From the warm, humid jungle, to the city high in the Chiapas mountains, the shock of the cold wasn’t our only surprise upon arrival to San Cristobal. At this time of year, at this altitude, it’s not the Mexico most people back home - including ourselves - would expect to encounter. Funny enough, while it may have been unusually warm back home in Edmonton, it was actually warmer there than it was where we were for most of the time spent here. While the unexpected cold weather was a slight shock to our system, it was another encounter on our first day that really set the mood for the coming days…
Early in the morning of our first day, after enjoying a quiet evening relaxing inside following the bus from Palenque, we’d set out to explore a little around the centre of town. Restaurants, bars, cafes and food carts were in abundance, and there was definitely no shortage of beautiful sights and scenery; one didn’t have to wander far from the zocalo to keep satisfied. The sun shone warm and the people were friendly, the mountain air was clean. We came across the bottom of the steps leading up to Iglasia del Cerrito, something I’d read about online before we arrived. After climbing the 250 steps to the top, surrounded by familiar spruce trees, we relaxed and took in the spectacular view of the sights below. Easily one of the best views of the whole of San Cristobal without actually leaving the city.
Heading back towards the hostel mid-afternoon, walking down the small sidewalk down Av Insurgentes, the main street in town, a jogger passed us and shoulder checked me as he ran by. Given the size of the sidewalks, we brushed it off as an accident. Slowing down an circling back, the jogger headed back towards us, walking now; I’m thinking maybe he means to apologize for running into me. Getting closer, I see that he’s caucasian guy with dreadlocks, another traveller. Though instead of an apology, the reaction is quite the opposite. He comes close and looks me dead in the eye with hate on his face and yells “Get the fuck out of here!” before turning and disappearing into the crowd.
Kylee and I are stunned, completely taken aback. He spoke with North American English, so was most likely from the US or Canada; why one foreigner would act such a way to another seemed quite odd and out of place. The rest of the day and the next were spent in a little discomfort while wandering the streets, not out of fear, but of unease and confusion as to why this happened and if we had somehow done something wrong. Thankfully that unfortunate incident was behind us and nothing more came of it.
Markets are in abundance in San Cristobal, as with many cities in Central America, but what sets this town apart from others is that the biggest market in town isn’t actually geared towards tourists, or even spoken of much. If you’re looking for a real market, the Mercado Municipal is the one to visit. Stumbling across it almost by accident and from the opposite end, it was actually more stunning than we had expected. Seemingly just a typical road market with stalls on either side, when I just happened to look to my right and saw a skinny set of concrete steps heading down into what I thought was a basement. Obviously, we walked down. Suddenly we find ourselves inside a massive, dimly lit cavern of butchers, fish mongers, cheese and bread makers, and more produce stalls than we could count; the air was thick with the unmistakable funk of such markets. It was glorious. After purchasing a few items and snacks for the walk home, we headed on.
Temperature dropping near the freezing mark again, we knew it was time to grab something for supper. Upon a suggestion from our hostel owners, we bundled up in whatever we could and headed several blocks down the street to Taqueria del Sur. Restaurant nearly packed with fans screaming at the single TV set blaring a local soccer game, so we sat at the only available table which happened to be placed beside the constantly open door. The air was hot and damp from the open kitchen and when mixed with the cool air blowing in from the door, a thick, delicious fog filled the room. The menu was a simple card with a choice of four types of tacos and either beer or a soft drink, you simply checked off how many of each you wanted and the waiter returned promptly to retrieve your picks. Soon after, our platter of fantastically simple tacos arrived and within a couple of minutes was emptied. Though not quite as good as Oaxaca, these were a close contender.
Due to our lovely accommodation back in Oaxaca, we did nearly all of our work at home, as there was no need to leave. So while in San Cristo, we decided to break our habit and check out a few of the cafes around the city. While many upscale cafes and restaurants hover near the centre of town, there are a whole string of much cheaper, laid back options around Real de Guadelupe, east of the centre. Our two favourites are Cafe Libre and Mio Loncheria, coincidentally just around the corner from each other. Cafe Libre has a little bohemian vibe to it’s greenhouse-like dining room, and the Mediterranean baguettes were a nice sampling of European cuisine we’d been craving. Mio Loncheria was very much a hip coffee shop and while we didn’t actually eat the sandwiches, they smelled incredible. Instead, we spent the afternoon getting some work done while sipping on some of the best spiced hot chocolate we’ve had.
Unfortunately, the following day saw Kylee suffering an awful bout of food poisoning; I hadn’t seen her so ill in years. In the entire span of roughly 36 hours, she only managed to eat a cup of ginger chicken broth with a few green beans in it. To this day we aren’t sure what caused it, as one of our best money saving tips is to share meals. There’s nothing Kylee ate that I didn’t, perhaps I was just lucky. Other than heading back to Taqueria del Sur later that evening on my own, we took a forced day off. Thankfully by the following morning, though feeling a hungry and a little weak, she was good to go. Which worked out quite well for the day, as it just happened to be my birthday.
Using this as an excuse to push the budget a little stronger than normal, we started with baguettes and cocktails from the previously mentioned Cafe Libre, before stocking up on some cheap beer from the Oxxo. Early in the evening, following an afternoon of cold refreshments while basking in the warm sun that chose this day to make it’s triumphant return to San Cristo, we ventured back into town for the real celebration. Our visit fell directly in line with the Festival of Virgen de Guadalupe, the largest religious celebration of the year in this region; when thousands of pilgrims from villages all over Mexico congregate and climb the steep stairs to pray at the Iglesia de Guadalupe. Each village proudly parading in their tribal colours with honking vehicles and the boom of fireworks in the mix. The entire road leading to the church is lined for blocks with food carts, pop-up bars, fooseball tables, carnival rides and shops selling everything from t-shirts to Mayan crafts.
First it was a small sampling of tostadas, which were crisp corn tortillas topped with a mix of beans, cheese, slaws and pickles - quite possibly the best vegetarian snack I’ve eaten. Next we indulged in some hot, fresh from the oil churros; served in a paper bag and drizzled with chocolate syrup. Pre-supper dessert? Sure. But it was my birthday. Then it was on to something we’d passed a few days earlier, a chorizo torta filled with cheese, black beans, fried onions and shredded iceberg lettuce - a first for us regarding tortas. After being thrown back into the greasy pan to crisp the bun, we ate it in awe, stunned at how this Mexican street food could taste oddly like a Big Mac. We loved it. This was followed by a massive roadside michelada, a spicy chili and salt rimmed cup filled with beer and fresh lime juice. Ours was a full litre and served in an equally sized styrofoam cup. Sipping the awkward cup, we relaxed in the makeshift bar filled with plastic tables and chairs, and pumping Mexican top-forty tunes at high volume. We followed this with another round of churros, this time with sweet condensed milk, and more micheladas as we slowly made our way home. It was a successful day.
San Cristobal wasn’t entirely what we were expecting, especially when you consider the climate, and there were definitely a couple of unexpected low points to this leg of the journey; but these things happen, it’s what makes travel interesting. Aside from that, the food was amazing, the scenery beautiful and the festival was brilliant! All in all, we actually really enjoyed our time in San Cristo and hope that upon our return some day, we’ll be able to really dig in and see what this town has to offer.
“There are good and bad times, but our mood changes more often than our fortune.”Thomas Carlyle