San Cristobal – Colonial Delights & Spanish Immersion

San Cristobal de las Casas, Mexico, is a charming colonial city filled with worldwide travelers.  We spent several weeks enjoying the sights in this town.

Virgin of Guadelupe Church

Arches in San Cristobal de las Casas, Chiapas, Mexico

Pretty architecture abounds in

San Cristóbal

The cathedral in San Cristobal de las Casas, Chiapas, Mexico

The Cathedral

Walking streets in San Cristobal de las Casas, Chiapas, Mexico

There are lots of places to take a stroll.

Colonial streets in San Cristobal de las Casas, Chiapas, Mexico

Colonial doorways

El Arco del Carmen, San Cristobal de las Casas, Chiapas, Mexico

El Arco del Carmen

San Cristobal de las Casas, Chiapas, Mexico

A less-visited back street.

San Cristobal de las Casas, Chiapas, Mexico Chocolates in San Cristobal de las Casas, Chiapas, Mexico

Chocolatier "La Sonrisa del día" (the smile of

the day).

Windows, San Cristobal de las Casas, Chiapas, Mexico Rooftops San Cristobal de las Casas, Chiapas, Mexico

Real roof tile - what all those new Arizona

homes try to imitate.

Instituto Jovel Spanish School, San Cristobal de las Casas, Chiapas, Mexico

A placement exam?!

What are we getting ourselves into?

Instituto Jovel Spanish School, San Cristobal de las Casas, Chiapas, Mexico

Mark with one of his teachers, Jorge

Instituto Jovel Spanish School, San Cristobal de las Casas, Chiapas, Mexico

Getting ready for class.

Instituto Jovel Spanish School, San Cristobal de las Casas, Chiapas, Mexico

Got it?  Good!  Next topic...

Instituto Jovel Spanish School, San Cristobal de las Casas, Chiapas, Mexico

My instructor Jorge taught me a lot

about life in Mexico.

Back streets in San Cristobal de las Casas, Chiapas, Mexico

Mayan women on a back street.

San Cristobal de las Casas, Chiapas, Mexico Mayans selling textiles in San Cristobal de las Casas, Chiapas, Mexico Little Mayan salesgirl in San Cristobal de las Casas, Chiapas, Mexico

That's a lot of inventory for

a small girl.

Mayan girls pose for a photo - for 5 pesos each - San Cristobal de las Casas, Chiapas, Mexico Hippies play music in San Cristobal de las Casas, Chiapas, Mexico

Young travelers love San Cristóbal

Yummy rotisserie style grilled chicken in San Cristobal de las Casas, Chiapas, Mexico

Rotisserie grilled chicken - cheap and yummy.

Music on the streets of San Cristobal de las Casas, Chiapas, Mexico

A brass band suddenly starts playing.

The jingle of the propane truck provides the

soundtrack of San Cristóbal.

"Agua Agua!!"

Mountain biking club group ride in San Cristobal de las Casas, Chiapas, Mexico

A group of mountain bike riders on a Sunday morning.

Jaguar graffiti in San Cristobal de las Casas, Chiapas, Mexico

Jaguar graffiti.  Jaguars have special meaning to the

local indigenous people.

Casa Na-Bolom Museum, San Cristobal de las Casas, Chiapas, Mexico

Courtyard arches in Casa Na-


Casa Na-Bolom Museum, San Cristobal de las Casas, Chiapas, Mexico Casa Na-Bolom Museum dining room table, San Cristobal de las Casas, Chiapas, Mexico

Dining room table at the Casa Na-Bolom Museum.

Beautiful flowers in Casa Na-Bolom gardens, San Cristobal de las Casas, Chiapas, Mexico

Outside we found lush gardens.

Exotic flowers in Casa Na-Bolom museum, San Cristobal de las Casas, Chiapas, Mexico

Ingenious hot water heater / tortilla cooker at the

back of the garden.

Señor Fuego, garden caretaker and groundskeeper, Casa Na-Bolom Museum, San Cristobal de las Casas, Chiapas, Mexico

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

people watching.

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

backpacking crowd.

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

sophisticated feeling

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

pedal past.

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

garden, weeding

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.