Chiapas in southern Mexico is one of the country’s most beautiful states, with pine-forest mountains, ancient Mayan ruins surrounded by jungle, big waves on remote beaches, and friendly, cheerful people.
Colonial mountain town San Cristóbal de las Casas (shortened to San Cris by locals) is the unofficial tourist capital of Chiapas and an excellent base for exploring this fascinating region. Founded in 1528, San Cris sits in a wide valley of the forested Central Highlands in the center of the state.
Its colorful historic center can be seen in half a day with slow walks down cobblestone streets, up staircases to hilltop churches, and through the massive public market, where you’ll experience the “real” Chiapas, which lacks the polish of mass tourism and foreign-owned businesses common elsewhere in Mexico.
There’s a lot to see and do in San Cris, and even more in the surrounding mountains and indigenous small towns. But take your time. Part this mellow city’s charm is a long morning at a café or a long afternoon on a patio bar, of course with full-flavored coffee, pure mountain air, and views of the green valley all around.
Here are the highlights:
The Historic Center
The zócalo, or parque central, is the exact center of most Latin American cities. The cathedral (the biggest church and often the tallest structure in town) and government buildings face these squares.
Some are wide open and paved with stone, like in Mexico City, but in San Cris the zócalo is full of trees and park benches. You can get a drink and listen to marimba music at the gazebo in the middle.
The cathedral is north of the zócalo, and it faces its own square: La Plaza de la Paz (Peace Plaza). If you’re lucky enough to be in San Cris for a music festival, the stage will probably be set up here.
With the zócalo in the intersection, two long pedestrian streets (called andadores) form a big T in central San Cris. They’re lined with restaurants, bars, cafés, bakeries, travel agencies, souvenir shops, and clothing stores.
All kinds of people fill the busy streets: locals walking to work, Mayans visiting from mountain communities, hippies with sandwich boards full of jewelry, world travelers humping backpacks of all sizes, and Mexican families on vacation.
You’ll walk down an andador every day you’re in San Cris. One ends at the Outdoor Artisanal Market, with the Municipal Market farther on (see below), and the other two lead to pretty hilltop churches.
Two Hilltop Churches
If you get lost in central San Cris, just look up and around for the two churches on hills on opposite sides of the historic center: the Cerro de San Cristóbal and the Cerro de Guadalupe. (Cerro means hill.) The higher Cerro de San Cristóbal is up a long staircase surrounded by trees.
Across town, the Cerro de Guadalupe has a more open panoramic view, and the smaller church is pretty inside and out. It’s also a good landmark and starting point for exploring the east side of San Cris, which has natural areas like Las Canastas (a hiking spot) and Arcotete Park (see below).
The Municipal Market
There are three big markets in central San Cris. Two are full of souvenirs and geared toward tourists, though still worth visiting. The sprawling Municipal Market, however, is the biggest, best, and realest. In Spanish it’s the Mercado Público Municipal José Castillo Tiélemans, and it unfolds over many city blocks.
The greater market with all its extensions isn’t well-marked on maps, and getting lost is easy once you’re inside. Exploring it properly takes time, and once you think you’ve seen it all, you’ll turn a corner and find a whole new section.
This is the place to buy ground coffee, cacao beans (the rawest chocolate), exotic fruit, fresh vegetables, natural medicine, candles, and so much more. You’ll see things you’ve never seen before—don’t hesitate to ask questions and accept free samples. But please don’t drive a hard bargain, and don’t treat it like a photo opportunity. Instead soak up the culture and buy some tasty treats to devour or share on your hotel patio.
The large market building—a hangar the size of a football field—is buried among all the stalls under tarps hung over what were once open city streets. Walk down a staircase to the spacious market building, where you can find cheese, meat, packaged goods, and many of the same things you saw outside, like fruit and bread.
There’s a cluster of restaurants near the northeast corner of the big market building. Just keep wandering—you’ll find them. You’ll get your cheapest and most authentic meal in San Cris at these restaurants, and your fellow diners are more likely to be locals than tourists.
The Na Bolom Museum
If you go to only one museum in San Cris, and especially if you prefer history to jade, amber, chocolate, or Mayan medicine, then go to the Na Bolom Museum.
The Na Bolom museum is the former house of Danish explorer Frans Bloom and his wife, Swiss photographer and fellow explorer Gertrude Durby. On display is their personal collection of historical artifacts, photos, and maps from their explorations into the Lacandon jungle in north-central Chiapas.
Half the fun is exploring the beautifully restored colonial home. Don’t miss the small chapel, used for piano recitals, and the well-stocked library.
Live Music and Nightlife
Talented musicians from all over Mexico come to San Cris to tour or to settle, so after dark the city is full of great jazz, flamenco, salsa, rock, reggae, hip-hop, DJs, and anything else you can imagine.
Bars and clubs go in and out of style, so ask around for whatever kind of music you want, like a friendly waitress or a cool bartender. Strolling down an andador after dark is another way to find a band, as you can hear the music coming from the open door or windows of practically every restaurant or bar.
Here are three tried-and-true favorites, all within a block of each other on or near the Andador Eclesiástico by the cathedral:
Revolution: The spot for hippy rock, hippy folk, and hippy hip-hop, often with no cover. Open for lunch too.
