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Your essential guide to San Cristobal de las Casas, Mexico

If you haven’t heard of the magic of San Cristobal-known colloquially as “San Cris”-I’m here to tell you that this small town in Chiapas, México, is about to rise to the top of your travel bucket list.

Located in the mountainous region of southern Mexico, San Cris is a magical town. It is considered one of the most endearing places in the country and has a special charm.

The Cathedral of San Cristobal is located in the heart of the city.

Since the 1980s, this small town has attracted a whole host of creative and spiritual travelers, both Mexican and foreign, making it a center of counterculture and a certain mysticism that is evident as soon as you set foot in the center of town. It was also the site of the historic Zapatista uprising of 1994, whose rebellious wave is still felt today.

Where to stay

There are many options for lodging in San Cris, from the typical backpacker hostel to more upscale hotels that are surprisingly affordable.

I recommend staying in the city center if you’re new to San Cristobal, as the city is very walkable and you can get around easily. There are plenty of Airbnbs located on the outskirts of the city in neighborhoods like San Nicolas and La Quinta as well, in case you want to get away from the hustle and bustle. Here are some of my picks for downtown:

Hostal La Isla: This yogi epicenter is a great place to socialize and have a more communal stay if that’s what you’re looking for. They offer yoga classes and cacao ceremonies on their terrace and also have tours available to nearby attractions.Sombra Del Agua: Stylish and chic, Sombra Del Agua has a stunning landscaped courtyard and a relaxing spa atmosphere. It’s a great place to stay when coming into town because it’s located right in the center of the city. Airbnb: Try finding a place on Airbnb, as the options are plentiful. This cute staycation has the eclectic and colorful style that the area is known for. It’s cozy, centrally located, and ideal for getting into the spirit of the city.

What to do

If you’re looking for a place to connect with nature, your spirituality or local culture, San Cristobal is definitely your place. With several eco-parks within driving distance and a whole host of yoga and meditation spaces, San Cris is a hub for artists, teachers, outdoor enthusiasts and healers alike.

Get out and explore

Parque El Encuentro: This “natural park” is a great place to spend an afternoon hiking, picnicking, or participating in one of their permaculture workshops. They also host community yoga classes a few days a week: Located just a 10 minute drive (you can take a taxi for only 50 pesos) from the city center, this park is the perfect place to spend the day. There is a cave system to explore and acres of forest to hike through. It’s also my favorite place to go rock climbing. Mammoth Grottoes: These caves are a great place to spend the day in nature. It can be reached by taxi in just a few minutes and admission is only 10 pesos (0.50 USD).Huitepec Reserve: Visitors can familiarize themselves with the more than 300 species of plants native to the area, as the reserve specializes in their preservation. Not only is it a great place to learn more about the local flora, but it is also excellent for bird watching and mountain biking.

Learn a new trade

A serene place for a silent retreat (photo credit: Hridaya Family Meditation & Yoga Center).

I know what you’re thinking. “Why would I go on vacation to learn a new craft?”. Hear me out. With so many creative people swarming around and looking to share their talents, St. Cris is an awesome place to try something new. Take a class or a workshop and see if you like it. Who knows? Maybe you’ll come home with a new skill set.

Yoga: There are many places to practice yoga here, but I recommend Ananda. Here you can find yoga teachers who focus on the basic elements of yoga rather than the workout-driven yoga often found in the US. They also host meditation workshops and teacher trainings. Meditation and Spirituality: I consider meditation to be an art and an intentional practice. St. Chris is a great place to “go deep,” so to speak. Consider a 3-day silent retreat at the Hridaya Family Meditation and Yoga Center or try a meditation sound bath: There are many opportunities to try new dance styles or practice one you already know. Latino’s has salsa and bachata nights and the Wapaní Cultural Center often hosts Afro-Caribbean and folkloric dance classes.Permaculture: San Cris is a sustainability haven full of people – foreign and Mexican – who are finding alternatives to the unsustainable status quo. Learn how to grow oyster mushrooms at home, build a raised garden bed or improve your compost with a workshop at Wapaní, Casa Cultural or Arcana Café. Ceramics: This region of Mexico is known for its beautiful ceramics and there are many people in town who give classes on how to make them. Casa La Venta, in particular, has a great ceramics course where you can make your own clay creation on or off the wheel.Rock Climbing: Thanks to Vertigo Rock Climbing, among others, there are plenty of opportunities for beginners to learn to climb and for more advanced climbers to get out and try new routes. You can book a climbing course with Vertigo or just hop in their van for a day of climbing in the mountains.

Immerse yourself in the culture

Much has changed in Mexico as a whole since Spanish colonization. While that period of time left behind beautiful architecture and a whole new mixed culture, it also had a strong hand in attempting to erase the traditions of the indigenous peoples.

With the passage of time, many of the native traditions and languages have disappeared, but what remains is still worthy of admiration. In the villages surrounding San Cris you can taste beautifully colored weavings, carefully crafted ceramics, sustainably sourced honey and cocoa, and many other products.

