Chiapas is Mexico’s southernmost state and one of its most magical. Bordering Guatemala and Belize this is where you’ll find the remains of the ancient Mayan kingdoms of Palenque and Yaxchilán, indigenous communities steeped in tradition and vibrant colonial cities.
Chiapas is also home to stunning waterfalls and spectacular lakes, pine-forest highlands and rainforest jungles, dramatic canyons and dozens of adventure activities.
I would have loved to have spent several weeks exploring Chiapas. The reality was, however, that we only had a weekend so we headed for the cultural capital of Chiapas – and discovered that there really are a lot of things to do in San Cristobal de las Casas.
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San Cristobal de las Casas is a beautifully-preserved colonial town that makes for a lovely weekend getaway. Set in a pretty highland valley surrounded by pine forests, San Cristóbal is a lovely place to wander around with paved streets, houses in shades of yellows and oranges and lively markets.
Life here moves at a gentle pace, making it a joy to explore. In the early mornings and evenings the air is cool and the clear highland light covers the town in a soft, ethereal glow.
If you’re visiting Chiapas with kids then San Cristobal is a great base for exploring the surrounding area and beyond. My kids were 9-, 7- and 2-years old at the time of our visit, and there was enough to see and do to keep them busy.
[author] [author_info]If you’re exploring other parts of Mexico then you might find our guide to Oaxaca useful as well as our favourite things to do in Mexico City with kids. For more ideas on magical towns to visit, take a look at these easy escapes from Mexico City.[/author_info] [/author]
What to see and do in San Cristóbal de las Casas
One of the joys of San Cristóbal is simply being able to walk everywhere.
The two long pedestrianised streets are Avenue 20 de Noviembre, otherwise known as the Andador Eclesiastico, which runs for eight blocks from the Arco del carmen to the Iglesia de Santa Domingo, and Anador Guadalupano, which runs for three blocks starting from the cathedral.
Both these streets are filled with boutiques, bars and restaurants and are fun to stroll along.
Catedral de San Cristóbal
The centuries-old sunny yellow Catedral de San Cristóbal sits at the heart of the town next to the zócalo (although the main facade does not face the town square but rather its own portico called the Cathedral Plaza).
A church was first built on this site in 1528 but it was torn down and rebuilt in its current incarnation in the 17th century. It’s dedicated to Saint Christopher, the patron of the city.
As with most Mexican towns, el zócalo, the main square, sits at the centre of the town. Also known as Vincente Espinoza Park, this shaded central plaza is where locals and visitors gather throughout the day. It’s a good place to stop and pause on one of the wrought iron benches.
Come evening time, musicians and performers gather to make a quick peso or two, and street vendors sell food, balloons and more.
Iglesia de Guadalupe
This dome-topped church sits at the top of Anador Guadalupano, and is well worth a visit for views over the city. It’s not the only mirador (viewpoint) in town, but it is a good walk to the top and the views stretch out over the red-tiled roofs of town and beyond.
Centro de Textiles del Mundo Maya
Housed within the Ex-Convento de Santo Domingo (on the western side of the Templo de Santo Domingo) are two museums. One the ground floor sits the Museo de los Altos de Chiapas and upstairs is the Centro de Textiles de Mundo Maya.
The downstairs museum might be a little dry for culture-shy kids but there are some impressive archaeological relics including remnants of textiles and exhibits from when the region was conquered by the Spanish.
But if religious relics are not your thing then skip the ground floor and head straight for the Textile Museum upstairs.
This museum houses over 500 examples of handwoven textiles from throughout Mexico and Central America (many pieces come from Guatemala) and is really impressive.
In addition to the huipiles (sleeveless tunics worn by local women) hidden behind glass, dozens more are in drawers that you can pull out to examine. There are a couple of videos explaining the traditional back strap loom weaving process.
Templo de Santo Domingo
Next door to the textile museum is the 16th-century Templo de Santo Domingo, which boasts the most ornate facade in town. Baroque in style with detailed filigree stucco work, it’s worth visiting to admire the outside even if you don’t step foot through the front door. See if your kids can spot the double-headed Hapsburg eagle on the exterior, the symbol of the Spanish monarchy.
Na Bolom Cultural Centre
Unfortunately we ran out of time to visit this museum but it comes highly recommended and sounds really interesting. Na Bolom, meaning “House of the Jaguar” in Tzozil, was once the home to a famous Dutch archaeologist Frans Blom and his wife, the Swiss photographer Gertrude Duby who spent five decades chronicling Mayan cultures.
