Away from the beach, San Cristobal finds its place on a road less traveled

Color defines San Cristobal de las Casas in Chiapas, Mexico 

Ten minutes into a free walking tour of San Cristobal in the Mexican state of Chiapas, we stop into the shop of a local artist we somehow missed while strolling around on our own. Her gallery, Kikimundo, is alive with colorful prints, cards, mirrors and cell phone cases featuring her whimsical designs. More important, it's the headquarters for monthly meetings of Group Vision, a local group that collects art supplies, for children in a nearby village and wheelchairs and old computers or laptops for people with disabilities. 

Our tour continues for the next four hours, with stops at a restaurant where the owner offers us free samples of pozole, a traditional soup made from corn and shredded chicken; a coffee roaster; a garden cafe offering bites of vegan tamales and a market stall where the owner stocks textiles made by local villagers instead of imports from Guatemala or China.

Our young guide, Nayib, like other local volunteers, works only for tips. Sporting dreadlocks and a leather backpack he designed with a pocket to carry his soccer ball, says his goal is to teach us to spend our money wisely, not as obvious as it might sound in a city with a Starbucks on the town square and a Burger King nearby. 
Our guide, Nayib de le Rose

Mention the southern Mexican state of Chiapas near the Guatemalan border, and what comes to to mind for most people is danger as they recall the Zapatista rebel movement of 1994 that engulfed the city of San Cristobal de las Casas in nearly two weeks of violence.

The uprising ended with a government promise to guarantee fair treatment to the state’s pre-Hispanic indigenous population, many of whom live in outlying villages surrounding what is now a rapidly gentrifying city, attracting ex-pats and Mexican and foreign travelers. But While the Mayan people gained political rights and the freedom to preserve their religious traditions and languages, poverty levels remain high and living standards low.

A village woman with her wares

Twenty-four years later, with outside investors capitalizing on renewed interest in tourism, the challenge to visitors is to find ways to funnel pesos directly into the pockets of locals. Buying handicrafts would seem to be one obvious way. Dozens of women come into town each day, carrying their babies along with heaps of woven blankets on their shoulders, or sit for hours in market stalls filled with amber beads and leather pouches. The sad part is that children are often forced to help sell instead of going to school. Much of it what’s sold is low-quality, and a middleman is likely reaping most of the profits.

Much better and more fun, my husband and I found on a recent visit, was making connections with entrepreneurs such as Nayib and Ricardo Hernandez, owner of a restaurant called Belil, a combination art gallery and cafe, specializing in traditional Chiapan food and drinks, and selling crafts made by village weavers and potters. 

After our hotel directed us to a trendy tourist restaurant our first night, we decided to consult travelers' suggestions on Trip Advisor for other ideas. This is how we found Belil tucked away on a side street, off Calle Real de Guadalupe, San Cristobal's main pedestrianized street lined with shops and cafes. Hanging on the walls were colorful textiles made by members of a women’s cooperative with whom Ricardo's wife, Carmen, works to create the kinds of modern designs that will appeal to tourists. It was here we tried our first bowl of sopa de pan, a traditional bread soup topped with egg, while Hernandez offered us tips on what to see and do around town. 

"Big cheese" Ricardo Hernandez

We spent one of our best days on a tour of two indigenous villages with Alex y Raul Tours, run by local men who show up daily at 9:30 a.m. in front of the cathedral. No reservations necessary. They pride themselves on "culturally sensitive" tours that honor the traditions of local village people (no pictures without permission, no photos in church etc.) When we choose them over a tour with a local travel agency, I expected we'd be using public transportation. Our English-speaking guide, Cesar, showed up with a van and driver, a luxury considering the price was just $25 for a five-hour excursion. 

Cesar in San Juan Chamula

Our tour started in the village of San Juan Chamula where villagers combine traditional Mayan rituals with Catholic ceremonies inside St. John the Baptist Church built by Spanish missionaries. A priest comes around once a month for baptisms, but villagers are free to use the church for traditional ceremonies, sometimes involving shamans (spiritual leaders)  performing a ritual killing of a chicken, a practice believed to help heal the sick.  

"You are now in Indian territory," Cesar told us as we stopped the van at a cemetery just outside of town. Pine needles carry special religious significance among these villagers as we saw here in the cemetery as well as inside the church where they cover the floor. There are no seats. People huddle on the floor, surrounded by hundreds of candles, praying and making offerings that might include bottles of Coca Cola and bags of potato chips. 

Men wearing tunics made of goat hair

Members of different indigenous tribes can be recognized on the streets of San Cristobal by their traditional styles of dress. In San Juan Chamula, the men where tunics (black in winter, white in summer) made of goat hair. The women wear skirts made of the same material. The government allows villagers to operate their own justice system, their own police force and decide on their own punishments for breaking the law. There's one jail cell for men (open to the sidewalk so the public can peer inside) and one for women (shielded from public view) where offenders spend from one to three days. 

Making tortillas in Zinacantan

Our tour also included a stop in the nearby village of Zinacantan where many of the women weave beautiful textiles (many of which we saw for sale in Belil), and of course, make homemade tortillas by the dozens. This woman encouraged us to sprinkle ours' with ground pumpkin.

Claudia Ruiz Santiz

Back in San Cristobal, we knew we had to have dinner at Kokono, a modest "slow food" restaurant opened a year ago by Claudia Ruiz Santiz from San Juan Chamula. It's unusual to find a woman-owned restaurant in San Cristobal, let alone one owned by someone from one of the indigenous villages. We were delighted to find Claudia in the restaurant the night we dropped in for some of the best chicken mole of the trip.

Chocolate Caliente

Chiapas is famous for coffee and chocolate. Surrounded by mountains, San Cristobal sits at an altitude of 7,000 feet. That means chilly mornings and evenings, perfect for a steamy cup of chocolate caliente Mexicano. It's made by breaking chunks of dark chocolate spiked with cinnamon into a pot of boiling milk, then frothing it with a wooden whisk called a molinillo. The whole process can take 10 minutes or more in a small shop like Xocol-Na, above, staffed with just one person and room for only a few tables and stools. Starbucks it was not, and that was just fine with us. 


  1. Good article, Carol; at which hotel did you stay? And, have they now relaxed the restrictions on cameras in Chamula? Previously, if caught taking pics, you'd have your camera confiscated.

    1. I stayed at the Guyaba Inn, and would highly recommend it. I did a trip advisor review recently, and will add contact info to this post soon. And yes, picture-taking in Chamula is allowed in certain areas, and with the permission of people whom you’d like to photograph, of course. Photos are not allowed in the church, and they as you to put your cameras away in your bag before entering.

  2. Thanks for the update, Carol. So many folks who travel to Mexico never get off the beaten track, sticking only to the better known places, of which Cancun is a prime example. Getting out of your comfort zone is a great learning experience, where you'll find out that people are people, wherever you are. The vast majority are nice, a few are jerks, just like anywhere. A bit of their language and a smile works wonders, and gets the same in return. Happy travels, and keep the posts coming.