San Cristobal de las Casas

San Cristobal © Lin Mei
The colonial village of San Cristobal de las Casas is the jewel in the centre of the cool Chiapas highlands, nestled in a valley and surrounded by forests and hills. San Cristobal de las Casas is close to a number of traditional Mayan villages, and the town still retains a palpable indigenous soul, coexisting harmoniously with its colonial charm.

The town was originally established as a Spanish stronghold against the surrounding indigenous communities. It is a picturesque place of cobbled lanes and long rambling streets that undulate with the hilly terrain, squat whitewashed houses with red tiled roofs, flower-filled patios, wrought iron balconies, shady plazas, ornate facades and lavish churches. The main plaza was the Spanish centre of town and today it is the best place to sit and watch life pass by. The cathedral dominates the northern side and its steps are always busy with playful, ragged children, arriving and departing worshippers, resting passersby and vendors. North of the plaza the daily market is a fascinating bustle of indigenous life, a trading space for local produce and household goods.

The streets and plazas are filled with the vibrancy of people from the surrounding villages who give the town its character and dominate its trade. The region is known for its colourful handicrafts, traditional markets, fascinating local fiestas, legends and mystical ceremonies that are influenced by the Mayan ancient traditions and way of life. Each barrio or neighbourhood of the city has a distinctive identity, rooted in the old custom of trade, with candle making, carpentry or blacksmith shops the predominant feature in each.

San Cristobal is an invigorating yet peaceful town: a good base from which to enjoy the graceful colonial atmosphere and to explore the highland region and the outlying Indian villages. The grand Mayan site at Palenque can be visited from here, as well as Agua Azul, a dazzling series of waterfalls and turquoise pools that are one of Mexico's natural wonders.



Attractions

Palenque
Palenque © Judith Duk

Palenque

The setting for this spectacular ancient Mayan city is splendid, a hauntingly beautiful site engulfed in the endless tropical jungle that bristles with the shriek of insects. The architecture is fantastic and for many Palenque is the most remarkable of the major Mayan sites. The city was at its peak in the seventh century, and was an important ceremonial centre and the provincial capital. The buildings that are visible today form only a small part of what it once was, and only a few of the remaining buildings have been properly excavated. The reason for the city's decline is still a mystery. Early morning is the best time to capture the setting at its most photogenic, when swirling vapours encircle the temples and the jungle. The slippery jungle paths climb steeply past waterfalls and between trees, past ancient settlements scattered around the jungle-clad hillsides, and rewarding views from the temple tops take in the sweeping plains in the distance. The highlight is the tallest and most important of Palenque's buildings, the magnificent Temple of Inscriptions. Constructed on eight levels, there is a steep central stairway of 69 steps leading to the rooms at the top. The rear interior wall is decorated with panels of Mayan hieroglyphic inscriptions describing the history of Palenque and the temple. There is a museum near the entrance of the site.

Address: Four miles (6.5km) from Palenque town.; Transport: Frequent minibus services from Palenque town.; Opening time: Daily 8am to 4.30pm.


Church of San Juan
Church of San Juan © Rob Young

San Juan Chamula and Zinacantan villages

These two highland villages are the home of the Tzotzil people, descendants of the ancient Mayans, and some of Mexico's most traditional indigenous communities. Each village has a distinctive highland dress as well as a weekly market and numerous festivals honouring their patron saint and other special religious days. Visitors should respect the local traditions and customs and be especially sensitive when taking photographs. Villagers can be unfriendly and are wary of tourists - understandably they do not appreciate being regarded as tourist attractions. The best way to visit the villages is with a local guide. San Juan Chamula is a centre for religious festivals. The main attraction is the church on the plaza where, every Sunday, the village comes alive with streams of villagers. There are men in loose homespun white woollen ponchos and women in embroidered finery, who pour down the hills into the candle-lit, incense-filled church, and then congregate together for the weekly market. Their religion is a fascinating mixture of Catholic and traditional Mayan rituals. The most colourful fiesta in the region is the Carnival for which Chamula is famous. The typical dress of the Zinacantan villagers is a red and white striped poncho decorated with tassels and a flat, round hat decorated with ribbons. Geranium is a revered plant that is used in ritual offerings and the countryside is dotted with crosses and offerings dedicated to their ancestor gods or the Earth Lord. Photography is forbidden in the village.


Santo Domingo
Santo Domingo © omar91

Santo Domingo

Santo Domingo is the most beautiful of San Cristóbal's churches, with a pink Baroque façade that is especially impressive when lit up at night. The interior is richly decorated and shimmers with gold. The ornate pulpit and golden altarpieces are the main focus of this 16th-century architectural monument. The highlight of the church is the intricately carved facade which is worthy of close examination. Santo Domingo is sadly a bit run down at present and the opening hours have become somewhat erratic, but it is certainly still worth a visit for anybody interested in churches and religious art work. Visitors are welcome at services but should prepare to be scolded by local worshippers if they don't show proper respect for the place and religion. The area in front and around the church is filled each day with craft stalls and village traders and is a great place to find Mexican souvenirs like woven blankets and shawls and amber jewellery. The market is so popular that it spills almost into the church when at its busiest, which frustrates some visitors seeking peace for prayers and meditation, but it is a fantastic place to do some shopping.

Address: Lázaro Cardenas Street


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