Up and up we go, snaking around mountain bends at a near constant incline. The mini bus transporting ten passengers is half way through its ascent from the airport in Tuxtla Gutiérrez to San Cristobal de las Casas in the heart of Mexico’s Chiapas region. I crane my neck to see the valleys below, aglow in the late afternoon sun, while many of my fellow passengers close their eyes, giving the impression that they’ve driven this route a hundred times.

About an hour since arriving at Ángel Albino Corzo International Airport and boarding what I hoped was the bus to San Cristobal de las Casas, I can tell that we’re close. People are opening their eyes, shifting in their seats and arranging their belongings, while outside the views have shifted from landscape to city sprawl. We’ve ascended over 5,000 feet in that short timeframe and the temperature has dropped thirteen degrees celsius according to the weather app on my iPhone.

After a quick stopover in Mexico City, San Cristobal de las Casas is my next destination. I’ll be spending a month in Mexico traveling on my own to three cities within Chiapas and Oaxaca. As we approach the town, my excitement is tempered with a hint of apprehension as I know very little about this part of the country. The bus slows to a stop, the door is flung open, and I step off the bus taking in the city around me.

San Cristobal de las Casas Travel Guide
San Cristobal de las Casas Travel Guide
San Cristobal de las Casas Travel Guide

San Cristobal de las Casas Travel Guide

The cultural hub of Chiapas, San Cristobal de las Casas is a pueblo mágico, or magical town – one of 80+ towns across the country designated as such by the government of Mexico. Though founded in the 16th century by the Spanish, the majority of San Cristobal de las Casas’ inhabitants, like most of the region, are of Mayan descent. The two most prominent are the Tzotzil and Tzeltal, with their distinct languages and traditions.

Chiapas is the southernmost state in Mexico, with a coast along the Pacific Ocean and bordering Guatemala. It’s a region of spectacular natural beauty and fascinating Mayan heritage. It’s also the poorest state in Mexico. Inequality for indigenous people led to a wave of activism over the decades, with the Zapatistas, a local left-wing militia group, leading an uprising in 1994 to appeal for basic demands, most of which have sadly not been met to this day.

San Cristobal de las Casas is well known for its handicrafts, particularly weaving and embroidery. An outdoor market in the town centre is packed daily with artisans showcasing their handmade wares. Walking down the cobblestone streets, women carrying layers upon layers of textiles transport their brightly coloured handmade goods is a common sight.

San Cristobal de las Casas Travel GuideSan Cristobal de las Casas Travel Guide
San Cristobal de las Casas Travel Guide
San Cristobal de las Casas Travel Guide

What to Do

Artisan Market

The square outside the central Santo Domingo church is overtaken by artisan vendors from morning to night. It’s a labyrinth of stalls, snaking in every direction where you can find intricately embroidered blouses, leather satchels, brightly coloured pompoms and children’s toys, among many other things. And while handcrafts can be found throughout Mexico, several locals tell me that nowhere beats San Cristobal de las Casas for quality and price.

Centro de Textiles del Mundo Maya

Building on the importance of textiles to cultural traditions and the local economy, this museum features textiles from Chiapas and other Mayan cultures. Located within the former convent of Santo Domingo, it’s a nice way to spend an hour and learn the historical significance of this art and its place in modern society.

San Cristobal de las Casas Travel Guide
San Cristobal de las Casas Travel Guide
San Cristobal de las Casas Travel Guide

Iglesia de Guadalupe

Perched atop a hill overlooking the town, this church is a worthy climb for the view alone. Coloured flags hang above the stairs creating the perfect backdrop for the ascent. At the top you’re rewarded with a peaceful church, except for when a procession is happening. Another bonus is the hostel down the road, which offers a drink and a snack alongside tremendous views of San Cristobal de las Casas.

Wander the Town

Cobblestoned pedestrian streets, brightly coloured buildings, and interesting colonial architecture make San Cristobal de las Casas ideal for a DIY walking tour. There’s something waiting to be discovered at every turn. The main thoroughfare Real de Guadalupe is always a hub of activity, and features unique shops and restaurant.

San Cristobal de las Casas Travel Guide
San Cristobal de las Casas Travel Guide
San Cristobal de las Casas Travel Guide
San Cristobal de las Casas Travel Guide

Where To Eat

Frontera

This cafe with fresh foods and a lovely backyard oasis was my favourite spot to work while in San Cristobal de las Casas. Serving up fresh juices and smoothies, salads and sandwiches, and a variety of tea and espresso-based drinks Frontera is the perfect spot for a bite and wifi.

Oh la la Pasteleria

A French style patisserie, Oh la la has the best breads and sweets in town. Homemade tarts, chocolate croissants, and miniature cakes are immaculately designed, tempting you from behind the display counter. Grab an espresso while you’re at it.

Nostalgia Sabor Istmeño

Classic Oaxacan foods are on offer at this casual spot a block up from Real de Guadelupe. Delicious yet unfussy, the menu features the best of Oaxaca – tlayuda, mole and, of course, mezcal to wash it all down.

Carajillo Cafe

Right on the main strip, Carajillo Cafe is a go-to spot all day long. Stop in for a breakfast of fresh juice and chilaquiles or later in the day for a pastry and a coffee, which is one of the best cups you’ll get around town.

