The trip to San Cristobal is a six-hour journey through winding mountainous roads which seem to go on forever. Peter and I feel rather nauseous throughout the trip but still appreciate the scenic mountainous views and reciprocate to waving children as we pass through little townships along the way. Public transportation in Mexico is top-notch and the first class buses are extremely comfortable. The only downside is the constant stream of movies playing at full blast in Spanish. I discover that you can watch a movie like Transformers in Spanish without any subtitles and still get the gist of the movie. I also find Megan Fox more agreeable when I don’t understand a word she’s saying. Along the way, we notice military checkpoints scattered throughout the journey as well as signs proclaiming we are in Zapatista country. Six years ago a previously unknown leftist guerrilla army calling themselves the Zapatistas, emerged from the woods to occupy San Cristobal and other towns in the Chiapas region. Linking the rhetoric of anti-globalisation with Mexican revolutionary slogan their declared goal was to overturn centuries of local oligarchy’s hold on land, resources, and power. They fought to improve living standards of Mexico’s indigenous people while they were forced out by the Mexican military shortly after, their following is still visible in the area. There is graffiti all around the town which has an active call to arms. This explains the sight of men in black balaclavas and automatic machine guns on the side of the road!
We get in shortly after 8 pm and descend into a valley of twinkling lights as the town of San Cristobal greets us shrouded in mist, it reminds me of finding Shangrila or some other mystical place like Brigadoon. We grab a cab to our hostel and are surprised that our cab driver´s name is Omar. I find out later that San Cristobal was the first town in all of Mexico to accept the first arrivals from the Muslims community. Our hostel is tucked away on the quieter side of town and we discover that they have lost our reservation (on top of us arriving a whole day earlier), we struggle to communicate as we speak no Spanish and they no English. However, after some clumsy attempts at Spanish aided by my phrase book, we are successful in getting a room. Hungry from the long trip we decided to head out for a walk to stretch our legs and explore the town, to our delight we discovered that we have arrived in the middle of an international festival celebrating Miguel de Cervantes author of Don Quixote. There are live concerts in the square under the clear, crisp night air. It’s much colder here as we´re high up in the mountains and we are grateful for the respite after the steaminess of Palenque’s jungles. San Cristobal is one of Mexico’s best-preserved Spanish colonial towns, is made up of a series of traditional barrios (neighbourhoods), each of which is known for a particular trade or custom, such as ironwork, carpentry, and woodcarving. The town has a floating community of bohemian Mexicans and foreigners who are drawn to its lively musical and cultural scene as well as the town’s wonderfully historic architecture. It has been a favourite traveler’s haunt for decades and it’s easy to see why we spend a relaxing four days here exploring the cobbled stone streets and visit the outlying highland villages of San Juan Chamula and San Lorenzo Zinacantan. Both towns offer a unique glimpse into the traditions and customs of the region’s indigenous Maya communities which we thoroughly enjoyed.
The people in San Cristobal are exceptionally friendly too. On the night we arrive, we pop into a warm and inviting cafe after Cervantes’ festival. When we ask for the bill at the end of the night the waiter motions to an elderly couple sitting at a nearby table and tell us that they have paid for our meal. We are taken by surprise and are moved by their gesture. As we go over to thank them, they invite us to join them for a drink of tequila and sangria to welcome us to their town. We enjoy their company for a few hours and learn coincidentally that their daughter backpacked around Australia and lived in Brisbane for a year. They share with us a story of when they married 35 years ago and were in Paris on their honeymoon, they were so poor they could only afford to eat once a day. In their later years when they had become financially secure, they regularly treated backpackers like us to a meal and drink. It was a lovely way to start our trip with such warm hospitality.
We are lucky to be here at this time of the year as Mexico celebrates its Día de Muertos or Day of the Dead. The holiday focuses on gatherings held by family and friends to pray for those who have died. It is celebrated in a big way in Mexico being a national holiday and coincides with All Saints and All Souls Day. The lively and colourful air of festivity in the evening brings the main square to life with singing marauding bands, performing street artists and musical entertainment. It is also Halloween and children are dressed in colourful costumes, singing to diners in restaurants for candy or money. We sit on the kerb side enjoying a glass of wine as we wait for our meal and soak in the relaxed and happy atmosphere, how I adore being here and wish we could stay for longer.
On our last day, we hike up a hill to a church and encounter a group of jovial workmen on a break and partaking in rowdy exchanges of tequila. Peter asks to take a picture of them which they are only too happy to oblige but also invites us to share in a shot (or two) of tequila which made the walk back down the steep steps rather challenging. We have loved the warmth and openness of the locals and we are sad to be leaving. As I write this we are in a cafe waiting to board an overnight bus for a fourteen-hour journey which will take us to Merida in the Yucatan peninsula. Adios San Cristobal, it’s been an absolute pleasure!