I just returned from an incredible trip to San Cristobal de las Casas, in Chiapas, Mexico. It was my third trip to Mexico, but my first to Chiapas, the southernmost State in Mexico. Chiapas is known as the cultural capital of Mexico, and it lived up to its’ reputation. The rich cultural identity, safety, connection with modern technology and access to outdoor adventure were what really impressed me about Chiapas. I found myself keeping an eye out for signs reading ‘Se Renta’ on cute little apartments, picturing myself finally brushing up my Spanish and learning how to make authentic tamales. A girl could get used to this place.
As I roamed the streets of San Cristobal de las Casas, I felt myself slowing down my pace, meandering, trying to take it all in. I watched the local women selling intricately woven shirts in traditional Mayan design. I sat on a bench and admired the Cathedral of San Cristobal de las Casas, one of the main attractions near the city square. I watched a little boy chase pigeons in front of the church and smiled as he giggled hysterically when they flew in the air in all directions.
Tourism is one of the main sources of income in San Cristobal de las Casas, representing nearly two thirds of all of the employment opportunity. With over 80 hotels in the area, you have your choice of hostel, locally owned four-star hotel, or even Holiday Inn. Still, the town retains its’ charm. It has been affected by the influx of visitors, both in negative and positive ways, but such is the way of our globalized world. On a positive note, I had the pleasure of eating at Tierra Del Cielo Restaurant, a one of a kind, five-star restaurant that combines traditional Mexican cuisine with innovative gastronomy. Chef Marta Zepeda wrote her college thesis on the concept of Tierra del Cielo as a restaurant that combined these elements and also have an accompanying boutique twelve room hotel. Four years later her idea opened its’ doors for business. When I finished my five-course meal, I struggled to remember the last time I had eaten so well. I’ll be dreaming of her mole until I return.
Now honestly, I bet you have never heard of Chiapas before this blog entry. It has surprisingly enough remained off the beaten path for many travelers. The reports of violence in Mexico has tainted many visitors perceptions on traveling to the country. Even my family expressed some concern when I told them of my upcoming trip to Mexico. But after researching the topic, I found that these cases of violence are centralized in specific areas, and were nowhere near Chiapas. While certain areas of Mexico are dangerous, Chiapas and specifically San Cristobal de las Casas remained safe and low key. I felt very comfortable walking around at night, and noticed several other tourists doing the same.
Since I’m a lover of outdoor activities, I have to say that my favorite experience in Chiapas was exploring the Tonina archaelogical site. I’ve visited other ruins before, and this was by far the best visit to a ruin I’ve ever had. As 600 meters wide and 85 meters tall, it isn’t as large as some of the other Mayan sites, but wow, what an experience. The Tonina site was only recently discovered about 30 years ago, after a lighting strike revealed the ruins underneath dense forest growth. They have uncovered quite a bit but still have a lot to discover, and this is what made it such an enjoyable visit. I felt like an explorer while visiting Tonina, trekking through the mazes of walkways and climbing the steps all the way to the top of the ruin. And what’s even better is that my group and I had the place nearly all to ourselves. At other ruins you would have never been able to walk all over the place, and I’m guessing that in a few years the opportunity will be gone at Tonina as well. Tonina is what Chichen Itza was to visitors 20 years ago. And on top of that, there is only one hotel and just one house selling drinks and souvenirs directly outside the ruins!
My one reservation about my trip to San Cristobal de las Casas was that it was too short. I could have perused the streets, enjoyed the chocolate caliente and explored the surrounding area for weeks longer. Until then I’m going to have to go climbing in the hills of the Sierra Nevadas and pretend I’m back at Tonina.
Many thanks to Ogilvy Public Relations and Mexico Tourism Board for making me aware of this beautiful area of Mexico.
Photos courtesy of Joslin Fritz.