Have you ever enjoyed a place so much that you wanted to keep it all to yourself? That’s how we felt about San Cristobal de La Casas, a town located in Chiapas, the southern most state of Mexico. It’s not well known, and in fact, during our 8-day visit we never met another American and only a few English speakers. You will rarely find a menu or sign in English, and your waiter and tour guide will likely only be conversant in Spanish. Learn why we’ve decided to share the charms of Chiapas, and discover 5 free or inexpensive things to do during your stay in San Cristobal.
Why Chiapas? After spending 3 months in Asia where tourists abound, it was refreshing to be steeped in a world that is almost untarnished by tourism. We loved it here and were surprised at how at-home and safe we felt in the cobbled colorful streets.
So while we questioned whether to share our love for this region, Chiapas is the poorest state in Mexico and the locals and businesses heavily rely on tourism funds to survive. We found everyone to be incredibly kind and most are so happy to share the wonders of their country, so we decided to do the same.
TRAVEL TIP: A smile speaks a thousand words!
Language Difference: No Spanish? No problem. Well, that’s not entirely true– but you’d be amazed at how far you can get with Google Translate, and by brushing up on a few key words. Even when you try you receive smiles. Have fun with it and before your visit, learn key phrases like:
- ‘where is the bathroom’ – Donde esta el bano?
- ‘we are ready for the check’ – Estamos listo para el cheque
- ‘how much is this?’ – Cuanto Cuesta?
Also check out ’15 Most Useful Spanish Phrases for Travelers’
In an upcoming blog we’ll share additional travel tips including how to arrive to this destination, where to stay, and recommended tours. But for now, we’re excited to share 5 Incredibly Awesome and Cheap things to do in San Cristobal de La Casas:
- FREE English Walking Tour
Part of the fun in traveling is to fully immerse yourself into the culture, and that includes the language, food, and connecting with it’s people. What better way to kick off your immersion then by connecting with locals who are passionate about introducing you to their community? Experience the best sites, learn about the history of Chiapas and San Cristobal, and visit local eateries to sample yummy coffee and spirits. Our favorite — connect with fellow travelers from around the world!
TRAVEL TIP – it’s a 3 hour walking tour, so bring comfy shoes and settle in–it’s a lot of fun! Be sure to attend the tour early in your stay, so you can take advantage of the many tips and recommendations.
When: EVERYDAY, 2x per day – 10am and 5pm (3-hour tour)
Cost: FREE, though sharing a tip with your guide is always appreciated
Where: Meet at the outdoor cross at the Catedral de San Cristóbal — the large yellow church in the heart of San Cristobal. The guide holds an orange umbrella – can’t miss it!
2. Join the Party – Vino & Tapas!
After all that walking you are going to love La Vina de Bacca. We learned about it on our first night and returned almost every evening to follow. What’s so special?
I fell in love with the soft notes of Tempranillo wine, and here a generous pour is only 22 pesos ($1.14 USD). Better still, with every glass you earn a free tapa — typically a slice of fresh bread with a variety of toppings. And if that isn’t enough, endless bowls of popcorn are delivered to your table.
Since it’s located near the main city square and in the heart of the action, during each visit we randomly met with new friends from our walking tour. We had so much fun slowly sipping the nights away and connecting with fellow travelers from Ireland, Germany and Canada!
3. Churches, Colors, and Coffee — Oh MY!
Sadly Evan had a bit of a stomach issue on our 4th day, so we had to postpone one of our tours. Not to worry — there is SO much to do within San Cristobal, and we opted to create our own walking tour.
There’s really no detailed path here, just step outside your stay and get lost. Wind yourself through the colorful streets and take in the bright colors of Mexico.
And when you get thirsty (or have to use the bano!), stop into any of the charming cafes that line the streets.
TRAVEL TIP: Try the coffee! I typically opt for tea, but I dove into the coffee in Chiapas. To me coffee always seems harsh and bitter, but like the Tempranillo wine, the coffee in Chiapas is soft and creamy.
Dispersed between the vibrant buildings, you’ll discover so many stunning churches. We felt as though we were back in Chiang Mai, Thailand, where thousands of gold topped temples are sprinkled throughout the city. This time, the churches were adorned with vibrant blues, oranges and yellows.
