San Cristobal de las Casas is a Spanish colonial city in the highlands of Chiapas, and aside from being a marvel of color -- raspberry-colored houses, lime green and sky blue, marigold-colored cathedrals! -- it also has a perfect climate. About 75 degrees, blue sky, breeze, with bougainvillea and banana trees growing in all the courtyards, and geraniums and hibiscus sprouting from the Mayan-made bird planters that are everywhere in the city.
We’d never been to Mexico before, never experienced that melding of European architecture with Latin color and indigenous culture. Beneath the arcades of the Spanish churches, Mayan women sell traditional weavings and embroidery and mangoes and pineapples and chili peppers are piled up in pyramids. It’s a magical combination, to which you add amber and jade jewelry, great organically grown local coffee, all the color you can look at, fun shopping, no herd of tourists like you see in Cancun, and that perfect, perfect weather! San Cristobal is pretty awesome.
We spent our first day just strolling around the city -- well, shopping and eating around the city, you could say! Not an hour out of our hotel and we’d bought two tapestries at the craft market that surrounds the Convent of Santo Domingo! And Jim found a gorgeous leather bag just the right size for a weekend trip and unspeakably cheap:
Now, from home, I am yearning to teleport back and buy more of everything. The shopping was hypnotic; I think there is something about all that color that kind of drugs you -- we would say, “We’re just going to look,” but as soon as we engaged in any way with one of the vendors, we were lost. They are experts at reading your reactions -- I swear, they can sense the subtlest shift in interest when you lay eyes on a color that you like, and before you know if they’ve unfolded ten more exquisite pieces and laid them out for you! I defy you to come away empty-handed!
We hadn’t been out long before we had to go back to our hotel to unload our first round of purchases. Oy! And this was just our first day, and we hadn’t even found the mangoes yet! We had to pass back by our hotel a second time to drop off the mangoes -- ha ha!
The Mercado Municipal was like a shrine to mangoes -- tree-ripened mangoes, like you never ever ever ever find in the US! Now, you may know this about me, but mangoes are my favorite food (well, mangoes and chocolate share that honor, but chocolate is good everywhere, and mangoes are not) and I have joked about making a Mango World Tour. Well, this trip can now be refered to as “leg one” of that tour!
We bought five different kinds of mangoes that first day, from a lovely Mayan girl named Veronica who showed us how to eat the littlest of the lot, a lemon-sized green mango that you don’t slice, but only make a little slit in its skin and then drink it. Oh yum. It was so good! But we didn’t actually feast until later. There was the whole rest of the day for wandering. We went to the Museum of Amber and the Cafe Museo Cafe, where we learned about the amber and coffee industries here -- Chiapas is Mexico’s major coffee state, and it is one of the world’s leading deposits of fossilized pine tree sap! (Did you know amber is 40-million-year-old tree sap?) We ate interesting things: banana soup and walnut and tamarind popsicles among them, and when it was time to head back to our really lovely hotel where we had a patio all to ourselves for our mango feast, we stopped at a bakery for bread and dessert. This was fun: when you walk in, you pick up a silver tray the size of a trashcan lid, along with a big long pair of tongs, and then you walk around loading yourself up with macaroons and apricot tarts and cream cake. Not a bad way to dine! (It reminded me ever so slightly of Turkish Delight shopping in Turkey, especially the one lovely shop in Fethiye where you were encouraged to taste as you browsed. Swoon!)
And then, yes, we feasted! Five kinds of mangoes, sampled in descending size order, finishing up with the little green “mango pine” (that’s pronounced peen-yay; I don’t know how to make the accent mark) which was a miracle of juice, and tasted a little like coconut! Oh, but don't attempt it on a first date. It's really slurpy and dribbly!
So, that was our first wonderful day. San Cristobal was our base for most of the trip, so we got a pretty good feel for it (the historic center, anyway). San Cristobal is a perfect base for a week-long trip or so, because it is so charming, with good restaurants and cafes, and many fascinating places are within day-trip reach, such as the Canyon del Sumidero, the waterfall of El Chiflon, and a number of Mayan villages, not to mention Palenque. All that and more, in my next few posts!
Oh, but first, look at our beautiful hotel courtyard!
If you're going to San Cristobal, I highly recommend the Hotel Posada Jovel. We had our own little mango-eating terrace right in front of our room, with a view of the rooftops of the city and the mountains beyond. Delightful!
[The square pages above are from the Shutterfly photo album I am making of the trip -- I am currently obsessed with it! Can't drag myself away from the computer! For the backgrounds I'm using close-up pictures of the awesome stucco walls in San Cristobal with all their peeling paint and rich colors; we might have looked a little nutty taking all those pictures of walls, but I'm glad we did!]