San Cristóbal de Las Casas: Cocodrilos, Controversial Catholics, and a Clandestine Army

San Cristóbal de Las Casas, Mexico

I have finally ventured beyond my Latin American home-away-from home — Guatemala — and into the southernmost Mexican state of Chiapas, a region that was actually once a part of Guatemala. My first destination: San Cristóbal de Las Casas, the cultural capital of Chiapas and center of the Zapatista movement, a left-wing political and military group standing up for indigenous rights. This group is still technically at war with the Mexican government, but fortunately for me (and other visitors), after an armed resistance in the 1990’s, the Zapatistas have moved from violent to peaceful tactics that are focused on civil resistance, enhanced cooperation with other global left-wing movements, and the development of a vast array of hipster-friendly coffees shops in San Cristóbal.

I arrived in San Cristóbal this past Thursday evening after a ten hour journey from Lake Atitlán, and, exhausted after the trip, laid low that night. I spent most of Friday, my first full day in the city, taking a free walking tour of the town in order to get a better feel for this artsy hub of Mexican counter-culture. A youthful, lanky Mexican named JP led the relaxed, five-hour amble through the town’s two main “walking streets” (i.e. closed to auto traffic), Real de Guadalupe and 20th de Noviembre. JP, despite having only lived in San Cristóbal for six months, provided the other two tourers (Laura, an Aussie, and Eva, an Irishwomen) and I a wealth of information on the city’s history, culture, art, and top dining and nightlife spots. JP, who would joke several times about how people come to San Cristóbal for vacation then end up never leaving (which would be repeated by several others “locals” I would meet around town), would solidify the quality of his recommendations by proving himself as a man about town — I would bump into him three times over the next few days at different separate spots he had recommended. My favorite recommendation of his was La Abuelita, a local Mexican eatery near Guadalupe Church where I would improbably eat my favorite rendition of three separate Mexican staples: refried beans, chicken enchiladas, and a chile relleno. (For all those doubters out there, Mexican food is, in fact, better in Mexico.) My second favorite tip of JP’s was his observation that the festival of the Virgin Guadalupe was in full swing in San Cristobal, as later the next night, I would find myself stuck in the throngs of a parade marching the streets of the city, chanting “¡Viva la Virgen!” Having learned the legend of Guadalupe from JP, I was able to enthusiastically join the locals in this chant, which, without context, is certifiably creepy.

After spending the majority of my second day in Zapatista coffeeshops, contemplating whether or not the Zapatista Army may have the need for a 31-year-old white male with an intimate knowledge of online programmatic advertising, I sprang back into action the next day with a boat tour of Sumidero Canyon, about an hour drive from San Cristóbal. At a sprightly 35 million years old, this canyon is a contemporary of the Grand Canyon of the United States and a point of pride for Chiapas, as a particular view of its expanse is represented on their state seal (which also curiously includes what looks like a lion tickling a palm tree). My boat for the tour was stocked full of two dozen gringos who would all nod in collective false comprehension when our Spanish language-only guide gave a bit of information on the impressive number of canyon features and wildlife we passed on our way through the canyon. The showstoppers were the crocodiles (one swimming, one sunbathing — both visibly annoyed at the gawking tourists), the spider monkeys (we were close enough to these playful branch-swingers that if one missed a jump from one tree to another, it would have fallen into our boat cruising along the riverbank), and a canyon-side waterfall shaped like a Christmas tree (which is cool…I think?). At each of these highlights, my boat neighbor (Cam, a recent university graduate from Quebec) and I would snap photos then turn to each other and comment at the relative absurdity of this exercise, “Welp, ya really can’t capture that, can ya?” After several hours in this canyon with walls that reach up to 1,000 meters (~3,300 feet) above the water at its highest points, we returned to the boat dock to finish the tour exploring the nearby pueblo of Chiapa de Corzo.

Today, my fourth and final day here in San Cristobal was highlighted by a horseback ride up to the indigenous community of San Juan Chamula, which is best known for its main church — Iglesia de San Juan — that combines Catholicism with traditional Mayan pagan worship. Although I did not witness it in my walk through the church (it was relatively quiet when I was inside), the pagan rituals include chicken sacrifices and drinking Coca-Cola or “pox” (a local liquor) in order to induce burps that release evil spirits. (I will be sure to reference this ritual the next time anyone looks at me in disgust after a shameless belch.) Unsurprisingly, this rebel church is only loosely connected to the official Catholic church given its drift aways from Catholic rituals — the only contact it has with Catholicism is a priest that visits once a month for baptisms and the icons of Catholic saints that line the perimeter of the church. Aside from the church, there is not much else to see in Chumula other than some innovative fashion so after about an hour, my fellow horsemen and horsewomen jumped back on our steeds to gallop back to the environs of San Cristóbal.

Despite greatly enjoying my time in San Cristóbal, I have politely turned down the Zapatista’s invitation to join their movement (although I did let them know that I would reach back out this time next year if my job hunt back in the homeland is not going well). So tomorrow, I am off to Palenque, the site of a major Mayan ruin that, sadly, was not used as a filming site for any Star Wars movies. And then, it is back to Guatemala City for my return flight to the United States on December 12th, just over three months since I departed on this random adventure.


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