Off the Beaten Path in San Cristóbal de las Casas
Journey back to San Cristóbal, Chiapas Mexico 30 years later
By Jeanne Block
What is it like to return to a place of memory 30 years later? After a 6-hour bus ride on winding Mexican mountain roads, I was about to find out. It had been more than 30 years since my last visit to San Cristóbal. I remembered a colonial city of cobblestone streets surrounded by forested mountains and rich in traditional Mayan culture.
Then I was a young backpacker on my way to Guatemala. Now I was a solo senior traveler who still loved being on the road, meeting new people and having new adventures. Would I be charmed by the city and its people now as I was then, or would I be disappointed?
San Cristóbal de las Casas is located in Chiapas, the southern-most state of Mexico bordering Guatemala. With a population of about 200,000, it offers sights, sounds, tastes and smells to explore formany days, but still has a small town feel and is easily walkable. San Cristóbal also makes a great hub for day trips to surrounding Mayan villages whose inhabitants still speak Tzotzil and Tzeltal languages and preserve much of the culture of their ancestors.
Many guidebooks and travel articles document the most popular sites in San Cristóbal - the plaza, churches, and artisan markets – all of which are fascinating and should not be missed. But there are some less well-known, but equally interesting, places to explore to experience the culture and history of the region. Here are a few of my favorites.
Orquídeas Moxviquil (OM), Jardín Botánico
Orquídeas Moxviquil is an amazing nature preserve is a must-see for anyone who loves plants and flowers or just wants a tranquil oasis away from, but close to, the hustle and bustle of the city. Founded in 1994 by an American ex-pat, this orchid sanctuary on the northwest edge of San Cristóbal houses over 400 of the 700 variety of orchids found in Chiapas, as well as many other species of endangered plants.
You can spend hours exploring the walking trails, ponds, and gardens, which are dotted with whimsical wooden bridges and fences. The highlight of OM is a large greenhouse full of colorful orchids, as well as ferns and bromeliads of all shapes and sizes – all indigenous to Chiapas. Sit on a bench, pause to enjoy the natural beauty of the place, and keep an eye out for a wide variety of birds as well!
Kakaw Museo del Cacao & Chocolatería Cultural
Who doesn’t love chocolate? But do you know how it is grown and how the chocolate we eat is made? This small, low-budget museum documents the history and economic and social impacts of cacao in Mesoamerica through film and photo displays, and includes a wide variety of historical utensils used for processing cacao.
Even better – why not process the cacao beans yourself and make your own chocolate at Kakaw Museo del Cacao & Chocolatería Cultura?
I had a private, 2-hour class with Mario and Laura, who both spoke excellent English and gently corrected me as I practiced my basic Spanish. They described current practices for growing, harvesting and processing cacao in Chiapas as we roasted and peeled cacao beans, then ground them into a thick paste using a hand-grinder. Adding just a small amount of sugar, as well as cinnamon, we then ground the cacao paste again.
By adding steaming water to the paste we made small cups of delicious drinking chocolate – similar to the bitter, dark elixir that was considered to be a sacred and powerful beverage in Mesoamerica. Finally, I spread the remaining cacao paste into a mold, which was briefly refrigerated, to create my very own chocolate bar, dusted with cinnamon. Yummy!!
Centro de Textiles del Mundo Maya
The colors and artistry of the Mayan textiles showcased in this museum are spectacular. Centro de Textiles del Mundo Maya is dedicated to the study and preservation of Mayan textiles, with a unique collection from Chiapas and Guatemala. It recently underwent extensive renovation and reopened in 2012 with state-of-the-art lighting and displays, including sliding drawers that hold individual shawls, tunics and huipiles, traditional garments worn by Mayan women which are often woven on back-strap looms. As you walk through the rooms and open drawers, individual exhibits light up for ideal viewing.
The museum is located on the second floor of the Ex-Convento de Santo Domingo, adjacent to the Templo de Santo Domingo. Both the church and convent date to the 16th century and are themselves works of art to be explored. Be sure to leave time to visit the daily Mercado de Artesanias de Santo Domingo, a colorful outdoor market of indigenous crafts on the southern and western sides of the church.
Tenejapa Day Trip
Many visitors to San Cristóbal make a day trip to one of the surrounding Mayan villages, but few go to Tenejapa. I visited on a Thursday, the local market day, with Hans, a fellow traveler from Sweden, and Pancho, a local guide recommended by the manager of our B&B.
About 20 miles east of San Cristóbal, Tenejapa is reached by rural roads that pass through forested mountains, pastoral farmland, and tiny villages. Our first stop was the
Romerillo cemetery on a hillside outside of Tenejapa. Large blue and green crosses sit atop the hill like sentinels. Each grave site was covered with pine needles and topped by a wooden door or plank.
Locals believe that the planks prevent the souls within from escaping. On Día de los Muertos (Day of the Dead), the planks are removed so that the souls of the dead can visit with family members. On a more practical note, the planks atop the graves help to prevent erosion during the rainy season. To complete the idyllic picture, three black lambs grazed nearby.
As we approached Tenejapa, we began to see local women on hillside paths, balancing large sacks or baskets on their heads as they made their way to market.
Once we arrived in town, we parked near the plaza, where children were playing and women were gathered in small groups, chatting. After a brief stop at the church, we headed to the market.
I love local markets in Mexico! They are a mixture of fruit and vegetable stand, meat market, hardware and clothing store, and meeting place to visit and share news with your neighbors.
After strolling back and forth through the market, we stopped for coffee in a tiny 3-seat restaurant which we would not have know existed without Pancho.
After Tenejapa, we stopped at a local posh (or pox) distillery. Posh is a homemade corn liquor with cultural and religious significance in Mayan communities of Chiapas. Had we not been in Mexico talking with a Spanish-speaking distiller, we could have been visiting a moonshine still somewhere in Appalachia.
The large wooden shack was surrounded by huge piles of wood needed to keep the brew bubbling 24 hours a day. The moonshiner told us that posh takes about 8 days to cook as he handed us a sample. I coughed after one sip, while Hans bought a bottle to take home!
Tips for visiting Mayan villages
Travelers should go with a local guide. They can tell you about history and customs of the village, and show you places you would not otherwise know existed. They also know where and when it is okay and not okay to take photographs.
Visit on the village market day, all villages have set market days during the week - Tenejapa’s is on Thursday. Visiting on market day allows you to experience the daily routines and culture of the village more fully and provides for great people-watching too.
I suspect you already know the ending to this story. Is the San Cristóbal of today different than the San Cristóbal of 30 years ago? Of course. But it is as vibrant and full of culture, history and color as I remembered. After 30 years, I was not disappointed.
Jeanne Block is a nurse/health educator who lives in Santa Fe, New Mexico and has been traveling solo for over 25 years. In addition to solo journeys around the United States and to Europe, Africa, and Micronesia, she has been to Mexico eight times, drawn by a love of the people, culture, colors and food!
This article was last modified on February 11, 2018, 9:05 am