The colonial village of San Cristobal de las Casas is the jewel in the centre of the cool Chiapas highlands, nestled in a valley and surrounded by forests and hills. San Cristobal de las Casas is close to a number of traditional Mayan villages and the town still retains a palpable indigenous soul, which coexists harmoniously with its colonial charm.
The town was originally established as a Spanish stronghold against the surrounding indigenous communities. It is a picturesque place of cobbled lanes and long rambling streets that undulate with the hilly terrain, squat whitewashed houses with red tiled roofs, flower-filled patios, wrought iron balconies, shady plazas, ornate facades and lavish churches. The main plaza was the Spanish centre of town and today it is the best place to sit and watch life pass by. The cathedral dominates the northern side and its steps are always busy with playful children, arriving and departing worshippers, resting passersby and vendors. North of the plaza the daily market is a fascinating bustle of indigenous life, a trading space for local produce and household goods.
The streets and plazas are filled with the vibrancy of people from the surrounding villages who give the town its character and dominate its trade. The region is known for its colourful handicrafts, traditional markets, fascinating local fiestas, legends and mystical ceremonies that are influenced by the Mayan ancient traditions and way of life. Each barrio or neighbourhood of the city has a distinctive identity, rooted in the old custom of trade, with candle making, carpentry or blacksmith shops the predominant feature in each.
San Cristobal is an invigorating yet peaceful town, a good base from which to enjoy the graceful colonial atmosphere and to explore the highland region and the outlying Indian villages. The grand Mayan site at Palenque can be visited from here, as well as Agua Azul, a dazzling series of waterfalls and turquoise pools that are one of Mexico's natural wonders.
Santo Domingo is the most beautiful of San Cristóbal's churches, with an intricately carved pink Baroque facade that is especially impressive when lit up at night. The interior is richly decorated and shimmers with gold. The ornate pulpit and golden altarpieces are the main focus of this 16th-century architectural monument. Visitors are welcome at services but should prepare to be scolded by local worshippers if they don't show proper respect. The area in front and around the church is filled each day with craft stalls and village traders and is a great place to find Mexican souvenirs like woven blankets and shawls and amber jewellery.
These two highland villages are the home of the Tzotzil people, descendants of the ancient Mayans, and some of Mexico's most traditional indigenous communities. San Juan Chamula is a centre for religious festivals. The main attraction is the church where, every Sunday, men in loose homespun white woollen ponchos and women in embroidered finery congregate for the weekly market. The typical dress of the Zinacantan villagers is a red and white striped poncho decorated with tassels and a flat, round hat decorated with ribbons. The countryside is dotted with crosses and offerings dedicated to their ancestor gods or the Earth Lord. Visitors should respect the local traditions and customs; villagers can be unfriendly and are wary of tourists. The best way to visit the villages is with a local guide. Photography is forbidden.
The setting for this spectacular ancient Mayan city is splendid, a hauntingly beautiful site engulfed in the endless tropical jungle that bristles with the shriek of insects. The architecture is fantastic and for many Palenque is the most remarkable of the major Mayan sites. Early morning is the best time to capture the setting at its most photogenic, when swirling vapours encircle the temples and the jungle. The highlight is the tallest and most important of Palenque's buildings, the magnificent Temple of Inscriptions. Constructed on eight levels, the rear interior wall is decorated with panels of Mayan hieroglyphic inscriptions describing the history of Palenque and the temple. There is a museum near the entrance of the site.
San Cristobal de las Casas is above all a cultural hub, and there are many wonderful cultural attractions. The Na Bolom Cultural Centre is a wonderful place to learn a bit about the Lacandon people in a colourful and charming compound full of interesting artefacts and personal effects (it is even possible to spend the night in the centre if you fall in love with it). The Museo de Trajes Regionales, a museum of Mayan textiles, is also a fantastic cultural experience. The highland villages of San Juan Chamula and Zinacantan, home to the Tzotzil people who are descendants of the ancient Mayans, are nearby, but travellers should be very respectful and it is best to go with a local guide.
Other attractions worth seeking out in San Cristobal de las Casas include the Orquideas Moxviquil, a botanical garden sheltering more than 450 indigenous plant species, including some stunning, delicate specimens; and the fascinating Museo del Ambar (Amber Museum). Santo Domingo is the town's most beautiful church and although it is a little rundown it is still definitely worth a visit. The main archaeological site in the area is the impressive ancient Mayan site of Palenque, the remains of a city dating back to the 7th century, which many consider the most remarkable ancient Mayan site.
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