The first blast rattled the contents of my bedside table, jolting me from sleep.
I pushed aside the covers and sat straight up.
Then there was another — BOOM.
The sound reverberated throughout the valley that snuggled San Cristóbal de las Casas, a picturesque Mexican mountain town near the Guatemala border, echoing off the dark hills.
Fireworks? I looked at my phone. It was 4 a.m. No way.
The blasts kept coming, doing their best impression of bombs dropped from the sky. Were we under attack? (By… someone? I wasn’t aware we were in threat of war, here.)
Eventually the thundering subsided, and I convinced myself to go back to sleep. The next day, I approached my transplant host at the guest house where I was staying.
“What in God’s name was that terrifying racket last night?” I asked. “Who’s in trouble? What happened? Do I need to join a regiment and acquire arms?”
She chuckled. “They’re celebrating,” she said. “They celebrate every night.”
That’s right. San Cristóbalites, if we can so call them, celebrate with explosions, fireworks and other revelry almost every night. In the middle of the night. One night, I awoke to a marching brass band circling our casa. They came ‘round three times and then stopped in front to play a few songs. It was 4:30 a.m. As the casa is primarily open-air, I listened, and recorded the stereo-level sound from my bed.
They celebrate various saints in a slew of religious festivals that nearly circle the calendar. They celebrate notable historical events. But after spending two weeks in the central Chiapas town, I wouldn’t blame them if they simply wanted to celebrate life itself.
Because life is indeed wondrous in San Cristóbal.
Nestled within the Sierra Madre de Chiapas, a crystalline range of mountains in the state’s highlands, San Cristóbal is characterized by Spanish colonial architecture with sloping red-tiled roofs and cobblestone streets that wind up steep ascents and then disappear into the horizon.
In the mornings, brisk and clear with mist still hanging in the hills like a veil, the city is pale. Then the sun breaks from behind the mountains and pastels become flaming shades of pink, orange and blue, basking in the hot sun before the afternoons inevitably turn soggy, with heavy rains often knocking out cell service and power for an hour or so. The rooftops’ extended overhangs act as rain guards, allowing pedestrians’ heads to stay relatively dry while on the move. Feet aren’t so lucky, however, with the quick downpours flooding the narrow streets by several inches, and transforming the stone sidewalks to slip n’ slides.
I could walk the center easily and lazily, in a couple hours, but I quickly found that San Cristobal’s diversity belies its size.
Two indigenous Mayan groups, the Tzetzal and the Tzotzil, heavily influence the area, and remain a major part of the culture; the locals still wear traditional garb — huipul blouses, long, dyed skirts and blankets worn as pouches for carrying babies — and produce many of the textile and amber and jade goods sold along the pedestrian Real de Guadelupe, San Cristobal’s main drag.
About six blocks north of Zocolo, the city’s bustling plaza, Mercado Municipal stretches out under a series of tents and tarps. Vendors, many of them Mayan, display heaping bowls of spices, baskets of legumes and onions, towers of mangos, pineapples, limes, chili peppers, dragonfruit (called pitaya, here) and prickly pears (called tuna). Knots of garlic hang from strung rope. Whole butchered chickens, their long yellow necks draped over counter tops, are sprayed with water bottles to keep them fresh. Crabs and freshly cleaned fish sit on platters of ice. Some vendors eschew tables in favor of wheelbarrows, touting their wares on the move.
Near the middle of the maze of stalls, stands selling prepared food — tamales with mole and tripe stew, among other things.
While mere blocks, it feels a world away from Real de Guadelupe, San Cristobal’s main drag where the town’s hippie culture is hyper present and backpackers and transplants from all over form a sort of melting pot. Unlike most places in Mexico, visitors can sample both authentic local food, and cuisines including Korean, Thai, Lebanese, Peruvian, Italian and beyond, at at some of the best prices you’ll find in Mexico as Chiapas is generally recognized as the cheapest state. Quality beans from the surrounding farms have inspired a European craft coffee and French bakery culture.
The growth is leading the area to change, rapidly, some told me. But the two parties manage to co-exist rather smoothly for the most part, and the variety lends the city some of its charm.
Mexican musicians, armed with guitars and classics like ‘Bonita’ at their fingertips, are joined in busking by traveling artists from all over South America. In zocalo, the town’s main plaza, I encountered both traditional Mexican dancers and an Argentinian ska band.
