My second guidebook for Mexico, Your Chiapas Adventure: San Cristobal de las Casas and Palenque, focuses on the two major destinations in Chiapas, Mexico’s southernmost state: Palenque, an ancient Mayan city of climbable pyramids surrounded by thick jungle, and the lovely colonial town of San Cristobal de las Casas.
The book is for independent travelers who want to experience the distinctive culture, nature, history and food of this fascinating region. It also includes insider tips for other places in Chiapas, including low-key beach villages, indigenous small towns, the towering Sumidero canyon, and more Mayan ruins. The guidebook’s extensive appendix provides detailed information on transportation, hotels, restaurants, communicating in Spanish, safety, and much more.
You can purchase Your Chiapas Adventure: San Cristobal de las Casas and Palenque, Mexico from Amazon.com, which provides a free reader for those of you without a Kindle, or directly from publisher Unanchor.com, where it can be accessed online and downloaded as a .pdf.
Here’s the beginning of the description on Unanchor.com:
One of the most beautiful cities in Mexico, colonial San Cristobal de las Casas sits in a wide valley of the forested Central Highlands in the southern state of Chiapas. Founded in 1528, it’s not polished to a museum shine… More Details
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For a free excerpt, please email me at nohaybroncablog (at) gmail.com or leave your email address in a comment below.
I met the same dying man twice once summer in two different places in Mexico – once in Merida on the Yucatan peninsula (near Cancun) and a week later in San Cristobal de las Casas in the deep Mexican south.
He was a tall, white-haired old man with strong dark eyes and a gaunt, bony face. I can’t remember his name. I thought I had written it down in my notebook, but now I’m not so sure. Maybe I figured I would never forget it.
He was European – from Belgium, I believe – and spoke good English and basic Spanish. He dressed how a hippy traveler in his twenties might: baggy pants, loose shirts, small knitted hats and imitation Birkenstocks. Lots of well-worn layers in earth tones. But he was old and looked it. He was much too thin. He had cancer.
I first met him in Hostal Zocalo, a friendly and spacious hostel in a historic building right on the center square in Merida. He stayed up all night in the common room, huddled down on the couch under the glow of his tiny laptop. He never ate the hostel’s generous breakfast of fruit and eggs any style that was included in the price. He rarely looked up from the laptop.
He slept all day. We shared one of the rooms full of bunk beds, and when I took a nap in the afternoon one day, I heard him coughing. I asked if he had a cold, and he laughed. I didn’t know the truth yet.
A few nights later I came back well after midnight. There he was on the couch, laptop on lap. I finally introduced myself. He shut the laptop. His cheeks were so thin and caved-in that you could almost see the outlines of his teeth.
He talked about travels all around the world, especially his many years in India. He talked about Latin America and the good people he’d met. He was writing a book about his travels. Could I see it? No, it wasn’t ready yet.
There was sadness in his eyes. A great weariness. But also a calm resignation. He never mentioned a family. He never mentioned his cancer. I never asked. I found out because everyone in the hostel who spent more than a few days there knew, though few spoke to him.
I eventually left and made my way to San Cristobal. He was already there in Tata Inti, the friendly little hostel full of musicians where I always stay.
We shook hands. “What a surprise,” I said. “Yes. How are you?” he asked. He always spoke very deliberately with unbroken eye contact. I may have forgotten his name, but I’ll never forget those exhausted black eyes.
He was getting worse. He still stayed up all night, coughing and vomiting more now. But he also spent more time awake in the daytime, chatting with everyone and bumming cigarettes.
The days when he slept in the afternoon and we were noisy (guitars, drums, singers, and even my friend Angel with his noisy accordion), he never complained but staggered out to the veranda to listen. He smiled while listening to the music. When a song started up that he recognized, he said, “It’s good.” He never ate but drank lots of tea and bummed lots of cigarettes.
He spent less time on the laptop too. I asked him about the book. It still wasn’t ready. “Would you email it to me when it’s done?”
“Sure,” he said. I gave him my email address. I haven’t heard from him.
I bring a cheap guitar on all my travels. I bought it for the equivalent of five dollars at a guitar market in La Paz, Bolivia seven years ago. Now it’s full of stickers, scratches and sand.
The guitar is a great way to make friends on the road. Other than the general friendliness of the place, the reason I always stay in at Tata Inti in San Cristobal is because Victor (the owner), several of his local friends who hang out there and many guests are musicians. Jam sessions are frequent and often spill out into the street.
Playing music with someone from another culture is a great learning experience. But playing isn’t enough. I need to find new music, at least music that’s new to me. I need more and more.
Before the ease of downloading I went to markets, where pirated CDs with photocopied liner notes in plastic sleeves hang from big white racks. Whenever I heard music I liked, I’d ask the person who it was, what kind of music it was, and which other groups I should listen to. I walked away with stacks of bootleg CDs.
But what’s even better is to have a musician or a music fan write me a list of their favorite bands. Then after a long trip I sit down with my lists and listen to the suggestions on YouTube.
So during one of our chats about music in San Cristobal, I asked my sick friend for his list. Here’s what he gave me:
Many posts on this modest blog are my suggestions for music from Latin America. Many fine artists are practically unknown north of the Mexican/U.S. border, the great cultural divide in North America. This is my list to you, from one friend and curious traveler to another:
The Bus, Dance Floor and Block Party – My introduction to some major styles in Latin American music.
