Located in southern Mexico, the Chiapas region borders Guatemala. The landscapes vary between mountains and dense tropical forests. We visited the city of San Cristóbal Las Casas, surrounded by mountains, and the ruins of Palenque, lost into the jungle.
San Cristóbal de Las Casas, Chiapas
A Spanish colonial city, San Cristobal de Las Casas is located in the middle of Chiapas. The city is more than 2,000 meters above ocean level (choose your accommodation accordingly because the nights can be cold). To save money, we booked an Airbnb outside the center. This allowed us to see the local life and witness processions going to the church to celebrate quinceañeras. Indeed the downtown San Cristobal, very touristy, seems almost Americanized and the difference with the local neighborhoods in the outskirt is striking. That said, if you want to go out in the evening, staying in the center is easier.
This celebration, now celebrated all over America and known from American movies and TV shows, is a mixture between Aztec traditions and the Catholicism brought by the Spanish. The celebration marks girls fifteenth birthday and is as important as a wedding. Consequently, some families even go into debt to pay the festivities. A ceremony at church is usually followed by an evening party. Moreover, the girl celebrating her birthday wears a princess dress and a tiara as well as a matching bouquet. Also a doll (who can be wearing the same dress as the girl) is offered to symbolize the end of childhood. The matching dresses and dolls in specialised shops in San Cristóbal are worth a look.
What to in 2 days in San Cristóbal de Las Casas
- Go up to the church Iglesia de Guadalupe to admire the view of the city below
- For book nerds: have a coffee at the Abuelita multilingual bookshop (where Clémentine had of course interviewed the booksellers) and stop at the Taller Leñateros gallery.
- Take a stroll in the tourist center to see the Plaza 31 de Marzo – Zocalo, el Parque de los Arcos, la Plaza de la Paz and the cathedral. The whole forms a square of 2 blocks and is very lively. You will meet as many tourists as locals.
- Explore the local market: el Mercado José Castillo Tielemans. The market can be a little intimidating by its chaotic side and the abundance of stands. This is probably why you will meet very few tourists. Authentic experience guaranteed! For a more touristy market where you can find souvenirs we advise you to visit the church of Santo Domingo and its market.
- Stroll around Na Bolom. We visited the garden which is free but not the museum although it is recommended. The museum is dedicated to indigenous cultures of the Chiapas region.
- Buy a souvenir in Nemi Zapata: an art store dedicated to zapatistas revolutionaries or a more classic souvenir from Mexico at the Mercado de Dulces y Artesanias.
- Visit the small Museo Mesoamericano del Jade where you will see beautiful pieces of art excavated from the ruins of different ancient Mesoamerica regions. The entrance costs only 30 pesos and will also give you access to the Kakaw Museo del Cacao y Chocolateria Cultural located at the other corner of the street. Chocolate fans will appreciate the smells emerging from the museum.
- Take a break at the Plaza de la Merced. You may have the chance, like us, to see parades of quinceañeras or tap dancing.
Where to eat in San Cristóbal de Las Casas
- Enjoy a delicious vegan (or not) breakfast at Casa del Pan
- Have traditional food for lunch at the Lupe restaurant
- Take an afternoon snack of hot chocolate at Café Cacao Nativa (there are so many options that it’s hard to choose)
- Go for dinner at 500 noches, recommended by our host, an affordable restaurant in a friendly atmosphere. Go up to the first floor of the shopping center where it is located to visit interesting art galleries.
We decided not to visit the city of Palenque because of the disappointing feedbacks we heard. In addition, we preferred to sleep in one of the famous cabañas (cabin with a palm roof for a “glamping” atmosphere) in the jungle rather than in town. We chose the hotel El Colombre. We were instantly seduced by this place in the middle of the jungle, we enjoyed the pool and watched some iguanas before going to sleep in our comfortable cabin (with ensuite bathroom). Under our mosquito net, the nights were peaceful and cradled by the many sounds of animals. The hotel being in the middle of nowhere we enjoyed being able to eat there. We highly recommend the experience of a night or two in the jungle.
Palenque is a very impressive Mayan archeological site. Do not miss it, it is one of the most beautiful site we have visited so far (at the top of our list with the comparable jungle sites of Tikal and Caracol and the pyramids of Teotihuacán and Chichén Itzá)! Finally do not miss, after the visit of the site, the walk in the jungle (with suspension bridge and small waterfalls) which ends with the museum.
We visited Palenque with the Tulum agency (who picked us up at the hotel). It is possible to visit it by yourself but the tours with the agencies also include the Misol-Ha and Agua Azul Falls (do not forget your swimsuit). These tours also operate on the San Cristóbal road to Palenque, a good option if you want to save time but note the stops at each point are shorter.
Transports in the Chiapas region
To plan your trip we advise you to use the Rome2rio search engine.
To get to San Cristóbal de Las Casas from Oaxaca, we took an ADO night bus (watch out the road is tortuous!). We were pleasantly surprised by the comfort of our bus and were able to sleep a little bit. In Mexico, the bus system is very well developed and very affordable. We arrived in the city at 7 am.
After San Cristóbal de Las Casas we took the ADO bus again, this time to reach Palenque. Because of the special political situation of Chiapas, the road connecting San Cristóbal to Palenque is regularly blocked by protests (check out your government’s recommendations for travelers). It is not uncommon to hear stories of tourists who have been stolen on this road (caution also on the road connecting Palenque to Merida).
Consequently, we took precautions when traveling by bus. In general for the trip we always distribute our cash and our credit cards in different hiding places (separated between our bags in the hold and the ones kept with us). In addition, we each have a wallet to give in case of aggression (with a little money but not too much and credit cards we can easily blocked). For this journey we took care to choose seats at the back of the bus to have time to react in case of intrusions and hide under the seat our backpack with our valuables (which we also covered with a garbage bag). This is definitely us being overcautious but “better safe than sorry”.
In the end, these two bus trips were enjoyable and go through stunning scenery!
Finally, we would like to point out once in Palenque you are very close to the incredible ruins of Tikal in Guatemala. The trip there is easy and totally worth it, read our tips on visiting Tikal and Flores.
Clémentine’s reading and movie list
- The Rough Guide to Mexico: a very complete guide.
- The novel Like Water for Chocolate from Laura Esquivel : a story (also adapted into a movie) whose magical realism refers to the great works of Latin American literature. The narration is mixed with traditional cooking recipes.
- The movie La Jaulo de Oro about Guatemalan teenagers trying to reach the United States through Mexico.
- For kids (and grown-ups) the Disney movie Coco shows the Mexican traditions, including the very important Día de Muertos.
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