San Cristobal de las Casas is situated in a fertile valley surrounded by mountains in the southern state of Chiapas, Mexico. Chiapas is home to several indigenous groups descended from the Maya, two of the largest being the Tzotzils and Tzeltals who inhabit highland villages surrounding San Cristobal.
The indigenous people of Chiapas speak their own language (often in addition to Spanish), practice their own unique customs and can be identified by their traditional dress that varies by group. They continue to depend primarily on agriculture for their economic well-being; however, it’s not unusual for them to travel into San Cristobal to sell their handmade crafts and shop in the markets for everyday items to take back to their villages.
San Cristobal, one of Mexico’s best-preserved Spanish colonial towns, is made up of a series of traditional barrios (neighborhoods), each of which is known for a particular trade or custom, such as iron working, carpentry and woodcarving.
You’ll want to set aside plenty of time to wander the narrow cobblestone streets of San Cristobal, past brightly painted buildings and colorful shops and markets. The town is laid out on a grid pattern and can be easily explored on foot. Several of the main streets leading through the center of town are closed to traffic and converge on the central park or zocalo (main plaza).
Along the main plaza you’ll find the architecturally stunning city hall and Cathedral. Five blocks north of the plaza, you’ll also discover San Cristobal’s Museo Templo y Convento Santo Domingo (Museum Church and Convent of Santo Domingo).
A steep stone staircase leads up to the Templo de San Cristobal (San Cristobal Church) and the town’s best mirador (lookout point). Climb to the top to enjoy spectacular views overlooking the town of San Cristobal, the surrounding mountains and countryside.
San Cristobal has been a well-known international tourist destination since the 1970s. Today, the town is home to numerous travel agencies, language schools, art-house cinemas, museums and artisans’ markets, as well as a dizzying array of shops, sidewalk cafes and restaurants, many catering to international visitors.
With its laid-back, bohemian atmosphere, San Cristobal de las Casas continues to be a popular destination among international backpackers and foreign residents, many who arrive to study Spanish or volunteer with local organizations in the fields of sustainability, education and human rights.
The central plaza in San Cristobal Chiapas goes by several names. You may hear it referred to as Plaza 31 de Marzo (March 31 Plaza), Vicente Espinoza Park, the zocalo (main square) or simply the parque central (central park). It’s the heart of San Cristobal de las Casas, one of the must-see Chiapas attractions and an important central gathering place.
Wide pathways leading throughout the central plaza are lined with wrought iron benches. Grab a seat in the shade and spend a few hours taking in the sights and scenery while enjoying a cup of locally produced organic Chiapas coffee from one of the cafes nearby.
In the evenings musicians entertain the crowds that gather around the kiosk that’s located in the center of the zocalo. During local festivals and religious holidays this central plaza also plays an important role.
Several important Chiapas attractions line the main plaza. San Cristobal’s Palacio Municipal (City Hall) sits on the west side. Built in 1885, it’s an impressive historical building with a series of arches supported by classical style columns. At the north end you’ll find the town’s mustard yellow Cathedral, a blend of Baroque, Moorish and indigenous influences. Return just before sunset to admire the Cathedral’s facade illuminated in the glow of the late afternoon sun.
You will likely encounter Indigenous women and children selling their handmade crafts in the central plaza. You can also find these crafts, including intricately embroidered blouses, in the local artisans’ markets in San Cristobal. If you’re interested in making a purchase, a little bargaining may help to get you the best price; if not, a simple “no, gracias” should be enough to send them on their way.
Several interesting day trips from San Cristobal include visits to the outlying highland villages of San Juan Chamula and San Lorenzo Zinacantan. Both towns offer a unique glimpse into the traditions and customs of the region’s indigenous Maya communities.
If you are a fan of the stimulating beverage coffee, you will love the fact that in Mexico, especially in Oaxaca and Chiapas, the experience with this beverage transcends the usual cup of coffee, as the plantations where it is produced are open for you to stay in them, enjoy their tropical climate and really get to know the process by means of which the seed is transformed into a delicious cup of coffee.
Since its arrival in Mexico in 1796, coffee became immediately integrated into the countryside, the tables and the tastes of the Mexican people. Currently, coffee produced in Veracruz, Chiapas and Oaxaca has denomination of origin, and its high quality has received awards worldwide.
In Chiapas, the famous Coffee Route will lead you to the mountainous areas of the state where these nineteenth century buildings are immersed in the green horizon. Each one of these haciendas offers a special experience: ecotourism activities such as hiking, bird watching and camping; adventure tourism such as rafting, rappelling and mountain biking; horseback riding, strolling through greenhouses, conservations programs for the local flora and fauna, thematic tours, and even spa services.
Among the plantations with the best facilities to stay and enjoy the aromas of coffee and the Chiapas jungle, are the Argovia, dating back to 1880, which offers cabins, suites, a restaurant serving European and Mexican cuisine and a temazcal. The Irlanda plantation offers a unique experience in its La Lucha camp and its preservation area, as well as tours of the fascinating cloud forest. The Chiripa is a plantation specializing in the production of the Marago gourmet coffee and its surroundings are perfect for adventure tourism.
The Hamburgo plantation is one of the most sophisticated in the area; here you will be able to enjoy an excellent spa service with enchanted panoramic views. In addition to the coffee museum, you can take thematic tours, as well as walk through the La Chiripa reserve and participate in activities such as rappelling and hiking.