We had a challenge coming our way – our real first long bus ride in Mexico. A whopping fifteen hour bus ride, from Campeche, through the winding mountains, to San Cristóbal. So we did what any smart backpacker would do. Stocked up on snacks, popped a couple of Benadryl and put on every warm thing we owned – Mexican buses love to crank their air conditioning, even when it’s cold outside. The bus ride turned out to be not so bad with our preparations in hand, though we would have been left behind at one stop if it weren’t for the kindness of a local woman. We had only taken our drugs three hours prior, when we were all told to get off the bus. They were doing a bathroom cleaning and such. So, off we get. Then the bus starts driving away and we panic, but not as much as a fellow gringo panicked- he chased the bus down, banging on it’s side, yelling. The bus driver advised him he was just backing it up to the cleaning station. So we stood there, our brains all a muddle, trying to stay awake, fighting the pull of the Benadryl. A while passed and I was getting worried – as worried as Benadryl will let you – when a local woman came up to me and advised us in Spanish that our bus would be coming from a completely different side of the station to pick us up. Even if I had been in my right mind, I would not have known this without her advice. I am sure it was said over a speaker somewhere, but my Spanish is not good enough for deciphering loud speaker gibber. We were so thankful someone saved us! Our bags would have taken off with the bus without us, what a mess we avoided thanks to the kindness of a stranger! It’s something I’ve noticed a lot in our travel in Mexico: locals see the gringos, know they likely are a bit clueless to what’s going on a times, and step in to help them out. The kindness of Mexican’s, always coming to our rescue, has been a beautiful part of our journey through this amazing country.
We made it in to San Cristobal in the early afternoon and took a taxi to our hostel as we figured it would be too far to walk after a strange night on a bus. We had booked a week in Posada del Abuelito, a hostel with rave reviews online. And those reviews were damn right; this place was amazing! It ranks in the top three hostels I have ever stayed at, and I have stayed at a lot! Which was a nice relief considering our last place in Campeche was among the worst I’ve stayed in (ew, ants and cockroaches!). We checked in, dropped our bags, and hit the town. The streets were covered in graffiti of all types, from absolutely epic, to childish scribbles. Which was too bad because the nice graffiti was a huge asset to the charm of the city, but there was twice as much scribble graffiti, a lot of political rage on the walls of the city – which I’m all for, but displaying your political rage through a formidable art piece as opposed to chicken scratch is far more effective, just saying!
We found ourselves in a bakery, drawn in by the sultry smells sweeping out its open doors. We snatched up a chocolate figure-8 and a mostaza (mustard) bun. As soon as we bit into them we knew we had stumbled on a goldmine of goodness. They were phenomenal! We marked it on the map (and returned several times during our stay), impressed with out wandering skills of taking us somewhere so excellent, so quickly. We made our way around our area of town and quickly found ourselves out of breath – we were now sitting (and by sitting I mean walking along the very hilly streets of San Cristóbal) at 2200m above sea level, a huge adjustment after having just come from the coast for the last 6 weeks.
Within our first hour of being in the city we were in the midst of a huge, raucous parade, which set the tone for the rest of our stay in San Cristóbal. You see, we had arrived the week or so prior to Día de la Virgen de Guadalupe (December 12, Day of the Virgin Guadalupe), a huge holiday in Mexico. Being a Pueblo Mágico, San Cristóbal works hard to keep it’s honoured title and thus the city is a wild and cacophonous fiesta 24 hours a day during this exciting time. I kid you not, we saw at least one parade a day, sometimes we saw upwards of four! The streets were an endless barrage of floats, fireworks, trumpets and dancing. I spent a lot of my time there jumping out of my skin and swearing profusely as I was startled by the deafening explosion of a fire work echoing off the stone city walls only a block away – or sometimes a few feet away! Fellow travellers got a hoot out of my reactions, but I thank the dear spirits I am young or I would have had a heart attack!
We had a couple of things on our SC bucket list – the Sumidero Cañon, horseback riding in the mountains, and a little cave exploring. We met a fellow Canadian, Matt, at the hostel and so we figured out our own way to cheaply get to the caves. We found the Collectivo for the ‘grutas’ (caves) while walking around the city, hopped on and for 12 pesos each, enjoyed the ride just outside the city. The scenery changed from cobble stones and colourful brick walls to huge pine forests in the blink of an eye. We were dropped off, found out the return times, and walked down into the park for the Grutas de Rancho Nuevo. The beautiful pines towered high above our heads and we inhaled the fresh forest air deeply. It always amazes me how instantly you can feel transformed when you leave a bustling loud city and escape into the peace and quite of nature. The park was lively, but by no means busy. We found the cave and wandered in and walked for a kilometre through the cave. The high ceiling of sagging stalactites hung above us, their brothers, the stalagmites grew all around us, trying to meet up with each other, kissing into a column. It was lit throughout, and we didn’t encounter anyone else until near the end. At the end, they have a few staff with headlamps, and for an extra fee they will take you another half kilometre into the cave in the pitch black with your headlamps. Of course we signed right up and in we went into the darkness. Caving in the darkness without all the artificial lights is always more fun! Thoughts of Gollum and dark creatures come to mind, following behind you. We reached the end of the cave and I told everyone to turn their lamps off and put their hand in front of their nose – not a fleck of light was to be seen in these depths, an eerie feeling indeed. Our guide told us the cave went on for many more kilometres but was not safe to explore.
