Friday, April 29, 2005

MEXICO, DAY 27: San Cristóbal De Las Casas, the heart of Chiapas

From Tuxtla, the drive to San Cristóbal does not look far on the map. However, San Cristóbal is much higher in elevation, and the whole drive is uphill. If you decide like we did to opt for the older, free highway (as opposed to the new, toll highway), this drive is 2 hours long with nothing but winding mountainous curves, often with huge cliffs dropping off to the side. The views were amazing, but the extremely slow trucks and buses tested our patience.

When we arrived in town, we were astonished by the difference between this place and Tuxtla. San Cristóbal is a much smaller city, for one, actually a large town with beautiful colonial architecture, cobbled streets, a large, beautiful pedestrian plaza, and crystal-clear, cool mountain air. What’s more, the culture here reminded us more of Berkeley, California, than anyplace in Mexico. With its large selection of organic and veggie-friendly cuisine, its hip café and music scene, and the abundance of travelers and ex-pats from everywhere, we felt like we could really be at home here!

A hillside view of San Cristobal De Las Casas

Santo Domingo Church

Cathedral of San Cristóbal, near the central square in San Cristóbal De Las Casas

We checked into the Backpacker’s Hostel, a nice cheap option which offers a full range of tent space, hammocks, dorm rooms and a shared kitchen, though ultimately we decided on a nice cheap private room instead of setting up the tent. Here there were a variety of young, hip travelers with whom we could share travel stories.

Our favorite establishments in town were, in no particular order:

Revolución – Part café, part restaurant, part bar, and part performance space, this place really reminded us of Berkeley, with its revolutionary motif and its hip clientele. When we arrived in the early evening, a band was setting up on the little stage in the corner of the front room, and we stuck around for their 1-hour set. Consisting of 2 female singers (one played acoustic guitar, and the other percussion), a male singer/guitarist, and a bass player, they played percussion-driven, acoustic songs, all in Spanish, of course. Due to the fact that the 3 singers were all white-skinned and looked very much like people we might see at a Sector 9 or Phish show, we guessed that they were Americans. Wrong. It turns out that 2 of them were from Italy and one from Argentina! (We guessed correctly that the bass player was Mexican.) All of them now lived here in San Cristóbal. Perhaps the most surreal part of our stay happened while we were at Revolución. Rob looked out of the window and tapped Carley on the shoulder. Our mouths were both agape at the sight outside: a red-wigged woman walking around on high stilts with fairy wings on her back. Where are we again? It certainly felt more like Northern California than Southern Mexico.

Casa Ruiz – named after the beloved Bishop Samuel Ruiz, the local leader of the Catholic Church until his 1999 retirement and a vociferous human rights campaigner against the oppression of indigenous people, this place is actually a beautiful old chapel converted into a jazz club/art gallery/restaurant. We checked out a live jazz band for about a half hour, while admiring the revolutionaries brightly depicted in the paintings on the wall.

Madre Tierra (Mother Earth) – a very vegetarian-friendly restaurant, displaying paintings by Frida Kahlo and other female Mexican artists, this was a great spot to get a dinner with such dishes as spinach-stuffed cannelloni, lentil soup with plantain, and quality salad. (of course this was decidedly non-Mexican food but very yummy nonetheless!)

Casa del Pan (House of Bread) – touting an all-organic menu with ingredients from local cooperatives and farmers, this place was the most “Berkeley” of all. Besides an assortment of the best breads we’d had since leaving California (including potato-cheese bread, olive bread, cheese-stuffed croissants, and curried-vegetable stuffed pockets), this café also has a great menu of omelets, sandwiches, soups, snacks, smoothies, coffee and tea, all organic and healthy. Set in a pretty courtyard with friendly service and relaxing music playing in the background, our dining experience here was perfect.

Overall, San Cristóbal De Las Casas gets our highest recommendation for progressive culture, quality food and entertainment. We know we’ll be back here sometime soon, as it’s only a couple hours drive from Guatemala!

The beautiful church Iglesia de Guadalupe in San Cristobal

Rob with Guadalupe

On to DAYS 28-29: Ancient Mayan Ruins at Palenque