Like most foreigners in Guatemala, I have a tourist visa that’s valid for just 90 days. To get a new one, I need to leave the country for 72 hours before coming back. It’s essentially a forced vacation–the horror! As this past Saturday marked both the end of my first three months in Guatemala (!) and the expiration of my visa from April, it was time for me to start crossing borders. And so, last week, I hopped on a bus and headed to Mexico.
I put next to no thought into where to go. Not because I wasn’t excited to travel, but because my options were so limited. Since I’ll be heading back to Mexico with Shon in just one week for vacation, I wanted to spend no more than the requisite three days out of country. The farther I traveled now, the less money Shon and I would have to spend later on things like Oaxacan cheeses and chocolates.
Per the ex-pat Pana rumor mill, the small city of San Cristóbal de las Casas, in Mexico’s southern state of Chiapas, was the nearest worthwhile destination. People we knew described it as “colonial” and “nice.” My guidebook confirmed that it was “charming” and “inviting.” The bus company added it was “diez horas” away, and I was sold. The night before I left, I researched what to eat and a few things to see (side note: I’m really loving WikiTravel.org for current tips and suggestions), made an online hotel reservation, packed a bag, and was ready to go.
Despite those tantalizing descriptions of San Cristóbal above, I had modest expectations. And so, it was to my great surprise to discover a city full of character and quirk–a truly stellar place to spend a handful of days.
One of the first things that I noticed about San Cristóbal was that it’s a mecca for old-school Volkswagen Bugs. They were everywhere, in every color imaginable. Oddly, their retro, somewhat worn feel was the perfect complement for the city’s gorgeous maze of cobblestone streets and colorful but somewhat faded colonial architecture.
The city was also filled with long, bustling pedestrian walkways lined with shops, cafes, and restaurants, and myriad plazas–some sprawling, others less so, but all in use, and the perfect place to people watch or snack on a dulce (a sweet treat) from the city’s enormous, meandering market (it’s supposedly one of the largest in Mexico).
There were a handful of churches, including two that sat up high, at opposite ends of town. They both provided a bird’s-eye view of the city and its sea of red tile roofs. Early one morning, I climbed the stone steps to one, El Templo del Cerrito San Cristóbal, and discovered not only a lookout, but a busy workout area replete with ingenious, self-powered elliptical machines.
Morning, noon, and night, San Cristóbal was buzzing. There were accordion players on the sidewalks and guitar and brass bands that performed for large, cheerful crowds each evening in the zócalo (the main city plaza). Outside of the municipal building, I saw smartly dressed couples moving to danzón, a slow, sultry Cuban dance that’s popular around Chiapas and other parts of southern Mexico, too.
Across the street from the zócalo, in front of the butter-yellow Catedral de San Cristóbal, dozens of vendors sold heavy sweaters, hats, and mittens made from cotton and wool. (I bought a giant sweater and leg warmers–yes, leg warmers. Don’t judge.) You could also find woven scarves, bracelets, gum, candy, and cigarettes. There were guitarists, flautists, dancers, clowns, and drunks. The zaniness felt like that of Union Square in Manhattan.
And the food? Well, San Cristóbal utterly shines when it comes to street eats, so long as you like corn. The majority of my meals came from corner street vendors and the occasional sit-down stall. Nothing cost more than 10 pesos, which is about 80 cents. There was grilled corn, sprinkled with just a bit of salt. The chewy kernels tasted like popcorn.
And elote, which is boiled or grilled corn on a stick that’s slathered in mayonnaise, rolled in grated cheese, drizzled with chili sauce, and sprinkled with chili powder. Delish.
If you didn’t want corn kernels stuck in your teeth, there was esquite, which is essentially the elote above, just in a Styrofoam cup and served with a spoon. The corn kernels are sliced from the cob and layered with all of elote’s accoutrements.
There were tamales galore, too. My favorite was made with chipilín (an herb popular in Central America that’s reminiscent of spinach) and cheese. I ate my chipilín tamale with a cup of thick, cinnamon-y hot chocolate, which made no sense at all, but why not pair dinner with dessert?
Just 20 minutes after the chipilín tamale, a pork tamale followed, as did a chalupa: a flat, fried corn tortilla piled high with beans, onions, shredded carrots, beets, and lettuce, and a sprinkling of cheese.
My final meal in San Cristóbal came not from a street vendor, but rather from a small restaurant dedicated to huaraches. Named after a type of Mexican sandal because of its oblong shape, a huarache is a fried tortilla that can be piled high with just about anything: chorizo, chicken, or beef, fiery salsas, mushrooms, onions, cheese… I asked my waiter which huarache people ordered most often, and he said the combinado, a mix of everything on offer. But I wanted a less muddled flavor, so I asked him for the second-most popular choice and ended up with a tortilla, the size of a sandal, piled with chicharones (fried pork rinds). You should never order a tortilla, the size of a sandal, piled with chicharones. Because it will be delicious, and you will finish the entire thing, but by the end, you will feel queasy and make things worse by repeating the word “bacon” over and over in your head.
…On second thought, forget it. Order it. It’s worth it. As were the handful of days that I spent in San Cristóbal. In another three months, I might well be back.