As a slow budget traveler in early retirement, I discovered a few things about San Cristobal, Mexico, that short-term stays may not reveal about this wonderful place. The month flew by, and I would return for another stay in the future.
These five points really stand out to me as tidbits fellow travelers may value.
#1: Church steps are great (and free) for daily exercise.
As a beach lover, I’m used to exercise at sea level. Here in San Crisboal, the city is basically at about an elevation of 7,000 feet. It took me a few days to catch my breath, even after coming from Antigua, Guatemala, at 5,000 feet.
Our Airbnb rental is on the eastern part of town, so I opted to go up and down, and up and down, the stairs in front of the Guadalupe church. The top is often called Mirador Guadalupe because it offers views of the valley below (although it’s somewhat obscured by trees. A much better view is from nearby La Maldita Restaurante).
The bottom of the stairs is at about 6,900 feet, and the top is about 7,100 feet. The stairs are a great workout. Even my spouse, who hasn’t exercised much so far this year, has taken to these stairs.
The temperature is great for workouts – it’s never gone above 75 degrees, and often when I exercise in the mornings, the temperature is even lower. (By the way, it’s really chilly here – into the low 50s at night in July.)
Please say hi to Javier! (Pictured above.) He’s the man who sweeps the stairs of basura, or garbage, just about every day. Sometimes late mornings, sometimes early afternoons. He’s a pleasant man who takes pride in keeping the steps clean for the community.
If you are staying on the other side of town, another church with steps is Iglesia del Cerrito. (It’s often misnamed in other travel blogs.) This church is on the west end of the center of town. (Incidentally, best I can determine, all of the gyms are on this end of town, including the sports complex.)
We climbed up to Cerrito one day for the view. The elevation gain is roughly the same; the steps are disjointed with several flat landing on which to catch your breath.
#2: The city’s main market prices are best, and there is a cheap chain grocery store.
Like most Latin American cities, San Cristobal has a great mercado, or market. Everything you can think of is there: electronics, clothes, vegetables, fruit, tortillas, household supplies, and more.
Out front, indigenous women set up their produce on the ground while inside you’ll find the more permanent stands. Giant bags of peanuts – unsalted and unoiled – are a great deal here. I eat a lot of nuts, and one bag lasted me nearly three weeks. Packaged store-bought stuff often has hydrogenated oil. If you get the munchies wandering around, buy a tortilla or two or three, or a stack, right off a griddle. Ask for the salt shaker, just don’t burn your hand!
When you round the corners, watch out for live chickens and turkeys. Sometimes they are standing on crates, sometimes they are tied upside down and hang on the arms of their buyers.
The prices at the market cannot be beat even if you suspect you are getting the gringo price.
For those packaged goods you have to have, such as cereal and pasteurized milk, there is a Chedraui, a Soriana, and a Bodega Aurrera. We prefer Bodega Aurrera – which happens to be right across from the market. Prices for packaged goods at this supermarket are cheapest in town. It’s owned by WalMart, so just know where your dollars are going if you do shop there.
It’s a bag-it-yourself operation at Aurrera, so bring your own shopping bags for environmental reasons, but be ready take your pile of groceries to small counter to bag it yourself among the other customers. Also, this place is always crowded with locals.
Aurrera doesn’t have everything – they don’t have good cheese, for example. But there are other places to buy that, including cheese shops that buy from farms. One is Lacteous Maya, Avendia Diego Dugelay 4a, in the neighborhood Barrio de Guadalupe. Great prices, closed Sundays.
There is another discount supermarket we walked by one day called Pitico, but we didn’t have time to check out the prices. It’s near the Coppel and Granda department stores.
#3: The place to buy great coffee in support of indigenous people.
You can find packaged coffee everywhere and anywhere. The chain supermarkets generally only have the same Mexican coffee you find everywhere else in the country. The cafes in town will sell packaged beans or ground coffee from the Chiapas region. There also are roasters in town where you can buy coffee.
A former freelance journalist who lives here told us where to go for great coffee (so much of it is really good to great here) – and also help the men, women, and children who pick the beans.
This is tricky to direct you to, because there is no sign out front of the small store where the goods are sold. But – I have an address: Francisco I. Madero #43, in the Barrio de Guadalupe neighborhood. The entry way to this small shop looks like this:
The story goes, as I heard it, mostly women pick these beans and bring them into the city at one of the roasters, where it’s also packaged and sold to various cafes. But some of the coffee is packaged and sold at this little storefront for extra money for the women.
I did a bit of recon, and it appears at least one cafe in town sells this as their own brand, but it costs 50 pesos more if you buy it at the cafe. Nothing wrong with that – it’s basic business. The women still are making money, but you are paying a middle man for good coffee. And we drink a lot of coffee.
At the little shop, it’s 101 pesos for 500 grams as of this writing if you buy it at the shop located on Franciso I. Madero. (Just under $5.75 USD at the exchange rate as of this writing for 1.1 pounds.)
The shop also sells other products such as chocolate, organic soap, and other goods.
If you know anything about coffee bean picking, you know that the women who work in the fields can use all the support they can get. And, sadly, too often, the women bring their young children to help because they can make more money by picking more beans.
(*Total side note, a former colleague of mine worked on an amazing, eye-opening investigative report about the “fair trade” coffee Americans buy in stores. If you’re a coffee drinker with a heart, like me, I highly recommend you check out this investigative report.)
#4: Expats are a wealth of knowledge and support, and friendship.
San Cristobal isn’t exactly easy to get to for most Americans on vacation. We’d wanted to check this place out for years, but it always involved a bus ride that was really long when we only had a week’s vacation before our early retirement. So while the American crowd is relatively small compared to other Mexican cities, there are some great people who call this place home.
I recommend you search Facebook for the group “San Cristobal de las Casas Expats.” The people will reach out to you with open arms, especially Helen – the founder of the group – and her husband Mark. They are warm, fun people! They also hold weekly meetings for expats at the restaurant, Panoptico – which I highly recommend.
#5: This is a great place to relax – and work, if you must.
Digital nomads are everywhere, including here. If you are looking for a place to stay long-term in a higher elevation, that’s not swamped with Americans, this is it.
The wifi was touch and go sometimes at our rental, cutting out and going down at some point on a daily basis. But throughout town it seems to be pretty strong if you wanted to set up for a few hours in a cafe. The wifi is constant and strong at Cocoa Nativa locations. Plus, they have amazing cocoa.
If I ever wanted to lay low for awhile with minimal distractions to write a novel or do some other labor intensive project, San Cristobal is a place I would return to. While it has plenty of entertainment, museums, restaurants and cafes, it also has such a laid back vibe. I feel like this place would work better for me to do some real work, instead of the many of the beach towns and cities we’ve been to. (I am easily distracted at beaches – spending days doing glorious nothing on the sea shore.)
Even though I’m more of an ocean lover, this mountain city in Chiapas is so comfortable, affordable, and beautiful that it’s captured a piece of my heart.
Bonus point: a look inside our Airbnb rental
This will give you an idea of what about $600 a month can buy – with a monthly rental discount. Normally the cost is much higher for just a few nights or a week.
We were about a 20-minute walk to the main square, and a ten-minute walk to the main tourist drag. We loved this rental.