At number nine in our top 50 list, is the town of San Cristobal De Las Casas, Mexico. Located in the central highlands state of Chiapas (the southernmost state in Mexico), this mountain community may be one of the best preserved examples of the Spanish Colonial influence in Latin America.
Originally named Villa Real de Chiapa in 1528 by its founder, Diego de Mazariegos in 1528, the city has also been known as Villa Viciosa (1529), Villa de San Cristóbal de los Llanos (1531), and Ciudad Real (1536), Ultimately, the current name, San Cristobal De Las Casas, was settled upon in 1943. To the Tzotzil and Tzeltal people, the entire area is known as Jovel; in their language, this translates-appropriately enough to “place in the clouds”.
Considered the cultural center of Chiapas, San Cristobal’s heritage was recognized by the Mexican Government’s designation as a “Pueblo Mágico” (Magic City) in 2003 and, later, in 2010, specifically labeled as the most magical of the magic cities by President Calderón.
The geography of San Cristobal has been a major factor in its ability to retain the rich blend of Mayan traditions and Spanish influence. The rugged and beautiful terrain of the valley and surrounding mountains creates a sense of isolation and independence from the main part of Mexico and, by extension, the central government.
The region around San Cristobal also has one of the largest indigenous populations in the county. Tzotzil and Tzeltal villages surround the city proper, adding the ancient Mayan traditions to the Spanish influence that came with the conquistadors. Visitors can stroll along cobblestone streets, appreciate the classic colonial style homes and churches, and explore the various barrios (neighborhoods) that are dedicated to any number of handmade crafts, from ironwork, jade, ceramics, amber, wood, textiles, and other materials.
The climate of San Cristobal is more comfortable than one might expect. Daytime temperatures average in the high 60s to low 70s and nighttime temperatures in the high 40s to low 50s, which makes for good sleeping weather. Having a sweater or jacket for a nighttime stroll is pretty much a requirement. On the other hand, the need for air conditioning is dramatically reduced by this comfortable mountain weather.
Along with favorable meteorological conditions, the natural beauty of the land surrounding the town is an additional reason to visit or live here. Cave systems in the surrounding mountains and two ecological reserves are perfect for nature lovers to explore and experience.
Colonial Ambiance, Mayan Mystique, Modern Infrastructure, Artisans and Activists
San Cristobal has long been a preferred tourist destination for over forty years. While retaining its sense of history, the town itself has continued to improve its infrastructure and provides modern municipal services such as electricity, water and other utilities to almost all of the residents in the area.
As the population continues to grow, and the number of expats and investors increases, these facilities can also be expected to improve as a part of this expansion. Modern hotels, restaurants and other tourist-friendly businesses are easy to find and are within walking distance of the older, colonial sections of town.
As a reflection of its independent spirit, this mountain community has also become a popular destination for artists and social activists who come to volunteer in the surrounding Mayan villages where they conduct sustainability and education programs. This bohemian vibe is evident in the open air markets and is echoed by the number of backpackers that can be seen in the streets.
For those desiring to immerse themselves in the traditions of the ancient Mayan culture, a visit to any of the small villages in and around San Cristobal provides a rare opportunity to experience daily life as it exists for the groups of Tzotzil and Tzeltal people who have lived there for centuries.
One of San Cristobal’s main features, its remoteness, can also provide some challenges for visitors wanting to go there. There are no direct passenger flights into the city; the airport at Tuxtla Gutierrez, roughly an hour and fifteen minutes away, is as close as one can get via airplane.
There are also no direct international flights into Tuxtla; the option is to fly to Mexico City and then take a domestic flight to Tuxtla. Once there, buses and taxis can transport passengers through the heart of the Mayan homeland to San Cristobal.
For the truly daring, a second alternative is to fly into Cancun and take a bus tour through the Mayan ruins at Chichen Itza, the city of Merida and jungle ruins at Palenque. This trip can take roughly 24 hours; however the sites and experiences along the way are totally worth it.
San Cristobal may be one of the better kept secrets as a potential expat destination. While currently a major tourist hub, the ability to purchase old colonial residences that can be restored, the great weather, the artistic and laid-back atmosphere, and the rich cultural heritage all combine to make this an area with great potential.
As is evident by the increase in quality hotels in the city, interest in this “place in the clouds” is continuing to grow. Modern technology, such as the popular “Ipod tours”, are also increasing the desirability of San Cristobal as a destination where the conveniences of the present merge with the richness of the past and will provide a beneficial future for those who want to live, invest, and immerse themselves in this unique location.