After our cave adventure we went back to the park to have a little picnic. A stray dog was scampering around, looking terrified and abused, other dogs barking viciously after her. She was incredibly timid and with her tail between her legs, head bowed, would slowly make her way closer to us as we ate. We threw her a scrap now and then and she snatched it and ran off, only to come back. By the end of our lunch I had her gently taking a piece of cheese from my hands. My heart broke for the poor thing who had clearly been badly abused and I just wanted to take her home. It’s amazing how quickly animals can learn to trust again even after being abused so.
Our next adventure in San Cristóbal was the Sumidero Cañon, probably one of the largest draws of this area. I’m not much of a fan of big tours, but there wasn’t really any other option for this (unless we tried to hire a private and very expensive boat) so I acquiesced. Travis, Matt and I piled into a van with a few others and drove down from our perch in the mountains into the warm valleys near Tuxtla. Boat after boat was filled with eager tourists clad in bright orange life vests. Finally it was our turn and we got some of the best seats- first row of the second tier – I recommend the right side. Off we went, ripping through water with ease, around 40 people in our boat. The driver and tour guide was at the back – unfortunately for us it was all in Spanish, so we didn’t understand all of it, though Matt helped us translate some of what we missed. Dialogue aside the views were spectacular enough for me and took all of my attention anyhow. We were lucky and stopped along the way several times to see several crocodiles, a few monkeys and countless birds.
As we drove deeper into the depths of the canyon, the walls began to climb around us at staggering heights, blocking out the sun. I suddenly felt as though I were cruising through the fjords in Norway again! The entire cruise was stunning, aside from the one area where the current picked up massive amounts of garbage, mostly washed down the mountainside from rains, and pooled it into the river. It was a terribly sad sight, but a reality in Mexico – garbage is a serious problem here.
We made one more stop along the way, to see the ‘Christmas tree’ as it’s been dubbed. From a distance the towering moss covered rock face does indeed look like a christmas tree! Water misted down the rock wall and a white heron perched perfectly aside the tree. It was enchanting to cruise beneath it, and see up close the purple flowers thriving on the moss, and feel the mist upon your face. The canyon cruise is definitely a must when in Chiapas, don’t miss out!
After a day or two relaxing back in the town we decided to book a tour through the hostel and go horse back riding from San Cristóbal to San Juan Chamula, a small village in the mountains. You can read about that adventure here!
We spent a few days recovering after the horse back riding adventure into San Juan Chamula. I have never been so sore in my life! I honestly could hardly walk. Travis was in the same boat, but my soreness seemed to last longer and I blame this on my extremely wide set horse! We enjoyed the town, the parades, and switched hostels because ours sadly filled up (you have to book here decently in advance!). But moving was good as we explored new areas of the city. Sadly I wasn’t feeling so great our last three days; I got a bit of a stomach bug that had me spending a lot of time in the hostel room. But our second last day was the big finale – December 12th, the day of Guadalupe at last! There was a big carnival set up in front of the church, so we made our way there through the crowds, hiked up the stairs past hundreds of people to the doors of Templo de Nuestra Señora de Guadalupe. The view down over the city as the sun was sinking was lovely. It was strange to know that these last raucous ten days in the city were all coming to a close today in this finale. And come to a close they did. We could not believe our ears the next day when we didn’t hear ANY fire works, nor our eyes when we saw no parades! They had become such an integral, normal part of our time in the city, their absence seemed bizarre!
It was the perfect way to end an amazing week and a half in this special Pueblo Mágico. There were a few more great tours you could take out of San Cristóbal, it’s a real hub for Chiapas, but they were extremely long days (4am-10pm) and seemed rather rushed, squishing things in to see. Our style was more going to the town the attractions are in and staying a few days, so we decided to skip these and move northwards to Oaxaca, where we would be spending a few weeks over the holidays. However, I highly recommend spending more time in Chiapas to explore and see more of its wonders like, Palenque, Lagunas de Montebello, and Cascadas de Agua Azul. I wish we had more time here, but we were getting close to Christmas and had to move North. We’ll be back for you, Chiapas!