San Cristobal – Charming Chiapas, Sumidero Canyon, and San Juan Chamula

After our long stay on the Oaxacan coast, it felt good to be back on the road and back into a new environment. Chiapas is that, and incredibly reasonable in cost to boot. We split our stay in San Cristobal in two with a short detour in Comitán, but more on that later. San Cristobal de las Casas is the charming highland city in the state of Chiapas. Both times we stayed in the old town district, as has been our modus operandum for most big Mexican cities.

The whole year of 2019 we had not been sick, but here in San Cristobal, the sickness hit with a vengeance. Nothing like a flu to take your want out of exploring new things, when truly all you want to do is explore the cold side of the bed. Despite this, we tried not to waste days, and squander the gift of this trip.

San Cristobal’s old town is a city that visually reminded us of Guanajuato in that is set in a valley surrounded by mountains. That is where the comparison ends as the flora is vastly different, reminding us of more of Costa Rica than any part of Mexico we had previously been to.

We visited most of the main churches in the area from the Church of San Cristobalito, a classic Christian church, to the Mayan fusion church Iglesia de San Juan de Chamula.

Similar to the temples in Southeast Asia, in Mexico, churches are everywhere, and as diverse as the people that populate them. The steps leading up to the church in the heat of the day with a feverish body made the top that much more worth it looking back out over the city with flags lining the winding way to the top. After a rest, and some water, we were ready to get back to our Airbnb, curl up, and have some homemade black bean soup.

Juxtaposed against this classic Mexican church is the Mayan influenced San Juan de Chamula. Walking out of the colectivo into the main square of the small town of Chamula, more than we had felt in a lot of areas we have visited in Mexico, the vendors seemed a little more urgent in their call for business. The church itself has a very unique rule, no cameras allowed. In some blog posts we read if someone attempts to sneak a photo, phones or cameras have been taken and smashed.

The church is lined with pine needles on the ground to harken back to the times when the Mayan people would worship in the forest. Candles burn and line each side of the church each surrounding lines of saints, some I remember from my Catholic schooling, others I later had to look up. Throughout, there were small groups sitting on the pine needles surrounding candles that burned to the ground as they worshipped. Certainly a unique experience and one that refreshingly couldn’t be captured with a photo.

After the church we walked the 4 blocks or so to the town cemetery which still houses the old bones of a church from the 16th century. Immediately as we walked up the street 3 little girls, who could not have been more than 10, sprinted towards us in competition, trying to get us to buy bracelets or trinkets. Some had a sniffle, others had sores, all looked tired, and frankly, desperate. I thought of my nieces, I thought of the desperation that drove their parents to put them here, a cemetery, to try and sell to someone who understands every third word, a bracelet.

We bought one thing from each girl and moved on but the experience left a feeling of guilt that was hard to shake. It’s not my responsibility to save these girls from their life, and who is to say they are unhappy? Life is often about perspective, with many of the wisest philosophers in history across cultures preaching the need to be content with what you have. As the girls ran off giggling after our purchases, perhaps we gave some happiness. Speaking from a perspective of privilege however, these adages often ring hollow in my mind.

Perhaps the highlight of our stay in San Cristobal was Sumidero Canyon. Although possible to get a colectivo to Chiapa de Corzo, then a private taxi out to the canyon and viewpoints, the cost of total transport, plus the chance of things to go wrong, strongly outweigh doing this without a tour. We booked a tour out of San Cristobal after a lot of research and feel this is the best way to see this wonder of nature.

As you board the speedboat and churn through the river that runs through the canyon immediately you feel the isolation of the reserve. After the trip, Mandy and I both shared our internal stories of being shipwrecked and swimming through crocodile infested waters only to be stranded in the middle of the jungle. Imaginations are cool. But real life? Way cooler.

Sumidero Canyon varies in width from 1-2km (3,330-6,600 feet) with heights as high as 1,000 meters (3,300 feet).

Along the way we saw spider monkeys, crocodiles, and a whole myriad of bird life. At one point a curious spider monkey hung out as our boat drifted close to shore, gripping with tail and arms.

After the trip through the river that cuts through Sumidero, we were taken to several different viewpoints overlooking the canyon which again showcased the raw nature and the scope and scale of Sumidero.

Despite the protection there is only so much that can be done to protect the wildlife from pollution upstream. Plastics, trash, and even refrigerators are sometimes thrown in the river upstream resulting in one section of river that remains heavily polluted. Another reminder of the often-rotten human touch that influences sensitive ecosystems.

San Cristobal offered a wide variety of things to do from nature to history. All were intriguing in their own way and was a great slice of what Chiapas has to offer.

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