11 Interesting and Unusual Things to Do in San Cristóbal de las Casas, Mexico

Pedestrianised main street, San Cristóbal de las Casas.

photography by: Sinéad Browne

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Attracting 40 million international visitors annually, Mexico’s popularity as a tourist destination shows no signs of waning. With such famous Mayan monuments as Chichén Itzá and Tulum, the beautiful beaches of the Yucatán Peninsula, Los Cabos and Puerto Vallarta and the modern metropolis that is Mexico City, it is no surprise that these well-renowned vacation hotspots can be quite crowded, detracting somewhat from their natural charm. Fortunately, Mexico has much more to offer, with many of its less-accessible regions remaining blissfully off-the-beaten-path and a haven for travellers looking for something a little different. Right at the top of this list sits San Cristóbal de las Casas, a designated “Pueblo Mágico” and the cultural capital of the often-overlooked state of Chiapas. Frequently referred to by its native Tzotzil name of Jovel, meaning “place in the clouds”, this misty highland city is steeped in indigenous history and full of interesting and unusual activities waiting to be explored.

Take the Free Walking Tour

While free walking tours can be over-marketed and frustratingly uninformative, San Cristóbal’s bespoke offering stands out as a stellar exception. Available in both English (10am and 4pm daily) and Spanish (10am daily), the tour is run by young people living locally who spend the ensuing three hours showing tourists the lesser-known parts of their city, including detailed descriptions of Chiapas’ difficult history and the ongoing struggles to highlight the impact of government policies on indigenous people.

 

The tour provides a unique introduction to the city and its people and at the end, the guides are an invaluable source of information for the best plazas, museums, restaurants and bars that visitors can enjoy without the crowds.


Shop at Mercado Viejo and Mercado de la Caridad y Santo Domingo

In many cities, the marketplace represents the beating heart of the population and San Cristóbal is no exception. For a truly local experience, the José Castillo Tielemans market (more commonly known as Mercado Viejo) is the ideal spot to grab some “comida coleta” such as saffron tamales, sopa de pan, asado coleto, atole de granillo or a traditional agua fresca.

 

The atmosphere in the market is somewhat chaotic – live turkeys can be heard squawking in the background as traders hawk their unique fruits and vegetables – but this only adds to its charm. Clothing has meaning in Chiapas and the Mercado Viejo is an opportunity for native women to show off the apparel unique to their village: from the black woollen skirts of San Juan Chamula to the distinctive red embroidered tunics of San Andrés Larráinzar.

 

Although attracting more tourists, exploring the sprawling maze that is Mercado de la Caridad y Santo Domingo is worthwhile to see some of the best examples of authentic amber jewellery, hand-woven Tzotzil and Tzeltal textiles and traditional Tzeltal pottery from the nearby village of Amantenango del Valle. Nearby shops may sell knock-off versions of the fossilized resin but for true Chiapas amber from the town of Simojovel, this market is the place to find it.

 

Persistent shoppers may even find a remnant of San Cristóbal’s political history in the market in the form of Zapatista dolls, traditional cloth dolls wearing balaclavas to represent the revolutionaries leading the 1994 uprising in San Cristóbal. These dolls became popular in the 1990s and early 2000s but are now only made by a handful of vendors, including a family from the nearby town of San Juan Chamula.


Discover Zapastista Street Art

Visitors who have spent any time exploring Mexico will have experienced a wealth of street art during their travels, from Día de Muertos-inspired murals to colourful motifs depicting traditional cultures. The street art in San Cristóbal de las Casas continues this theme, with many complicated pieces exploring the deep-rooted conflicts over land rights between the indigenous communities in Chiapas and the federal government, which culminated in a 12-day rebellion by the EZLN (Zapatista National Liberation Army) that started on 1st January 1994 in the city.

 

The murals include references to key revolutionary figures, such as Emiliano Zapata, Subcomandante Marcos and Bishop Samuel Ruiz, and also focus on the leading role women played in the Zapatista uprising. Beyond the external art, San Cristóbal also has a wide selection of art galleries for both emerging and established artists and is listed as a UNESCO Creative City.


Enjoy Hilltop Views at the Churches of San Cristóbalito and Guadalupe

Hiking up to one or both of the city’s hilltop churches is one of the best ways to fully appreciate the red tile roofs, cobblestone streets and flower-strewn wrought iron balconies of this Spanish colonial town. The two viewpoints offer different perspectives, with Iglesia de San Cristóbalito (also known as El Cerrito) on the western side and Templo de Nuestra Señora de Guadalupe on the eastern side of the historic centre.

