Latest update: 20 March 2023
San Cristóbal de las Casas (San Cris for friends) is a favorite city among travelers. I attribute that to the pleasant mix of modern facilities, traditional customs, and friendly prices. Add a lot of activities, and before you know it, a few days have passed, and you extend your stay.
A different part of Mexico
San Cristóbal de las Casas is a colonial city in the Chiapas region. After spending a few weeks mainly on the coast, this is an entirely different part of Mexico for me. The sidewalks are narrow, and the cobbled streets slope steeply up and down. Traffic seems completely disorganized. “How do you know which car has priority?” I ask someone. “The one going down, because you never know if the brakes are working,” is the answer. Because the city is at an altitude of about 2100 meters, it cools down considerably in the evening. I lie under thick blankets during my trip in Mexico and Belize for the first time in six weeks. And geez, that’s actually pretty good. I sleep like a baby.
San Cristóbal’s atmosphere
San Cristóbal is a place where many travelers linger. Firstly, there is a lot to do in the city; secondly, it is a convenient base for many outings; and finally, it is reasonably priced. On the street and in the hostels, I meet many people who try to earn some money by selling falafels, homemade Snickers, or handmade jewelry. Many people also volunteer in a hostel for a while to save on the cost of their stay.
Weaving and embroidery are big in the Chiapas region, one of the poorest regions of Mexico. San Cristóbal is, therefore, also an excellent place to buy traditional clothing or a pillowcase. In addition, there are many museums (about textiles, amber, jade, etc.) and many cafes and restaurants. It’s a fairly large city but very walkable, so you can spend hours wandering the streets or enjoying views of the city from Cerro de San Cristóbal and Cerro de Guadalupe. I easily spend a few days in the city.
Free Walking Tour in San Cristobal de las Casas
I am always a fan of free walking tours because I get to know the city and the highlights in a short time. And it’s helpful for my orientation in the city. The walking tour is free, but a tip is expected. There are a few in San Cristóbal. My guide Carlos clearly enjoys the tour (especially when he lets us try tacos with brains, udders, eyes, and more). The focus of the tour is on food. I taste typical Mexican snacks and drinks at the Mercado de los Dulces, and visit cultural places, churches, and bars. You can arrange your Free Walking Tour at Freetours.com or GuruWalk.
Horseback riding to San Juan Chamula
For 200 pesos (2018 price), I go on a horseback ride to San Juan Chamula, about 10 kilometers away. Almost every tour agency in San Cristóbal provides this ride. Unfortunately, I have some horribly uninspired guides. There is no hello, smile, or chat. Instead, we are all rushed onto our horses. Then they push them as close together as possible and cover the route quickly without explaining the ride, the environment, or the stops.
However, they are begging for a tip at the end of the ride. Sorry you’re not getting anything from me. Fortunately, the surroundings are stunning, and our final destination is a church like I’ve never seen a church before.
There’s a market when I’m in San Juan Chamula. That means a lot of hustle and bustle, mainly local people by the way. It is an anthill of people, and only on the square in front of the white-colored church do I have some space to breathe again. I can only now see how people are dressed: the men wear tunics of white wool, the women white or blue blouses and dark woolen skirts. The church is called Templo de San Juan. It is a unique church because it mixes Catholicism with Maya rituals. As a tourist, I buy a 20 pesos ticket at the left counter of the church. “No pictures!” the seller yells at me. But taking pictures is the last thing on my mind when I enter.
My eyes have to get used to the lack of light and the abundance of smoke. Thousands of candles flicker in the church. The floor is littered with pine needles. Copal incense burns, a tree resin. People believe that this fragrance helps deceased souls find their way home. Everywhere people are kneeling on the floor to accurately position the long candles. Usually, an older woman in the group seems to lead the ritual. She sings, lights the candles, splashes with water, drinks soft drinks (burping is desirable: burps drive away the evil spirits), and twists a chicken’s neck. When she has insufficient strength, one of the boys in the group helps. They calmly let the blood drip onto the floor and continue their ritual.
Quite a few chickens are sacrificed per day. According to belief, the chickens should be buried afterward, but according to Carlos (from the Free Walking Tour), most people eat them. They don’t have the money to waste a chicken. I find it intriguing, but I also feel like an intruder. Walking through something so sacred to others and staring at people is a bit uncomfortable. Of course, they’re used to it and don’t even seem to see me, but still…
Arcotete from San Cristóbal de las Casas
The crazy and extremely friendly Carlos from the Free Walking Tour also organizes private tours when he feels like it. He has the most unbelievable stories about life, women, and booze and has the smallest car for a tour. So, with five people in an old Beetle with a bowl of lasagna on our lap, we go to Arcotete. This is a recreational area where people come to picnic and enjoy nature. Rocks, caves, water, and a zipline if you want.
