A Song Of The South
By John Ward
In the southernmost state of Mexico lies a gem of jungle and “primitive” cultures called the state of Chiapas. Tuxtla-Gutierrez is the recognized capital of this state, but there is a beautiful mountain retreat about an hour from Tuxtla by car. Uphill, almost all the way, the charming city of “San Cristobal de las Casas” sprawls in a valley surrounded by hills. At 6,800 feet this Shangri-La captures the imagination like no other magical city in this great country.
Having moved to Mexico permanently ten years ago, my wife and I decided to explore our new home by car. The car ended up looking like something the “Road Warrior” would reject, but it was on this trip that we ran into San Cristobal and fell in love with it. Apparently it used to be a part of Guatemala until the residents voted to be a part of Mexico in 1824.
We were on our way to Lagos de Montebello on the border with Guatemala, when we found San Cristobal. We weren’t the only ones. A Canadian banker/gourmet cook found it and saw the immense open air food market and, just on the strength of that, decided this was to be his home. The market is an island of trade, barter and selling with bins of 50 different types of beans, a myriad of produce as well as live animals and birds for sale. It’s a bit sad to see little piglets tied to a lamp-post waiting to be bought for food.
In addition to this amazing food market there is a huge artisan market with leather goods, beading and clothing, blankets, puppets, belts, dolls and many other items at ridiculously low prices. I bought a leather case for a laptop for $10 US! It was carved and decorated!
There are numerous horse renters all over the countryside and there is an astounding amount of countryside. From Chamula to Zinacantan, pueblos indigenas surround San Cristobal and are the source of all the artisan treasures. Like opal in Australia, amber is the stone most mined in Chiapas. I was told the amber here is only 23 million years old, whereas the Russian amber can get up to 27 million years. I figure 3 or 4 million years, give or take, my wife is not going to know the difference.
We immediately bought a little 90 square-meter “pied-a-terre” here and have been renovating it to suit our needs. Labor is cheaper than in Jalisco and we have been able to make our place extremely comfortable. Luckily we have a great fire-place, a necessity October through February, and we are close enough to walk to the centre and enjoy both the long andadores where no cars can drive or park. All pedestrian traffic.
Coffee shops, chocolatiers, real French bakeries, pastelerias and restaurants of every persuasion dot the quaint little streets. Most of the foreign population, which is small, is European and they have brought their skills and tastes to San Cristobal. There are far fewer Americans and Canadians here than the Chapala area and the mix of foreigners is of all ages. Everything is cheaper in San Cristobal and the living truly is easy.
Marcos, history teacher turned Zapatista freedom fighter, makes appearances every now and again in a couple of SUVs, giving speeches and collecting money, but the brutality of the nineties is past and the area has settled into the comfortable political mishmosh that is peculiar to Mexico.
This is a section of Mexico that must definitely be experienced.