A five hour bus ride took us from Juchitan to San Cristóbal de las Casas, our first stop in the state of Chiapas. Wow – what a city! If the goal of our travels is to get to some of the less-traveled parts of the world, this was what we were aiming for. Make no mistake, there’s plenty of tourism here; it’s one of the city’s major industries. But until we started looking at going overland from Puerto Escondido to Guatemala I’d never heard of San Cristóbal, a city of nearly 200,000 people that is the cultural (though not political) capital of Chiapas. What a shame it would have been to have missed it.It’s worth noting that while we hadn’t heard of San Cristóbal, and we suspect that most American tourists haven’t been here, it’s not entirely a secret. In just three weeks the Big Guy – Pope Francis himself – is coming here for a day. He probably won’t have the same experience we did, but the city is already getting excited about his visit. Pictures of him are popping up and the Cathedral is getting repaired and painted. You don’t have to be a Catholic, or even a Christian, to get a sense of how big a papal visit is to a city like San Cristóbal.
In our travels over the years we’ve been to several great, beautiful old Spanish colonial cities: San Miguel de Allende and Oaxaca in Mexico; Antigua, Guatemala; Cartagena, Columbia; Granada, Nicaragua; and Cuzco, Peru come to mind. Now we add San Cristóbal to that list. Red tile roofs, cobblestone streets, wrought iron adornment, and vibrant colors. Then add to all that the pedestrian ways lined with cafès, restaurants, bars, mezcalarias, and shops and you have a pretty great set up. I told Mark the next time he wants to stop for a few weeks to study Spanish this is where we’re going.
Now admittedly, there’s not a heck of a lot to do in San Cristóbal. The pedestrian streets are fun, and there’s a great market next to the Santo Domingo convent. Some churches worth poking around in and a few cute little parks for sitting and reading and people watching. But everywhere you walk it’s just pretty. And – this is key for us, of course – the restaurants were little short of amazing. One meal in a Neapolitan restaurant where the owner was indeed from Naples and (except for one unfortunate dish) the food was every bit as good as you’d get there. Dinner at a tapas bar whose owner was from Barcelona – and whose wife was from Basque Country. They knew a thing or two about tapas! A Thai restaurant where the food really could burn the hell out of your mouth. And of course great Mexican food everywhere.
So we loved San Cristóbal. Getting there, on the other hand was hell. As I mentioned earlier, Mexican buses can be extremely comfortable. I just don’t understand, though, why they have these crazy loud obnoxious movies blasting, the bane of my bus-riding experience. You can be on a long bus where everyone is trying to sleep and they’ll be blasting some slasher movie at insane volumes. Maybe three or four people at most watching it, but – for me at least – utterly impossible to read or listen to my own music because of the blaring volume. I can’t fathom why people don’t complain; I did, but either the driver didn’t understand me or chose to ignore me. There are times when the bus ride can be pleasant, relaxing, and a great way to get around. But you never know if you’re going to end up on some hellish ride with an excruciating soundtrack of exploding bombs, crashing cars, and slashing sword fights.And we made one rookie mistake. If you look at a map and find San Cristóbal down near where Mexico meets Guatemala, you’ll see that it’s way far south, as far south as you can get in Mexico. And Mexico is warm. So, we figured San Cristobal was warm, too, right? Oh, wait – we forgot to check the elevation. Turns out the city sits at about 7,000 feet above sea level meaning that year round the average daily temperature is in the 50s and 60s, with January (not surprisingly) at the low end of that range. Once the sun went down the temperature would quickly fall into the 40s which is cold for us these days.
Interestingly, though, the locals make almost no accommodation to the weather. There appears to be no such thing as indoor heating. All the restaurants and cafés had outdoor seating that was in constant use, all without the outdoor heaters you seen all over Europe. And if you go into the restaurant? Doesn’t usually do much good since there’s no heat there, either, AND the doors and windows are wide open. So we were dressing in our full winter clothes to go out. As for sleeping, though, it was heaven. Of course, it didn’t hurt that our all nine rooms in our little hotel had their own fireplaces. So every night wen we’d come back from dinner they’d make a fire in our room. Maybe that’s why I loved San Cristóbal so much!