Every three months I need to leave Guatemala, not from tortilla overdoses but because of visa rules! Since I’m technically here on a tourist visa, I need a magic little stamp every 90 days and it happens to create a convenient excuse for a vacation. I traveled to San Cristobal de las Casas in the state of Chiapas last weekend with Robin, Robin, and Céline to cross the border, eat some delicious food and see a new part of a country I really love. When I think of Chiapas, I always think of this tourism campaign that was hanging all over Mexico City last summer with the slogan Chiapasionante, which doesn’t really make sense but featured lots of pretty pictures of the region, which also boasts some cool ruins and natural beauty. I was thrilled to be back after a #cubiclefreesummer in DF and found San Cristobal to be a lot like Antigua, architecturally at least. Colonialism did have consistency. The culture and vibe of the city were very different. Antigua. while fun to visit (they actually have salads) can feel overwhelmed by tourists and I don’t get the sense that the locals and tourists mingle much beyond service jobs. In San Cristobal, on the other hand, it was hard to tell who was visiting and who was living. Around sunset, sidewalk cafes were full and there was a bustling local market. We saw a few neighborhoods, a great pedestrian only street lined with cafes and the beautiful colonial architecture the city is known for.
We took a shuttle from Pana that claims to take 8 hours and wound up spending about 12 hours in transit each way. The first shuttle takes you to the border, you do a passport check and then board a new van with a new driver. Due to Mexican laws, Guatemalans cannot easily pass into Mexico but Mexicans can easily enter Guatemala. Our driver on the way back, who drives to the border almost every day, has never been to Mexico because immigration laws are dumb and difficult. We had delays because of traffic, because of transfers of vans since some people had different final destinations and because of silly errors. Luckily the borders were safe and easy to pass, staffed by grumpy bureaucrats as I expected. We left early friday morning and headed home early sunday morning and if not for my job, I would not have spent so little time in San Cristobal. It’s A LOT of travel and sitting for a short visit.
What we did:
We arrived to San Cristobal around 7 on Friday and were hungry and cooped up. We walked to our hostel, owned by a man from Quebec and his mexican wife (this seems to be the story of so many hostel owners), settled in and headed to dinner at a taco place a few blocks away. It was so good to have so many salsas and we had a really nice waiter. Good vibes and a good welcome. Then we explored the pedestrian street, got margaritas (when in Mexico, though as in DF, most locals were drinking wine or mezcal and I even saw some sangria) and slept very soundly. After hostel breakfast and showers, we set out to explore, doing some shopping along the way. There was a ton of graffiti related to the 43 missing students in Ayotzinapa that disappeared/were killed a little over a year ago. I found this very moving commingled with the colonial cathedrals and wonder if the graffiti has been there all year or was renewed for the anniversary. It’s a horrible tragedy and something that Mexicans will not forget.
I also love feminist grafitti in spanish so I was thrilled to see some of that too, with a message that’s relevant all over the world. And these pictures were taken over 2 years apart, the more things change…
We climbed up to the Cerrito of San Cristobal for a wide sweeping view of the city, found lunch on a terrace on the main street and walked as much as we could to offset the super sedentary and cramped travel days.
Oaxacan food is some of mexico’s best and I reallllly want to go there. Our friends, who had made a near identical visa run trip a month earlier, assured us that Nostalgia was a can’t miss meal. We showed up and found the door closed and the owner talking to his wife and daughter, perhaps closing. He welcomed us in and proceeded to make us a great dinner, including improvised mezcal margaritas, free shots and the best mole I’ve ever had. I had mine in chilaquile form because chilaquiles are some of the best things to eat on this earth and he made a special dish for Robin who has peanut allergies. He’s my favorite kind of business owner because he quit his job working for Coca Cola to cook, working in a few kitchens before opening his own place. If you go to San Cristobal, pay him a visit.
We continued the night at a nearby jazz bar with really delicious cocktails. They had one with mezcal and campari and if you know my obsession with bitter foods, you’ll understand how happy this made me. The band was really good and we were seated next to the lead singer’s parents, who kvelled the entire time. A guy was sketching some people in the bar and asked if he could draw me. I agreed and he made a really cool portrait. He was from Japan and hopes to exhibit someday and he made a simpler version of the drawing for me to keep which was really fun to try not to wrinkle the entire ride home. At this point, it was late so we headed to bed. I woke up early with Robin and took a final walk around the central plaza, getting a mexican hot chocolate as a farewell to the city before spending a lot of time traveling to Pana, and catching a lancha back to Santiago. I was definitely tired at work on monday. Last summer, I lived with Mexican roommates from all over the country and heard so much about the nation’s diversity. Visiting Chiapas for the first time made me want to explore more and the exuberance and street life was refreshing after the somewhat quiet cities in Guatemala. I’d love to go back with way more time between twelve hour bus rides.
Now for the nitty gritty:
San Cristobal de Las Casas
Travel: We used Eternal Spring Shuttles and they were safe and on time in picking us up. I’m sure other ones are similar. Your comfort level during the trip depends on how full the route is that day. On our way there, we each had two seats to ourselves and on the way back it was completely full and very cramped.
Stay: Le Gite del Sol is well located, five blocks from the main plaza and has a nice included breakfast and patio. They also packed us a snack for the bus back since we left before breakfast started. The terrace is also really nice and there’s a big clean kitchen to use.
Really top knoch pastries at Oh La La (amazing almond croissant)
Slow Coffee Carajillo for coffee and reading
El Tacoleto for tacos or quesadillas if you’re a vegetarian. The pickled onions are spicy and awesome.
Nostalgia for Oaxacan food cooked by the nicest man. I could eat a jar of the mole.
Dada Club for jazz and mezcal cocktails (there’s a 2 x 1 deal before 9). Sit upstairs for a great view.
And so many more! There were so many wine bars, cafes, tapas bars and bakeries that I would have loved to try.
My next border run will be in March and I’ll probably head to Belize. It’s a new reason to travel, but hey, I’ll take it.