The Spell of San Cristobal
I departed the bus as the sun came up
from an overnight journey from the beach
to the mountaintop town above all the mist
curious what San Cristobal would teach.
First it was the cold that woke me right up
I shivered in my romper and sandals
at that moment I knew I couldn’t predict
the plans of a place this magical.
I stepped out into the drizzly street
with nothing on my mind but to wander
and step by step what did I find
but more than I could ever ask for.
The scent of copal wafted through the air
mingled with the freshness of the rain
darling little restaurants, cafes, and shops
on a pedestrian path where music played.
At the main square in town I discovered
the energy that would pick me right up
tag artists painting colorful murals
to the beats of old school hip hop.
The good vibes that came from the city
sent me straight up to the sky
I drank a strong juice of pina and chaya
all that I needed to get high.
Without a clue where I would sleep that night
I trusted my intuitive wisdom
and stumbled upon a darling yoga hostel
grateful for the easy decision.
After so much worrying
about this next phase in my journey
I couldn’t help but smile
knowing I was exactly where I was supposed to be.
I shopped in organic markets
and dined on vegan feasts
chilled for hours in wine bars
and sipped on mezcal in the street.
I shopped in vibrant markets
and befriended native healers
I learned about Mayan medicine
from amber jewelry dealers.
In a nearby village I sat and watched
the Catholic Pagan ceremonies
a man in the church sent his spell towards me
but darkness can’t touch fairies.
I called on their lightness as I witnessed
my old karma come to shake me
I felt guilt and anger and a numbing pain
in the midst of such striking poverty.
When children came to sell me things
I wondered how I should respond
then I remembered what I learned in Cambodia
and I decided to just be love.
As much fun as I had in deep conversations
about mysticism with shaman after shaman
San Cristobal’s spell taught me
that the most spiritual thing is compassion.
I witnessed that life is more complex
and more simple than we can even see
I remembered that no matter which road we choose
the journey gives each and every one of us
just what we need.
How to Get to San Cristobal de las Casas
The nearest airport to San Cristobal is in Tuxtla, about an hour from San Cristobal. Flights connect with Mexico City for international and domestic departures.
First and second class buses connect San Cristobal with destinations all over Mexico. I came on the first class night bus from Puerto Escondido, which took 13 hours and cost about $30. I’ve also met many people who rented cars in the Yucatan and drove them all the way over to San Cristobal. I imagine this must be a great way to stop at waterfalls, cenotes, and other attractions along the way.
If you’re traveling between Palenque and San Cristobal, many tour operators will pick you up in either Palenque or San Cristobal, take you to the waterfalls of Misol Ha and Agua Azul, and then drop you off at the other destination. I believe the tour isn’t much more expensive than bus transportation.
Where to Stay in San Cristobal de las Casas
San Cristobal is full of charming guesthouses, super social hostels, and luxury hotels. I recommend staying near the Zocolo or the Real de Guadalupe, where most the restaurants and community gatherings are.
Dorms from 100 pesos, privates from 250 pesos, shared bathroom, includes breakfast
I loved staying at this homey little hostel just a couple of blocks from the Zocolo. They offer a nice and simple breakfast of fresh tropical fruit, granola, and local bakery bread plus they have a small kitchen, which even has a blender for making your own smoothies. There are a couple of courtyards and a yoga room where they have daily classes. My favorite thing about staying here was meeting the very sweet people who work and stay there. It’s super low key, so don’t expect a party hostel, but still social. If you go, please look for Alfredo and give him the biggest hug from me. This man is a beautiful, beautiful, beautiful soul and anyone who meets him will be truly blessed.
Puerta Vieja Hostel
Dorms from 120 pesos, privates from 400 pesos, includes breakfast
If you’re looking for the quintessential hostel scene, but with clean digs and a good night sleep, check out Puerto Vieja. It’s relatively new, in a beautiful colonial building, and a nice courtyard, kitchen, and even a temescal. Work trade opportunities also available if you plan to stay awhile.
Rooms starting at $106 USD
Centrally located right in the buzz of Real de Guadalupe, Casa Lum is an intimate boutique hotel with sustainable practices. They have a sweet little courtyard, a chic restaurant, and beautiful, clean, natural simple rooms. The super sweet receptionist from a nearby village gave me all kinds of local tips to experience San Cristobal off of the tourist trail.
If you’ve ever wanted to sleep in a museum, look no further! The famous Na Bolom estate filled with collections from the travels of Swiss anthropologists in Mexico has rooms you can stay in. It’s a bit of a walk from the center of town (about 1km) on a peaceful street. The rooms are filled with curiosities and most have their own fireplace. The rate includes a tour of the house/museum.
