San Cristobal de las Casas an authentic small town in Mexico

Saturday, March 27th, 2010

Richard Overall

San Cristobal’s beautiful cathedral

It’s not every day that you see a steady stream of taxis adorned with everything from balloons to Christmas lights madly honk their way across the street in front of you. Leaving the relative calm of a rundown Internet cafe, I emerged into the chaos of the Real de Guadeloupe, unprepared for the racket the procession of vehicles was making. Each driver seemed to consider it his sacred duty to out-honk his neighbour, and the line had long since coalesced into a shouting, roaring, tangled mass of man and machine that slowly inched its way along the crowded one-way road. As I stood there gaping, one of the balloons on the nearest taxi escaped its tether to slowly float away.

I later found out that it was the anniversary weekend of Santo Cristobal, the region’s patron saint of taxi drivers (as well as bachelors, toothaches and flood prevention among other things), and the noisy procession had been on its way to the local church to be blessed.

I was in San Cristobal de las Casas, a charming colonial town nestled among the mountains of Chiapas in southern Mexico. Bordering Guatemala and the Pacific Ocean, Chiapas is one of the poorest states in Mexico and perhaps best known for the infamous Zapatista movement that champions indigenous rights. The movement culminated in the brief 1994 rebellion and subsequent occupation of San Cristobal and several other townships by armed revolutionaries. While the situation has long since stabilized, the region has retained its revolutionary reputation and the Zapatistas remain a powerful, if primarily non-violent, presence in rural areas of the state.

San Cristobal itself is a bright, friendly place that manages to maintain its small-town authenticity in the face of a growing tourist presence. Aging cars ply the one-way cobblestone streets blasting advertisements for purified water from mounted loudspeakers and crowds of giggling children scramble for candy from fallen pinatas outside local churches. The town is home to numerous picturesque colonial churches and several interesting little museums, notably the museum of amber, a specialty of the region. The recent influx of foreign tourists has resulted in an abundance of cheap accommodation, including several excellent hostels.

I stayed in San Cristobal for two weeks as a Spanish student at the Instituto Jovel, a highly recommended language school that can also arrange accommodation with local Mexican families. The school offers group as well as private lessons and the prices were quite reasonable, between $120-195 US for 15 hours of instruction a week.

I opted to live with a Mexican family for the duration of my stay, and while it was initially quite intimidating as they spoke little to no English, I was quickly won over by the mother’s amazing cooking and the entire family’s enthusiastic friendliness. They were patient and encouraging with my halting attempts at Spanish and while two weeks was too short a time to become truly proficient, I was able to continue my travels through Mexico with an improved confidence in my ability to communicate.

My classes themselves were split into two 90-minute sessions a day, the morning emphasizing grammar while the afternoon was mainly spent practising my spoken Spanish. Both of my instructors were trained professionals and excellent teachers who tailored their lessons to my individual needs.

Weekends were spent lounging around the town, or day trips to the surrounding countryside which ranged from a high-speed boat tour through the awe-inspiring Canyon del Sumidero to bringing out my inner Indiana Jones in the sweaty jungle ruins of Palenque, a short, (but not for the faint of heart or stomach) bus ride away.

San Cristobal is a great base to explore the region, study Spanish or just kick back, unload your bags and take a siesta. Bienvenidos a Mexico!”

To learn more about studying Spanish in San Cristobal, visit the school website at

Richard Overall is a UBC student who lives in Vancouver.

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