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Expats Are Discovering San Cristóbal de las Casas  

View of San Cristóbal de las Casas, Chiapas, Mexico
Credit: Tjeerd Wiersma

Expats are discovering San Cristóbal de las Casas, the beautiful colonial city set high in the mountains of southern Chiapas, Mexico’s most southern state. The city – considered by many as an “undiscovered gem” – has been attracting expats for the past several decades. It has much going for it, but also some drawbacks.

Municipal market in San Cristóbal de las Casas, Chiapas, Mexico
Credit: Wolfgang Sauber

With an estimated population of 186,000, “San Cris” is the third largest city in Chiapas, but keeps its small-town feel with cobblestone streets, colonial buildings, religious processions, fireworks and barking dogs. What attracts foreigners are streets filled with vendors in indigenous clothing, coffee shops and restaurants in the center of the city and traditional markets.

The Spanish founded the town in 1528 as the Villa Real de Chiapa. The current name comes from its patron saint, Christopher, with “de las Casas” in honor of Fray Bartolomé de las Casas, who defended the indigenous from the worst of Spanish abuses. The oldest parts of town are the Centro, where the Spanish lived, and the 11 barrios for the indigenous, each with its own unique history.

The city’s economy is based on cultural tourism, but this is a recent phenomenon. The Maya and Zoque indigenous peoples have been here for many centuries, but Chiapas was overlooked by the outside world until the 1994 Zapatista uprising. This brought the media, which broadcast folkloric images and generated sympathy for the Zapatista cause.

An indigenous flavor pervades most of the city with streets and markets filled with people of the Tzotzil and Tzeltal Maya communities. Most indigenous women still wear traditional dress, both because it is custom and good for business. Catholicism here can include elements such as ritual purifications and animal sacrifice along with more typical processions and masses. Many areas have traditions found nowhere else, such as La Merced’s Fiesta de los Panzones (Parade of the Fat Bellies), where dancers wear tire tubes around their waists.

The town is a day or weekend trip from many of Chiapas’s tourist attractions, such as rainforests, waterfalls, mountains, villages and archeological sites. The main natural attractions are the Misol-Há and Agua Azul waterfalls and the Sumidero Canyon. Archaeological sites include Palenque, Yaxchilan and Bonampak. The area around San Cris is dotted with small communities such as San Juan Chamula and Zanacantan, which are even more traditional than the city. It is important to learn something of the norms of these places before visiting. For example, photography can be a touchy issue.

San Cris is more open to outsiders because of tourism, which brings millions of visitors who spend even more millions of pesos. This tourism is concentrated in the city-center, along with the barrios of El Carmen, Guadalupe and Santo Domingo.  Coffee and hot chocolate are beverages to be savored here, both grown in the state. Restaurants have a wide variety of cuisines, including a glut of Italian restaurants. The local food has unique ingredients such as hoja santa, and features dishes such as tamales de bola, sopa de pan (bread soup) and asado coleto (pork with chili peppers and spices).

The 1994 uprising gave birth to “Zapatourism,” mostly foreigners hoping to get a glimpse of a revolutionary or even get involved with the cause. It has resulted in Zapatista imagery on everything from handcrafts to t-shirts. It is possible to go to Zapatista controlled areas, but it is highly discouraged.  It is important to remember that under the Mexican Constitution, it is illegal for foreigners to interfere in Mexican politics. The Mexican government has deported foreigners with Zapatista ties in the past.

Market by the Church of San Juan in San Cristóbal de las Casas
Credit: Chamula Bgabel

San Cris is the main venue for handcraft sales with everything produced in the state found here. Textiles are the most important, especially heavily embroidered blouses and huipils, whose decoration indicates its community of origin. Other important crafts are amber and jade jewelry, traditional toys, and ceramics from towns such as Zinacatan and Amantengo. The downside of shopping in tourist places like San Cris is that it can be difficult to discern how authentic the item is. Many of the garments made in Chiapas have similar Maya counterparts in Guatemala, which are imported because they can be sold more cheaply. It is NOT recommended to buy amber on the street, only from reputable outlets.

Much of the expat population in San Cris is a result of tourism, but there are no statistics as to how many live in the area. The vast majority who enter Chiapas are from Central America, but most do not live in this city. Immigration statistics for North Americans, Europeans and South Americans entering the state are about the same, but long-time residents and real estate people estimate that most foreign residents are from the United States, followed by those from England, Spain and France.

