Fires were already burning in the streets when they started breaking the doors down. I’d arrived in the southern Mexican tourist trap of San Cristobal just a few hours earlier, and was saved from boredom by a a group of masked guys breaking down the doors of a government building in the main square.
I snagged a bag of popcorn from a passing street vendor, and kicked back to watch the show, and enjoy the smell of stuff burning. Over the course of the afternoon they trashed and later torched the inside of the building. It wasn’t clear whether they were activists supporting protesting teachers, or agents paid by the cops to make the aforementioned activists look bad. The media reported it was the former, but few locals I spoke to seemed convinced it was the latter.
Whoever they were,it certainly seemed like they’d done a great job of seriously wrecking the place. I had a look inside after they’d finished, and found they’d flooding the interior with petrol and incinerating the remains of … well pretty much everything. It smelt like a gas station, but looked like a meth den.
A bunch of guys (who may or may not have been related to the first group) then went on to spend the rest of the night looting convenience stores throughout the city centre. I ran into a few Australians who had scored a few slabs of free beer, and a handful of families of the National Lampoon’s Vacation variety, most of whom seemed terrified out of their minds by the chaos. Thank God for that, at least.
Needless to say, San Cristobal and I got off on a good foot, despite the fact that you’ll never find a greater hive of scum and villainy. I’m not referring here to masked molotov aficionados, but to the bloody tourist hordes.
Officially known as San Cristobal de las Casas, you’ll almost certainly find yourself spending some time here if you’re passing through Mexico’s Chiapas state. The city first started luring a trickle of tourists a generation ago, when adventurers fleeing the crowds of Yucatan sought some authenticity in the Chiapaneco highlands. They found a peaceful mountain hamlet perfect for getting totally off the grid. The Zapatista uprising of 1994 brought renewed interest to this far flung corner of Mexico, drawing the attention of a new generation of lefty tourism and a crop of NGOs.
Today, the San Cristobal of yesteryear is no more. Tourism has flooded this deeply impoverished region with gringo dollars, though most of that cash has been vacuumed up by a tiny portion of the population. It’s a classic story of cultural appropriation and gentrification in the making. Want authentic Mayan culture? How about a nightclub where the cover charge alone prices out locals? How about some classic Chiapaneco cuisine? Like a peperoni pizza! What about those cool anarchist insurgents in the mountains? You too can get a slice of the action with a souvenir T-shirt sporting Subcomandante Marcos’ masked face, pipe and all! The reason I said “in the making”, is because all is not lost for San Cristobal. Walk a few blocks from the glitzy upmarket restaurants, and you’ll find an average southern Mexican pueblo. The region’s strong tradition of political activism means the city and surrounding areas sees its fare share of protests and unrest (even if sometimes it’s not clear what the hell is going on).
Anyway, now that I’ve finished my first blunt of the day, I’m in a much better state of mind to concede San Cristobal actually does have its charms.
With great transport connections, mild weather and a plethora of hostels, it’s certainly a great base for exploring the rest of the state. There’s also plenty of great destinations just a skip and a hop away, including natural wonders like the enormous Sumidero Canyon, along with the pretty indigenous villages of Chamula and Zinacantan.
There’s even some decent attractions within San Cristobal itself. The Maya Medicine Museum and anthropology museum Na Bolom are both worth peeks, and there’s two hills on opposite sides of town that offer great views. If you get a chance, the indigenous university, the CIDECI, hosts regular alternative education and culture events. Take up any excuse to visit.
Overall, San Cristobal is far from the worst tourist trap I’ve visited (I’m looking at you, Antigua, Guatemala). The same could be said for the class of tourist. I ran into an unusual amount of backpackers here with some actual self awareness.
Sure, if you’re some oldskool lefty expecting a slice of the good ole days, you’re going to be sorely disappointed. Despite your best efforts, you’re more likely to find yourself staring empty eyed out the windows of a tour van on the way to Palenque while that loud couple in front of you complain about the whole being-in-Mexico-thing, and less likely to bring salvation to the oppressed peoples of the highlands with an AK-47, even if you bring enough asparagus water and quinoa bars to last a week in the jungle.
Nonetheless, San Cristobal fulfills its main purpose for travelers quite adequately. It’s a great base for exploring Chiapas, and has a bit of nice character overall.
As San Cristobal is listed as a pueblo magico, it’s worth including in my series, Exploring the Pueblos Magicos.
For now, I’m introducing a rating system. Yup, I’m boiling the value of an entire community down to an arbitrary numerical value.
Anyway, here’s how San Cristobal fared:
With zero being total shithole, and 10 being overwhelmingly shit hot, I gave San Cristobal a comfortable four. It locked in a few points for convenience and some nice sights. However, San Cristobal is a bit of a victim of its own success, and lost points for being a little gringo-fied. More details of the pros and cons below.
San Cristobal is shit hot because:
Great transport connections – thank God! (+1)
Sweet array of hostels, range of prices (+1)
Lots of neat-o attractions within the town, and around (+1)
Yaaay, colourful markets! (+1)
San Cristobal is a shithole because:
Holy shit, are there a lot of annoying tourists here! (-1)
Fuck, please stop trying to sell me shit (-1)
Why the hell are all these restaurants so bloody expensive?! (-1)
I’m pretty sure the mark up on this beer is equal to a campesino’s daily income (-1)
Oh, you’re here working with an NGO to save the Mayans from themselves? Just carrying the white man’s burden, right? (-1)
That omnipresent feeling of guilt and self loathing, knowing as a tourist you’re part of the problem (-1)