Situated at more than 7,000’ in the Central Highlands of Chiapas, Mexico, the mountain town of San Cristobal was first founded by the Spanish in 1528. The mix of old colonial charm and local Mayan traditions gives the city a unique vibe that I found fascinating. I only wish I’d packed warmer clothes! After acclimating to daily temperatures around 85 degrees, 40 degrees felt absolutely frigid.
Being a Spanish colonial town, San Cristobal has more than its fair share of churches. It seemed liked we found another photo-worthy church around every corner.
One of my favorite parts about checking out a new city is finding the central market. I love being bombarded by the vibrant colors, the mix of pungent smells and the loud din of people buying and selling.
If you’re looking for more than produce, snails, whole chickens, flip flops, black-market DVDs and blender parts, head a few blocks down to the artisans market. Hundreds of stalls are stocked with beautifully embroidered fabrics, delicately woven scarves, plush woolen sweaters and handmade jewelry.
Outside of the market district, we strolled down pedestrian-friendly streets lined with sidewalk cafes, chocolatiers and quaint shops. We enjoyed cup after cup of delicious local coffee and savored some of the best food and chocolate (oh, the chocolate!) we’ve had in ages.
Just a few miles out of San Cristobal are a number of Maya villages where local people have maintained many of their traditional practices. As part of our tour, we got to take a peek into daily life in the communities of Zinacantan and San Juan Chamula.
From Zinacantan, we drove a few miles through pine forests and farmlands to the conservative Tzotzil Maya village of San Juan Chamula. People here are unique among the Maya in the way they blend traditional (and non-traditional) Mayan religious practices with Catholicism. From what our driver said, there’s also quite a bit of violence within the community. In fact, a gun battle in town earlier in the day almost prevented us from going. Almost…
From the outside, the church in the (now peaceful) town square looked like any other. But inside, pews were removed and a carpet of fragrant pine needles covered the bare floor. The only light came from hundreds of small candles burning at the feet of full-sized Catholic saint effigies. Imagine 50 or so elaborately dressed mannequins, each representing a different saint, displayed in life-sized glass boxes lining the walls of the church. I’d never seen anything like it. And unfortunately we weren’t allowed to take pictures.
Small groups of people knelt in the pine before particular saints, offering candles and prayers for health or wealth or any number of things. A shaman woman sat with one family, performing a healing ceremony. She broke the neck of a live chicken, waved sage leaves over the floor and drank Coke—all to rid the ill person of his sickness.
I felt a little uncomfortable getting a tour of the church—how would a Catholic in the U.S. feel about a foreign tour group crashing Sunday mass? But watching the shaman practice by candlelight and being surrounded by the strong scents of pine, smoke and incense was quite an experience to say the least.
After our tour, we were all ready for some dinner and drinks. We stumbled on a great bar with draft beer at happy hour prices (it wasn’t anything like the Huanacaxtle Café’s 10 peso deal, but it was still a treat). With lots of 2-for-1 specials warming our bellies, we grabbed some dinner, headed back to the hotel and burrowed under layers and layers of blankets (emblazoned with wolves and other critters). The plus side to being so cold? I learned the Spanish word for blanket! It’s cobija.
Despite the cold, we had an awesome time with the crews of Bravo and Nanna in San Cristobal. In fact the entire inland tour of Chiapas – the waterfalls, the ruins of Palenque and the colonial town of San Cristobal – was amazing. We almost decided to skip the trip (to save money and get to El Salvador faster), but I’m so glad we reconsidered. I mean, it’s not every night that you get to sleep under a howling wolf blanket, right?