Virgin of Guadelupe Church
Pretty architecture abounds in
There are lots of places to take a stroll.
El Arco del Carmen
A less-visited back street.
Chocolatier "La Sonrisa del día" (the smile of
Real roof tile - what all those new Arizona
homes try to imitate.
A placement exam?!
What are we getting ourselves into?
Mark with one of his teachers, Jorge
Getting ready for class.
Got it? Good! Next topic...
My instructor Jorge taught me a lot
about life in Mexico.
Mayan women on a back street.
That's a lot of inventory for
a small girl.
Young travelers love San Cristóbal
Rotisserie grilled chicken - cheap and yummy.
A brass band suddenly starts playing.
The jingle of the propane truck provides the
soundtrack of San Cristóbal.
A group of mountain bike riders on a Sunday morning.
Jaguar graffiti. Jaguars have special meaning to the
local indigenous people.
Courtyard arches in Casa Na-
Dining room table at the Casa Na-Bolom Museum.
Outside we found lush gardens.
Ingenious hot water heater / tortilla cooker at the
back of the garden.
Señor Fuego makes kindling.
San Cristóbal de las Casas (and Instituto Jovel), Chiapas, Mexico
Early March, 2012 - During our bus ride through
the southern part of Chiapas we could easily
see why many people consider it to be the most
beautiful state in Mexico. We soon discovered
that picturesque San Cristóbal de las Casas is its
crown jewel, a little colonial city right in the middle
of the state. Mexicans call it the "most magic" of
their specially honored "magic towns" around the
Founded by the Spanish in 1528 (just 7 years
after Hernán Cortés barnstormed across Mexico)
and, for once, not built on top of an ancient city,
San Cristóbal is chock full of pretty churches and
antique architecture. Several streets are paved in
patterned stone slabs and have been set aside for
pedestrians only. From morning to night these
charming roads are filled with people. Outdoor
bistros line the walking streets, and there are
countless perfect places for sitting back and
San Cristóbal is a lot like Oaxaca, but it is much
smaller, and it sits right on the so-called Gringo
Trail that takes travelers through southern Mexico
and Central America. After living on a boat on the
coast for so long, it was quite a dramatic change
for us to begin a period of extensive travel by bus
and hotel in the interior of Mexico. We suddenly
realized we had left the floating retirement
community of west coast cruisers and were now in
the center of the youthful international
Europeans were everywhere, and we listened to
snippets of conversation in German, French and
Italian. The arrival point for these transatlantic
travelers was Cancún, and they were all making
their way by bus through the various colonial cities, stopping to
visit the ancient pyramid ruins, the waterfalls, lakes and volcanoes
that make this region famous.
Along with international
tourists there are lots of
international residents as
well. This gives San
Cristóbal a rather
compared to the sandy
coastal beach towns we had
been seeing in our cruising
travels. Like other towns
that enjoy lively fun-filled
nights, this town is a late
riser. Few places open until
after 8:00 a.m., and lots of
coffee shops don't even start
pouring until 8:30 or 9:00.
But once things get rolling,
the streets are lined with
people sipping tasty
beverages and enjoying the
ambiance. We were delighted to find a terrific French bakery and
we gorged ourselves on flakey crusts and hot-out-of-the-oven
pastries. Baking is not a Mexican specialty by any stretch of the
imagination, so finding a native French baker in any town is always
a big score.
We had stopped into a fancy chocolatier's shop on our first night and then
bumped into another one the next day a few blocks away. Two wonderful
shops creating handmade chocolate just doors apart, how cool! Inside this
second shop there was a beautiful photo of a bicyclist riding on a path
towards a windmill and another photo of a large castle -- unusual decor for a
chocolatier in Mexico. The owner's father, a bent old man, came over to
explain to us in Spanish that he and his family had come from Bella Chiqué
in Europe and that their chocolate was not Mexican. They had brought all
their recipes and techniques from the old country to San Cristóbal.
