The unofficial capital of highland Chiapas, San Cristóbal de las Casas – or Jovel, as many locals call it – is a major stop on the travel circuit. But the city, a clutch of tile-roofed houses huddled together in the bowl of a valley, has held up to tourism well. The modern edges of the city don’t make a good first impression, but the centre has none of this unchecked development: pedestrianized central streets foster a low-key social scene, with a cosmopolitan mélange of small bars and restaurants that thrive on a certain degree of leftist-revolutionary cachet. It’s also a great base for studying at one of the numerous Spanish-language schools.
San Cristóbal is also a prime base for exploring highland Chiapas, perhaps the most scenic part of Mexico. The densely forested mountains give way to dramatic gorges, jungle valleys flush with orchids, vividly coloured birds and raucous monkeys. In addition, the area’s relative isolation has allowed the indigenous population to carry on with their lives little affected by Catholicism and modern commercialism – and this includes clothing and craft traditions as brilliantly coloured and rich as the wildlife (though older people in particular maintain a traditional aversion to photography – be sure to ask permission first, and respect the answer). Villages to the west of San Cristóbal are generally Tzotzil-speaking, and those to the east speak Tzeltal, but each village has developed its own identity in terms of costume, crafts and linguistics.
Just 75km from Tuxtla, up the fast toll highway that breaks through the clouds into pine forests, San Cristóbal is almost 1700m higher, at 2100m. Even in August, the evenings are chilly – be prepared.
San Cristóbal was designed as a Spanish stronghold against an often hostile indigenous population – the attack here by Zapatista rebels in January 1994 was only the latest in a long series of uprisings. It took the Spaniards, led by conquistador Diego de Mazariegos, four years to pacify the area enough to establish a town here in 1528. The so-called Villareal de Chiapa de los Españoles was more widely known as Villaviciosa (Evil City) for the oppressive exploitation exercised by its colonists. In 1544, Bartolomé de las Casas was appointed bishop, and he promptly took an energetic stance in defence of the native population, playing a similar role to that of Bishop Vasco de Quiroga in Pátzcuaro. His name is still held in something close to reverence by the local population. Throughout the colonial era, San Cristóbal was the capital of Chiapas (at that time part of Guatemala), but lost this status in 1892 as a result of its continued reluctance to accept the union with Mexico.
Independent as the indigenous groups are, economic and social status in the mountains around the city lags far behind the rest of Mexico. This is in part due to the long duration of the encomienda system of forced labour, which remained in place here long after the end of Spanish colonialism. Many small villages still operate at the barest subsistence level. It’s worth noting that many indigenous communities and some local transport operators refuse to observe the time change in summer, preferring la hora vieja – the old time, or, as some savvy marketers have dubbed it, ‘Zapatista time’.