Music in Mexico – currently my five favorite Mexican groups/artists:
Some great songs, chosen to give a newbie a nice intro to the diversity of Spanish rock:
Rap and Hip Hop in Spanish:
Los Tigres del Norte, described as “The Rolling Stones of Mexico” by Israel, one of Tata Inti’s best musicians:
Vive Latino 2012, the biggest rock festival in Mexico:
Vive Latino 2013, a great Sunday lineup of some of my favorite Latin bands:
Thanks, and please comment with more suggestions or comments about any of these bands or songs that you like or don’t like. Or send me your own list.
San Cristobal de las Casas is a well-preserved colonial town in the mountains of Chiapas. Hippies from Mexico and beyond line the streets selling jewelry and exchanging greetings with traditionally dressed Mayan women selling fruit and their own handicrafts. Its center can be seen in half a day by taking slow walks down narrow cobblestone streets, up staircases to hilltop churches, and into its massive market, where you will reenter the ¨real¨ Chiapas, a place of great natural beauty and deep history.
The city was called “The most magical of the Pueblos Magicos” (magic towns, of which there are 40 in Mexico) by President Felipe Calderon in 2010. It offers any traveler, from backpacker to first-class-flier, an abundance of culture, nature, food, nearby places to visit, and friendly, diverse people. Two pedestrian streets intersect at the Zocalo (center square): Real de Guadalupe and Andandor Eclesiastico. They are packed with restaurants, coffee shops, bars, travel agencies, souvenir shops, and you-name-it. By far my favorite club is el Zirko, a salsa bar on the north half of Andandor Eclesiastico. The band is excellent and played late, starting around 11 and playing until 3 or 4, with breaks of course. They play every night, at least every time I stopped in. On Fridays and Saturdays there is a spacious backroom with club music. It was cheap – one night the bill was only about 150 pesos, and I had been there for hours.
I spend a few nights playing guitar in front of the cathedral. Interesting folk from various countries gather there to play music, juggle fire, sell jewelry, and drink fairly obviously until the police come and politely tell us to leave around 1 AM. Then we go from square to square as they follow us around, kicking us out with only slightly waning politeness each time, until we finally stumble off to our respective hostels and cheap hotels.
There are several markets in San Cris, including a big outdoor handicrafts market where you can buy purses, clothing, blankets, and amber jewelry. Farther from the Zocalo is the big Mexican market, and you will see things all things Chiapan, including larger-than-life guayabas, hard to find pitallas, and crazy multicolored beans. I buy a bag of pink, purple, and yellow beans with the intention of cooking them, but then when I go to a little mole restaurant the laughing staff tells me that they are painted and for making jewelry. Then a waitress insists on bringing me over to another bean seller to show me what real beans look like.
Mole is one of the best foods in Mexico. There are many kinds, but I find the most exotic to be Mole Negro and Mole Coloradito. Markets in Oaxaca, Chiapas, or Puebla are good places to seek it out.
My favorite non-Mexican restaurant is Mayambe, an Indian place located a little west of Andandor Eclesiastico on Avenida 5 de Mayo. I have some great, authentic curry and a nice chat with the American owner. Most meals are around 70 pesos.
For me, the people I meet are the reason I stay almost 2 weeks, much longer than I’d planned. I stay at Tata Inti, and the hostel owners, a Mexican and Argentinian couple, are friendly and helpful and have a constant flow of local friends who spend their afternoons there.
Among the Mexicans, locals and travelers, are a former road manager for Antidoping, a Mexican reggae band, who is now putting on shows and raves in the city and the mountains; an anthropologist who has been traveling in Mexico for 13 years studying indigenous displacement, like the Yaquis who came to the Yucatan; a tabla player who studied for 3 years in India and has a local group with an amazing guitarist and violinist; and a group of friends traveling south from Guadalajara, also all musicians who play in restaurants in the afternoons to fund their trip. We drink caguamas and jam in the hostel all day and then in front of the cathedral all night long.
I meet a French guy traveling around the world for 3 years and paying for his trip by gambling on the internet. At first I think he’s a nerd on his laptop all day until he shows me his poker and sports betting sites. There is an American who traveled from Cape Town to Cairo by land after having spent years volunteering in Africa. Another American has been in both Iraq wars and Afghanistan. When his helicopter crashed in Afghanistan, he spent more than 2 years in the hospital, and when he finally recovered he crossed the border and has been traveling ever since, having crazy adventures all the way. Also there is an Italian whose business in Oaxaca has fallen apart and is slowly making his way to Canada – by way of Chiapas, which of course is in the opposite direction.
There are very cheap buses from Mexico City to San Cristobal for 300-350 pesos. Their offices are located near the Candelario station in D.F. – just ask in the market outside the metro. The company I used was Viajes Aury, and it stopped in Tuxtla and Puebla too.
San Cristobal is less than an hour away from Tuxtla Gutierrez, about 1 and a half hours from Comitan (from where you can visit some beautiful natural areas like Lagunas de Montebello), and about 4 hours from Palenque. All the buses and combis (passenger vans) are in the same area, a 10 minute walk from the Zocalo. Prices vary greatly between the first class buses, like OCC, and smaller companies and combis. For example, the OCC bus to Palenque is 150 pesos, while other buses go for 80. Or you can take a combi to Oconsingo and transfer there. I believe it is about 40 pesos.
See Part 2 for HOSTELS, STUDYING SPANISH, and nearby attractions.
Looking for more information about Chiapas? Please check out my guidebook Your Chiapas Adventure: San Cristobal de las Casas and Palenque, Mexico. You’ll save the small price the first time you follow my advice for transportation, hotels, restaurants, or museums.
The book is also available in .pdf format from Unanchor.com or in kindle format on Amazon. Don’t worry if you don’t have a kindle, because you can download a free app to read it on any device, or join Amazon Kindle Unlimited 30-Day Free Trial
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