Okay, so it is not an exaggeration: we love San Cristobal de Las Casas. A lot. Allow me to count (a few of) the ways:
IT’S GOT SOL
SCDC is a sunny place. During our visit, we asked around and locals all maintain that one of their favorite things about living there is the climate. The temps are what we consider as near to perfect as you can get – sunny and in the high 70’s during the day with low humidity and a slight mountain breeze. We walked around in T-shirts and cargo pants and never once overheated, even after climbing up and down the ever inclining streets and flights and flights of stairs to reach hillside cathedrals. The evenings are clear and crisp, the temps dropping to the 50’s and 40’s. After dinner, we often wandered the streets, cozy in hoodies and gloves, savoring the scent of wood fires. The winters can get quite “cold” (by Mexico standards) in SCDC and in extreme cases can dip down to the 30’s. The hottest temps in the summers top out in the high 80’s/low 90’s.
NO COMPASS REQUIRED
It’s a city AND an orienteering tool! We never felt lost in SCDC. Like most colonial towns in Mexico, the streets fan out from the zocalo, the park at the city’s center. From the adjacent plaza area in front of the city’s main Cathedral, there is a beautiful 360 degree view of the surrounding foothills and mountains. As we explored, we found ourselves recognizing the landmarks in each direction: to the north—a mountain ridge with two lone trees at the top, to the south—a pair of hills shaped like camel humps, to the west—a large mount with a radio tower and to the east—the stunning white facade of the church of Guadalupe. From literally every vantage point in the city, we had a view of the densely-forested mountains that encircle it, a sight we had been sorely missing. And as Tor pointed out, SCDC is the first place where he has seen pine trees growing next to palm trees.
(And yes, this can be interpreted more ways than one). Aside from an endless number of establishments offering local fare, the city has a diverse mix of ethnic dining options, from Italian to Thai, even Lebanese and to our surprise–sushi! A few culinary highlights from our stay:
El Argentino on Calle Real de Guadalupe is a bit pricier than most places, but has excellent, close-to-the-bone Argentinian grilled steak (280p) and empanadas criollas (55p). A wonderful al fresco dining spot, right in the heart of the pedestrian mall.
Casa Alameda on General Utrilla has a flowering courtyard where we enjoyed dessert by candlelight one night (cappuchinos and arroz con leche) and breakfast another day (tamales Chiapanecos and huevos Mexicanos). Delicious food, great prices (breakfasts start at 35p) and charming ambience.
Touted as a “cultural cafe”, TierrAdentro is housed in the courtyard of an old building and ringed by small artisan shops peddling clothes, crafts and books. From the impassioned hand-painted murals of zapatistas on the walls to the red, glass, EZLN stars dangling from the ceiling, you get the feeling you are being sold more than just food. But the food they do sell is excellent. For breakfast one day, we enjoyed salmon and egg sandwiches (55p) with an otherworldly green bean salad, paired with large glasses of their jugo verde, or green juice – pineapple, mango and nopal (cactus) juice (26p).
For rapido y rico (fast and delicious) food, we recommend (I’m definitely spelling this wrong): El Changarallo on Ejercito Nacionale for their savory, football-sized burritos for a mere 40p. Also, the cafe in the center of the zocalo, serves some very tasty coffee (25p) and baguettes de pollo (45p).
BEST BEANS SOUTH OF THE BORDER
The city may have had us at “hello”, because the first thing we smelled as we stepped out the door of our hotel was the achingly rich scent of coffee beans roasting. The coffee in the Yucatan is palatable, but we have yet to find a really good cup amongst the jungles and mangroves. In the mountains of Chiapas, however, it’s a different story … following our noses, we made our way to the door of Yik Cafe, where, despite the name, we found two of the most full-bodied, flavorful cups of coffee we have had in a very long time. We sipped away with glee as we watched an aproned man load up a large grinder in the front of the shop. This became a daily tradition–trying different cafés around town, and we found that even the “worst” cup in the city far surpasses any coffee that we have had thus far in Mexico and even more surprising, rivals the fine product of our old home, the very bean-centric Seattle.