"Bella What?" I was very puzzled about where he was from and where this
delicious chocolate was made, but his accented Spanish and my untuned
ears couldn't get it together. He repeated the name and explained it
was a tiny country on the north coast of Europe tucked between
France and Holland. Very small. Very lovely. I scratched my head.
My knowledge of European geography is fair, but this one stumped
me. I knew tiny places like Leichtenstein turn up at the Olympics to
dominate things like cross country skiing despite a quiet existence
wedged between larger European countries. So it seemed this tiny
country was another one I'd somehow missed. Mark and I laughed
about how little we really know about this big world of ours.
A while later the old man's daughter
came over to refill our coffee cups
and I joked with her that I would
have to look up Bella Chiqué on the internet and learn a little more about it, as it obviously was a
cool place I knew nothing about. Her eyebrows shot up and she looked at me in utter surprise
and then said in very halting English, "You...never hear of...Belgium people?" Oh my! What a
funny blunder! The Spanish word for Belgium is "Bélgica," pronounced something like
"Belheeka." Better work on that Spanish!!
San Cristóbal turned out to be a perfect place
for taking intensive Spanish classes. The small
Instituto Jovel is run by a German woman,
and the school teaches English, Spanish,
German, Italian, French and two indigenous
languages local to Chiapas: Tzotzil and Tzeltal.
We stopped by and signed up for "classes" at
the school, but after taking placement exams
we were each put in a class of one, as there
were no other students at our levels at the time. $100 for
a week of tutorial instruction - sweet!
The ten or twelve tiny classrooms in this school can hold
anywhere from 1 to 10 students each, and they are built around
a charming little garden. The upstairs classrooms have a view
over the garden and across the rooftops to the mountains in the
distance. It was an ideal place for us to take a breather from
traveling, tune our ears a bit more to the local lingo and loosen
our tongues to get that Spanish flowing.
We were each given two different Mexican tutors who had
certificates in teaching Spanish. Every morning we each spent
an hour and a half in tutorial with one teacher, took a five minute
break and then spent another hour and a half with the other teacher.
This was a wonderful system, as switching teachers mid-morning meant
we never got bored, and each teacher had a slightly different approach.
Any more than three hours a day of such intensive
instruction and our eyes would have glazed over
and our ears would have closed.
How much Spanish can you learn in a week? A
whole heckuvalot! Before Mark started, he knew
lots of Spanish nouns and adjectives but no verbs.
It's hard to construct sentences without those!
Raised in that era of American public education
when the teaching of English grammar was quietly
eliminated from the grammar school curriculum,
Mark was a little shaky with what, exactly, a verb
was when he walked into his first class.
"Who is the first person?" his teacher Gabriel asked,
leaning back in his chair. Mark fidgeted and looked
around uncertainly, and then said. "Dios mio!" (my god!). Gabriel burst out
laughing, "No - It's you!" With that, Mark was off and running. By the end of the
week he had covered most of a semester's worth of material. Suddenly he
started translating newspaper headlines and street signs and ads for me as we
walked around town.
My teachers did an intensive review of everything I had learned and forgotten in
the classes I took before our travels. Conversing exclusively in Spanish, we
practiced grammatical concepts while learning about each other's lives and
countries. We were very curious about each other, and we shared stories and
thoughts about life in the US and life in Mexico. We had some great laughs as
we uncovered our similarities and differences.
Mark and I spent the afternoons huddled over homework. Fortunately, the
weather had turned nasty and it drizzled for a few days, sending the
temperatures plummeting into the mid-fifties. We had absolutely no incentive to go
sightseeing in the afternoons, which was perfect.
By the time our week of classes ended, our heads were
spinning and our notebooks and pens had become
permanent fixtures in our hands. We stumbled out into the
streets of San Cristóbal and talked to anyone and everyone
who would listen
Little Mayan women in dark skirts
with infants strapped to their
backs wandered up and down the
streets selling their woven goods.
