After a week of hard study in San Cristóbal, Chiapas last December, we took a road trip to the popular villages north of San Cristóbal. San Juan Chamula and Zinacantán are both small towns primarily populated by indigenous people who speak Tzotzil. Each village has a unique, traditional way of dressing, their markets are busy on Sundays, and both places are firmly on the tourist map.
A ferry ride and two full days of driving will take you from Cozumel to San Cristóbal de las Casas in Chiapas. But, with so much to see along the way, why hurry? We decided to take three days and two nights, which would give us time to see the lesser known Mayan ruins in southern Campeche and in the mountains of Chiapas.
One of the attractions of a Spanish class in San Cristóbal, Chiapas during the first two weeks of December was the celebration for the Virgin de Guadalupe.
The fiesta runs from December 1 – 12, and, we were told, would feature many events, including processions of indigenous people going to the Iglesia de Guadalupe.
The church, which was begun in 1834, has a commanding location on a hilltop to the east of the historic center. The story of the Virgin de Guadalupe is an important part of Mexican history. Her appearance to an indigenous peasant, Juan Diego, in 1531, and her subsequent image on his cloak created the legend. Thus began a religious symbol that has seen the Virgin become, in many ways, more revered by Mexican Catholics than Jesus.
Mexican novelist Octavio Paz wrote that “the Mexican people, after more than two centuries of experiments, have faith only in the Virgin de Guadalupe and the National Lottery”.
In addition to the hundreds of local church members who make the daily walk up the steep steps to the church, are thousands who come from the surrounding towns to pay tribute to or seek blessings from the statue of the Virgin inside this church.
Indigenous people, young and old, make up a significant number of people visiting the hilltop. Many of them run and walk from their villages, some barefoot, carrying torches and banners to show their devotion.
Everything was remarkably unscheduled. Our classes and our favorite cafe were both on Real de Guadalupe, which is a pedestrian mall for several blocks and leads to the church from the zócalo. At any moment, honking horns, chanting, or blaring trumpets would announce the procession of a group from Palenque or Tuxtla or San Juan Chamula. It could be teens in t-shirts with the Virgin on the front, Aztec dancers, or Tzotzils in traditional dress. At times, it felt more like a pep rally or a political group chanting slogans. But like much of life here, religion isn’t always quiet and polite, it is, at times, noisy and showy.
On Friday, two days before the day of the Virgin (December 12), parents dress their boys up in peasant clothes and paint on mustaches to honor Juan Diego, who was made a saint in 2002. Little girls are dressed in different native dresses. A procession on the Real de Guadalupe to the church is led by the parachicos, a traditional dancing group from Chiapa de Corzo.
The streets at the foot of the steps fill with food stands, children’s rides and other merchants, providing a carnival atmosphere to the celebration. Surrounding the church, the presence of parents and children brings out the balloon and ice cream vendors and the fiesta feels like it has reached critical mass.
Through the week as each group approaches the church, one or two of the men are in charge of sending rockets into the air. Unfortunately, they aren’t the kind that create a visual show when they explode. They are simply, really loud. Which means there use isn’t limited to evening hours. So, for two weeks and twenty hours per day, it sounds like the city is under artillery attack.
You can see more complete coverage of the festival in a private gallery on my web site. If you don’t have the password, send an email to me and I’ll provide it.
La Viña de Bacco
Here is the simple recipe for a successful restaurant: small tables, low light, great music, glasses of wine ($1.50 to $3.00) from Mexico, Argentina, Chile and Spain and a free bocadito with every glass you order.
Want more food? How about a dozen different small plates of cheese, olives, meats and spreads? Salads? Baguette sandwiches? Pasta? Yes to all, from a kitchen smaller than most restaurants baños.
I especially liked the chiapaqueño chorizo, the olives and the blue cheese.
On top of the vibe, the selection of wines by the glass and the small plates, there is a large list of wines by the bottle, beers and some foreign spirits. Tequila, too, if you need it. It’s no wonder this place is packed every night.
Sometimes, simpler is better.
2:00 – Midnight
#9 Real de Guadalupe
One of SCs hot spots, it never seems crowded, rushed or touristed. A classic cafe, yes, you can order a cup of coffee or glass of wine and sit and use the free wi-fi for hours (we have), although you probably won’t stop with just one cup or glass.
After days of looking for another place (just for variety) where we could do homework, check email and have a coffee or glass of wine, we decided this place was simply unbeatable. The atrium has plants, comfortable chairs, chill music and shops surrounding the central area that sell Zapatista-sympathetic items, fine weavings and a few other counter culture goodies.
The service is impeccable. The barista has won regional competitions, the pizza man has studied in Rome and the prices are more than fair. The breakfast waffles and huevos motuleños were terrific. And the pizza with real jamon serrano was one of the best pizzas I have had outside of Italy. The pizzaolo came over when he saw three pieces that weren’t finished and wanted to know if there was a problem. Sure, we didn’t have enough room to finish it all.
But, we’ll have the rest tonight.
8:30am – 11:00pm daily
#24 Real de Guadalupe
The choices of Italian restaurants in San Cristóbal are a little overwhelming. They are only exceeded by the number of Mexican places, with Argentine parillas taking a close second. We didn’t eat in all of them, but we had one of our best Italian meals in memory at Trattoria Italiana.
The small place exudes warmth, both in ambiance and in the personality of the mother and daughter who do the cooking and serving. From Northern Italy, they put together a daily menu that makes you feel like you are in Italy. Vitello tonnato, bruschetta, five kinds of ravioli, rabbit, menu items with porcini. Got it?
The menu is recited in English, Italian or Spanish. We go for the bruschetta, wonderful slices of bread with ripe tomatoes and perfect olive oil. We settled on the salmon ravioli with a butter, olive oil and rosemary sauce. The quattro formaggi and arugula raviolis were in a tomato sauce that was light and rich at the same time.
A couple of glasses of Spanish cabernet later, we waddled out the door, both saying aloud, “Wow, wish we had leftovers”.
#8B Belisario Dominguez