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Linda and Mary’s Grand Adventure to San Cristobal de las Casas

By Mary Henderson 

San Cristobal de las Casas and neighboring Tuxtla Gutierrez and Comitan are in the State of Chiapas, a region east of Oaxaca and south of Villahermosa and which is, without question, Mexico’s most stunning scenic area; mostly wild and rugged, it is rich in indigenous life and culture.  The elevation is 7,000 feet, and the air is crisp and clean.  This is colonial city with traditional plazas, streets paved with well-worn cobblestones, parks, and wonderful architecture.  This city was founded in 1528 and called Cuidad Real (Royal City).  Its present name is to honor the bishop, Friar Bartolome de las Casas who was the protector of the indigenous people. 

Tuesday, July 29, 2008
Linda Pongracz and I, Mary Henderson, left Tulum on an ADO bus (round-trip cost was $724 pesos) for a trip to San Cristobal de las Casas.  However, buying ADO tickets on-line was not that easy – quite frustrating actually – until Ivan the dive master pointed me to “Ticket Bus” on their web site. You can also fly into Tuxla from Cancun, and hire a car, but it is on the pricey side, and you won’t get to sit for hours and hours on a bus!

We boarded the bus in Tulum at 8:30 pm.  This was a first class, deluxe bus with fully reclining seats, Spanish language movies, and a very clean bathroom; far more than I expected.  There were brief stops in Chetumal, Palenque, and Ocosingo,  Prior to Palenque, the road starts up and winds through some of the most beautiful mountains I’ve ever seen - the kind where clouds drift below the mountain tops, and the valleys are lovely shades of green, and the most prevalent crop is corn.  The negative to this road is numerous topes - worst than Akumal - and as close together as the new ones at Lol Ha!

After 17 ½ hours, we arrived at our destination, magical San Cristobal de las Casas, at 2:00 pm. 

Day 2, Wednesday, July 30
Our reservation through Discovery Mexico for the hotel, Tierra y Cielo, was honored, and they were expecting us.  It was a nice room ($88.00 per night), and the highlight was the restaurant, which had really superb food.  The hotel is 3 short blocks from the main square.  After getting settled in, we dined on a marvelously prepared steak, and then spent the rest of evening catching up on sleep.  I know, that is a lousy way to begin a vacation, but neither Linda nor I would have been fit for anything else. 

Day 3, Thursday, July 31
The grand adventure really begins.  The churches built between the 16th and 18th centuries are well preserved and show different architectural styles: baroque, plateresque, and neoclassical.  Our favorites were the main Cathedral and the Templo del Carmen.  However, everywhere we looked we found sights to thrill, and both of us commented on the cleanliness of the city.  

There are individual vendors, usually women and children, from neighboring pueblos  selling their handicrafts, and they are not shy about approaching you; the children are adorable and hard to resist.  All in all, these vendors add a special flavor and are quite colorful in their native dress.  In addition, the varied shops that attracted us were boutiques and those displaying local art.  One of the special things about this day included viewing an expo of amber.  Under a huge white, tent located in front of the Cathedral, various vendors had gathered, and their designs were of incredible beauty.  The prices were fair, but my pesos, unfortunately, were slim.

An unexpected highlight turned out to be visiting with another Akumalian, Wickie Rimell, owner of Casa Aurora in North Akumal.  Her home was within easy walking distance of the hotel, and she invited Linda and I for hora feliz.  As with much of San Cristobal, the properties’ main doors and entryways are directly off the narrow sidewalks.  After our knock on an antique door was answered by Wickie, we entered a truly lovely courtyard.  This is open air - hacienda-style - and all of the various rooms opened off the courtyard.  The décor was so stunningly put together that you felt homey and relaxed while your eyes delighted in her native art, beautiful garden, and colorfully-furnished rooms.  There is a 12 foot carved wooden statue of antique warrior from one of the pueblos that is definitely eye-catching!

After adjourning to a neighborhood bar/restaurant with Wickie, she discovered her house key was missing.  We walked her home and were constantly looking on the street for a dropped 5 inch key.  Upon arriving at her front door, there was a note, with instructions to call the man who had found her key.  I include this incident as it typifies the wonderful, warm spirit of the residents of San Cristobal.  Earlier at the amber exhibit, I had dropped a shawl, but a stranger returned it to me.  Really nice people, these San Cristobalians! 

Day 4, Friday, August 1
We met Wickie for a visit to her friend, Nancy, who operates a beautiful bed and breakfast.  It is two separate houses, again, open courtyards and just as charmingly decorated as Wickie’s.  Nancy and her husband also own a beach house in Mahajal.  After coffee and a short visit, Linda and I began our afternoon adventure.

We went to Na Bolom, which is a museum that was the former home of the famed Danish anthropologist and philanthropist, Frans Blom, and his photographer wife, Trudy Blom.  On display are archaeological pieces, crafts and regional Maya objects.

Our next stop of the afternoon was THE MARKET.  The first section was dedicated to food, all looked fresh and colorful.  An interior building housed all kinds of fish and poultry and things I was afraid to ask about.  We left hurriedly and went a block or so to the crafts market, which was set up on the grounds of another beautiful church, the Templo de Santo Domingo.  Here, we found all sorts of crafts, garments, wood sculptures, and, of course, amber as well as other semi-precious stones.  There were so  many lovely things, but I parted with only 250 pesos for an exquisite huipile of intense embroidered design. 

