Just 75km from Tuxtla Gutiérrez, San Cristóbal de las Casas – or Jovel, as many locals call it – is almost 1700m higher, at 2100m. Even in August, the evenings are chilly, and the tile-roofed houses huddle together in the bowl of a small valley. San Cristóbal’s distinctive colonial charm, fascinating indigenous villages nearby and, of course, Zapatista cachet have made it a major stop on the travel circuit. But the city of 200,000 has held up to tourism well, with pedestrianized central streets and a low-key social scene in a cosmopolitan mélange of small bars and restaurants. It’s also a great base for studying at one of the numerous Spanish-language schools.
A major draw for visitors to San Cristóbal is the indigenous crafts tradition, with every village in the area specializing in a distinctive style of weaving, embroidery and more. Many of the salespeople in San Cristóbal are from nearby villages – in fact, many are so-called expulsados, evangelical Protestants who have been expelled from their communities for converting. To eke out an existence they have turned to craft-making, with tourists as their main source of income. As a result, the city is a textile collector’s dream, with vibrant woven blankets and intricately embroidered clothing. If you see something you like (here or in any village), you should buy it, as there’s no guarantee you’ll see it again in the next town.
The plaza in front of Santo Domingo church, filled with craft stalls, is often the best place to buy souvenirs. Part of the former convento next door has been converted into a craft cooperative (Sna Jolobil) that sells textiles and other village products. The quality here is generally good, but the prices higher than elsewhere. The Mercado de Artesanías y Dulces on Insurgentes is another worthwhile place to look for local crafts, although traders here are less willing to barter.
Other craft shops include the Tienda de los Artesanos de Chiapas, at the corner of Hidalgo and Niños Héroes, a state-sponsored venture where the weaving and embroidery are as high-quality as you’ll find in any museum. Artesandia, 28 de Agosto 6, sells women’s clothing with traditional embroidery but tailored in modern styles – pieces are expensive but beautifully done.
Taller Leñateros, Flavio Paniagua 54, is one of the more fascinating. Here you can see the process of making paper by hand from such diverse items as banana leaves, cornstalks and bamboo, coloured with natural dyes. The finished sheets become beautiful cards and notebooks. Delicate, decorative wrought iron is on display at Metalistería Hermosillo, Jardinera 12.
Amber is another special product of this region, sold mostly in the form of jewellery. If you’re serious about buying, first visit the Museo del Ámbar, in the Convento de la Merced off Belisario Domínguez. The English-speaking staff can explain the various types, as well as sell you some exquisite pieces. Real amber is exceptionally light, gives a resin-like odour when rubbed and is rarely sold with insects trapped inside it – if someone tries selling you a scorpion in amber, it’s definitely a con: there are only five real pieces in existence. Tierra de Ámbar, Real de Guadalupe 16, is another trustworthy store, though you should be okay in most shops – just don’t buy from street sellers. In the same vein, if you’re interested in jade, visit the small Museo del Jade, 16 de Septiembre 16 (wwww.eljade.com), for beautiful displays of ancient jewellery and new pieces for purchase.