Amber Museum: This museum is located inside a 16th century convent and houses incredible amber artifacts. Discover more about the art of amber and see what creatures have been preserved in this translucent yellow material.Temazcal Ceremony: These ceremonies have been adapted from ancient Mayan practices still prevalent in southern Mexico. It involves a sweat lodge with intense drumming and incense. The ritual is supposed to have healing properties. Watch for signs advertising the ceremonies, but make sure a Mayan shaman is the facilitator.Na Bolom Cultural Museum: This non-profit museum has a little bit of everything and provides great insight into the local culture. I recommend stopping for lunch or coffee in their cafeteria, as proceeds go to a local community project. If you get the chance, ask them about the work they’re doing too! Kinoki: They often screen local documentaries, so it’s a great place to learn about the different ways in which the experiences of local people in Chiapas are documented. I went there to see the documentary about the Zapatistas called “Heart of Time” and it was an awesome way to learn more about the culture.

Where to eat

Chiapanecan food is some of the most underrated food in Mexico, in my humble opinion. One thing I love about San Cristobal is how much the locals have preserved their agricultural practices and therefore, their gastronomy.

Tortilleria Bats’i Waj: Although not a restaurant, this is my favorite place to get fresh tortillas. why? Because they are working hard to preserve a variety of corn species and therefore have a ton of different varieties of delicious tortillas to choose from.Taniperla: All over town, you’ll find collectives like this one that offer local cuisine with a more community approach to their business. Taniperla has some of the best Chiapanecan food that uses indigenous recipes and practices to prepare it. Do not, I repeat, DO NOT leave San Cris without trying their milk chocolate. Carajillo: Named after a delicious Mexican digestive drink that combines sweet liqueur with espresso, this is the best place in town for a cup of coffee. It’s no secret that Chiapas is known for its coffee, and at Carajillo you can get the freshest beans, roasted and ground in-house and brewed into a delicious drink.Bek, Seed of Life: This is for vegans who want to try local food without animal products. You’re in luck. St. Cris is a great destination for vegans and vegetarians because there are plenty of delicious restaurants like Bek that serve local flavors vegan style.Street Food: Along the streets, you can find a variety of delicious snacks. I recommend you try a marquesita with Nutella and queso de bola for a sweet and savory treat. The street tacos are plentiful and generally quite good, so keep an eye out for the longest lines. That way you’ll know which taco vendor is the best.

Day trips not to be missed.

Just within the city limits, there are plenty of things to do in San Cris. However, getting out to a few different places is a fantastic way to learn about the indigenous cultures of the region, enjoy the outdoors and really soak in all that Chiapas has to offer.

San Juan Chamula: You’ll hear about this place over and over again as soon as you arrive in Chiapas. Famous for its iconic church, where locals practice Mayan rituals inside, this historic town has been a center of attraction for national and international tourism for decades. It is the main source of production of a local liquor called pox and a whole host of handicrafts.El Chiflón: This is a waterfall located a few hours from San Cris and is absolutely worth the trip to get there. You can arrange a tour at any large hotel in town or travel agency to get there, or you can go on your own if you have rented a vehicle.Sumidero Canyon: This impressive canyon is a must-see here in Chiapas. High up in the mountains are the Montebello Lagoons, a picturesque network of crystal clear ponds that stretch all the way to the Guatemalan border. You can take a boat, or a traditional Mayan wooden boat, to one of the lagoon’s small islands. From there, you can take a swim or simply admire the beauty of the water and the mountains.Boca del Cielo: This quiet beach destination is a departure from the mega-tourism of places like Tulum and Playa del Carmen. The best thing about this place is that there is a mangrove lagoon on one side of the island and the beach is on the other side. I stayed at Entremares in one of their cabanas and it was the perfect weekend getaway.

Travel responsibly

It is very important to keep a few things in mind before traveling to San Cristobal, or really anywhere in Mexico. As travelers, we have a responsibility to travel with the dignity of the local people in mind, and I think we can do that. Here are a couple of things to think about:

Tour guides: When visiting Mayan ruins, indigenous villages, or larger tourist attractions like San Juan Chamula, it’s great to go with a guide who can give a more in-depth description of everything you are seeing. I’ve found that here in Mexico, a lot of assumptions can get out of hand if there isn’t a designated person to squash rumors and answer questions.Children selling on the street: Here in Chiapas and in many other places in Mexico, it is quite common to see children selling different things on the street or asking visitors for money. There is a complicated story around why this happens. Until we can really know the impact of this, I think it’s best not to buy or give money to these kids. Each person makes that decision for themselves, but I recommend reading up on the subject before you go.Leave No Trace: This is a more common practice in the outdoor travel realm, but I want to mention it here anyway. Beyond leaving no trash behind, I also recommend supporting the local economy by buying from local vendors and taking public transportation when possible.

How to get there.

The easiest way to get to San Cris is to fly into the nearest airport in Tuxtla de Gutierrez, which is about an hour away. From there, you can take a taxi for about $40 or a colectivo or minibus for a fraction of the price, depending on how much you are carrying.

If you’re backpacking, I suggest you opt for the colectivo, as it’s cheaper and just as safe and comfortable as a taxi. Once you arrive in the city, the colectivo will drop you a few steps away from the city center and you can take a quick taxi to your destination for only 40 pesos (about 2 dollars).

San Cristobal has held a special place in my heart since I first visited in 2017. Being a hub of creative people, it feels like a home away from home. Whether you decide to make San Cris your next vacation destination or decide to stay a while, it’s sure to leave you feeling a little more grounded and perhaps more connected to nature, Mexican culture, and those around you. After all, it’s the perfect place to learn and maybe even grow in the process.

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