SAN CRISTOBAL DE LAS CASAS, Mexico — Imagine a town so high in the mountains that its inhabitants live with their heads in the clouds, a town where Indians clad in reddish pink and bright blue stroll the streets. Imagine a town whose 16th- and 17th-Century architecture makes it a Spanish colonial gem, a place that has the feeling of a Spanish outpost.
Such is the dreamy realm of San Cristobal de las Casas, in Mexico's southernmost state of Chiapas. Its balmy ambiance soothes the soul, its subdued, introspective and gentle nature provides escape from the stress of modern life.
Tucked into a verdant valley 7,000 feet high in the meseta central, San Cristobal dozes under a canopy of misty, moving clouds. It's clammy climate makes bringing a sweater as important as finding a hotel room with a fireplace.
Mountains robed in the sweeping green of aromatic pine and oak trees cradle the town. On hilltops at opposite ends of town, the blue-trimmed church of Guadalupe to the east and the yellow-trimmed temple of San Cristobalito to the west keep a watchful eye over the community below while the smell of burning firewood tingles the nose and evokes the aura of times gone by.
What's in a Name
Life begins here in the shady, restful, zocalo (main square), whose official name is La Plaza del 31 de Marzo because it was on this date in 1528 that the town was founded by the Spanish conquistador, Diego de Mazariegos. The town has had several names. Its present one is in honor of its patron saint, St. Christopher, and the 16th-Century Spanish defender of the Indians, Father Bartolome de las Casas.
Clustered around the zocalo is an assortment of buildings. The arcaded neoclassical Municipal Palace accommodates a first-rate tourist office, and a superb example of Spanish architecture is the house of Diego de Mazariegos, Hotel Santa Clara. Its balconies, a sculpture of a mermaid on one corner and a perfect plateresque facade make it the icing on the colonial cake.
A walk across the zocalo takes you to the baroque cathedral. Begun in 1528, its exterior is somewhat disappointing. Its interior, however, makes up for this with beautiful altars, paintings and a fine, carved wooden pulpit. But it is the exquisite ceiling of carved wood that lifts the eyes and spirits. And if you are really blessed, you will be there for a gloriously human marimba Mass.
Venture away from the zocalo and wander through the streets to get the feeling of the place. It is filled with lovely churches, one-story pastel stucco houses with flower-filled patios and windows covered with wrought-iron grills.
The church of Santo Domingo could be the highlight of your wanderings. This 17th-Century temple is San Cristobal's most beautiful. Its ornate, faded-rose facade--complete with vegetable and Hapsburg eagle motifs, twisted columns and nine niches with statues of saints--is extravagantly baroque and echoes the enchanting architecture of Antigua, Guatemala. Its lavishly gilded interior--the pulpit is a knockout--could give you a gilt complex.
Kneeling before dazzling altars in the golden glow of a profusion of flickering candles, Indians will be deep in prayer and prostration.
Another architectural beauty is the Torre del Carmen, the only tower of its kind in the Americas. Built in 1677, this marvelous Moorish tower, with a street running through its base, suggests one of the gates of Segovia, Spain. It is San Cristobal's pride and joy.
In the vicinity are some 200,000 Indians of Maya descent who speak two languages--Tzotzil and Tzeltal. This indigenous community is composed of several groups, each with its own dress and culture.
San Cristobal is a mecca for three of these groups: You can tell the Chamulas by the bright blue shawls and black wraparound woolen skirts of the women. Those dressed in reddish pink tunics and ribboned hats are the Zinacantecos. The gorgeous multicolored embroideries and brocades are worn by the Tenajapanecos. A respectful and photographically restrained visit to nearby villages is a must, especially on Sunday, market day.
San Cristobal's market is a beehive of selling and bartering. It is the best place to visit for an in-depth look at the Maya peoples of the region. Every morning except Sunday it teems with Indians from nearby villages. Here, you will find everything from peanuts to love potions, not to mention a cornucopia of every fruit and vegetable imaginable.
For lovers of native textiles, San Cristobal is a happy hunting ground. The abundance of beautiful woolen and cotton weavings, embroideries and brocades bespeaks 1,000 years of textile history in Chiapas, land of the backstrap loom.
The best place to shop for weavings and clothes is at Sna Jolobil, an Indian cooperative store that sells superb goods made in the highland villages. The sheer beauty of an abundant array of vividly colored and multipatterned items is intoxicating.