Today the house is filled with photographs, archaeological and anthropological pieces and books. Tours of the house reveal what life was like for this adventuring duo as well as offering a glimpse into life in Chiapas 70-odd years ago.
Tours from San Cristóbal de las Casas
Chiapas is home to one of the largest indigenous populations in Mexico and I would highly recommend visiting some of the the villages neighbouring San Cristobal’s. The closest, and therefore most popular with visitors are the villages of San Juan de Chamula and Zinacantán.
It is recommended that you visit the villages on a walking tour. We spent a morning exploring Chamula and Zinacantán with Explorando Chiapas and they were good, but there are lots of agencies in town to choose from.
Guides to the local villages usually come from one of the surrounding towns (ours came from Zinacantán) and are well-placed to explain how these autonomous villages work.
In many ways these towns are locked in a bygone era. Yes, locals might wander around speaking into a mobile phone but life has remained largely unchanged for 100s of years.
Societies are patriarchal, education is not considered important and girls are married off between the ages of 12- and 18-years-old (any older and you’re considered past your sell-by-date!). Families are large; it’s not uncommon for families to have 12 or even 18 children.
All disputes are settled internally by the town’s civic leaders, who are elected by the men of the community. The civic leaders are paid a salary by the Mexican government, which in turn accepts the town’s autonomy.
San Juan de Chamula
The town of Chamula doesn’t look like much when you first arrive but this Tzotzil community is fascinating. Men wander around in black or white ponchos made from sheep wool and women in black sheep wool skirts and embroidered huipiles.
Apparently, locals banished Catholic priests from the area 100-odd years ago because their Catholic teachings didn’t allow room for any of their traditional religious beliefs. Today locals perform their own rituals and it’s unlike anything I have ever seen before. From the outside the church looks like any other Catholic church, albeit with colourful Mayan symbols on the facade, but inside it is another world.
There are no pews or benches, the floor is blanketed with pine needles and locals gather kneeling around burning coloured candles on the floor. Rituals involve rubbing eggs on one another, drinking coca cola and (although we didn’t see this) sacrificing chickens.
The various coloured candles represent different things; black, for example, is a symbol of the underworld and red represents blood.
The church was packed when we visited and there were a lot of families gathered for some kind of communion. If travelling with young kids I would recommend avoiding holy days, it was busy enough when we visited on a regular Sunday.
Tourists are allowed to enter the church but photography is strictly forbidden (no exceptions!).
Is it suitable for kids? My eldest found it interesting but he said it made him a little uneasy, because it was so different to anything he had seen before, not because anyone made him feel uncomfortable.
For us, however, having lived in Mexico City for five years, we felt it was important that our children saw another side to life in Mexico than capital city living.
Nearby is the graveyard, which sits opposite the ruins of the original town church. The different coloured crosses indicate who is buried there; black for elderly villagers, blue for men and green for women.
There are noticeably more green crosses owing to the number of girls that die in childbirth here. Many of them are still children themselves when they go into labour and access to medical services is not readily available, and often not encouraged owing to village customs.
San Lorenzo Zinacantán
San Lorenzo Zinacantán, usually referred to as simply Zinacantán, is Tzotzil village famous for its flower-growing skills.
The church of San Lorenzo (Iglesia de San Lorenzo) sits at the heart of the town but we didn’t visit on our tour. Instead we were taken to a weaving cooperative where we were given a glass of the local brew, pox (posh).
Made from corn, sugar cane and wheat, the drink is used in mayan ceremonies to allow a connection between the material and spiritual world. It comes in various flavours, including cinnamon and hibiscus, and is really quite good – and strong! Definitely an adults-only drink.
Today, you’ll even find a bar dedicated to selling pox in San Cristobal at the La Posheria.
Weaving demonstrations using the traditional back strap loom method are held for visitors and there are lots of products for sale. Even if you don’t buy something you should consider leaving a contribution. You can also watch tortillas being made.
If you have more time then you can also visit the villages of Amatenango del Valle, known for its women potters, Aguacatenango, known for its embroidery and Tenejapa, home to some of the most exquisite embroidery in the region.
Cañon del Sumidero
One thing I regret not having time to experience as the Cañon del Sumidero, a striking river gorge where the limestone canyon walls stretch 1000m into the sky. Boat tours through the gorge leave from Chiapa de Corzo and run up the river through the dramatic cliffs and past crocodiles lazing on the rocks. Surrounding the canyon is the Sumidero Canyon National Park.
Tours – including half-day and full day tours – can be arranged through your hotel or by one of the many travel agencies in San Cristobal.