We then proceeded to a shopping street near the hotel and experienced our only rain along the way, but this rain bought with it cooler weather; well, really cold weather.  We had seen a hotel earlier, which featured fireplaces in the room, and this set us on a quest to find a new hotel with a fireplace, with no luck.  However, we moved anyway to Casa Mexicana ($99.00 per night), and they did have heaters available for the room.  The outstanding feature of this hotel was the courtyard garden and art gallery, which had several of Gayle Walker’s works.

Day 5, Saturday, August 2
We explored the countryside and ruins by private car.  Our first stop was Amatenango with its outstanding pottery.  Both Linda and I left with some fine examples of this hand-painted craft.

Next we visited the ruin, Tenam Puente.  So lovely!  Linda was as agile as a mountain goat scampering up those steep Maya steps, while I, on the other hand, took the easier route going up.  Tenam Puente has various buildings and temples and three ball courts, all in a setting that was so clean and shady, and truly fit for the gods.

Our lunch stop was another surprise: El Parador – Museo Santa Maria.  This hacienda  dates to the 19th century and has been renovated, restored, decorated with furniture and art from past centuries to create an exclusive atmosphere reminiscent of the colonial period of Mexico.  A chapel has been converted into a religious art museum with pieces from the 16th and 17th centuries.  A sneak peek at the 8 rooms included seeing canopy beds and other antique furniture.   The restaurant had very good food and wine, plus coffee grown in the hacienda’s vinca.

Our last stop of the day was the ruin of Chinkultic, another marvelous setting.  You view a temple from afar that looks like a castle, and you must reach it by crossing a river.  Unfortunately, the river was swollen and impassable.  There were other buildings and temples to explore however.

We arrived back to our new hotel, Casa Mexicana, tired, happy, and hungry, again.  With Wickie’s help, we discovered a great restaurant, El Paraisio.

Day 6, Sunday, August 3
We went on another tour to pueblos very close to San Cristobal.  Our first stop was to Zinacantan and a visit to a local family, where there were demonstrations of weaving, tortilla making and eating, and sampling the local brew made from sugar cane (quite a  kick to this drink which is used in local ceremonies).  The guide was knowledgeable and full of interesting facts about the history of the Maya in this region, and in particular, the two villages on the agenda for today.  Zinacantan is definitely man’s world, the kind where women do all the work.  Almost all of the residents were clad in their native dress.  Unbeknownst to me, the huipile I had bought earlier was from this place, and the women and young girls were in ones that were blue, and the men’s and young boy’s were red. 

The male elders of the church also wore a scarf with pompoms and an additional cloak to display their position of authority.  The guide’s lecture came alive after we visited the zocalo and church; we came upon a meeting of a dozen or so men in the church annex that we were free to observe, but not photograph.  An anomaly was an extremely loud band with extremely loud speakers playing Spanish rock ‘n roll!

The next stop was San Juan de Chamula.  In this pueblo only 25 percent speak Spanish.  The dress is heavy goat hair black skirts for the women and men in a tunic-type garment of white goat hair.  This is the least assimilated community in the area, and the customs pre-date the Spaniards arrivals.  Monogamy is rarely practiced here: the men may have 3-4 or more wives, and there is no formal marriage ceremony. 

There is a very strong dependence on healers to treat the sick and to interpret events which makes for such contrasts today.  The church is large and quite beautiful both inside and out.  Inside it was very crowded, and not with tourists.  There was a priest performing baptisms at the rear of the church; one family leaves and another family approaches.  All of the children to be baptized were dressed in white frilly, lacey dresses, caps, shoes, and socks that looked very modern.

Sculptures of saints in glass-enclosed structures lined both sides of the church, and it did have a center alter.  The floor was covered in pine needles.  Individuals or small groups were everywhere, kneeling on the floor with their 50-100 small lit candles.  We saw live and dead chickens that were to be used in these ancient rites as well as the strong sugar cane drink.  The only concession to modern times is that some healers have replaced the sugar cane drink with CokaCola!   The Catholic Church has all but abandoned the church to the local Maya of Chamula, and a priest from San Cristobal may appear once a month for important ceremonies.  Both Linda and I truly felt we had been transformed back through the centuries.  It was definitely a weird experience, but one I feel privileged to have observed.

We headed back to San Cristobal and met Wickie for a special late Sunday afternoon buffet, and then went to her home for more visiting before returning to our hotel for the night.

Day 7, Monday, August 3
We re-visited the Market and other shops for those last-minute purchases, and the hard part was figuring out how to pack everything.  Both of us traveled light with small back packs and small carry-ons.  We added more carry-ons and three huge cardboard boxes.  It was tough to fit everything into the taxi for the ride to the bus!

San Cristobal was truly an amazing discovery for me, and I will return.  There’re lots of other things to do that we saved for the next trip; i.e. more museums, more archeological zones, more villages, more lakes, more waterfalls, and more shopping!

Day 8, Tuesday, August 4
We arrived in Tulum at 7:00 am, and this bus home only took 15 ½ hours, and the wine (for me) and sleeping pills (for both of us) helped!


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