 

This makes Iglesia de San Cristóbalito an ideal sunrise hike, where a stairway between the neighbourhoods of La Merced and San Antonio ascends to the small red and white church dating back to the 18th century. The image of the saint is venerated on 25th July each year, accompanied by fireworks, music and food atop this picturesque hill.

 

About 2.3km away, Guadalupe Church offers panoramic views at any time of the day but is particular special to visit close to sunset, when the lights of the city below start to twinkle across the highlands. This church dates back to 1834 and while the 79-step climb to reach it can be tiring, the peaceful atmosphere at the top is worth it.

 

Our Lady of Guadalupe is the patron saint of Mexico and some say that her feast day on 12th December each year is an even bigger celebration than Christmas, with parades along San Cristóbal’s main street, candlelight vigils and the obligatory fireworks that are an essential part of any Mexican festival.


Visit the Lesser-Known Churches of Templo de Mexicanos and Iglesia de La Merced

While the Zócalo (main square) is the liveliest meeting place in San Cristóbal, a more tranquil people-watching spot can be found in Plaza de la Asunción, located to the northwest of the city centre.

 

The distinct red and white colonial-style Templo de Nuestra Señora de la Asunción (more commonly called Templo de Mexicanos) dominates the square, where the fluttering blue and white bunting overhead matches the interior of the church and (on a good day), emulates the fleecy white clouds outlined against the cerulean sky.

 

While the current temple was built in 1904, the Barrio de Mexicanos neighbourhood dates back to 1528 and it is likely that a sacred building has stood on this site since the late 16th century.

 

An even older religious site stands in Barrio La Merced, rarely visited by tourists but historically significant as it contains possibly the oldest church in the city, built in 1537 as a monastery including a fortress with a barracks for soldiers and later used as the city jail from 1960-1993. Iglesia de la Merced’s huge wrought iron door and thick solid walls with very few windows were constructed to withstand attackers, with strategic holes to allow those inside to fire at their external foes. Part of the building now houses the Museum of Amber.


Relax in Jardin El Cerrillo

Built in the Spanish colonial style, this cosy plaza offers an escape from the hubbub of the main streets, with highly-rated cafes, a pox (local liquor, pronounced “posh”) distillery that offers free tastings on certain days and an art studio with prints available for sale.

 

Given the colder highland temperatures at San Cristóbal’s 2,200m elevation, it is the ideal place to warm up with some locally ground Mayan-style hot chocolate. The garden courtyard attracts a melting pot of international tourists more than willing to share their travel stories over a coffee or a cocktail and while popular with visitors staying in the city for longer periods, its atmospheric surroundings remain something of a hidden gem.

Pox distillery in Jardin El Cerillo

photography by: Sinéad Browne


Learn About Indigenous Culture at Casa Na Bolom and the Maya Museums

The city boasts numerous historic repositories but some, like the Jade Museum, resemble shops more than museums. The one truly unmissable institution in San Cristóbal is Casa Na Bolom (House of the Jaguar), built as a seminary in 1891 but more famous as the former home of Frans and Gertrude Duby Blom in the 20th century.

 

The Danish-Swiss couple spent over 50 years collecting artefacts in the state of Chiapas and were the first outsiders to make contact with the Lacandon people, an indigenous group living so deep in the Lacandon jungle that they escaped the Spanish conquest. The museum contains significant native antiquities, a photography exhibit and a library with over 10,000 volumes dedicated to the history, culture and anthropology of the region. It also functions as a hotel and restaurant.

 

For an in-depth view of Maya culture and customs, there are two other excellent museums in the city that offer visitors a unique perspective on the ancient ways of life. The first is the Museo de la Medicina Maya (Maya Medicine Museum), full of information about the Maya people’s beliefs, traditions, and herbal remedies.

 

The second is the Centro de Textiles del Mundo Maya (Maya World Textile Centre), boasting an extensive collection of Maya-made textiles from Mexico and Guatemala. This museum has the added bonus of free entry into the Museo de los Altos de Chiapas (Museum of the Highlands of Chiapas), covering the history of the local area.

 

While not technically a museum, Taller Leñateros (the Woodlanders’ Workshop) offers a different insight into Maya and Tzotzil crafts. Originally female only, the workshop is Mexico’s first and only Tzotzil Maya bookbinding workshop and it was founded in 1975 to keep the Tzotzil language, culture and stories alive.

 

The world’s first book written, bound, and published by Maya was made here with the somewhat unwieldy title of “Incantations: Songs, Spells, and Images by Mayan Women and Mayan Hearts”. Copies of it can still be purchased on-site.


Explore Nature in Orquideario Moxviquil, Huitepec Reserve and Arcotete Park

While San Cristóbal’s high altitude means that the weather differs greatly to many tourists’ expectations, the dry season from November to April is the best time to explore outdoors activities in the highland region, with perfect hiking temperatures of 12°C to 16°C.