Zirko: The Cuban-led salsa band is excellent, and for a small space there’s a bumping dance floor. The band starts late (11 p.m. or even midnight) and plays into the morning, and on weekends there are DJs in the larger back room.
DaDa Jazz Club: Right around the corner from Zirko and Revolution is San Cris’ premier jazz club. Look for the schedule posted near the front door.
Of course, you can hear live music on the street on warm, busy nights.
Arcoteje Park and Mammoth Caves
In the mountains just outside San Cris are privately-owned nature parks with small entrance fees. Many have caves, hiking trails, and activities like ziplines and rappelling.
I recommend Parque Ecoturístico El Arcotete (Arcotete Ecotourism Park) and Grutas del Mamut (Mammoth Caves) for how nice they are and how close they are to each other. You can see both in half a day, even if you don’t want to spend too much time on your feet. The easiest way is to take a taxi, though you can walk to them from central San Cris.
Arcotete has a small cave above a river, lots of hiking trails, and a high zipline. If you’re an experienced hiker and speak Spanish (for asking directions), you could hike downhill all the way to Las Canastas, another park on the outskirts of San Cris.
For extensive caves with large chambers you could drive a truck into, head up the highway from Arcotete to Mammoth Caves (Grutas de Mamut). Look for the rock formation that resembles a woolly mammoth, which gives the cave its name (mamut = mammoth). Above ground, a small stream passes by the parking lot. You can rent a boat to drift down it, or stick to the hiking trails.
Detailed directions to these parks and all the other places mentioned in this article (Palenque, San Juan Chamula, Sumidero Canyon, etc.) can be found in my guidebook to Chiapas, though I’ll gladly answer questions in the comments.
San Juan Chamula
San Juan Chamula is the best-known autonomous Mayan community in Chiapas. Besides its scenic location in a wooded valley next to San Cris, the main reason to go is its otherworldly cathedral. Instead of pews, there are pine needles and burning candles on the floor, smoke in the air, and praying locals who bring in chickens and cans of soda.
And yet another reason to visit San Juan Chamula is to sample pox (pronounced and sometimes spelled posh), the local corn moonshine. You can buy fancy bottles of it in San Cris, or get the more authentic and cheaper version in reused Coca Cola bottles up the street from the cathedral in Chamula.
Sumidero Canyon and Chiapa de Corzo
A photo of the massive Sumidero Canyon is bound to be on the cover of any Mexican tourist brochure for Chiapas.
There are lookouts above the canyon, but the best way to see it is with the two- or three-hour boat trip from Chiapa de Corzo, the small colonial town on the muddy Grijalva River where the boat tours leave from.
After winding through some sandy banks with thick forest behind, you’ll go under the highway bridge and then between towering cliffs, which at one point are 1,000 meters high.
Most people go in a tour from San Cris, but it’s easy to get there on your own with a 40-minute colectivo (passenger van) ride to Chiapa de Corzo. The little town is worth exploring as well. It’s warmer than San Cris, has a spacious zocalo with authentic restaurants, and there are bigger restaurants with mariachis, marimbas, and cool breezes on the river by the docks.
The Zoo in Tuxtla Gutiérrez
I know, I know, zoos get a bad rap. But Zoomat is different. It exclusively features animals from Chiapas in their natural habitat, which means that you can see animals you would never see otherwise, like the elusive quetzal (bird) or the dangerous jaguar.
Zoomat, official known as Zoológico Miguel Álvarez del Toro, is across the valley from the Sumidero Canyon in the forested valley slopes above Tuxtla Gutiérrez, the capital and largest city in Chiapas. If you get up early, you can see Zoomat and the Sumidero Canyon in the same day from San Cris.
Visiting Zoomat is like exploring a jungle park, with winding paths and little bridges over streams. Follow the route through the whole place, which begins with the crocodiles and ends with the jaguars. The official pamphlet states that it takes two and a half hours to see everything.
Elsewhere in Chiapas
Besides San Cris and the Sumidero Canyon, the other major attraction in Chiapas is the ancient Mayan city of Palenque, with big, climbable pyramids deep in the monkey-filled jungle at the foot of mountains.
But every corner of the state offers something for the traveler: the multicolored Montebello and Colon lakes surrounded by pine forests, huge waterfalls like El Chiflon and Misol-Ha, the long Pacific coast of under-explored beach towns, and more Mayan ruins in even-deeper jungle, such as Bonampak and Yaxchilán.
Buses and colectivos (passenger vans) go to all these places, most of which are no more than a half day from San Cris. They offer a nice mixture of rustic adventure and good travel services, including hotels and restaurants for all budgets. Best of all, Chiapas is one of the safest places in Mexico, and getting around is generally hassle-free, even if you don’t speak Spanish.
For travel advice for these places and many more, please check out my guidebook Your Chiapas Adventure: San Cristobal de las Casas and Palenque. It’s full of detailed maps and directions, cultural insights, and insider tips for food, accommodation, and communicating in Spanish.
Please click the book for info:
Thanks to Marco Garcia for the photos of Palenque and the Sumidero Canyon.
(This is my third year winning third place in this contest.)
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