(above) The hand-carved Temple of Santo Domingo in San Cristobal shines in the afternoon sun; a standing tribute to the artistry of Chiapas’ Spanish colonial past. Again this month we are far from the beaches of the Riviera Maya to show you more from our trip last year to the exotic mountain state of Chiapas in southern Mexico, this time to San Cristobal de las Casas.
The central zocalo and streets of San Cristobal are full of shops, restaurants and color. Both locals and tourists come here to relax and sell their craft work. We came to San Cris after several days in Palenque and the surrounding area. Our drive was on a mountain highway full of switchbacks and steep drop-offs, not a casual drive for the timid driver. Coming from the jungle heat of Palenque, San Cristobal was a welcome change to the cool highlands 7,467 ft (2,276 mtrs) above sea level.
The Santo Domingo church is the gathering place for the city’s daily market offering produce, household items, textiles, and more. One of the most popular souvenirs is the sub-comandante Marcos dolls—the leader of the Zapatista movement (EZLN). The dolls wear a ski mask, rifle and bandoliers. Some have Marco’s wife, Romana, behind him on horseback.
San Cristobal has a long colonial history beginning in 1524 when captain Luis Marin tried to settle the region. He found strong resistance from the indigenous tribes and decided to retreat without establishing a Spanish settlement. 400 years would pass before the area could be fully settled and when it finally was it was named in honor of fray Bartolome who championed the plight of the indigenous tribes. Today San Cristobal is one of Chiapas’ most beautiful cities, nestled in a Chiapan highland valley surrounded by forests. It retains its colonial traditions as a gathering place for Lacandon Maya and other indigenous tribes.
San Cristóbal is a center for colorful handicrafts, international cuisine, regional fiestas, mystical ceremonies and colonial history. Surrounding towns and several nearby churches are enough to keep most travelers here busy for days, but just strolling around town, mingling with the people and visiting the local shops could be a trip in itself.
The zocalo (Plaza Civica) is the heart of town, with the main cathedral adjacent to it. Here you will see street performers, balloon vendors, families, couples and kids, all strolling the sidewalks or sitting on park benches enjoying the scene. On the streets that radiate out from the zocalo are quaint cafes, craft shops, artisans, trendy art shops, museums, bars and live music. Other interesting places include the Amber museum and the cultural center, also just a few blocks from the central zocalo.
One of the most popular places to visit is Casa Na Bolom (House of the Jaguar in the Tzotzil Mayan language). Na Bolom is an interactive complex that houses a museum, cultural center, hotel, restaurant, artisan center and research facilities all housed in an historic monument originally built to house a religious seminary in 1898. The facility was once the private home of Danish archaeologist/explorer Frans Blom, and his wife the Swiss conservationist and photographer Gertrude Blom. The Blooms were devoted to the study and lives of the Lacandon Maya located in southern Chiapas. One morning we had breakfast at the museum, which is open to the public. We were seated in a formal dining room with a long table, elbow to elbow with students of several nationalities, Mexicans and Lacadons. Na Bolom houses visiting Lacandons and tends to their needs as they come to San Cristobal for medical care, etc.
We stayed at Rincon del Arco a hotel a few blocks from the zocalo. One of the most interesting things we saw in San Cristobal was at this hotel when the owner invited us the see his little textile business, a large room full of old looms and spools of thread. It was a great photo op and behind-the-scene look at the looming craft.