At last I had arrived in San Cristobal de las Casas, the backpacker hub of Mexico’s Chiapas region. It was getting late, I had no idea where my hostel was and I was echo de polvo (made of dust) – knackered.
The journey from San Pedro in Guatemala, which involved 1 boat ride and 3 buses, had taken just under 11 hours. This was longer than expected; about 30km beyond the Guatemala-Mexico border we’d run into an untimely roadblock, set up by a large group of indignant locals as a political protest. We’d had to abandon our minibus (and lose half the money we’d paid), walk through the mob and find a new means of resuming our journey on the other side. I didn’t feel threatened at all, but it was pretty sketch considering there were no other backpackers around and I’d inconveniently managed to lose the Dutch couple from my minibus amidst the chaos.
For what it was worth, this was a much different Mexico to the one which I’d become accustomed in Tulum of the Quintana Roo region to the east. But then I’d known it was going to be different. Tulum, fun as it was, distinctly lacked authenticity and charm. It was completely re-purposed for tourism and there was an ever-lingering layer of tackiness that you just couldn’t get shot of. Playa del Carmen was even more plastic.
But despite how annoying it was, this was the first time I was seeing something raw and actually representative of everyday Mexican life.
Eventually, after staggering through the crowds, carrying everything I had in the sweltering heat, I’d found a packed colectivo taxi headed for a small town near San Cristóbal de las Casas. There was just enough room behind the driver for me to dump and sit on my bag. I sat facing an elderly Mexican gentleman who, for the whole ride, had absolutely no qualms about loudly hawking up phlegm and spitting it out onto the floor every 5 minutes. It was gross, but I was on my way.
Now I was wandering the streets, desperately looking for a map or Wifi so I could find my hostel.
As I wandered, I couldn’t help but notice how religious San Cristóbal de las Casas was, despite – apparently – belonging to the least Catholic state in Mexico. There are churches occupying just about every other street corner and posters of Pope Francis, who visited a few weeks before my visit, adorning the walls. He gave an open-air mass at a massive sports complex which had a temporary replica of the city’s cathedral installed. Tens of thousands of Mexicans attended. Later he took to the city’s streets in his badass Pope mobile. Judging by the photos taken that day, not one inch of road or pavement was spared. And Chiapas is the least religious Mexican state.
Just like the roadblock scene, Chiapas was a far-cry from the glitz and glamour of Quintana Roo. Quite the opposite actually. Without wanting to sound patronizing or, even worse, like one of those loathsome “oh-look-at-the-poor-people-aren’t-they-fascinating” type tourists, San Cristóbal was palpably poverty-stricken. I don’t enjoy seeing people sit, sell or beg on the street but from a traveler’s perspective I will say it was an eye-opener and a relief to be away from the make-believe playground of places like Playa del Carmen.
San Cristóbal de las Casas: The Harsh Reality
Life is hard, really fucking hard, for many people in San Cristóbal de las Casas. I’m sure there’s a lot to it – politics, greed, lack of funding and so on – but I’m not going to pretend to be an expert. All I can say is that there were hundreds of people vying for pavement space to sell what little they had, and it was poignant to observe. Each day I shopped in the huge local food market and was astonished by how many locals were trying to earn a living there. They were all selling the same thing at the same price (I didn’t feel it was appropriate to take photos).
One day I overheard a couple of Aussie backpackers haggling with a little girl over the price of a few avocados. When she wouldn’t budge, one reasoned that another girl sitting a few feet away would sell for less. I was disgusted. Not only was this probably untrue but the fact that they had the nerve to barter with a girl of about 10 who can’t earn more than $2 a day made me want to scream. So I did, kind of. “Seriously!?” I proclaimed. They turned round, clearly confused like the pair of cretins they were. “You’re actually trying to haggle over a fucking avocado? She’s just a kid!” I went on. Their response was not exactly apologetic. “Fuck off mate it’s none of your business”. I could see immediately there would be no reasoning with them. “Just think about what you’re doing eh guys? She earns less than a dollar a day”, or something to that effect. I walked away shaking my head to the sound of more ‘fucks’ and ‘cunts’ ringing in my ears. It was disgraceful, but I’m pleased to say this was a one-off occurrence.
In retrospect, I’m glad I said something to those douchebags. Perhaps my interference didn’t amount to anything but maybe, just maybe, they quietly reflected on their appalling behaviour later on.
I guess the only thing we can do, as budget backpackers, is give to the local community whenever possible. Buying on the street rather than in supermarkets; staying in family-run hostels rather than chains/hotels; leaving our tour guide a good tip, etc. That’s what I try my best to do anyway.
Things to do in San Cristóbal de las Casas
Other than wondering the streets, exploring the markets, the cathedral, its grounds and the many, many other churches in the city centre, there are plenty of things to do in San Cristobal.