Because San Cris is about 160 km (100 miles) from the Guatemalan border, it attracts foreigners who stay in Mexico by renewing their tourist visas. This border is a major crossing point for both legal and illegal immigration, making border patrol checkpoints highly visible. Bringing documentation is highly advised within 100km of the border. Mexican immigration has offices in Tuxtla Gutierrez and Tapachula.

Despite its southernly location, San Cris is 2,120 m (7200 ft) above sea level, meaning it is not hot and even gets chilly at night. Its moisture comes from the warm Gulf of Mexico, leading to frequent fog. Tropical storms are not common, but they do happen, so flooding can an issue. Large earthquakes are rare, but small ones are frequent.

Overall, the cost-of-living in San Cris is less expensive than Ajijic and San Miguel de Allende. Living outside the city-center in picturesque neighborhoods in modest contemporary housing can be quite inexpensive. It is not difficult to live comfortably on less than US$2,000 per month. On the other hand, colonial buildings in the historic center and other higher-end housing can run as much as San Miguel. All other costs – including food, utilities and other expenses – are lower.

Most expats live in the city-center and the nearby barrios of El Cerrillo, Cuxtlitali, Guadalupe and Huitepec, as they provide a picturesque and classic Mexican environment. Deportivo, Fatima and Las Cañadas are popular for those with children. Newer areas on the outskirts of town have more access to green spaces. A few even live in nearby towns, such as Zinacantan and Teopisca. The only area to avoid, according to Adriana Vez Tovar of Century 21 Real, is the north part of the city because of crime and fewer attractions.

Infrastructure, such as water, Internet and cell phone reception is a concern everywhere, but even more so as you get away from Centro. Water has long been a concern because of legal issues and infrastructure. Internet accessibility and speed depend how near a trunk you are and how oversubscribed a neighborhood is. This may make working online difficult. Housing on the fringes of the city or in the towns surrounding San Cris, may be in organized communities that require residents to participate in local councils and/or donate to community events.

Cathedral in San Cristóbal de las Casas
Credit: Cesar Ruiz

San Cris has experienced recent growth, but it has been moderate. There has been some building of housing developments in Chiapas, but San Cris has only three, with no plans to build more at the moment.  Modern retail includes a Walmart, Sam’s Club, Soriana, Chedraui and a small shopping center with a cinema.

Until recently, San Cris had no private medical services. Healthcare services were inadequate at best, forcing residents to hospitals in Tuxtla Gutierrez or even Villahermosa, Tabasco. This changed with the opening of the Hospital y Centro Médico San Cristóbal (HOSCEM) in Barrio El Santuario. Many of the ER doctors there speak English and the hospital has AXA insurance approval. However, some long-timers still advise shifting specialized care to other parts of Mexico, if possible.  Environment and lack of infrastructure means that tropical diseases such as malaria, dengue, hepatitis A and B and typhoid are possibilities, especially in very rural areas, or if you are an adventurous eater.

Tuxtla Gutierrez, the capital of Chiapas with a population over a half-million, is about an hour-and-a-half drive on the toll road. Expats go for specialized medical treatment, but its main attraction is its modern, large retail centers as well as the airport.

Except for the Tuxtla toll road, traveling on Chiapas’s roads require caution, especially at night. Almost all are rural and isolated. Robberies and other crimes have been an issue, especially near the Guatemalan border. Another problematic road is the one that connects San Cris to the popular Palenque archeological site.

It is important to know the social situations of the areas you pass through, as many communities are Zapatista and/or indigenous and suspicious of strangers. San Cris has fewer problems because of its popularity with tourists. While the political and social unrest are nothing like they were in 1994, the issues underlying them remain. There are frequent protests over natural resources, especially water and rainforest.

One long-timer expat told me that San Cris is a different world, even apart from Mexico. It is best suited for someone who values a cultural experience over the conveniences of modern life. That said, those who decide to stay love it.

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Leigh Thelmadatter
Leigh Thelmadatter has lived in central Mexico for 17 years. Initially she came to teach English, but fell in love with the land and the culture, so she did what any good writer does... document. With her photographer-husband Alejandro Linares Garcia, she has traveled extensively in the country, with the purpose of putting information not before available online or in English. Her work has culminated so far in the blog Creative Hands of Mexico https://creativehandsofmexicodotorg.wordpress.com/ and her first book, Mexican Cartonería: Paper, Paste and Fiesta (Schiffer 2019).https://www.schifferbooks.com/mexican-cartonera-a-paper-paste-and-fiesta-6738.html. She also is a cultural correspondent for Mexico News Daily and does freelance writing.