Las Grutas de Rancho Nuevo
Located approximately 10km outside of San Cristobal is the Rancho Nuevo ecological park. Sadly we did not have time to visit but it comes recommended if you are staying longer in San Cristobal. The park is home to acres of pine forested land but the main drawcard is the cave system home to dramatic stalactite and stalagmite formations.
Lagos de Montebello
Roughly two hours away from San Cristobal are the famed Montebello lakes. Located not far from the border with Guatemala, the area boasts 59 beautiful coloured lakes set among pine and oak forests. There are also Mayan ruins – including the ancient site of Chinkultic – and an abundance of wildlife. The area was the first national park in the state of Chiapas and in 2009 was recognised as a UNESCO Biosphere Reserve.
The largest lake is Lake Tziscao and you can tour the lake on a raft or canoe. There are myriad companies in San Cristobal offering full day tours to los lagos or you can self-drive, which will give you the freedom to explore at your own pace.
Where to shop in San Cristóbal de las Casas
Chiapas is well-known for its beautiful textiles and embroidery and there are plenty of shops selling huipiles, shawls, bedspreads, cushion covers and more. The following are some of the shops that we visited and enjoyed.
In the area outside the Textile Museum is the permanent Mercado de Artesanias, the artisan’s market, that sells locally made indigenous crafts.
As far as shopping goes, this is by far the most fun for kids and they can practice their bargaining skills before spending their pocket money. You’ll find a huge range of handicrafts for sale including pieces of pottery, little woollen animals in a rainbow of colours, sweets typical to the region and embroidered just about anything; cushion covers, bags, huipiles, table runners and more. It’s a great place for souvenirs and presents.
Remember that the embroidery you find here is most likely to have been created using machines and not with the traditional back-strap loom technique.
This company work with 18 communities across Chiapas and advocates fair trade. Their designs mix traditional and contemporary aesthetic. I bought a beautiful wrap from here, and some pompoms.
Address: Real de Guadalupe No. 25-B
This is a cute little store that stocks designs for kids with traditional embroidery.
Address: Calle Benito Juarez No. 5C
Another advocate for fair trade is Taabal, which produces a beautiful collection of embroidered scarves as well as clothing and…more pompoms!
Address: Real de Guadalupe 13
This high-end homewares shop has some seriously beautiful stuff. Come here for expertly crafted jaguar sculptures from the village of Amatenango, textiles, amber jewellery, colourful lacquered gourds and more. There’s also a small selection of food and coffee (coffee from Chiapas is very good).
Address: Av 20 de Noviembre 21
Sitting next door to the Mundo Maya Textile Museum is Sna Jolobil, a regional crafts cooperative of 800 weavers from 20 indigenous communities. The shop was sadly shut when we visited (much to my husband’s relief I think!) but it has a reputation for producing tunics, pillow covers, wall hangings and morme of extremely high quality. The name means “Weaver’s House” in the Tzotzil language.
You’ll see this local chocolate shop chain throughout town (and at Tuxtla airport!). Choose from individual chocolate bonbons or chocolate bars (word of warning: the chilli chocolate is really spicy!). They also serve good hot chocolate.
Chiapas grows excellent coffee and one of the best places to enjoy it is at Carajillo Cafe. There’s also a store where you can buy some to take home.
Hotels in San Cristóbal de las Casas
We stayed at Hotel Provincia, a cute mid-range hotel in the centre of town. The staff are friendly, there’s a cheery courtyard and the rooms are tidy and comfortable. They also serve pox every evening for guests! The only downside is that it is located near a noisy bar so not ideal for light sleepers.
Restaurants in San Cristóbal de las Casas
It’s hard to have a bad meal in Mexico, this country is home to some of the best food in the world! However, we didn’t have the best luck finding good places to eat when we were in San Cristobal.
That said, it’s worth stopping by TierrAdentro, a cafe and cultural centre loyal to the Zapatista movement. On January 1, 1994, the Zapatista Liberation Army (Ejercito Zapatista de Liberacion Nacional), led by pipe-smoking Subcomandante Marcos, rebelled against the Mexican government demanding better rights for indigenous people. The uprising was quickly subdued but support for the movement still remains.
TierrAdentro is an interesting cafe with decent Mexican food but what you really come here for are the Zapatista photos and memorabilia that line the walls.
We also came across a very good bakery, El Horno Magico, that makes tasty pan dulce (pastries) on site.
Restaurant Lum comes highly recommended although we didn’t get the chance to eat here.
For more ideas on where to eat in San Cristobal, take a look at these suggestions from TripAdvisor