San Cristobal de las Casas is situated in a fertile valley surrounded by mountains in the southern state of Chiapas, Mexico. Chiapas is home to several indigenous groups descended from the Maya, two of the largest being the Tzotzils and Tzeltals who inhabit highland villages surrounding San Cristobal.
The indigenous people of Chiapas speak their own language (often in addition to Spanish), practice their own unique customs and can be identified by their traditional dress that varies by group. They continue to depend primarily on agriculture for their economic well-being; however, it’s not unusual for them to travel into San Cristobal to sell their handmade crafts and shop in the markets for everyday items to take back to their villages.
San Cristobal, one of Mexico’s best-preserved Spanish colonial towns, is made up of a series of traditional barrios (neighborhoods), each of which is known for a particular trade or custom, such as iron working, carpentry and woodcarving.
You’ll want to set aside plenty of time to wander the narrow cobblestone streets of San Cristobal, past brightly painted buildings and colorful shops and markets. The town is laid out on a grid pattern and can be easily explored on foot. Several of the main streets leading through the center of town are closed to traffic and converge on the central park or zocalo (main plaza).
Along the main plaza you’ll find the architecturally stunning city hall and Cathedral. Five blocks north of the plaza, you’ll also discover San Cristobal’s Museo Templo y Convento Santo Domingo (Museum Church and Convent of Santo Domingo).
A steep stone staircase leads up to the Templo de San Cristobal (San Cristobal Church) and the town’s best mirador (lookout point). Climb to the top to enjoy spectacular views overlooking the town of San Cristobal, the surrounding mountains and countryside.
San Cristobal has been a well-known international tourist destination since the 1970s. Today, the town is home to numerous travel agencies, language schools, art-house cinemas, museums and artisans’ markets, as well as a dizzying array of shops, sidewalk cafes and restaurants, many catering to international visitors.
With its laid-back, bohemian atmosphere, San Cristobal de las Casas continues to be a popular destination among international backpackers and foreign residents, many who arrive to study Spanish or volunteer with local organizations in the fields of sustainability, education and human rights.
You can spend hours browsing the shops and artisans’ markets in San Cristobal, or take a trip out to one of the nearby villages to see where the crafts are made.
Several interesting day trips from San Cristobal include visits to 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.