Suitcase and World: Cristóbal.

Monday, June 27, 2011


Situated in a highland valley at an elevation of 2,200 meters and surrounded by pine forest, the colonial city of San Cristóbal de las Casas has been a popular travelers’ destination for decades.

San Cristóbal de las Casas was founded on March 31, 1528 by Capitan Diego de Mazariegos but owes part of its name to the 16th-century cleric Fray Bartolomé de las Casas, who was the town's first bishop and spent the rest of his life waging a political campaign to protect the indigenous peoples of the Americas.

As with so many names that get shortened, San Cristóbal de las Casas is often just referred to as San Cristóbal.

When I was reading up on this enchanting city, I couldn't help but compare it to Antigua, Guatemala for so many of the images I saw of San Cristóbal brought me back to my time spent in Antigua.  And there are a lot of similarities between the two cities.

Starting with lots of colorful buildings flanking cobblestone streets. Antigua -check. San Cristóbal - check.

Mayan villagers in Antigua

Located in the heart of a deeply rooted indigenous area. San Cristóbal is surrounded by dozens of traditional Mayan Tzotzil and Tzeltal villages.  San Cristóbal is the principal market town for these Indians, and their point of contact with the outside world. Most of them trek down from the surrounding mountains to sell goods and run errands   Antigua too is surrounded by Mayan villages though not of the same culture since Tzotzil and Tzeltal are indigenous to this part of Mexico.

Both cities boast a beautiful yellow colored building dedicated to Christianity. Antigua has the beautiful Iglesia La Merced and San Cristóbal  has it's equally beautiful La Catedral de San Cristóbal de las Casas.

La Catedral de San Cristóbal de las Casas
La Catedral de San Cristóbal de las Casas was built starting in 1528 but wasn't finally completed till 1815 because of several natural disasters.  In 1816 and 1847, earthquakes causing considerable damage.  The building was restored again in 1920-22.

The richly textured baroque facade of the Cathedral was recently restored to its original colors of golden-yellow, with red-orange, and white trim. The gold-leaf interior has five gilded altarpieces featuring 18th-century paintings by Miguel Cabrera.  Dedicated to the Assumption, La Catedral de San Cristóbal de las Casas is the monument most representative of the city.

Antigua has the Arco Santa Catalina and San Cristóbal has the unique Arco del Carmen.  Templo del Carmen is all that remains of the former La Encarnación convent which was founded at in 1597 with the first nuns arriving between 1609 and 1610. The complex includes the old cloister, nuns’ cells and other structures. In the colonial period, the convent and church served as one of the main entrances into the city. An arch with tower was constructed next to the convent in 1680. That arch is now simply called the Arco del Carmen. This arch is of pure Moorish architecture and design, with three levels of decoration. It is the only one of its style in Mexico.

Okay, enough of the comparisons between Antigua and San Cristóbal.  San Cristóbal has a lot to offer and we have just about 2 full days to explore it.  One place I definitely want to go to is the Santo Domingo church if for no reason other than to see its ornately carved facade.

Built by the Dominican Friars between 1547 and 1551, the  Iglesia Ex Convento de Santo Domingo is one of San Cristobal de las Casas’ most beautiful and emblematic buildings.  I MUST see this church.

Its façade, which was fully restored in 2006, is made with a mixture of lime, sand and water and is considered one of the most richly ornamented representations of the colonial Baroque style in all of Latin America.

Within the imagery in the facade you can find plant motifs. On either side of the central sculpture of Santo Domingo, the Habsburg coat of arms is represented by two-headed eagles.

The  interior of the church houses a striking pulpit, carved in golden wood with a one piece pedestal, as well as a beautiful collection of eight wooden baroque altarpieces made between the 16th and 17th centuries, some adorned with well-preserved paintings and sculptures of quilt wood and polychrome, of the Virgin of the Rosary and Holy Trinity.

Aside from historic landmarks, another highly recommended place for tourists to go to is Casa Na Bolom.

Casa Na Bolom was the home of archeologist Frans Blom and his wife, Gertrude Duby Blom, the documentary photographer, journalist, environmental pioneer, and jungle adverturer. The name "Casa Na Bolom" comes from the Mayan word for jaguar, "bolom." The Bloms chose this name as a play on their own name, Blom.

Originally built as a religious seminary, this beautiful colonial building was bought by the couple in the 1950s. They converted it into a resource center, dedicated to the understanding and preservation of Mayan culture. Since then, Na-Bolom has established itself as an internationally renowned institute of excellence.

Today, Casa Na Bolom operates as a hotel, museum, and research center run by Asociación Cultural Na Bolom, a non-profit organization dedicated to the protection of the Lacandon Maya and protection of the environment.  Na-Bolom’s attractions include a museum and an astonishing photo gallery. Among the acquisitions are a Mayan clock, which has no mechanical parts and resembles a hanging mobile. It is purportedly extremely accurate, though few people know how to read it anymore.

I don't if we have time but if we do, several Mayan villages lie within reach of San Cristóbal by road and there are plenty o'tour company that will take you to any one or more of them:
  • San Juan Chamula which is particularly renowned for its adherence to ancient traditions. Shamanism and other forms of folk medicine are widely practised by its inhabitants. On a normal day, the village church is the best place to experience Chamula’s particularly evocative brand of ‘Christianity’. Inside, immersed in a fog of incense, the villagers engage themselves with tasks of offering and devotion. Some kneel before grids of burning candles, singing quietly. Others swig deeply on bottles of ‘posh’ – a locally concocted moonshine that is anything but high-toned. Often, shamans will be engaged in rituals of healing where live chickens are sacrificed before crowds of onlookers.  A visit to the church in Chamula would be a wierd but probably oddly interesting experience;
  • Zinacantán, whose residents practice their own syncretic religion.  I'm not sure I know what that even means;
  • Tenejapa, San Andrés, and Magdalena, known for brocaded textiles;
  • Amatenango del Valle, a town of potters; and, last but not least
  • Aguacatenango, known for embroidery. 
Most of these "villages" consist of little more than a church and the municipal government building, with homes scattered for miles around and a general gathering only for church and market days.  Looking at our calendar, it looks like the only day we have to go on a village tour is on a Friday which means we won't be there on market day for any of the villages.  Oh well.   
On a political note. Behind San Cristóbal’s façade of elegance lies a convoluted history. Centuries of corruption and inequity reached a climax in 1994, when an armed uprising claimed San Cristóbal and three other towns.

Timed to coincide with the singing of the North American Free Trade Agreement, the insurgency was led by a small band of rebels calling themselves the Zapatista National Liberation Army (Ejécito Zapatista de Liberación Nactional or EZLN). The Mexican government responded rapidly, driving the rebellion into the countryside. 150 people were killed in the conflict.

Since then, the pipe-smoking leader of the Zapatistas, Sub-Commandante Marcos, has become something of a folk hero. It is his image that can be found everywhere in San Cristóbal – on t-shirts, posters and buildings. The cute, terrorist-style dolls that the Maya sell are also effigies of Zapatista rebels.

On a weather note. I am to be going to San Cristóbal de las Casas in the middle of rainy season. I Googled for this week's weather forecast and it's gloomy, to say the least.  I'm going to keep my toes and fingers crossed that the rain won't dampen (no pun intended) our visit to what I think will be a very charming Mexican city.