No Name Quesadilla

Set in a nondescript home on a residential street, No Name Quesadilla is perhaps the most adventurous eating experience in San Cristobal de las Casas – both for the creative ingredients used and the trek to find the place. Each day features a new special that locals and expats deem worthy of waiting in queue for.

Cocoliche

A quirky restaurant serving up international cuisine in the city centre. The focus is on fresh food with a good selection of vegetarian options. It’s often busy during dinner and often has live music creating a fun atmosphere.

San Cristobal de las Casas Travel Guide
San Cristobal de las Casas Travel Guide
San Cristobal de las Casas Travel Guide
San Cristobal de las Casas Travel Guide

El Caldero

El Caldero is a cozy restaurant near the Zocalo, or main square, of San Cristobal de las Casas that serves up hearty local soups. You can choose from a dozen or so options that feature a variety of meats, cheeses, and vegetables. A platter of add-ons accompanies your order such as avocado, cilantro and onion so you can customize your soup as you like.

Comida Thai

Comida Thai offers up authentic Thai food in San Cristobal de las Casas. Started by a Thai/Mexican husband and wife team, Comida Thai embraces the slow food movement, and though it’s definitely worth the wait for the daily specials, it’s something to consider if you’re famished and looking for a quick bite.

Trattoria Catanzaro

This Italian restaurant is run by a local family who immigrated from Italy many years ago. The quaint trattoria serves homemade pastas combining local and Italian ingredients alongside carafes of wine. The owner and chef takes pride in his dishes, taking the time to cure his own meats, while his wife mans the front of house keeping everything organized.

Where to Drink

Dos Amores

This friendly and low-key bar on a narrow side street is your best bet for Mexican craft beer. Every evening around 5 (except Mondays – it’s closed), the bright blue doors are opened revealing a cozy bar of just a couple of tables with a good selection of local and international craft beers. And mezcal for good measure.

La Internacional Cerveceria

A beer shop beside Frontera that offers a wide selection of brews from across Mexico as well as imports. The enthusiastic staff are happy to help direct you to what’s new and delicious in the ever-changing beer fridge. While you can take your beers to go, you can also enjoy them in Frontera’s lovely garden.

San Cristobal de las Casas Travel Guide
San Cristobal de las Casas Travel Guide
San Cristobal de las Casas Travel Guide
San Cristobal de las Casas Travel Guide

La Maldita Hostal Bar

After making your way up to the Iglesia de Guadelupe, reward yourself at this hostel restaurant and bar. A great spot for a bite and a drink while taking in the views of San Cristobal de las Casas.

La Viña de Bacco

Situated on Real de Guadelupe, La Viña de Bacco’s wide selection of wine accompanied by free tapas makes it a popular place virtually all day long. The seating out front is an ideal spot to go with friends for a bottle of wine and cheese board, or alone for some of the best people watching San Cristobal has to offer.

Cafe Bar Revolucion

This revolutionary themed bar is a happening spot in the evenings. Live music is a regular occurrence, attracting a mix of local and expats.

Day Trips from San Cristobal de las Casas

San Juan Chamula

A small town about ten kilometres from San Cristobal de las Casas that is inhabited almost exclusively by Tzotzil indigenous people. A striking church is the main sight in town, which combines ancient Mayan custom with modern Catholicism, while a market is held out front. You can arrange a tour from San Cristobal or take a collectivo and explore on your own.

El Chiflón

Travel two hours south towards Guatemala to this spectacular waterfall and nature reserve. You can walk the trails around the waterfalls, swim in the streams, and even zipline above it all. Many tour companies with offices along Real de Guadelupe offer day trips to El Chiflón combined with other sites.

Lagos de Montebello

Ninety minutes past El Chiflón right at the Guatemalan border, this network of lakes is not to be missed. Surrounded by forests, the water is stunning, appearing bright blue and green depending on where you go. Locals offer rides on traditional wooden rafts, taking you to a bay that’s ideal for swimming.

San Cristobal de las Casas Travel Guide
San Cristobal de las Casas Travel Guide - El Chiflon
San Cristobal de las Casas Travel Guide - Lagos de Montebello
San Cristobal de las Casas Travel Guide

Sumidero Canyon

A natural cavern surrounded by a national park near the cultural town of Chiapa de Corzo. The highlight of visiting is a boat tour on the river, which is home to crocodiles.

Amantenango del Valle

This small Tzeltal village known for its pottery is about forty kilometres from San Cristobal de las Casas. Locals have been making ceramics and pottery for centuries using traditional methods, which are on display at stalls set up along the roadway.

Palenque

This pre-hispanic Mayan site in the middle of Chiapa’s dense jungle is truly fascinating. Reaching its heyday in the 7th century AD, the city was abandoned well before the Spanish arrived in the 1500s. Though Palenque is not overly large, the intricacy and detail of the site is unbelievably impressive. Day tours (long) are offered from San Cristobal, or travelers can opt to take the five hour ADO bus and stay the night near Palenque.

Where to Stay

There are several well-priced hotels, hostels and guesthouses (posadas) within town, though I opted for an Airbnb while visiting San Cristobal de las Casas. And I’m glad I did – it was stunningly beautiful and hands-down the best designed Airbnb I’ve ever stayed in. And at $20 USD per night, I would recommend it to anyone visiting San Cristobal de las Casas.

San Cristobal de las Casas Travel Guide
San Cristobal de las Casas Travel Guide Airbnb

San Cristobal de las Casas Travel Guide photos by Lauren Barth