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24-29 January 2017. On the first day we climb a broad zigzag staircase to the top of one of the hills that surround the city. It’s a long climb and we rest frequently. We pass some interesting street art,

and the views get better the higher we climb until we can see the whole city spread before us. Like water the city spreads out and finds its level between the small hills that punctuate the valley.

San Cristobal de las Casas lies in a small valley surrounded by hills in the Central Highlands of Chiapas. It is one of Mexico’s Pueblos Mágicos and the magic is seen and felt in the red tile roofs, the Spanish Colonial buildings, and the cobblestone streets. There’s a sense of grounded certainty that arises from holding to old traditions and the architecture of another time.

After Oaxaca, the state of Chiapas has the highest concentration of indigenous people in Mexico and for me the magic lies in them as much as in the colonial cobbled streets. There are several Mayan groups in Chiapas, mainly Tzotzils and Tzeltals. They maintain traditions that reach back through hundreds of years: wearing traditional garments, creating by hand many items used in daily life, following a religion that is an inventive mélange of ancient animist and colonial Catholic, and living within tightly knit traditional community and family structures. People know who they are here, and know they belong.

One morning early in our stay we walk to the Cathedral of Saint Christopher, which borders on the main plaza or zocalo. We arrive at the end of an annual religious ceremony and the plaza is filled with people from San Cristobal and the surrounding villages, all wearing the traditional dress of their particular Mayan clan.

Although this is obviously a special occasion, over the following days it becomes clear that this is also the everyday dress of most of the local people.

The Cathedral and the zocalo are the heart of the town and always the place where people gather by day or night.

Most days we spend some time sitting in the zocalo watching the world go by.

About eight blocks up the hill from the east side of the zocalo is the market. As we walk we pass a man pushing his bright green barrow up the hill. He is selling leather knife pouches and belts. And dangling from the barrow are a baby’s shoe, a child’s shoe, a brass bell, a couple of tote bags, and a colourful half-moon stuffie. 

The closer we get to the market the more we see it spreading out along the street.

The market is an authentic, colourful, and timeless gathering place. The senses are filled with colours, sounds, and aromas as the people of San Cristobal go about their daily life there. What is ordinary for them is exotic for me. I get a glimpse into their normal.

It is modern in so many ways: electricity, cell phones, plastic bags, buckets, and crates, and yet there is the feeling that nothing has really changed for hundreds of years. Crops are still brought to market, babies are still slung on their mothers’ backs with a shawl, and there is still a sense of the organic growth of it – small stalls pressed close together selling everything you could think of. There are flowers for sale next to dried fish, clothing next to bananas, and children’s toys side by side with oranges and mangoes. You can get shoes and chickens and trinkets and all manner of things I couldn’t identify. Beans and garlic, bags and socks, rope, dried chili, piñatas, and exquisite hand woven and embroidered textiles.

Down the hill a little from the market on Avenida 20 de Noviembre is the Templo Santo Domingo, one of Latin America’s most ornately decorated examples of the colonial Baroque style. On one side there is a crafts market selling an abundant array of local textiles, for which the region is justifiably famous. The craft stalls cascade down the long flight of stairs in front of the Church’s glorious façade.

If you continue on down the hill from Santo Domingo back to the zocalo, and then keep going you’ll come to the main walking street of San Cristobal, Calle Miguel Hidalgo.

This is a whole other side of San Cris. For several blocks on either side there are restaurants, cafés, and the best patisserie this side of Paris, where most days we eat not pastries (just staring at them is enough to make me drool), but ice cream. We do try the pastries finally towards the end of our stay and they are as good as they look. There is also a very classy café near our hotel where we eat breakfast most mornings.

We find vegetables! There’s not much in the way of vegetables served in Mexico. It’s not a thing here. And we avoid salads (especially lettuce) because of the risk of food poisoning. In Chiapa de Corzo we discovered some delicious tostadas – crispy tortillas topped with shredded lettuce, tomato, avocado, and prawns. We had them twice and felt like we were playing Russian Roulette. Don had them a third time and got the bullet – food poisoning, and then antibiotics to take care of it. After several weeks travelling around the Yucatan by the time we got to San Cris we were desperate for cooked vegetables and found them – a mountain of them on our plates in one of the restaurants on the walking street, and again further down the street at a Japanese restaurant. Their sushi was not so good but the mass of lightly cooked vegetables in teriyaki sauce was fantastic.

On one of our many wanderings we find the orange-juice seller.

The orange is placed in a hand-cranked machine that peels the orange in long thin strips. The strips are used for various crafts including making earrings. The oranges of course are used for making juice.

San Cristobal de las Casas is a wonderful mix of traditional indigenous culture and big city sophistication. It is considered the “cultural capital” of Chiapas. There is a quite large expat population and their influence is apparent. It’s a city where you find patisseries, Japanese, Thai, Italian, and Indian restaurants, and elegant cafés, contrasted with the orange-juice seller and the traditional indigenous population.

Next post: Another Mayan market, and a truly unique church in San Juan Chamula, one of the villages near San Cristobal.

All words and images by Alison Louise Armstrong unless otherwise noted
© Alison Louise Armstrong and Adventures in Wonderland – a pilgrimage of the heart, 2010-2017.