San Cristobal, Mexico, has been on our list to visit a long time. Now that we are here, we understand why a good friend recommended this place for an extended stay – especially in the summer when the coasts are sweltering.
It’s a city filled with tourists from all over the world, yet businesses don’t overly push tours or menus. It’s a city in one of the poorest states in the country – Chiapas, yet there are signs of local wealth. It’s a city with culture: there are Catholic churches perched on high hilltops and several museums and art galleries, yet the valley’s facades wear graffiti calling for hyper-local democracy. The duality is subtle on the surface.
Unlike Mexican tourist zones like Playa del Carmen or Puerto Vallarta, restaurant workers in San Cristobal and tour companies are not into street hustles to get you to buy a meal or a day trip. It’s laid back here, and you’re left alone. It’s similar to the chill vibe of Puerto Escondido, but even more so.
That said, poor people do try to sell things to tourists. Women carry arm loads of blankets or trinkets. Men park wheelbarrows filled with every variety of nut you can imagine and offer samples to passing tourists on the pedestrian-only streets.
Boys lug around shoe shine stools, brushes, and polish, on the hunt for any customer whether a tourist or not. One day, two boys came out of a store in front of us and immediately looked down at my husband’s shoes to size up their potential customer. Since Tedly wore sneakers, they sped away, on the lookout for someone else.
We ducked into a chocolate shop during a thunderstorm for hot cups of cocoa and a sweet treat. As we indulged, several children came in and tried to sell us and other customers various trinkets. I didn’t capture the youngest kids with my camera, but I did capture the image of an older boy trying to sell a toy roughly carved from wood and painted.
How can we be carefree and enjoy two cups of steaming cocoa and a shared hunk of chocolate cake, while a kid in front of us could clearly use several good meals and a hot bath? It sucks. Often we end up giving kids some coins without buying anything.
Some people get emotionally disturbed by street dogs. Expats help in any and every way possible to help the animals. They start shelter drives, raise money for veterinarian care and pet medicine, collect food, and more. Yes, these neglected dogs disturb me, too. There are plenty of street dogs here in San Cristobal.
But for me, it’s the children and women who disturb my soul. These kids are starting off in life so far away from where I was born into the karma pile. How’d I get so fucking lucky?
While most people try to sell something to make money, some beggars don’t have any pretense of selling anything. One woman came into a restaurant where we were having dinner. There weren’t many tourists in this place. She was barefoot and filthy. After she hit a few tables with local people, a worker asked her to leave. Tedly raced across the room to catch our waiter to pay our bill, so he could get some change to give to this woman. We never seem to have enough small bills or coins. (It’s an action shot below, so excuse the imperfect image.)
Poverty is everywhere, and it’s been a problem for decades. There are too many people and not enough resources. That’s why I spent a bit of time explaining the selling and begging scene. The lack of enough work for people has helped shaped the culture here.
This is the state where the Zapatista National Liberation Army surprised the world in January 1994. The movement was born when indigenous people came out against the North American Free Trade Agreement. They said it would hurt the people of Chiapas. San Cristobal was one of the towns the Zapatistas took over.
We met a former freelance journalist who claims to have interviewed the man the world thought was the group’s leader. (The journalist posited there really is no ‘leader’ of the libertarian socialist group, but media needed a poster boy.) While the group is backing a national candidate for next year’s presidential election in Mexico, it has largely fallen from global headlines.
The Zapatista’s influence is seen in artwork all over the city. From paintings to photographs to graffiti – the masked people with raised fists are symbolic of the indigenous struggle against the federal government. Even the Virgin Mary is depicted in Zapatista style mask and motif.
The city itself is beautiful. I’ve enjoyed exploring it during our first week. It’s in a valley surrounded by large hills, and further out mountains and jungle.
San Cristobal has a system of streets in a grid-like form. There are a few streets around the town square that are for pedestrians only. These are the roads filled with more upscale restaurants and cafes.
This city is somewhat similar to Antigua in that building facades are brightly colored. There are a few cobblestone streets away from the city center, but most are smooth.
Also, Maya people are everywhere. Not the same Maya people as around Lake Atitlan or Tecpan or Antigua in Guatemala – there are different groups and dialects here. Also, there are two other indigenous groups, but I don’t know enough about them yet to make a distinction between them.
We bought coffee hauled down from the mountains by indigenous women, and roasted and packaged for sale here in the city. It’s delicious, and we are happy to support them. The former journalist I mentioned tipped us off on where to buy coffee. I’ll write about his tips and our independent discoveries on food and drink in future blog posts.
Our Airbnb apartment is comfortable and it’s within 15 minutes walking distance from the one of those pedestrian streets with the fancy shops and restaurants. Our rental has the most comfortable mattress we’ve had this year, and there is a well-designed fireplace, which I need some nights because at an elevation of 7,000 feet, San Cristobal is chilly, especially after a drenching afternoon thunderstorm. From 49 degrees at night up to the mid-to-high 70s during the day if the sun comes out, somewhere in the 60s if it doesn’t.
The property owner left us delicious honey with a tasty loaf of bread. There are bakeries on virtually every street. They smell amazing – especially when it’s raining. Honey is one of the main crops in Chiapas State, but it’s better known for its coffee and cacao production. Also, tropical crops like bananas, sugar, and corn are major exports from this state.
San Cristobal has the best drinking chocolate I have ever tasted so far in my life. I’m not even kidding. You can order drinking chocolate with no sugar in cafes. It comes with crushed cacao beans, and it is deliciously bitter. It’s nothing – and I mean nothing – like the Nestle packet of chemical crap in your cupboard. The chocolate is so good I have a cup every day!
I have not yet bought a chocolate bar. I have a fear I will become seriously addicted and never want to leave here. It’s real chocolate. Not overly sugary Hershey crap. Chocolate bars with just a touch of sugar does something to me. My spouse Tedly is unable to understand my affection for this heavenly substance.
We have gone to the market for veggies, and as always in Latin American cities, it’s an explosion of sights and smells, with people bustling all around no matter the day of the week (although Saturdays are busier). In addition to fruit and vegetables, livestock and butchered meat is for sale. I usually stay away from those areas (I don’t eat meat) but we rounded a corner and BAM! there were a bunch of turkeys. We are used to see chickens, not turkeys.
To give you an idea on the prices here, our $5 USD at the market bought: three perfect avocados; 20 small tomatoes; three large onions; three sweet peppers – one orange, one red, one yellow; three medium-hot peppers; three giant cucumbers; a pound of green beans; two giant heads of broccoli; three zucchinis. And we probably paid the gringa price. Oh — and throw in a stack of tortillas for another 25 cents, which was made right in front of us.
There are many museums and art galleries. We’ve yet to explore those, but we soon will, now that we’ve established our routine and feel settled in. We are here for another three weeks, and I’m glad because I dig it here.
I’ve been using a large church – Iglesia de Guadalupe – on a hill a few blocks from our rental as part of my routine. It has eighty steps leading up to it. I quickly walk up and down those steps several times in a half hour and boom – that’s a good workout.
We’ve been lucky so far with the weather, because it’s rainy season here. We’ve had several days with sunshine before a brief sprinkle of rain. Only one afternoon had heavy rain this week.
It’s kind of nice to be lazy inside by the fire and spend some time on my laptop. Or wrap up in a sweatshirt and scarf and pants and enjoy amazing drinking chocolate while I people watch from some cafe. I have to remind myself it’s July and it’s summertime back in the U.S., and in my reality, that may as well be on another planet.