around the plaza with army guys casually hanging out of them with their menacing weaponry, but I didn’t do it. However, at one point a whole troupe came pouring out of a cafe and marched right in front of us and through the town, so I snapped a few photos (but still wasn’t sure if that was OK or not).

We ran into Logan who talked about meeting Nadine for drinks on the balcony of Cinema Kinoki. It was a lovely evening for it and we got a bird’s eye view of the activity of the pedestrians and cafes on Real de Guadalupe below while we chatted about the trip, as well as our future and past travels.

That night we headed to Fabian’s favourite spot for dinner – Cocoliche. It was a bohemian place with an eclectic menu. Andrew and I shared a del mar salad (a grilled salmon salad with lettuce, avocado, mango and red pepper) and quesadillas with arrachera (tortillas filled with cheese and skirt steak). The food was excellent, as was my very thick mango shake with a shot of vodka. After a quick round of drinks in our private hotel bar on our last night in San Cristobal, we decided to have an early night. We had a long day of travel ahead of us, and we were crossing the border back into Guatemala.

If I ever wanted a mountain escape in Mexico, this is where I’d come back to. The appeal of San Cristobal for me was its uniqueness. The constant indigenous culture sitting within a relaxed urban environment, fabulous food, picturesque landscapes and beautiful architecture, all in the shadows of the Zapatista Movement to keep things real.

San Cristobal was a great place to chill out for three days. It has a very relaxed vibe and is visually stunning. It has managed to walk the tightrope of being an old-world charming colonial town, while still hanging on to tribal roots. If anyone ever wants to experience cobblestoned colonial beauty AND curanderos performing cleansings with firewater and chickens – San Cristobal and surrounds is exactly the place. 😊

Next we cross the border back into Guatemala, and travel southeast to Panajachel.


5th June 2016

Loved San Cristo!
This blog brought back so many great memories of my time in San Cristo! I did the same bus ride from Palenque, but I have a feeling yours was longer!!! So glad you saw some crocs! Looking forward to more CA!!
6th June 2016

Re: Loved San Cristo!
That bus trip from Palenque was LONG, but thankfully all our public bus trips in Mexico were quite good. San Cristobal was such an awesome place, and it will be one of those places we will definitely go back to if we return to Chiapas.
6th June 2016
streets of san cristobal

Doggone great!
You're so right--San Crisobal has it all, even a regal street dog! Loved your adventures in the gorge and the small towns, and your souvenirs of jewelry of your Mayan birthdays. That yummy huarache combrado was named after the shape of the handmade huaraches (sandals) that the rural people wear. I spent five weeks there one Christmas, but I'll definitely return and try out your restaurant suggestions. Have fun on your next stop--Hippytanango!
7th June 2016
streets of san cristobal

Re: Doggone great!
San Cristobal had many lovely street dogs, but this one was my favourite and lived on the street we frequented the most. We only had one bad meal in the entire time we were in San Cristobal, and we both really want to go back :)
9th June 2016

Expelled from town for taking photos!!!
Now that is what I call a serious town, but I guess if they did they would put you on the bus that had male and female toilets - that's what I call luxury. Love the thought of a statue for engineers, I had this mental image of some of the engineers I have worked with and visualised a stone statue with pens in the top pocket, a folder under one arm and holding a calculator - yep I wouldn't photograph that either.
9th June 2016

Re: Expelled from town for taking photos!!!
I loved the ADO buses in Mexico...and the best part was that the toilets got cleaned at stops...so civilised! I didn't pay much attention to the statue of dam engineers, but now I wish Andrew had taken that photo so we could compare it to your visualised image ;)
9th June 2016

No photos for you
San Cristobal sounds lovely. We will get there some day. I've always been surprised that people are allowed to take photos in churches but they sound very serious about it. Standing their ground. As always we enjoyed reading as you ate and drank your way through town.
10th June 2016

Re: No photos for you
Merry I loved that a few churches we came across wouldn't let tourists into the church during mass. Our need to take photos and gawk at the architecture should come second to the primary purpose of the church. But yes, they were super serious about their rules in San Juan Chamula :)
9th June 2016
san juan chamula

Love this one.
10th June 2016
san juan chamula

Re: Perfect
I wanted to capture the yellow chickens in Mexico...they feed them marigold petals seeds to change the colour of their egg yolks and skin (and to protect them from mites) :)
12th June 2016

San Cristobal
Hi there - I agree with you, there's something special about the name "San Cristobal de las Casas" that in itself warrants a visit. A great read, thank you, you've made me look forward to my visit to Chiapas even more now. Fascinating description of the church in the village of San Juan Chamula - very interesting, but like you, I'm not sure what I'd probably need some processing time after a visit there. Thanks as always for the pre-trip inspiration for me :) I have gathered that by now you guys must be safely back home in Australia, I'm looking forward to further entries as you publish them - particularly as to how you get to Mexico City from Antigua (my guess is you'll fly there from Guatemala City, and then fly back from Mexico City all the way home - I await future blog entries with interest :0) )
13th June 2016

Re: San Cristobal
I'm very much looking forward to reading your take on San Cristobal Alex, and your views on the mixing of religions...especially given your theological educational background. Yes are back home, and trying hard to keep on top of posting blogs! I'll send you a private message :)

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