For instance, you could climb the tall staircase that leads to a tiny church overlooking the city. If it weren’t for the dilapidated buildings and mess of cables crossing over the staircase, the view from the top would be fantastic. However, it’s still worth the hike if you need some exercise (likely, given the amount of burritos and quesadillas you’ll probably have devoured).
Museums in San Cristóbal de las Casas
Museums abound, although the only one I had time to visit was Museo de Medicina Maya (The Museum of Mayan Medicine). There was a video to begin with, which to be honest was probably the most interesting part. I certainly walked away with a higher admiration for midwives, and a more-rounded understanding of some of the stranger rituals associated with childbirth. However, the garden was a mess, and in certain areas appeared to be more of a squat than a museum.
One morning my travel companions and I woke early to visit the nearby village of Chamula, where we were promised “more markets”! Now there was a surprise. And there were markets – hundreds of them – lined up throughout the main village square. But what drew our interest more than anything else was the brightly painted green church (Iglesia San Juan) facing the square. We paid 20 MXN each to go in. No photos allowed, but I wouldn’t have felt comfortable photographing anyone or anything in there. It was dark, there were no pews and the floor was covered with green pine leaves. Chamula families sat or knelt in lines, praying and chanting, in front of candles, soft drinks, flowers and – in some cases – live chickens. The soft drinks, I now know, were probably stand-ins for the ceremonial sugar-cane-based liquor called Posh. The flowers and chickens were sacrificial items, prescribed by curanderos (‘medicine men’), whose job, apparently, it is to diagnose believers with medical, psychological or “evil eye” afflictions.
I didn’t actually witness a chicken being slaughtered, nor did I particularly want to stick around to see it, but I did hear a muffled squawk from somewhere at one point. I thought it best not to go and investigate. The whole thing was a bit surreal for me, but nonetheless an amazing cultural insight that will stick in memory.
After that, we walked beyond the church, uphill, in search of a local (whose name I forget) who supposedly loved meeting and talking to tourists. After half an hour of aimless wondering, some confused stares from other Chamula locals and a detour to a local cemetery, we gave up and headed into a shop, where a couple of 14 year olds served us 5 different types of scrunch-face-inducing mescals. When in Rome!
Where to stay in San Cristóbal de las Casas
You’ll have no problem finding accommodation in San Cristobal; there are heaps of hostels to choose from and they’re all super cheap. In fact, the rates were the lowest I encountered in all of Mexico.
I found and reserved a bed at Rossco Backpackers on Hostelworld, which had superb reviews and facilities, and offered dorm beds for just $7/night with breakfast included.
After eventually managing to find a Wifi connection on that first day, I discovered that it was miles away from the Ado Bus Terminal (about half an hour on foot). Ball bags.
However, when I finally arrived, all damp, decrepit and sleep-deprived, I saw that the hostel had been worth the effort. There were two common areas – the upstairs one a comfy loft with bean bags, big TV, DVD selection and so on – a large kitchen, two large terraces with hammocks, a massive patio with a bonfire area and a pool table. The beds weren’t brilliant but for $7/night you really can’t complain! Each dorm had its own bathroom and one large locker per bed.
Rossco Backpackers is run by a large and very welcoming Mexican family. They mingle with the guests and work hard to create a warm, relaxed atmosphere, which is especially noticeable once the fire gets going after dark. They don’t try to rip off backpackers like some local tour companies. They offer the best rate for the Sumidero Canyon excursion at 250 MXN ($13), which includes private transport and a stopover in the nearby charming town of Chiapa de Corzo on the return journey. Other tour companies in town were offering the same package for $20.
Getting to San Cristóbal de las Casas
The easiest way to get to San Cristobal is by bus. Ado, the biggest long-haul bus company in Mexico, make it very easy for travelers to make a reservation with their brilliant app. It’s free to download and super easy to use. AND – if you book at least one day in advance – you can get your ticket for HALF PRICE! This, I discovered, was a little known fact among backpackers in Mexico. On Ado’s website you can’t get half price because in order to qualify you have to pay with a Mexican debit/credit card. With the app, however, any debit/credit card is accepted. Winning!
Alternatively, you could try to get there by colectivo (minivans that drive between towns picking up random passengers along the way) but this is only worth it if the journey isn’t split into more than two legs and you don’t have to wait around at random bus stations for 1 hour before the bus fills up. Also, if you’re coming from Oaxaca or Chetumal the journey will likely take over a day with all the stopovers.
So my advice is take the Ado bus (and use the app!)
Should you include San Cristóbal in your travel itinerary?
Yes, you absolutely should! Especially if like me you started your trip in Quintana Roo. The contrast is remarkable and apart from getting a real glimpse into daily Mexican life, there are so many great things to do in San Cristóbal de las Casas and the Chiapas scenery is beautiful too. Check out my post on my day trip to the epic Sumidero Canyon!
Have you visited Sumidero Canyon or another one like it? Have you been to San Cristóbal de las Casas? Is there anything else you’d recommend doing?
Many thanks to Rossco Backpackers for hosting me in San Cristóbal de las Casas. Like always, opinions are my own.