Where to Eat and Drink in San Cristobal de las Casas
San Cristobal might be the cheapest and easiest place to eat healthy of anywhere I’ve been in the world. Most restaurants and cafes offer green juice for a few dollars, there’s an excellent and inexpensive farmer’s market, health food stores, and plenty of health focused and vegetarian restaurants. There are also tons of cute Mezcal and wine bars, and restaurants serving international cuisine, Interestingly, finding Mexican food is a little more difficult. Though you can get some delicious and inexpensive meals in the market and find some incredible produce from the mountain towns.
Casa del Pan
Dishes from 40 pesos, multi course vegan buffet lunch 140 pesos (1:30pm – 4:30pm daily)
This is one of my favorite vegetarian restaurants I’ve found in my travels, with truly healthy, delicious, unpretentious, satisfying food. The vegan buffet is awesome, and definitely worth the price. It starts with a homemade hummus and fresh whole grain bread, includes a big salad bar, a soup, an entrée, fresh juice, drinking water, and a desert. At night you can purchase an awesome vegetarian quesadilla on the street in front made from organic blue corn tortillas with fillings like squash blossoms and wild mushrooms. Not to be missed at only 25 pesos!! They also have a little shop in front with organic produce, local yogurt, homemade baked bread and pastries, and all kinds of dry goods.
Organic Saturday Market
Every Saturday morning just a couple of blocks from the Zocolo, you’ll find the local organic farmer’s market with everything you need to make your own feast. They have a spectacular abundance of organic greens for a very low price, local dairy, fermented foods, organic non GMO tortillas, hummus, and awesome prepared salads, tamales, and quesadillas. It’s fun to come early and shop, then make a little brunch with the ready-made food. There’s tables in the courtyard area so you can eat and socialize with new friends.
Local Produce Market
A few blocks beyond the artisan market on the road to the Mayan Medicine museum, you’ll find the local produce market, with all kinds of cheap produce daily. Some comes of the truck and probably has lots of pesticides, but you can also find amazing farm eggs, mountain berries, organic zucchini and many other precious treats. It usually goes until the afternoon.
Te Quiero Verde
Dishes from 40 pesos
Cute and sunny little café open for lunch and dinner with all vegetarian fare. They have a variety of juice, including green juice, big veggie burgers, pastas, salads, and more. The prices are almost shockingly low for the portions and quality. I highly recommend the Belgian style french fries.
30 pesos for juice, 60 pesos for breakfast
This café right on the corner of Real de Guadalupe has an awesome breakfast and the best green juice in San Cristobal. The fruit salad is a work of art with all different kinds of fruit, yogurt, seeds, oats, and even organic alfalfa sprouts.
25 pesos and up for tacos
Taqueria Bendita does what Mexico does best: tacos and mezcal. It has a cool, cozy bar setting and an inexpensive menu of tacos and other Mexican staples. Veggies will find plenty of options too. They’re open late and are close by the Zocolo and Posada Ganesha.
80 pesos for shots and cocktails
I’m hardly a big drinker, but there’s something about Mezcal that I just love. Perhaps because it’s pure, unadulterated, and carries the spirit of the agave plant. La Surreal has a vast collection of wonderful Mezcals plus truly delicious cocktails. The vibe is trendy though laid back and they have a small menu of sandwiches, salads, and Mexican dishes.
Drinks and deserts from 25 pesos
Probably because I grew up in Seattle, I’m always in search of the best coffee house. When I want to just chill out, or work, or check email, or whatever, the coffee house is my sanctuary. Carajillo was that sanctuary for me in San Cristobal. There’s several locations on Real de Guadelupe, but I prefer the biggest one, which is clean and sunny. I recommend eating elsewhere, but getting a cacao infusion and a desert.
La Vina de Bacco
Drinks from 20 pesos include a free tapa
Undoubtedly the most popular place for drinks day and night in San Cristobal is this cozy wine bar. Tables spill out into the street and it’s an ideal place to have an aperativo before dinner. The atmosphere is always lively and you really can’t beat the prices. Every drink includes a free piece of bruschetta, they also have a small menu of pastas and salads.
What to Do in San Cristobal
There’s plenty of magic to be found simply by wandering the streets of San Cristobal and talking to strangers. You can take in the pretty colonial architecture, see if there’s anything happening in the Zocolo, and of course check out live music on the streets at night. San Cristobal also makes an excellent hub for nearby hiking and boat trips down the Canon de Sumidero.
This is the place to get locally made handicrafts that come from the nearby indigenous villages. San Cristobal is famous for amber so you’ll find lots of handmade amber jewelry. As it is in most markets in the world, haggling is totally acceptable here.
