Thursday, April 26, 2012

San Cristobal, Mexico

By Nicole

Situated at more than 7,000’ in the Central Highlands of Chiapas, Mexico, the mountain town of San Cristobal was first founded by the Spanish in 1528.  The mix of old colonial charm and local Mayan traditions gives the city a unique vibe that I found fascinating.  I only wish I’d packed warmer clothes!  After acclimating to daily temperatures around 85 degrees, 40 degrees felt absolutely frigid.

Our hotel, El Buen Samaritano.  Nice and cheap, but so unbelievably cold!  No heaters and no hot water the first night we were there.

Being a Spanish colonial town, San Cristobal has more than its fair share of churches.  It seemed liked we found another photo-worthy church around every corner.






One of my favorite parts about checking out a new city is finding the central market.  I love being bombarded by the vibrant colors, the mix of pungent smells and the loud din of people buying and selling.

Colorful produce piled up in buckets and strung from the eaves (look at the size of those grapes!)

Mayan women selling produce in their typical style of dress—long, black, fuzzy woolen skirts with wide belts and embroidered wraps

Perfect pyramids of tomatoes and freshwater snails by the bowlful

Mangoes!  See the small peachy colored ones?
They’re my favorite—juicy, sweet and delicious.

DSC_2755 Chicken, anyone?

If you’re looking for more than produce, snails, whole chickens, flip flops, black-market DVDs and blender parts, head a few blocks down to the artisans market.  Hundreds of stalls are stocked with beautifully embroidered fabrics, delicately woven scarves, plush woolen sweaters and handmade jewelry.

Overlooking the artisans market with, yep, a church in the background

DSC_2774Shuffling through the stacks of embroidered mats for just the right one.  You can’t see them, but I’m wearing a new scarf and turquoise bracelet from the artisans market too.

Outside of the market district, we strolled down pedestrian-friendly streets lined with sidewalk cafes, chocolatiers and quaint shops.  We enjoyed cup after cup of delicious local coffee and savored some of the best food and chocolate (oh, the chocolate!) we’ve had in ages.

DSC_2811  Sitting in one of the sidewalk cafes (brrrr!).  I’m so glad I bought a scarf! 

Like elsewhere in Mexico, roving salespeople make the rounds.  As Aaron likes to say, if you stand in one place long enough, anything you want to buy (and lots of stuff you don’t) will walk by…

DSC_2829 The view of San Cristobal from the steps of (wait for it) another church

Just a few miles out of San Cristobal are a number of Maya villages where local people have maintained many of their traditional practices.  As part of our tour, we got to take a peek into daily life in the communities of Zinacantan and San Juan Chamula.

DSC_2265 It poured while we were here, but the sun finally broke through the clouds and bathed the Zinacantan Catholic church in beautiful afternoon light.

DSC_2250  A Mayan woman making corn tortillas.  I could probably eat my weight in fresh tortillas—no joke.

DSC_2239 Weaving demonstration using a backstrap loom

From Zinacantan, we drove a few miles through pine forests and farmlands to the conservative Tzotzil Maya village of San Juan Chamula. People here are unique among the Maya in the way they blend traditional (and non-traditional) Mayan religious practices with Catholicism. From what our driver said, there’s also quite a bit of violence within the community. In fact, a gun battle in town earlier in the day almost prevented us from going.  Almost…

DSC_2272  The Catolico Tradicionalista church in the conservative Maya community of San Jan Chamula.

From the outside, the church in the (now peaceful) town square looked like any other. But inside, pews were removed and a carpet of fragrant pine needles covered the bare floor. The only light came from hundreds of small candles burning at the feet of full-sized Catholic saint effigies. Imagine 50 or so elaborately dressed mannequins, each representing a different saint, displayed in life-sized glass boxes lining the walls of the church. I’d never seen anything like it.  And unfortunately we weren’t allowed to take pictures.

Small groups of people knelt in the pine before particular saints, offering candles and prayers for health or wealth or any number of things. A shaman woman sat with one family, performing a healing ceremony. She broke the neck of a live chicken, waved sage leaves over the floor and drank Coke—all to rid the ill person of his sickness.

I felt a little uncomfortable getting a tour of the church—how would a Catholic in the U.S. feel about a foreign tour group crashing Sunday mass? But watching the shaman practice by candlelight and being surrounded by the strong scents of pine, smoke and incense was quite an experience to say the least.

After our tour, we were all ready for some dinner and drinks.  We stumbled on a great bar with draft beer at happy hour prices (it wasn’t anything like the Huanacaxtle CafĂ©’s 10 peso deal, but it was still a treat).  With lots of 2-for-1 specials warming our bellies, we grabbed some dinner, headed back to the hotel and burrowed under layers and layers of blankets (emblazoned with wolves and other critters).  The plus side to being so cold?  I learned the Spanish word for blanket!  It’s cobija.

DSC_2275 And you thought I was kidding

Despite the cold, we had an awesome time with the crews of Bravo and Nanna in San Cristobal.  In fact the entire inland tour of Chiapas – the waterfalls, the ruins of Palenque and the colonial town of San Cristobal – was amazing.  We almost decided to skip the trip (to save money and get to El Salvador faster), but I’m so glad we reconsidered.  I mean, it’s not every night that you get to sleep under a howling wolf blanket, right?


  1. I laughed, I cried (that I wasn't there), it was better than Cats! Thanks for the inspiration... and mammalian blanket shots ;o)

  2. It is not only the taste of those tortillas but the smell of them cooking that gets me every time! Oh how I miss Mexico and the local people! Thank you for a trip down memory lane.


  3. We were in San Cristobal and Chiapas in Dec 2010 - Yes December - we wore everything that we had in our suitcases and I think we had that same wolf blanket on our bed. Thank goodness they sell toques in those markets. Beautiful part of the world, isn't it ?

  4. Aaron, after much consideration, I have reluctantly decided to gift you my not one, but TWO wolves howling at the moon shirt that I bought back in the '80's. You've earned it buddy! :)
    So glad to see you two having the time of your lives, and we look forward to your next update!

    Glen and Abby

  5. I quickly bookmarked your windlass rebuild article after a google search a long time ago because I have a big bronze abi to rebuild, and I'm just now getting back to it to find out it is attached to a wonderful blog!
    My wife, Sarah, and I stopped the "real world" and moved aboard our 36' Cheoy lee Luders sloop last year, chasing the dream of REALLY early retirement.
    Great post,
    Now we really can't wait to head south!


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