San Cristobal de las Casas

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Before arriving in San Cristobal de las Casas, Juan, a Mexican guy we met in Jilotol, one of the towns en route, described San Cristobal de las Casas as ‘precioso’ literally meaning ‘precious’ and that just about sums up this place for me. Myself and Martin felt every bit of the climb on our bikes here but it was worth every pedal rotation! It is a wonderful colonial city and has a unique setting at 2,160 metres in a lush rich highland valley in the Chiapas mountain range. The air is dramatically cooler here and it is the first place in Mexico where we need blankets at night! We are feeling the effects of the depleted oxygen levels at this altitude.

I had not heard much about the Chiapas region (San Cristobal is in the state of Chiapas) before coming to Mexico, but from speaking to fellow travellers and from what I have read, it is considered to be one of the most scenic areas of the country and is at the heart of indigenous Mexico. San Cristobal has a rich artistic, bohemian flair and indigenous life and culture is vibrant here. Many of the tribes live in the outlying villages and make daily trips to San Cristobal selling their wares to tourists in order to earn a living. The local people continue to live their lives here in line with traditional customs and rituals.

But there is a darker side … the only other time I had heard about this region of Mexico was in the ’90’s with the surge of Zapatista activity. Martin and I had the chance to go to a documentary in the local cinema which highlighted the plight of the people of Chiapas and documented the history of the Zapatista conflict. Their mission was and still is to improve the living conditions of Mexico’s indigenous people and they have been in conflict with the Mexican government for many years. Many of these people were displaced from their homes into what is known as the belt of misery (Cinturón de Miseria). Most of the craft sellers around the Santo Domingo Church and the market place come from Cinturón de Miseria. Their leader ‘Marcos’ has become a bit of a cult figure and has done a Che Guevara on it by motorcycling through six Mexican states to garner support. The conflict does not seem to have been resolved and is dormant for now.

San Cristobal has a different feel to other Mexican towns and cities we have visited to date and it has a distinct Spanish look and feel to it. There are no megaphones mounted on top of pick-up trucks blaring from am to pm in San Cristobal which is a welcome relief. During these past few weeks noise is something we have become accustomed to and is part of the Mexican, indeed latin way. It is also refereshing to see that it has not yet been targeted by Paddy Whackery culture and not an Irish bar in sight! Always a good sign.  

The markets .. Yesterday we decided to check out the markets. We came across an artisan market which was crowded with tourists.

We soon discovered that where we really needed to be was 100 metres away where we discovered the jewel in the crown of marketplaces – the local municpal market of San Cristobal and not a tourist in sight! It has to be seen to be believed. Local markets have an energy here unsurpassing any where else I have been. The market in San Cristobal definitely tops that in Villahermosa and is a feast for the eyes and imagination. Indigenous people going about their everyday life, weaving traditional clothes, roasting maize, peeling pods of peas …and the statues of the Virgin Mary still dotted around the stalls peering down at us! We were both craving fish as is hard to come by here so we bought all of our ingredients at the local’s market and cooked up a fish pie.

Coffee finally ..

Much to my delight, Chiapas is one of Mexico’s premier coffee growing regions and it is a coffee lover’s paradise.

We have come to realise that sourcing the right hostel is key, not always easy to do when you arrive in a town having cycled for 7 hours and you want the path of least resistance. We have been lucky so far … In San Cristobal we are staying in a wonderful French run hostel called ‘Hostel Los Camellos’ off the tourist beat and perfect for what we want. It has been fun hanging out in this mini ‘French colony’ and memories of my time in France have come flooding back, chatting to some great people, exchanging stories. We have made some new friends here.

The hostel entertainers .. 

Pablo, a cigar puffing and self proclaimed ‘anarco-communicist’ from Marseilles, arrives in the hostal courtyard every evening on schedule after his days sightseeing with his bottle of ‘Ranchero’, basically  plonk rum which set him back 10 pesos (equivalent of about 50p) and entertains us for the evening. He has some interesting and unique views on life .. when I offered him a piece of our chocolate cake, his reply was …’cake is for capitalists’ , thinks golf is rubbish and wonders who plays the sport … the latter rambling came when I told him his doppleganger was the Spanish golfer Seve Ballestersos! One of the most entertaining characters we have met. 

Steve, a surf dude from California, who is spending two years on a mission to find the best waves in Central America and who divides his time between San Diego and Costa Rica. He was on a brief stopover here and en route to the next wave .. mountains were clearly not his scene!

Olivier and Cathy, a lovely French couple we have been hanging out with in the evenings who also introduced us to the local French patisserie.

Martin and I have decided to treat ourselves to a massage prior to our next stint on the bikes due to recommence on Wednesday.

Taking pictures ..

One of my favourite things to do when I travel is taking pictures ..however it is important to be sensitive to the locals as they believe it strips their soul away when you take a picture of them so I have to resist getting some good shots. That is the role of the zoom. Every picture tells a story and I hope these do too …

And so a two day cycle to Guatameala .. is funny but we both know when the time is right to get back on our bikes … they have, in a very short time, become an extension of us. Cycling enthusiasts will understand what I mean 🙂  

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