YOUNG & OLD, HIPSTERS ALL
SCDC may be one of the most stylish cities we have seen. And we’re not speaking in the haute couture sense, but what we consider fashionable–an abundance of people displaying a wide range of unique and vibrant personal styles. Sitting at an outdoor cafe on the Calle Real de Guadalupe one afternoon, we watched a fascinating mix of people parade past. Gorgeous Tzotzil and Zinacantan women in indigena dress, often accompanied by their husbands who (in contrast) sport stylish modern haircuts, blue jeans and cowboy boots. Ruddy-cheeked local children wearing snug hats in the shape of animals. Teenagers in screen-printed tees, vests, aviator glasses and every variation of Converse imaginable. Sherpa-vested bohemians in woven pants and sandals, some with elaborately plaited hair, some with dreadlocks.
In the plaza, rugged, older gentleman chatted and played chess in windbreakers, pea coats and fur-lined hats. Chic women fluttered past in layers of elegant necklines accented by scarves, arms clinking with the music of silver bangles. We even spied some Jewish men in Yeshivish dress (black suits and hats), enjoying a walk in the warm sun, hands at their backs. We found all of this new and inspiring to the eye; such an appealing mesh of beauty, diversity and originality is sometimes hard to find all in one place.
OUR LEGS NOW LOVE US
SCDC definitely gets a Walkscore of “100” from us. The city has an elevation of 7200 ft and the air is a bit thinner, but so rejuvenating and fresh; we adjusted quickly. Even from our Las Delicias neighborhood, high up on Tapachula street (one of many killer views), it is only a 20 minute walk downhill to the zocalo. The historic district is one of the largest we have seen, stretching in all directions for several city blocks. We walked every day, but only saw a fraction of what we would have liked to, constantly spying more buildings on far-off hillsides that warranted a closer look.
CULTURE OF CREATIVITY
As we’ve traveled through Mexico, we have found an art scene alive in every city, some more prominent than others. San Cristobal hums with a creative soul all its own. One day, we meandered for hours, enamored with the artistically-painted houses that dominated a colorful block. Another day, we cupped steaming mochas at a cafe on Utrilla and examined several bulletin boards crammed with adverts for jazz shows, band concerts, art exhibits and independent film showings. This intrigued us. In the evenings, live music (good live music!) poured out of the restaurants and bars on Hidalgo, Calle Real de Guadalupe and Ejercito Nacional. Everything from 80’s pop, rock and punk to singer-songwriter, Cuban jazz and salsa.
And as for shopping? The handcrafts in SCDC are actually some of the loveliest and of the finest quality that we have seen in all of Mexico. One day, in the mood to peruse something besides amber pendants and woven table runners, we decided to check out the local shops a bit farther up on Calle Real de Guadalupe, away from the more tourist-oriented pedestrian mall. We picked up a few finds at Trueke, which sells eclectic clothes and accessories. Our favorite shop, however, is Elektro Voodoo, an independent clothing store owned by Frederica and her husband, which offers an array of very clever, screen-printed T-shirts and hoodies featuring original designs, as well as beautiful hand-sewn purses, outerwear, and jewelry. It’s such a fun shop that we had to stop through three times. Where else can you get a hoodie with an AT-AT screen-printed on it? (Yes. Nerd-alert. We know.)
San Cristobal de las Casas can truly be described as a city of “living history”. Founded in 1528, it underwent several name changes (Villa Real de Chiapas, Villa Viciosa, Ciudad Real), before appropriating its current name in 1848. As we wandered, each day became an adventure in spotting more history as there are a plethora of fascinations to explore, such as the city’s landmark bright, gold Cathedral and its adjacent San Nicolás Temple, constructed in the early 1600’s by Augustinian monks to serve the indigenous people, the Casa Na Bolom, once home to Danish explorer/archaeologist Franz Blom and his journalist wife in the early 1900’s, and the Merced Monastery, built in 1537 as a fortress to defend the citizens against attack.
Many of the historic buildings have signs posted in front of them that read, “¿Quieres saber qué pasó aquí?” Do you want to know what happened here? Yes, please. As diehard history fans, it is difficult for us to tire of learning more fascinating tidbits about SCDC’s rich past. But, there’s only so much you can see in a limited amount of time. Another good reason to return.
In the end, SCDC was the perfect highlight of our trip. Like the old pro that it is, the city hit all of the right notes and offered us more reasons to dub the state of Chiapas as one of the most beautiful and intriguing parts of Mexico, hands down.