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Cooling off in San Cristóbal

Posted: Thursday, Jan 24th, 2013

Some of the streets in the old colonial city of San Cristobal de Las Casas, Mexico, have been redesigned to accommodate foot traffic only. (Photos by Tarmo Hannula/Register-Pajaronian).
Editor’s note: This is the second installment of a three-part series on Mexico written by staff photographer Tarmo Hannula.

SAN CRISTOBAL de LAS CASAS, MEXICO — The folks at our hotel in Chiapa de Corzo told us that the best way to get from that town to the mountainous city of San Cristóbal de las Casas was to go out to the main highway and wave down a bus. We took a cab to the highway and the driver dropped us off in a patch of shade on the side of the road near a soda and snack stand. As he set our bags on the ground we spotted a minibus sailing toward us with a San Cristóbal sign on it. We waved and the driver swung over, much to the cab driver’s surprise.

“Que milagro!” (what a miracle), he chimed, as we dropped a few pesos into his hand, thanked him and rushed off to grab a seat on the crowded little bus.

After an hour on the steep, windy road, we were deposited on the edge of San Cristóbal de las Casas, an old colonial town, founded in 1528, of cobblestone streets, Spanish-style architecture, wrought iron balconies, and abundance of flower boxes and cheerfully painted homes. The indigenous population is a huge part of what the city is, with many of these people selling handicrafts, woven and embroidered clothing and other textiles around the bustling plazas. Many of the indigenous women wear incredible clothes — beautifully woven skirts, embroidered blouses, and colorful woven wraps that babies are bundled in. Many of these women carry baskets of goods on their heads and work in concert with their children, who are very advanced sales people that dart in and out targeting the clutches of tourists meandering about.

After donning our jackets, we hauled our bags into town, a 15-minute walk in much cooler mountainous climate. Sarah led us to Hotel Paradiso, just off the main plaza, around $80 a night. The brilliant orange and turquoise walls and wood overhang in the center courtyard were stunning. Throw in some bougainvillea, cactus and succulents and large leafy plants and it looked like a page torn right out of paradise, hence Paradiso.

I prefer hotels that are right there in the hub of the action, where you step out the front entrance and the city buzz grabs you immediately. Paradiso was that place. Before your foot reached the sidewalk the daily grind of street vendors, business folks, school kids and tourists pulls you in.

Every direction we walked from our hotel we were surrounded by ancient-looking homes awash with radiant colors, fascinating stone doorways and narrow intriguing streets loaded with tiny shops with their wares spilling out onto the sidewalk. Street vendors abound in San Cristóbal, roaming about with fresh sliced pineapples, mangoes and papayas, trays of various sweets and breads, street tacos, cotton candy and sweet drinks.

We picked our way through town and up a long and steep street to a small church, Templo de Guadalupe, for sweeping views of the city and surrounding mountains at sunset. On our way back into town we stumbled on El Argentina Restaurant. Poking our heads in the door was all it took, with various meats being grilled right in front of you. A few summers ago we travelled to Argentina and, in Buenos Aires, we immensely enjoyed the way they grill meat — something Argentina is revered for. We ordered short ribs, empanadas, and a lettuce, avocado and goat cheese salad, which was one of the best meals of the trip. We learned from the friendly staff that El Argentina had mysteriously burned down more than once and was in a new location.

On day five of our trip we started out with breakfast at our hotel and yes, they made great huevos rancheros. I must add that coffee has taken an enormous step up in quality around Mexico. For so many years coffee in Mexico meant a Styrofoam cup of hot water in which you stirred in a heap of freeze-dried Nescafe with a large metal spoon close to the size of a shovel. It was usually awful. Now, quality coffee is on the rise and thank goodness.

We’ve always enjoyed tracking down the people’s market, or Mercado, in cities like this, the place where townspeople sell everything from live chickens and turkeys to handmade brooms, batteries, hundreds of bizarre herbs and spices, fresh fish, clothing, parakeets and on and on. We didn’t see any tourists here. Sarah loves to get lost in these markets that seem to wind on forever. We definitely got some stares in there, some people just baffled by our presence.

In the final part of this series we tour the tiny towns of Zinacantán and Chamula and explore one of the last Mayan ruins, Toniná at Ocosingo. As a surprise bonus to the trip, we ended up exploring Mexico City for a day after our flight was delayed 24 hours because of a broken air conditioner. Fortunately, we’ve visited that massive city several times and we comfortably squeezed in visits to a museum, viewed numerous famous Diego Rivera murals at the Zocalo and had lunch at one of our favorite eateries, Restaurant Trevi, where we first dined in 1985.

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