March 29, 2016: But wait, there’s more!
In addition to its great restaurant and nightlife scene, San Cristóbal and its surrounding areas are filled with cultural and natural wonders.
There are several small museums in town focusing on the local indigenous cultures and the area’s natural resources. These are small enough and cheap enough to consume more than one in a day.
Right next to the artisan market, full of local textiles, is the Centro de Textiles del Mundo Maya. It displays the history of Mayan textiles, including some rare pre-hispanic remnants of fabric.
The bulk of the museum displays an extensive collection of relatively modern (past 50 years) pieces from Mexico and Guatemala. It’s a nice little museum that shows the cultural and historical importance of textiles to the Mayan people.
On a somewhat related note, El Museo de Trajes Regionales (Museum of Regional Costumes) is a collection of the clothing and personal effects of the indigenous groups in Chiapas. Groups have a traditional everyday costume, separate costumes for celebrations and other costumes worn by those in positions of authority. We understand that this collection of actually worn outfits is quite rare, as such pieces are normally buried with the dead.
Note the long black stick in the first and third pictures. Each male member of the village serves an unpaid term as a police officer as part of his duty to the community, and the stick is the emblem of his authority. At the end of the term, he passes the stick his successor.
The more interesting aspect of this museum is its curator, Sergio Castro. Though not trained as a doctor (he may have training as a veterinarian) he provides free medical care to local folks living in poverty. He has been widely acknowledged for his humanitarian efforts.
Na Bolom is a museum (and hotel and research center) that is the former home of Danish architect Frans Blom and his wife, Swiss photographer Gertrude Duby, who met doing archaeological work in Chiapas. Na Balom now serves to perpetuate their studying and protecting the Lacandon Maya, a group of Maya living deep in the Lacondon rain forest, who have been historically isolated from outside cultural influences. Once again, this museum is set around a beautiful colonial courtyard.
Museums of Coffee, Jade, Chocolate and Amber
Each of these small museums took us about a half hour to visit. The coffee museum was quite frankly a waste of those 30 minutes. The other three were worth the time and their small entry fees.
It was not clear at the jade museum which pieces were reproductions and which were original. There was a mock up of Pakal’s tomb (from Palenque) and we know that the jade there was not original. Reproduction or not, there were many interesting pieces.
At the jade museum we learned that our entry fee covered the chocolate museum a couple of blocks away. There were lots of examples of the stones that are used to grind chocolate. We had not previously seen such ornate grinding stones shaped like animals. The museum occupies walkways and rooms around a small courtyard covered by a large skylight.
There is lots of amber for sale here in the markets and in shops. The amber museum was perhaps most interesting in pointing out how to tell which is fake (lots of it) and which is real. There were also some nicely carved pieces and some cool fossilized insects. The museum occupies most of a recently restored monastery attached to a local church.
More San Cris observations
In the center of San Cristóbal’s main square, there is “El Kiosko” with a cafe on the ground level, and open air gazebo above. Almost nightly music is supplied by a band featuring a marimba.
The central square also serves as the scene for various festivities, including a children’s parade for some holiday we couldn’t determine:
Just walking around town is quite a tourist activity in itself.
Outside San Cristóbal
Our time in San Cristóbal hasn’t been all cityscape. We’ve also gotten out to see some of the surrounding area.
On the outskirts of town we visited Orquideas Moxviquil OM. This is a botanical garden with thousands of species of plants collected from all over Chiapas. The mission of the place is to preserve species before they disappear due to deforestation, urbanization and the like. The name of the place (Orchids Moxviquil OM) implies that it’s all about orchids. It isn’t. There are lots of different kinds of plants. Maybe a name change is in order.
Regardless, it was a beautiful spot and we doubt that the $2 US entry fee covers much more than the printing cost of the slick brochure and tickets that they gave us.
About an hour west of San Cristobal lies the Sumidero Canyon. On the way we encountered dramatic vistas while descending from the high valley occupied by San Cris to the valley of the Río Grijalva, 5600 feet below.
We parked in Chiapa de Corzo, one of the places to catch a boat into the canyon. It has a surprisingly large central plaza, claimed to be larger than the Zócalo in Mexico City.
In the plaza is this very elaborate gazebo covering a fountain, built in 1562.
We purchased a boat tour of the canyon, getting into a small boat with about a dozen other tourists. We spent the next two hours awed by incredible scenery. At its deepest point, the canyon walls soar a kilometer above the river. This is a must-see in Chiapas.
The canyon contains some interesting formations, such as a “christmas tree” formed by a spring, and a stalactite that looks like a sea horse:
There is also wildlife to be seen, including a group of spider monkeys too hidden in trees to be photographed:
And this “cave of colors” where bands of different colors caused by water seepage can be seen (though hard to photograph) and a shrine is built, because of a formation that supposedly looks like the headless body of Christ.
At the end of the canyon, the river opens up into a lake, with a dam at one end. Conveniently, our tour boat stopped at a bar boat, serving beer and soft drinks, nuts, cut up jicama and fruit, all served with lime and chili upon request of course. Including the beer.
Our other road trip outside San Cristóbal took us to San Juan de Chamula, a village just a few miles outside the city. It is well known as a source village for many of the textiles sold in San Cristóbal’s market. It is also well known for maintaining much of it’s traditional culture, including a wariness of outsiders. Having been pre-warned, we didn’t even bring a camera.
They’re not kidding. There is no outside law enforcement in Chamula, it is policed from within (which is not unique in Chiapas Mayan towns).
While we found Chamula much less rustic than we expected (and the shopping much less fruitful, no one would even haggle), the visit to the church made the trip worthwhile. And while we didn’t take any pictures, there are some to be found, so you can get some idea.
However, some idea is all you’ll get. You won’t inhale the thick copal resin incense, hear the rhythmic chanting of Tzotzil prayers, or walk around the supplicants, sometimes individuals, sometimes whole families, as they clear a space among the long, soft pine needles covering the floor to stick down candles, pray, and make sacrifices of pox (pōsh, a local spirit) or other beverages as dictated by a shamen. The clucking of chickens on one corner hints at more serious rituals.
Overall, the experience was pretty intense. You can really understand how the adherents of the local indigenous/catholicism mix feel this place is holy, and want to keep it protected from too much outside voyeuristic exploitation.
San Cris Churches
Back to San Cristóbal; the city itself does, of course, have a lot of (more traditional) churches to explore. But even here, there are certainly some rules of decorum to follow:
As previously mentioned, the craft market surrounds the impressive church of Santo Domingo. Its attached convent houses the textile museum:
At the center of town, to the side the main square, is the cathedral:
On a high hill lies the modest church of San Cristobal, with a very impressive view:
On a hill at the opposite side of town lies the church of Guadalupe (which you can see in one of the above photos):
And there’s much more to do in San Cris than tour churches, drink wine, attend parades, visit museums, eat food, buy crafts, and get vehicles repaired.
But this is it for Our House in San Cristóbal. Next time (hopefully) we’ll be living somewhere else. So stay tuned. Subscribe to get email updates, and keep the comments coming. We’re also happy for suggestions, both as to our future travels, and the composition and format of this blog.
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