Their well trained children made
the rounds as well.
Modern day hippies meandered
through the streets too,
instruments strapped to their
backs. Sometimes they stopped
spontaneously to play a little street music.
The young international travelers like this town
because there are good cheap hostels and good cheap
eats. One of the best restaurants we found was a place that did rotisserie style grilled
chicken, vegetables and rice. Two big plates and two large cokes came to $5.75. No
wonder the under-25 crowd hung out here.
One day we were drawn into the street by the loud noise of a band trumpeting away.
Right there, under the shade of a large tree, a group of men were playing brass and
percussion. It sounded like a parade. People appeared in windows and emerged from
doorways to listen. Then someone started shooting off bottle rockets. Fsssssst-BAM! It
was like our own private 4th of July band concert! What a fun town.
The real sounds of San Cristobal
-- the ones that punctuated our
everyday lives -- were the jingling
of the propane truck and the
loudspeaker announcements of
the water truck. These two trucks
drove up and down the hilly streets all day long
every day, selling propane and water to homes
and businesses. You could hear them from half a
mile away as they moved around the city.
The propane truck got its jingle by dragging a
metal chain behind it on which were strung a
handful of metal rings. These rings clinked and
clanked on the cobblestone streets and against
each other as the tall propane bottles jiggled and
bounced around in the back of the truck. You
could definitely hear it coming. The water truck had a
different sound. A loudspeaker was mounted to its
roof and it would yell, "Agua Agua!!" followed by some
twiddly musical notes.
This was a town that managed to court the tourists while the residents lived
real lives. One Sunday morning we watched a group of mountain bikers
Possibly the biggest tourist attraction in town is the Casa Na-
Bolom Museum (Tzotzil for "House of the Jaguar"). This
unique property was once the residence of Frans and
Gertrude Blom, an explorer and a photographer who met and
fell in love while on independent expeditions into the nearby
rainforest in the 1930's. Their focus was the indigenous
Lancandon people, a very small group that lived so deep in
the rainforest that the Spanish never found them. When
Frans first met the Lancandones in the 1920's they were still
living much as they had for centuries.
The goal of the Bloms' work was to gather and make available as
much information as they could about the Lancondones. They wanted
to create a center for studying indigenous people, and host visiting
researchers who came to the area. Lovely bedrooms surrounded a
courtyard, and there was a big dining room and expansive research
library in the home. Since their respective deaths in the 1960's and the
1990's, their gracious property has become a museum as well as a
hotel and restaurant.
What we really loved in this museum were the gardens. Lush plants
surround the house in a wonderfully wild and rather chaotic landscape.
Overturned flower pots were mounted on light poles to create clever
landscape lighting, and the paths were bordered with upside down wine
bottles dug into the ground. There was a quirky sense of whimsy to this
place. Mark was soon lost among the flowers with his camera.
While wandering the pretty paths he came across the
garden's caretaker, an old man who appeared to live in a
ramshackle hut at one end of the garden. His nickname at
the museum was Señor Fuego (Mr. Fire), because he
always had his fire pit going. He had built the most
ingenious system for heating up water by rigging up a
tank, pipes and a valve. He ran the water through pipes
over his fire pit. This way he not only had hot water but he
had a place to cook tortillas as well.
He looked utterly
at peace in his
little corner, and
we watched him
tend his fire and
move about his
and trimming. At
long last I said to him, "Tiene una buena vida." ("You
have a good life.") He smiled the happiest smile and
said, "Estoy muy contento" ("I'm very content"). If only
we all could find such joy and peace in such simplicity.
Our ten days in San Cristóbal finally came to an end,
and we hoofed it down to the bus station for another
twisting, winding bus ride up and over more mountain
ranges, heading north until we were slightly closer to
the Caribbean than the Pacific. Then we descended
into the exotic jungles of Palenque.
Find San Cristóbal on Mexico Maps.