This city of about 120,000 people is located near the centre of the state of Chiapas and about 80 kilometers (about 50 miles) east of the state capital of Tuxtla Gutiérrez. It is situated in a bowl in the mountains at 2,200 meters (7,200 feet), about 1,650 meters (5,400 feet) higher than Tuxtla Gutiérrez.
It was founded in 1528, which is six years before Jacques Cartier arrived in Canada and ninety-two years before the Pilgrim Fathers landed at Plymouth Rock. San Cristóbal (St. Christopher) is the patron saint, and Las Casas is the name of a Roman Catholic bishop who did much work in this area.
The climate is very pleasant when compared to other parts of the state. Daytime temperatures average from 19° C. (66° F.) in winter and 23° C. (73° F.) in summer. Overnight lows average from 5° C. (41° F.) in winter and 13° C. (55° F.) in summer. There is not much change over the year. The warmest time is in May and June. The rainy season is from May to October. The seasonal rains are usually short showers, occurring mostly in the afternoon. These “showers” can be extremely heavy for the short time they exist, often causing flash floods. When the sun goes behind the clouds or the mountains, a drop in temperature is noticeable.
Most streets in the city are narrow. Thus, one-lane, one-way traffic is the norm. There are a few two-way streets and one divided four-lane street (part of the Pan-American Highway). Large cars and buses do not manoeuver as well as compact cars do. Likewise, sidewalks are narrow and uneven and are well elevated from the street. This is to help prevent the rains from entering the houses. Buildings are mainly very old and thus of interest for their architecture.
Houses in much of the city are small and made of concrete or adobe. In the very poor parts of the city, they may be only wooden shacks. Thus, the larger, more attractive houses stand out. Some of these are built around a central courtyard. They are made of a combination of concrete and adobe and have tile on the roof. On the top of many houses is a storage tank (called a tinaco) into which water from the street is piped. From this tank, the water is distributed throughout the house by gravity. Many houses also have a cistern to store water in times when the city shuts it off. Fire-places have been built in the larger houses to provide heat. Air-conditioning is not needed. There may be an outside stand where the women do their laundry by hand. Electrical outlets are few by U. S. and Canadian standards. Where breakers are used, there may not be more than two. The lines coming to the houses are usually 110-volts. Windows and doors are not sealed as well as they are in the U. S. and Canada. Floors are usually concrete or tile. There may also be rugs. The very poor houses may have only a dirt floor. In the outlying areas of the city where we lived, any opening to the house had to be closed off, particularly at night when scorpions and tarantulas roam about looking for food.
The utilities situation for electricity and telephone is much the same as in Monterrey. However, the water situation in San Cristóbal is less predictable. When the water is shut off because of someone failing to pay a bill, an entire area will also be cut off because of the lack of individual cutoff valves. Loss of water can be for several days or longer. Only those who have full cisterns are not affected.
Shopping in San Cristóbal is an experience. Although there are a few small supermarkets, most stores are very small, handling only one type of item. It is necessary to search out the desired shops and plan one’s shopping for the day, especially when taxi is the means of transportation. Stores are not always well-marked. Some goods that foreigners are used to may not be available. Imported goods are more expensive.
One of the highlights of shopping is visiting the large open market where the indigenous people sell fresh vegetables and fruit and other native wares. This is the best place to buy these products. The market is several blocks in size and one can easily become lost. Prices are usually reasonable – until they spot an unsuspecting tourist. Often, it may be necessary to pay for items separately as some stallholders cannot add up the cost of several items. Once they get to know you, they will allow you to add up the items and trust you to pay fairly. Meat is sold either before it is killed or after, whichever you prefer. It does not take long before vegetarianism does not only seem like a practical decision, but a vital, life-preserving necessity. Stalls are small, very rudimentary, and covered by a canvas. Tall people have to watch for low support ropes when walking in the aisles. Also, it is likely to be crowded, and there may be mud underfoot. Anyone who visits San Cristóbal should visit the market area as it can be a unique experience. Throughout the city, other native people have small stands of vegetables and fruit.
Although goods are sold every day, Saturday is the big day. Beside an old church, not far from where this market had been located, are more stands where many Mayan people sell their woven cloth with intricate embroidery, their leather goods, and their pottery. If one realizes the amount of work in producing these goods, the high prices can be understood. The art work is beautiful and attracts many tourists. The Mayan people are very common here as San Cristóbal is in the heart of Mayan country. For the most part, they are poor. They can be seen anywhere in the city, especially where tourists visit. The girls and the women can be very persistent as they try to sell their handicrafts. A smile and “No, gracias!” may not be enough. One may have to walk away to avoid their sales pitch. Unless a person really wants to buy, he should not stop to look at goods. For many of these native people, this is their only livelihood.
It is not uncommon to see these people bare-footed. Often a woman is seen carrying a baby tied in a large cloth on her back. The chief mode of transportation of these people is walking, although some enter the city in the back of a truck. The clothes of each village has a distinctive color and design. Thus, it can be easily determined where a person lives when the design is seen and recognized. Property left vacant or unattended for a time may be taken over by native people. Moving them from the property is next to impossible. Thus, owners are concerned about their property that they want to rent or to sell.
Because of the age of the city and the large population of the Maya in the nearby highlands, there are many tourists. These come mainly from Europe and Australia. Few come from Canada and the United States because of the lack of knowledge of Chiapas and because of media reports of the Zapatistas. Having lived in the U. S. and in Canada, we feel safer in Chiapas. Many languages can be heard in this city. There are two main dialects of the Mayan languages in the area surrounding the city, and nine in the state. Some native people also speak Spanish. English, German, French, Italian, Spanish, and other languages are spoken by the tourists. Sadly, most of the tourists that come do so intending to become involved in the local politics or to “convert” them to a “better” religion. Ultimately, they cause more harm than good and after receiving the desired media attention, leave the people to fend for themselves in the aftermath.
Taxis are plentiful, except on holidays. There are also mini-buses on city routes. Intercity bus transportation is good. However, there are no trains. One can survive well, for the most part, without a car, although it can be inconvenient at times.
Mail service is Monday to Friday. The letter-carrier to our area travels by motorcycle. As in Monterrey, it is amazing how some mail finds its destination, based on how the address is written. It takes anywhere from nine to twenty-one days for first class mail to arrive from the U. S. and Canada. The post office deals with much outgoing foreign mail because of the tourist population. It costs the same to send a letter to the U. S. as to Canada. It is a little cheaper than sending from the U. S. to Mexico and much cheaper than sending from Canada to Mexico. It costs about twice as much to mail to other foreign countries as to the U. S. and Canada.
There are many sheep, as well as some goats, horses, pigs, turkeys, and chickens. It is not unusual to see these within the city. Local wildlife include birds, spiders, scorpions, and lizards.
The kinds of trees are many, especially on or near the mountains. Pine, cedar, and eucalyptus are just a few. Flowers include iris, rose, amaryllis, poinsetta, orchid, and many others. There are about six hundred varieties of orchids within the state.
The area is subject to earthquakes. Evidence of the big one in 1995 can be seen by the cracks in some buildings and unevenness in some streets. The volcanoes in the area have been dormant for many years. Heavy rains can produce flash floods in the small streams.