Longing for San Cristobal de las Casas
January 1, 1970
by Mer Ayarza
You can fall in love with a place, you can fall in love with a person, and you can fall in love with a moment. But to fall in love with all of them in a single time and space, in a single journey, that’s something that—if you’re lucky—comes once in a lifetime. It’s a life-changing, life-defining, event that will forever shape who you are. I was fortunate enough to experience this the first time I went to San Cristobal de las Casas in the State of Chiapas in Mexico.
First stop: The jungle in Chiapas
I had just spent a week building houses for an impoverished community that lost their houses in Tabasco, neighbor state of Chiapas. Afterwards, two friends and I were to continue our journey through Chiapas. Our first stop was Palenque. There we stayed in a hostel in the middle of the jungle called “El Panchan,” which is actually very close to the entrance of the archaeological park. We visited three of the most important ruins in the State—first Palenque, then we took a boat ride on the Usumacinta River the following day to see Yaxchilan and Bonampak. We ran through the jungle trying to escape the rain, and then encountered howling monkeys.
The journey from Palenque to San Cristobal
From Palenque we continued our journey in the direction of San Cristobal. We visited the most beautiful waterfalls I have ever seen—“Agua Azul” (Blue Water) and “El Chiflon” (roughly translated to The Whistle)—and an Eco touristic site called “Agua Clara” (Clear Water). However beautiful and truly amazing all these places are, and how they shaped my trip, I left my heart in San Cristobal.
From the moment I took my first step outside the bus stop, smelled the air and was overwhelmed by all the colors, I knew it. I would never have enough of San Cristobal. I realized that something deep within me recognized that place. It was as if my soul had found a missing piece. At the same time, I also knew that I would now be forever searching for that feeling in every trip. To search for all the pieces that you realize were missing the same instant you find them.
Memories of San Cristobal
Every time I think of San Cristobal I am surrounded by dozens of colors. They are my way of shaping with words the memories of all my perceptions and emotions there. There are all sorts of colors all around town: from houses, to churches, to shops, to the light reflecting on each of them, to the sky that seemed to engage everything. Walking towards the hostel—there are dozens of cozy, beautiful and amazing hostels all around town for every kind of budget—with every step on every uneven tile, I was holding my breath just taking it all in. Everything was falling into place.
I cannot say this enough: I have never felt like that in my life; furthermore, I have never felt more me than when I was [am] in San Cristobal. I have returned several times—for as long a stay as I can—to visit this town that now feels like a home to me and, in some way, to revisit myself. To remind myself of how much a place can shape and change you, and how every aspect of every place and person you meet there will forever travel with you wherever the roads take you.
San Cristobal: The return
I recently returned to San Cristobal after a few years of absence. I was so anxious. Would I feel the same? Would I recognize the place and the place me? Would I feel that recognition after a long separation? (You would think I was meeting up with a former love I was so nervous). Yes, I felt all that and more. I have changed a great deal in the time since this small town initially changed me. But it was like going back to the “wanderlust” feeling San Cristobal established in me. It had changed in some ways, but in others, it was just like getting reacquainted with the new shapes and colors that surrounded the soul of the town.
Getting to know San Cristobal
I went directly to one of my favorite cafes: “Tierra Adentro.” It’s located in one of the main streets of San Cristobal, Real de Guadalupe. I had breakfast and enjoyed the wonderful coffee of Chiapas. San Cristobal is a place you get to know by walking it. You can—and you should—walk everywhere. Get to know every street, every alley and every hill. You can, and probably will, get lost, but you should allow yourself to get lost in this wonderful place. Plus, you will never be really lost—it’s not really that big. So I walked all over, trying to remember every block.
At first I tried to go to those familiar places, there where I could maybe get a glimpse of the old feeling back. Then I lost all pretenses: I was living that return home and I had all these new sensations to experience. I was experiencing San Cristobal all over again. For every step I took, I was actually taking two: the familiar steps of home, and the wonder of emptying that familiarity and experiencing something new with the eagerness of the first time. This places does that to you: you suddenly become a poet—in my case, not a very good one I tried my best.
What to do in San Cristobal
I visited all the churches atop hills that are a must in San Cristobal. You can see a whole new perspective of the town from up there. You can talk with the locals: they will share their history with you, and recommend places to fully experience the town. There are dozens of cafes and restaurants for every kind of taste—particularly in the streets Real de Guadalupe and Revolucion. My favorite one, though, is “Frontera Artisan Food and Coffee,” that has a beautiful inner patio where you can lie down, drink your weight in coffee, and read. I also urge you to try the local food in the market, which is an experience all by itself.
Drink some pox at the “Viña de Bacco” or in the “Posheria.” Pox is an alcoholic beverage—a distillate of corn, sugar cane and wheat—that is used by the indigenous communities for religious and medicinal purposes. It has found its way to many bars and restaurants in San Cristobal and comes in different flavors—natural, coffee, honey, peach, peppermint, and others. However, when drinking pox it is essential to recognize that, for these original communities, it remains a means to forge a connection between the material and immaterial. Pox literally means “medicine, healing.” Try it, savor it, but remember that this beverage is sacred for the people who produce it, and you are drinking their work and the beliefs of the ancient and new Mayan world.