San Cristobal is a smaller town than Oaxaca and tourism seems to dominate it more. Also it is much more scenic than Oaxaca. To get to it from Oaxaca you catch the overnight bus – there does not seem to be daytime one – and given good road conditions it will get you there in 12 hours. It took us 13. We took the Platinum Service which means wide, well padded seats and air conditioning. The seats would be good at 35,000 feet but at zero feet on a Mexican road they are not great. You may not be bruised but you are very well shaken.
A note of interest: The better Mexican buses have elaborate mechanisms to constantly measure tyre pressure. Given the roads they go on this may be a necessity.
We were staying in yet another VRBO property and this one was the poshest yet. It was a casita at the end of an enclosed garden. The main house is old and built round a courtyard. All of the property has been expertly restored and is well maintained.
San Cristobal is at a height of over 7,000 feet and it can get cold at night. I had to unpack my fleece for going out in the evenings. And you are virtually certain to get rained on in the afternoon. Mornings are sunny but clouds start building up at lunchtime and the heavens open about 3 0r 4 and it pours down for an hour or so. Then it clears up.
But you do tend to get good rainbows afterwards.
The layout of San Cristobal is, once again, a grid pattern but here the streets are so narrow that almost every one is one way.
This leads to something I have never seen before. At each junction the traffic lights are always red but you only need to stop for one car, then you can go. It seems to work.
The Chiapas region of which San Cristobal used to be the capital is well known for its amber, and, indeed the place has an amber museum. We went round it and it is quite interesting, probably more so if your Spanish is better than mine. You can buy amber there and, following on from “Jurassic Park”, if there is a fossil in the amber, the price rises greatly.
The amber is about 22 – 26 million years old i.e. upper Oligocene into the Miocene – so no dinosaurs here.
Chiapas still has a very large indigenous population and you can visit villages which are exclusively indigenous on day trips from San Cristobal. We visited two – Chulupa and Zinacantan.
In Chulupa it was the build up to the local Saints Day – John the Baptist. So the place was full of processions, fireworks, loud music and lots of other activities which would raise a few eyebrows in the Vatican. The locals still call themselves Catholic but they expelled the imposed priest 40 years ago and they now have the final say as to which priest looks after the parish. And it is a very large parish – about 80,000. We saw no sign of the priest while we were there. But we saw lots of spiritual leaders who are rather more Mayan than Catholic.
We went into the church and it was packed. There were no pews and the floor was covered with pine leaves. You had to watch where you walked as there were candles scattered, in apparently very significant patterns, all over the place. Groups in traditional dress were genuflecting here, there and everywhere. Loud brass bands were playing, often in competition with each other. If we had come on the next day we would have seen chickens being sacrificed – Wednesday is an unlucky day for chicken sacrifice (a valuable piece of knowledge for you).
All very different from the Church of Scotland of my youth. And, I suspect, different from what happens in St Peters, Rome. Chamula has had a long history of fighting against the Spanish Conquest and all its works, and the spirit lives on.
In contrast, Zinacantan was much more laid back, although we did see a hand written sign, at the entrance to the church, saying that chicken sacrifice was forbidden inside the church.
The business of Zinacantan is flowers. The place is surrounded by greenhouses and many of the floral tributes we saw in Chumula came from Zinacantan. The other industry is hand weaving and we saw women doing this in a family house we visited. In Zinacantan they weave with cotton; in Chumula it is wool that is used.
As you can see from the picture, not only do they weave, but also they embroider. And not only for themselves! Christine succumbed and bought herself an embroidered cloth. Here is a photo of the cloth and the lady who embroidered it.
One of the features of San Cristobal is its market. This covers a vast area and sells lots of stuff, mainly food but also clothes, pots and pans, medicines – you name it, you will probably find someone who sells it. The food can be rather unusual.
The stallholders go to some lengths to make there goods distinctive. There isn’t a great deal you can do with fruit but they try.
And you can buy things which are not normally be purchased – such as spray on Powerful Attraction. Maybe I should have got some.
One of the excursions you can make from San Cristobal is to the Sumidero Canyon which is near the capital of Chiapas – Tuxtla Gutierrez. It has been cut by the Grijalva river and is navigable because it has been dammed by a hydro- electric dam. In places the canyon walls are over a kilometre in height and going along the river can be mighty impressive.
But you go down the canyon not only to see the scenery but also to look at the wildlife, of which there is plenty. You can see crocodiles, big ones –
and little ones.
We also saw some monkeys, vultures, pelicans and many other sorts of birds.
There was also an extraordinary flowstone structure running down the wall of the canyon. An underground stream emerges half way up the canyon wall and has deposited limestone down the side of the cliff. At some point, not too long ago, the flow decreased and the lower portions of the flowstone have started to weather. A very odd sight.
The trip down the canyon was one of the best excursions we have been on and the canyon must be one of the most spectacular I have seen.
Shortly after this we left Mexico for Guatemala and Costa Rica and I will write about this soon.