And at La Viña de Bacco, one of San Cristóbal’s most popular wine bars, I found it just as likely to meet someone from Sweden as down the street. The locals are chatty, and willing to speak slow, clear Spanish for the benefit of a conversation. Fellow travelers become fast friends. They sit all together, at the same bar, drinking the same cheap but delicious wine, ordering too many glasses, staying much longer than intended.
To truly understand the magic, you need to visit for yourself.
Here’s where to go when you do:
The largest market within walking distance of the center, this one stop shop boasts it all: textile handiwork, produce, cheese, coffee, bread, snacks for lunch and an entire chicken, neck, legs and all, should you need such a thing.
Find Mercado Municipal here.
La Vińa de Bacco:
One of my favorite bars I’ve ever encountered, this wine joint has quality glasses for as cheap as $1, and every drink comes with complementary snacks. There’s more than wine too — sip a mezcal or an Aperol Spritz if you like.
Find La Viña de Bacco here.
There’s a reason this French-style bakery is part of a daily walking tour around the city — be prepared to be bombarded by tourists if you’re there around 11 a.m. — it’s fabulous. Choose from a mouth-watering selection of sweet and savory pastries and sip their superb espresso. You’ll be tempted to come back every day.
Find Kukulpan here.
There are two sides to the city’s main square. The plaza, filled with shoe shiners, snack vendors and live performances is always buzzing. Across the street, you’ll find the peaceful Parque de los Arcos, a quiet space affronting the Museo de San Cristóbal de las Casas that features benches and tables and a long reflecting pool perfect for that perfect shot. Both are magnificent.
Find Zócalo here.
This sprawling wildlife park, known for its stately cave which extends over the Fogotico River, is about a 1.5 to 2-hour walk from the center of town, but it’s worth it to see a glimpse of the country hillside, and the communities living there. If you don’t want the exercise, take a collectivo from the market or zócalo. Ziplining, for a small ticket price (about $5 USD I was told), is available if you want it.
Find el Arcotete here.
If you’re like me, and you crave Southeast Asian food no matter where in the world you are, this tiny restaurant is a good option with a Thai chef. There is a sign outside declaring it “slow food,” and that is indeed correct.
Find Comida Thai here.
Taqueria el Charrito:
This whole-hog operation serves tacos featuring the pig’s cheek, eyes, tongue, brains and more. There is also pork loin and cochinita pibil taco options for the less adventurous.
Find Taqueria el Charrito here.
Mercado de Dulces y Artisenias:
A great place for a snack and shopping, this indoor market in the center features sweet shops selling candied fruits and cream-filled pastries, as well as a host of stands peddling stitched pouches, pillowcases, woven scarves and blankets, shoes, wooden goods, jewelry and a lot more.
Find Mercado de Dulces y Artisenias here.
Teddy’s Coffee Factory:
This WiFi friendly coffee shop also serves Asian fusion and Korean dishes. The bibimbap is tasty; the sushi, not as much.
Find Teddy’s here.
The village of Chamula:
There are several ways to get to Chamula. You can arrange for a vehicle or shuttle to pick you up and drop you off, or you can book a horseback tour from zocálo for about $10 USD. You’ll take a vehicle to a small town outside of San Cristobal, where you’ll get on the horses for about an hourlong ride through the woods, over a creek and up a mountainous road. You’ll have an hour in Chamula — it’s best to go on a Sunday when there is a big market — to eat, visit the church and walk around before taking the journey back. Just know that the trail going through a lot of rocky sections, and not all of the horses are especially well-trained.
Chamula is here.
Pizzeria el Punto — El Cerrillo:
This excellent wood-fired pizza restaurant has a couple locations but this nook, on Calle Comitan, is the most charming and intimate. Sit upstairs for a cozy feel and great views of the Templo del Señor de la Transfiguracion in the El Cerrillo plaza.
Find Pizzeria el Punto here.
The tianguis at 16 de Septiembre and Calle 28 de Agosto:
I’m not sure if this market of tented vendors have a name (tianguis mean street cart or street vendors in Mexico), but some of the goods, especially the jade bracelets, are exquisite, and there are several churro carts scattered throughout to provide snacks for your window shopping.
Find the tianguis, here.
Iglesia de Guadalupe:
Getting to the top requires about 80 steps, but the vistas of the city below are unmatched.
Find Iglesia de Guadalupe here.
The guys behind the counter at this tiny Middle Eastern restaurant know what they’re doing when it comes to pillowy pita, falafel and limonada (limeade), the city’s best. They don’t do much else!
Find Falafel here.