San Cristóbal de las Casas, México
The old churchyard is just a front for the daily textile market. You hardly can see the buildings for all the merchants’ stalls set up on the hill between the Templo Santo Domingo and the more ancient Templo de la Caridad. It is easy to get lost in row after row of stalls selling local crafts, woven goods, shoes, jewelry, figurines, and food.
The former convent attached to the Santo Domingo church houses a good museum depicting the conversion of the Maya, with a separate room of Mayan and other Mesoamerican artifacts. Even better is the excellent Mayan textile museum, which tells the stories of the local village crafts, some of which are sold outside in the market, and of the people and their traditions. If people are what they wear, then the highland Maya are adorned in white accented by simple reds, blues, and yellows.
In addition to the museums, strolling through the convent is pleasant. I’ve always enjoyed these contemplative spaces. Strange for me, who is neither Catholic nor religious.
Getting my bearings in the mountain city of San Cristóbal de las Casas takes the entire morning, but after a pass through the extensive municipal market, I’m starting to figure things out. It’s cold, though, and despite bundling up, I need something inside me to keep me warm.
Over an excellent caldo at the overflowing El Caldero restaurant, a guitarist plays and sings three songs that all sound like “La Bamba” but with different words. It annoys one couple nearby so much that they quickly switch to a table that has just opened up before one of the groups who are waiting can grab it. I’m not so lucky. The guitarist is standing practically up against me and I can hear his voice reverberating in my ears.
The food at El Caldero is plentiful, delicious, and reasonably priced. The room is small and narrow, and every table is full. A throng of people are stuffed together by the entrance waiting for a seat. I was lucky to beat the lunch-time rush.
With soup in my belly, I amble up the Cerro de San Cristóbal, which is atop a long series of steps climbing high above the town and culminating at the foot of the San Cristóbal church. From here, I can see the whole town, with views of local landmarks such as the pretty blue Iglesia de San Lucia and, in the far distance, the Iglesia de Guadalupe on its corresponding hilltop. Beyond them, mountains wrap around the town under a blue sky with billowy clouds.
Across town, I arrive at Casa Na Bolom (Jaguar House) for the daily, late afternoon tour. The house belonged to Gertrude Duby-Blom and her husband Frans Blom — an anthropologist and an archaeologist, respectively — who in the early 20th century befriended the Lacondan people of Chiapas, near the Mayan cities of Palenque and Yaxchilán. They so longed to be near their beloved Lacondan friends, that they bought a ruined house in San Cristóbal and set about converting it into a gathering place for scholars, students, artists, and writers.
The Na Bolom house is an intriguing step back to a time when intellectuals would gather, surrounded by books and art. It is a handsome house built around a welcoming courtyard, with a fine library and several rooms containing pottery and other artifacts unearthed at the ruins. Frans Blom’s office is there, with his typewriter atop a grand desk.
Out back there are a nice garden and several guest houses that people can reserve for the night. At this hour in mid-November, it’s hard to see the plants with dusk falling already. The Bloms’ daughter, Betty, still lives in one of the guest houses, and people can meet her if they stay overnight.
Emerging onto the street again, dusk has turned to darkness. Under the dim glow of amber lamps, I follow the narrow streets back up the hill to the center of town. It’s Saturday night and the Plaza 31 de Marzo at San Cristóbal’s heart is sure to be full of people gathering, as is common in Mexican towns. But something wholly different awaits me there.
Cover Photo: Cathedral, San Cristóbal de las Casas