San Cristóbal de las Casas
San Cristóbal de las Casas – Mountain Gem in the Southeast
(appeared in The Aztec Sunrise 1, 2, 2009)
San Cristóbal is a fascinating town, mixing people of very different background and blending their cultures every day anew in a beautiful setting. Situated in a pretty mountain valley in the center of Chiapas, Mexico’s Southeastern state, it attracts an ever growing number of foreign and domestic tourists thanks to its fame as a charming colonial town and the cradle of the Zapatista revolution.
San Cristóbal is the capital of the Chiapas Highlands. Its altitude is about 2100 m above sea-level, enough to make its nights chilly and to produce a marked contrast between sun (very intense) and shade (very cold) during the day. It is surrounded by cloud forests and the valley which has no exit for its waters other than seeping through the karst mountains1 used to be all swampland. An endemic fish species called popoyote used to inhabit those swamps. Nowadays this little fish is fighting against extinction, because the city invaded and dried up the swamps and the remaining watercourses have to deal with the waste so typical of our generation’s lifestyle. San Cristóbal is surrounded by mountains on all sides, two of them volcanoes. Until three years ago the only connections to the outside world were curvy mountain roads. Now, there is a four-lane highway that connects the town to Tuxtla Gutiérrez, the state capital. In the other direction, towards Palenque, the government has projected another highway, but the local people are resisting the construction because they feel they would not benefit – one more project where costs get socialized and profits are privatized.
The inhabitants of San Cristóbal can traditionally be classified in two categories: Coletos and Chamulas. The first descend directly or indirectly from the Spanish founding fathers and are proud of their European heritage. Chamula is a generic term that originates from the name of the neighbouring Tzotzil Mayan village San Juan Chamula and is generally applied to all indigenous persons by those who like to think in terms of races. These two groups have been sharing San Cristóbal since its very beginning, always on very unequal terms. The traditional roles have been shaken by the 1994 Zapatista uprising, where indigenous farmers suddenly stepped from their place in oblivion onto the center stage of world news and national politics. In the last years another actor is appearing on the stage: tourists. They blend in with the locals, give them work and income, and some stay to live in San Cristóbal. In sum, they act to make the blend of people and cultures in San Cristóbal unique and much more cosmopolitan than you could expect in a town of 250.000 inhabitants.
The city was founded in 1528, only nine years after the Spanish had first set foot on Mexican ground in Veracruz and only seven years after the Mexica capital Tenochtitlán fell to them. It is named after Fray Bartolomé de Las Casas a Dominican monk and its first bishop who is rightfully known as Defender of the Indians for advocating their rights at the Spanish court. Maybe his most important achievement is the fact that indigenous Americans were not allowed to be enslaved under Spanish laws from 1542 onwards. This did not spare the indigenous inhabitants of the Chiapas Highlands tough times at the hands of their Spanish conquerors and their descendants. There were a few attempts to shake off that burden over the subsequent centuries. The last one in this “tradition” is the Zapatista uprising.
The Ejército Zapatista de Liberación Nacional entered the city in the first hours of 1994 and took control of the city. It was a well planned and well received action that continues to be remembered widely, even though the following 12 days of armed conflict, the negotiations and the peace accords from whose implementation the government has long distanced itself are not as present in most people’s memory. The Zapatista movement continues, but the days of glory are long gone. Those who are looking for revolutionary romance will find T-shirts with Subcomandante Marcos or Comandante Ramona and little puppets with insurgents on mules and a popular bar called "Revolución", but the reality of the Zapatista movement today is not too romantic: the poor farmers that make up the movement are living the hardships of autonomy, building their own education, health care and – maybe most important – political systems without any government support nor interference. And this at times where farmers are so poor that even with Procampo, Oportunidades and other government programmes that pay some cash many young people will not stay, but rather change the misery against new opportunities through emigrating to the wealthier North, to Playa del Carmen or to the United States.
Visiting San Cristóbal
The visitor needs to be careful: you tend to get “drawn in”. On the one hand, the city offers a very lively social, cultural and academic life. 8 universities, several institutes and a big number of NGOs provide a stimulating intellectual atmosphere. Its nightlife does not lag behind either, with popular bars and live music being a mainstay of many a visitor. In town, one can join one of the many ferias or fiestas of the different neighborhoods, visit museums, including the Museo de la Medicina Maya which gives a lively impression of the profession of traditional healers and midwifes who are fulfilling an important role in primary healthcare in the indigenous communities to this day and the Museo del Jade which has an impressive life size replica of King Pakal’s tomb chamber.2 You can shop for amber from nearby Simojovel which is one of only a handful of deposits worldwide that produce considerable amounts of high quality amber. You can enjoy a dish of organic food from the nearby Huitepec mountain, prepared in the Casa del Pan or chose from a large number of international as well as local restaurants, most of them very reasonably priced.
The market and a horseback ride to Chamula are the first steps for many visitors who are interested in getting to know indigenous Chiapas. But there is much more: a mountain zoo with Chiapas animals, a holy site where Christian and prehispanic religiosity mix (Santa Anita), a mountain that was perforated by a river, forming a natural arch (Arcotete), caves in a quiet little valley that spill out water (Peje de Oro), Mayan ruins up in the mountains (Moxviquil) and many more are within hiking distance. And the rest of Chiapas is spectacular, too. It is all yours to discover.
- 5 de Marzo
- San Felipe Ecatepec
- Museo de la Medicina Maya
- Museo del Ambar (en el andador)
- Museo del Café
- Museo del Kakaw
- Na Bolom
- Cerro Sta. Cruz
- Grutas de Rancho Nuevo
- Huitepec Reserva Comunitaria
- Huitepec Pronatura
- Peje de Oro
- Zoológico San José Bocomtenelté
- Campo Santiago under water
- Catedral - Misa en Tzotzil
- Cideci & Nueva Maravilla
- Guadalupe (CRM iereta.podomatic.com/entry/2008-12-16T16_21_51-08_00 Historia de la Virgen de Guadalupe, contado por Don Heber Matus (a partir del minuto 12))
- Jaguar de Madera - construcción alternativa, biodigestor
- Mercado, Merposur (trajes, cultivos)
- Parque los Humedales
- Santa Anita
- Tianguis Comida sana y cercana
- UNACH-Derecho (murales)