 

For well-marked trails and magnificent local flora, Reserva Ecológica y Orquideario Moxviquil is an ideal place to spend a few hours. Located on the edge of the city, the sprawling botanical garden contains many rare species and has an educational centre to highlight the importance of taking care of the environment.

 

To get even closer to nature, the Huitepec Ecological Reserve is about 4km northwest from the city centre and contains an extinct volcano, the upper half of which is covered in a verdant cloud forest. Cerro Huitepec, the ancient volcano itself, is considered a sacred place for the local Tzotzil people, who make offerings here to appease the mountain gods.

 

For adventure-seeking explorers, El Arcotete Eco Park is located on the edge of town and features caves, ziplines and a relatively recently discovered underground maze. The park’s broad green spaces make it especially popular with local families on weekends and holidays.


Observe Traditional Customs in San Juan Chamula and Zinacantán

With one of the largest indigenous populations in Mexico, Chiapas has a large number of Tzeltal and Tzotzil inhabitants, for whom Spanish is a second language and who mainly communicate using their own dialects. While many native people travel to San Cristóbal to sell their wares at the markets, the best way to get a better understanding of these traditional cultures is to visit a local village.

 

Located 10km from San Cristóbal, San Juan Chamula’s most famous feature is its beautifully decorated church on the main square. A perfect example of syncretism (an amalgamation of religions, cultures or schools of thought), worshippers at Templo de San Juan blend Catholic practices and beliefs with indigenous spirituality, all mixed together with a modern-day twist courtesy of Coca-Cola.

 

While this may sound confusing, nothing compares to the actual experience of being there. On a floor carpeted by pine needles and covered with thousands of symbolic multi-coloured candles, shamans perform rituals including sacrificing chickens while surrounded by the faithful chanting in Tzotzil Maya, pausing only to take sips of pox or soda to precipitate burping, thus freeing evil from the body.

 

Mirrors are everywhere, hanging on the necks of statues in another attempt to deflect and expel evil. Photography is strictly forbidden inside the church and will be prosecuted.

 

10km from San Cristóbal in the opposite direction, Zinacantán is 99% inhabited by Tzotzil Maya and was once an important Aztec trading partner. Traditional costumes are on display at all times but especially on Sundays, showcasing the famous floral embroidered patterns of the village. Local colectivos (communal mini-buses) provide transport between San Cristóbal and both San Juan Chamula and Zinacantán at regular intervals throughout the day.

 

The Coca-Cola connection is a story within a story. In Chiapas, it is estimated that most locals drink about 2 litres a day of the fizzy beverage, more than 5 times higher than the national average. In an area where heavy strip mining has eaten away at the natural landscape of the area and widespread deforestation has depleted water sources, Coca-Cola is often easier to find than bottled water and almost as cheap.

 

Decades ago, special permits were given to Femsa, a local Coca-Cola bottling plant, meaning that they extract more than 1.3 million litres of precious water a day, potentially exacerbating the problem while sales skyrocket. The outcome follows relatively simple logic: drinking locally sourced water can make people sick so the relatively cheap and safe alternative of Coca-Cola has become ingrained in the culture as “liquid gold”, even to the extent of becoming a fundamental part of shaman rituals to induce health and wellbeing, regardless of the longer-term diabetes risk posed by such a dependence.


Experience a Traditional Día de Muertos in Romerillo Cemetery

One of the most noteworthy traditional Día de Muertos (1st November) celebrations in Chiapas takes place in Romerillo Cemetery, where pox is consumed with copious amounts of Coca-Cola during the day and the wooden grave coverings are removed to allow people to communicate with their departed loved ones.

 

The cemetery, located about 13km from San Cristóbal, stands out due to its 22 giant blue and green coloured crosses, representing the 22 communities that can bury their dead here. Individual graves are strewn with marigolds and marked by smaller colour-coded crosses, indicating the nature of the person buried there.

Romerillo Cemetery

photography by: David Cabrera/ Flickr


Learn Spanish

While the majority of tourists coming to Mexico to expand their Spanish-speaking skills will head to Mexico City or Oaxaca, San Cristóbal de las Casas has a number of highly-rated Spanish schools that compare favourably to their more frequented counterparts in terms of both value and quality of teaching. Offering a range of courses from block sessions spaced over weeks or months to more intensive single sessions, these schools cater for travellers at all linguistic levels.

 

For those planning to continue their adventures through Mexico and the many nearby Spanish-speaking countries, San Cristóbal is a great base to learn while enjoying the refreshing mountain air, making the most of any downtime to explore the many treasures both within the city and further afield throughout the fascinating state of Chiapas.

Highland sunset in the city

photography by: Sinéad Browne