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Traveling Mexico - San Cristobal de las Casas

"So many different dialects are coming at you from all sides, you somehow feel as if you are in the Orient."

K.L. Moore


In writing all of my travel articles, one of my main objectives is to let you readers know that there is more to Mexico than our little beach paradise. If you are interested in seeing one of the true hidden treasures of Mexico and to get a real taste of Mexico, head down to Chiapas, to the former capital, San Cristóbal de Las Casas. I know what you are thinking, rebels, Zapatistas, Marcos. Forget about it. It is a safe wonderful place to journey. About the only danger you might face is a very twisty and windy road getting there. The town is located in a pine tree filled valley called Jovel. You can get there by flying to the new capital of Chiapas, Tuxtla Gutiérrez, and taking a taxi for about $7USD. Or, you can be a brave soul like me, and take the bus. There are direct buses from Oaxaca City and Tuxtla Gutiérrez.

It is the area of the last known Indian tribes to have direct ties to the Maya, and, a place to see the last remnants of the great Mayan race. The Spanish came in 1524 and as they always did, took over. Making their fortune in the production of wheat, the Spanish used the Indians for labor. The Catholic Church offered some protection for the Indians and one Bishop in particular, Bartolome de Las Casas, was so well thought of, they named the town after him. Today, in San Cristobal one can go to the market on an early Tuesday morning, and not hear one word of Spanish spoken. So many different dialects are coming at you from all sides, you somehow feel as if you are in the Orient. The villages surrounding the town are home to many of the Indian tribes, and the market although open everyday, seems to thrive on Tuesdays. The amount of produce and various fruits will boggle your mind. The Indians keep their distance from any mestizos (any people without pure Indian blood). The Indian merchants have young men and women who speak the various Indian idioms and Spanish as the actual seller of the wares. The bargaining here is difficult. And it is not just the language barrier. Bring your cameras if you come here. The colors of the produce and fruits are not the most colorful things around. Each surrounding village has a special way of dressing, with very bright woven fabrics. (This area is known world-wide for its woven textiles) The colors and design for each village is as distinct as it is flavorful. Each design and color has special meaning from religious to social standing. One particular design has pre-Hispanic origin, the rhombus shape on some of the huipiles from San Andrés Larraínzar is also found in the ancient Mayan site of Yaxchilan and represents the old Mayan universe. Imagine a market 6 city blocks long and 5 wide, filled with colorful produce and people dressed in their vibrant brilliant traditional clothing. It is truly a sight to see.

After the market, stroll around the town. Discovering the little twists and turns on your own is what makes this place so special. There are so many small squares and churches, you could spend days not seeing the same one (or so I thought). You can not miss the Templo de Santo Domingo. It is a perfect and beautiful example of the baroque architecture of the late 1500's in Mexico. At night, light up by floodlights, its pink façade seems to come alive with movement and stories. As I mentioned earlier, the local Indian villages all wear a distinctive dress, woven by their top women weavers. A daily craft market is around the church and you can see some of the different styles of weaving and the colors. There are many weaving cooperatives in the city, two of the best are the Sna Jolobil and the J'pas Joloviletik. Sna Jolobil is representative of 800 women and is the place to find quality woven products that are unique in their own right. There are many little shops and galleries in San Cristóbal de las Casas to fit every taste. Each one representative of Chiapan history and art. Next, stroll around to the Plaza 31 de Marzo and sit and watch the town go by. There is a main kiosk that is a restaurant and plenty of park benches for people watching. At night the town wakes up and there are always strolling musicians.

The surrounding villages are a definite must. There are many agencies that offer guided tours and many tour guides offering their services to see the surrounding villages. But perhaps the best and most entertaining guide is Señora Mercedes Gómez , You can find her at 9:00am every morning at the kiosk in the main plaza, with her colorful umbrella. The tour takes about 6 hours and you go to all the surrounding villages by minibus, the cost is $8-10 USD. Or you can also go on your own, but taxi or bus. It is not recommended that you walk. Definitely see San Juan Chamula; the church is a very moving experience. It is filled with worshippers chanting and there are millions of candles everywhere. Incense is burning and the smoke is very very thick. You cannot take pictures but the image will be with you for a lifetime.

You cannot leave San Cristóbal without a visit to the House of Na Bolom. It was the home of the Danish archaeologist, Frans Blom, and his wife, Trudy. The couple devoted their life to the preservation and study of the Maya. Frans excavated some of the most important Mayan sites and Trudy fiercely took up the plight of the Lacandón Indians, the last surviving true Mayan tribe. She fought her entire life to protect their lands in the Lacandón jungle. Their hacienda now houses the Lacondón Preservation Society, as well serves as a museum to the area and to the devotion of the couple. Tours are conducted in English and Spanish at 4:30pm, except Mondays. It is possible to stay there, and if you do you will join ranks with some of the most famous people in the world. Trudy made friends with the world in her effort to protect the Lacondón. Don't miss it.

I cannot say enough about San Cristóbal de las Casas. There are so many quaint places to stay and to eat. So much to learn and to see. Go, you will not be disappointed.

March 2001

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