Yoga and Healing
The magical energy of San Cristobal attracts healers and yogis from all over, which makes it easy to find classes and inexpensive massage. In the same space as Casa del Pan you’ll find Ananda Yoga with a variety of yoga classes multiple times per day, plus massage and Reiki. Posada Ganesha has twice daily yoga and massage as well.
Museo de Maya
While small, this museum set in a house in a garden is a great introduction to traditional shamaistic healing practices and plant medicine. They have an onsite temescal and a garden with medicinal herbs. You can also buy different teas, tinctures, and other medicine onsite.
This famous house turned museum is filled with the treasures and artifacts from the travels throughout Mexico of a Suiss anthroplogist/archaeologist couple. Make sure to bring exact change. They couldn’t break my bill when I went, and so I wasn’t actually able to go inside.
Canon de Sumidero
One of the biggest tourist attractions in Chiapas, and certainly in San Cristobal, is the Canon de Sumidero. This stunning canon has a waterway that spans over 25km with towering rock walls, banks of vultures, waterfalls, and crocodiles. The two and a half hour boat trips are 100% worth it and a must do when in San Cristobal. Tour operators all over San Cristobal will offer organized transport from your hotel to the boat and back. I did it on my own by walking to the bus station in San Cristobal, taking another bus to Chiapa del Corso, then a collectivo to the boat dock. From there I waited about 45 minutes for a boat to fill up. In the end, I paid probably the same price as a tour, but it took a lot longer and I don’t know if it would have been possibly if I didn’t speak Spanish. Unless you definitely want an adventure, I highly recommend going with the tour.
San Juan Chamula
To be honest, it’s very strange to me that San Juan Chamula is such a popular tourist attraction. This small town about 20 minutes from San Cristobal has some nice handicrafts (you can find them in the artisan markets in San Cristobal too) but most people come to see the traditional pre Hispanic religious practices in the local church. When you first enter town (I recommend going without a tour, but catching a local collectivo for a few dollars from San Cristobal) you’ll walk down the hill towards the cemetery. It’s pretty amazing with a ruined church and gravestones covered in pine needles. Further down, you’ll find the infamous Pagan Christian church with pine needles all over the floor and saints down at eye level. Be aware, taking photos is completely prohibited, and unless you intend to enter for spiritual purposes, I’d recommend not entering at all. People in this space are practicing very intense ceremonies and out of respect it’s best not to dilute the energy of it by gawking. You can expect to see people spraying posh (a local alcohol) on each other to cleanse bad energy and even chicken sacrifices. I had a strange experience of a man shouting his chant in my direction with an angry expression. I couldn’t understand why because I was fully clothed, silent, alone, not taking pictures, and respectfully having my own experience, but my presence seemed to trigger him. Again, if you do go in, do so with an open mind and a pure heart.
The tour operators are always changing. So scope out different tour desks on Real de Guadalupe or ask at your hotel about nature tours. Some on offer when I was in San Cristobal include nearby hiking and mountain biking, city bicycle tours, and horseback riding through the forest to San Juan Chamula.
Responsible Travel in San Cristobal
You may quickly notice in San Cristobal an alarming degree of poverty. It’s the most intense I have experienced in Mexico, and a striking contrast to the prevalent tourism industry. If you’ve traveled to Cambodia, think Siem Reap meets Mexico. Perhaps nowhere in Mexico displays so clearly the effects of government corruption on indigenous communities. I’ve chosen not to go into detail on what this corruption entails, but like so many places in the world indigenous people are losing their rights to pure nature, clean water, and the freedom to live off the land. The result in San Cristobal is indigenous people struggling financially and selling their goods to tourists in the streets.
There’s no easy answer on how to respond or help, but there are a few things that I can suggest based on my personal experience. First, educate yourself. If you speak Spanish, ask locals questions about the history of the area, the treatment of the indigenous people, and what kind of future they want to create. Read up on the Zapatistas, the revolution, and various movements dedicated towards protecting indigenous rights. Secondly, never buy from children. This is a strict rule I’ve set for myself wherever I travel. Yes, they’re cute and sweet and it’s hard to tell them no, but it’s really in their best interest. These children deserve better than to peddle souvenirs to tourists late at night. When you give kids your money you encourage adults to put them to work, because they know that tourists are more likely to buy from kids. And last, and most importantly, be an expression of love. Treat everyone you meet with loving kindness. Share your positive energy and happiness. This helps the world so much more than we realize.
Have you been to San Cristobal? What was your experience there? Any advice you can share?