We visit the Grutas Del Mamut, where Carlos leads us through increasingly narrow tunnels. That is not necessary, because the cave also has excellent hiking trails, but Carlos likes an adventure. One of the rock formations resembles a mammoth, hence the name. Outside the cave, we eat Carlos’s lasagna and chill by the river. This is, without a doubt, the most bizarre tour I’ve ever done, but how I laughed with this crazy Mexican. Unfortunately, you can’t find his tours online. Maybe you’ll run into him in San Cristóbal, or you can visit Arcotete and the Grutas Del Mamut yourself.
Watch a movie at Kinoki
Kinoki is a cultural café with several cinemas. There are small rooms you can rent privately, and it has movie nights. Most films are subtitled in English, but it is wise to double-check. I visit a film about the Zapatista movement. San Cristóbal is a Zapatista hotspot, but I know little about it.
The movement was originally (1994) an anti-globalization movement that is mainly committed to the protection and autonomy of indigenous peoples in the Chiapas region. Basically, they wage a non-violent struggle through the media. However, I see this has not always been the case in the film. Although the problems and the Zapatista movement cannot be captured in one film, I do recommend checking one out to learn more about Mexico. You buy a ticket at the box office just before the start of the film.
Cañon de Sumidero and Chiapa de Corzo
One of the most booked tours in San Cristóbal is the one to the Cañon de Sumidero and Chiapa de Corzo. I think they added Chiapa de Corzo to make the tour last a bit longer. I have barely 45 minutes in the village, so that means a quick tour around the square, a juice at the market, and then back on the bus. That’s why I don’t think it’s worth it.
But, the Cañon de Sumidero is impressive. I sail past mountains no less than a kilometer high. My neck almost hurts from looking up. Although it is a touristy boat trip, the view is worth it. In addition, we get to see monkeys and crocodiles. So this is a perfect half-day trip. If you also want to get on top of the mountains, you pay a little more, and it will be a full-day tour instead of half a day.
Hotel and hostel in San Cristóbal
I sleep in a hotel and a hostel in San Cristóbal. The first is Casa Azabache. I will only stay there for one night. Casa Azabache was still a small-scale hostel at the time, but now it only has private rooms. A good choice because I deliberately chose a small-scale hostel with good reviews about how social it was, but when I got there, it turned out that there were only volunteers from the hostel in the dormitory. As I want to meet travelers, this was a disappointment for me.
This San Cristóbal de las Casas hotel is highly recommended for just the two of you. The private rooms look immaculate and lovely. The communal kitchen is also modern, so you can easily cook something up.
Warning! Hot water is scarce in San Cristóbal. So prepare yourself for a cold shower; better to avoid disappointment.
The other nights I sleep in Puerta Vieja Hostel. This is a huge hostel with huge dormitories. One night I even slept with 18 people in a room. It depends on which room you get if it’s comfortable. Some are airtight and light-tight, while others are quite spacious and have enough light.
Puerta Vieja is a social hostel with a cinema, courtyard, bar, kitchen, and many activities. Usually, I’m not too fond of massive hostels, but I thought this one was pretty good – if you’re up for something sociable. During the day, many people are doing a tour, and in the evening, everyone is looking for friends to go out for food and drinks.
More Mexico inspiration?
Helpful links for your Mexico trip
- Travel guides. I love the practical travel guides from Lonely Planet, buy them at Bol.com or Amazon.
- Flights. Compare all your options! Definitely check out Momondo, Skyscanner, and Kiwi.
- Bus. Book bus trips in Mexico with Busbud or 12Go.
- Accommodation. All-time favorite: Booking.com. Find hostels via Hostelworld.
- Money. Your bank cards may not get accepted everywhere. You could opt for a Revolut card as an additional card when you travel.
- Activities. You book the best tours and activities with GetYourGuide and Viator. ‘Free’ walking tours are available at GuruWalk. And for bike tours, try Baja Bikes.
- Attractions and museums. Get a 5% discount on museums and attractions at Tiqets with the coupon code KIMOPREIS22.
- Car rental. My go-to car rental companies are EasyTerra and Sunny Cars as they have all-inclusive / worry-free offers.
- Travel gear. Buy your gear at Bever or Decathlon, or simply at Bol.com.
- Package deals. Rather go on a catered trip? You have many options! For the Dutch, try ANWB vakanties, Tui or Sawadee, or maybe you can find a sweet deal at Vakantie Discounter or D-reizen?
Or: try a yoga retreat in Mexico!
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First published: October 2018. Updated since.