The Other Mexico: San Cristobal de las Casas

All this week, Gadling will be bringing you coverage of the *other* Mexico. Beyond the margarita-fueled coastal tourist traps lie ancient ruins, colonial cities and culinary hot spots. So, leave your preconceived notions at home, and get ready to head south of the border to explore the other side of Mexico.

In 2003, Mexico’s Secretariat of Tourism (SECTUR) unveiled the Magical Villages Program. This promotional campaign highlights destinations that offer visitors a ‘magical’ experience through historical and cultural beauty and richness. One such place that fulfills these characteristics is San Cristobal de las Casas.

Located in the Chiapas highlands at an elevation of nearly 7000 feet, San Cristobal has always been thought of as a rather remote and mysterious place. Enclosed by dense pine forests, and accessed only by serpentine mountain roads, San Cristobal is anything but an easy-to-reach destination for the time-pressed traveler.

But that is exactly why you should it seek out.

In light of its re-discovery by shoestringing backpackers in the 1970s, San Cristobal now boasts stately accommodations, swanky restaurants and an intoxicating bohemian chic. It is also home to a proud indigenous community, and very briefly served as the launching point of the failed 1994 Zapatista uprising against the Mexican government.

San Cristobal de las Casas lies at the center of an ancestral Mayan region that gave rise to the modern-day Tzotzil and Tzeltal peoples. The city itself owes its origins to the Spanish conquistador Diego de Mazariegos, who established the settlement of Villareal de Chiapa de los Españoles in 1528.

In subsequent years, the military outpost quickly grew into a full-fledged city. The driving factor was the surrounding agricultural lands, which cultivated wheat, coffee, cacao and other lucrative cash crops. In 1535, the settlement was renamed San Cristobal after its patron saint, St. Christopher, and designated as the capital of Chiapas.

Great wealth flowed into the city, fueling the construction of lavish churches, grand plazas, cobbled streets and row upon row of gilded mansions. But indigenous populations remained on the fringes of European society, a fact of history that centuries later was incorporated into the political ideologies of the Zapatista National Liberation Army (EZLN).

On the morning of January 1, 1994, Subcomadante Marcos led armed Zapatista insurgents into San Cristobal where they proceeded to free political prisoners and raze police buildings and military barracks. Despite this initial success, they were chased out of the city the following day by the Mexican army. Ten days later, the Catholic diocese in San Cristobal brokered a ceasefire between the Zapatistas and the government.

The Zapatistas are now primarily focused on pacifist community organizing amongst the various indigenous groups in Chiapas. The Mexican government and armed forces have also largely shifted their attention towards fighting the drug cartels, which pose a much more significant threat to the country’s stability.

As such, regional security is arguably stronger than it has ever been, which means that travelers need not fear the roads into San Cristobal. Instead of being on the lookout for bandits and checkpoints, you can focus on the densely jungled hillsides, the sweeping valleys full of agricultural bounty and the towering pine trees that herald your arrival in San Cristobal.

A small, compact city of no less than 140,000 souls, San Cristobal is perfectly suited to exploration on foot, particularly along the central pedestrian promenades. While there are only a few tourist attractions in the classic sense, the entire city is akin to a living museum.

Each turn of the corner brings to life this stunning example of Spanish colonial architecture. The beauty is in the details – vibrant facades, wrought iron fixtures, ceramic roofing, bubbling fountains, trussed vines and flowering trees.

(But don’t just take our word for it – check out the gallery below.)

Beyond the steady stream of well-heeled tourists, San Cristobal plays host to a creative community of artists and artisans. It also serves as a marketplace for food products and household goods, luring in villagers from the Chiapan countryside. Mayan dialects trump Spanish, and market goers are often colorfully draped in traditional hand-embroidered textiles.

And now for the nitty-gritty:

How to get there: The nearest commercial airport to San Cristobal lies in the city of Tuxtla Gutierrez, approximately 50 miles west. From here, there are regularly scheduled bus departures to San Cristobal, with a total travel time of about one to two hours. Long-distance buses also connect San Cristobal with major cities in Chiapas, Oaxaca and the Yucatan. Bus travel in Mexico is generally safe, affordable and surprisingly efficient.

Where to stay: The grittier outskirts of San Cristobal have a few barebones bunkhouses, but splurge on a night or two in the wonderfully restored buildings lining the historic center. Depending on your preference, you can bed down in a former hacienda complete with lush gardens and elegant dining halls, or opt for smaller yet more intimate B&Bs and boutique inns.

What to eat: San Cristobal has a sizeable resident ex-pat population, which ensures a surprising number of cosmopolitan dining and drinking options. The pedestrian throughways are lined with brick-oven pizzerias, Argentinean steakhouses, French bistros, Lebanese sheesha lounges and even a Belgian chocolatier! And in case you were wondering, yes, there are in fact excellent Mexican restaurants in San Cristobal.

Still think that Mexican tourism begins and ends along the often overhyped coastlines? Think again as some of the country’s most spectacular destinations lie inland, awaiting to be discovered by savvy travelers. If these veritable diamonds in the rough sound appealing, then make the effort to discover what lies in the *other* Mexico.

[Photo: A church in San Cristóbal de las Casas. doctora w/Flickr]