As we got lost in the city we decided that if we ever lived in San Cristobal, we would host AirBnB experiences for fellow travelers. During our tour we’ll provide a fun ‘door and photography’ tour — snapping pics along the way. There are so many unique spots, and Evan is becoming quite the photographer! Would you join??
TRAVEL TIP: San Cristobal is actually a sprawling city and sadly much of it is impoverished and diverse. When you reach the end of the vibrant streets it’s smart to turn back. We walked for miles within the historic zone and felt incredibly safe and were always greeted with smiles.
4. Eat, Eat, Eat
Like us, you my be surprised by the cuisine in San Cristobal. You won’t find the traditional tacos and burritos you are accustomed to in much of Mexico, instead, it’s food is heavily influenced by it’s neighbor, Guatemala, and of course, the Mayans. Here’s a few items we learned:
- Move over papas (potatoes)! You won’t receive hashbrowns or roasted potatoes with your brunch, but will be served delectable fried plantains. They have a similar consistency to a potato, but are softer and include a burst of sweetness. We were in love!
- You will also discover all sorts of incredible sauces, from rich moles, to verdes and delicious stuffed chile rellenos. This is the spot to share dishes, and maybe order an extra!
- The black beans are out-of-this-world, and often you’ll receive a portion as a starter or adorned with most of your meals. Yum!!
- Since you are within Mexico, you may forget that much of Chiapas is located within the tropics. You’ll be amazed by the assortment of fresh fruit, including incredibly sweet pineapple. We miss the delicious fruit we devoured while in SE Asia, so this was a welcome treat.
- Italian food on every corner?! This was a bit of a surprise, and we’re not certain why there are so many pizzerias throughout. Any ideas? We didn’t complain though — after a few late nights at our favorite wine shop, we may have slipped into a few $1 pizza spots.
And when you visit, be sure to bookmark our most favorite restaurant:
Cocoliche – This spot is a gem and we’re so thankful our waitress at the wine bar wrote down this restaurants name on a napkin. When we return this will be our first stop. And if you don’t trust us, see their TripAdvisor page for pics and stellar reviews.
TRAVEL TIP: Wherever you choose to dine or shop, be sure to have pesos on hand. You will be hard pressed to find businesses that take credit card!
5. Shop Til Yah Drop
Another reason we loved the walking tour is that we were guided trough the local markets and provided with a rich history of the textile industry in Chiapas. As the area is heavily influenced by the Mayans, we learned that every pattern and fabric gives insight into the origin, and each design maps out a story or passage of time. It was fun to understand some of this history as we picked out hand crafted items and met local merchants.
Click here to learn more about Chiapas’ rich textile history.
Tourism is the number one way in which locals support their families, and within San Cristobal’s historic zone, you’ll find endless areas to shop for local handcrafted goods. The blankets, pillow cases, jewelry and tops were my favorite — be sure to leave room in your in suitcase, or purchase a handwoven or leather bag to bring home all your goods!
TRAVEL TIP: Unlike much of Mexico, or at least the more touristed spots which we’ve visited, we found that bargaining is not as encouraged or welcomed. Most of the pieces are hand crafted, and an honest price is provided. When you ask, “Cuanto Cuesta’ (What is the price?), and you don’t understand the response, simply whip out your phones calculator and merchants will be happy to punch in. When we felt that it was appropriate, we’d counter with a lower number, especially if we were purchasing multiple items from the same vendor.
Alas, I want to share a huge thank you to Evan for putting up with me while I went nuts, bouncing into every colorful store front. I don’t feel too bad though, since when shopping in San Cristobal, waiting is half the fun — grab a cerveza and enjoy the view!
We hope to have enticed you to visit this incredibly charming and colorful city. And stay tuned — soon we will share additional insight for your visit!
Until then, we’d love to hear if this was helpful in any way — comment below or leave a question, we’ll be sure to respond! You can also visit our Instagram page where we provide tons of quick travel tips and you can view our videos from Chiapas in the saved Stories.
Hugs and Acorns!
Evan and Angela, @squirrelmusttravel