San Cristobal de las Casas is a beautiful colonial town nestled in the middle of Chiapas, the southernmost state in Mexico.
Named a Pueblo Magico (magic town) by the Mexican government, this city is full of history, culture, and beauty. When planning a trip to Chiapas, we recommend starting in San Cristobal de las Casas and scheduling a few side trips to explore the beautiful nature in this biodiverse state.
San Cristobal de las Casas Travel Guide
San Cristobal de las Casas and the state of Chiapas has its own Mayan culture, food, and language that is distinct from the rest of Mexico. The diverse and rugged geography has allowed this region to remain isolated from the country for much of its history, and to retain a strong cultural identity.
The town charms visitors through its well-preserved colonial architecture, clay tiled roofs, colorful buildings, and cobblestone streets. San Cristobal sits in a small valley, so the skyline is filled with mountains on all sides, and the high altitude means fresh cool air and nearby pine forests all around.
Chiapas is known for its strong indigenous cultural identity with 27% of the population identifying as indigenous and 12 federally recognized indigenous groups each with their own languages and customs. In fact, strong political movements in support of indigenous groups has always been a part of the culture here. Most famously, the Zapatistas briefly took over the city of San Cristobal de las Casas in 1994 and still continue to be active in the state.
Chiapas and San Cristobal de las Casas are unlike any other destination in Mexico. When you visit this part of the country, you’ll have the opportunity to learn about unique cultures with profound history, see beautiful artisan work, and diverse and impressive natural sites.
Things to Do in San Cristobal de las Casas
Start in the Zocalo, or the central square. Here you’ll find the impressive cathedral, the temple of Saint Nicolas, the convention center, and the city hall all surrounding a pretty park. Next to the Zocalo is the Plaza de la Paz, with a great view of the front of the cathedral, and a large square where vendors often sell their wares.
Visit the two churches atop steep hills that face each other from opposite perches, and offer sweeping views of the skyline. San Cristobalito Church can be reached by climbing up well-kept stairs to the church front. On the eastern edge of the historic center, Guadalupe Church offers a similar climb and another city view.
Pass by San Francisco de Asis church on your way to the Sweets Market (more on this below), Del Carmen Church, Santa Lucia Church, and Santo Domingo Church (while you shop the artisan market sprawling in front).
Also be sure to take time to stroll the two pedestrian streets, lined with shops, restaurants, bars, and cafes.
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Visit San Cristobal Museums
This textile museum is packed with interesting textiles from all over the state of Chiapas throughout history and includes context to give you a good understanding of the rich textile culture in this part of Mexico.
This museum is set in an old convent, and features explanations on how amber is formed over millions of years, how it was used throughout history, as well as beautiful pieces of jewelry.
Not only can you learn about the history and significance of the cacao plant in Chiapas, but you can also try chocolate in various forms in this museum.
Jade was a precious and important stone during Pre-Hispanic times. It’s control brought power to empires, and was used in trade. This museum explains its importance in history and displays some beautiful pieces, including modern fine jewelry.
With the plethora of beautiful artisan work and traditional culture in San Cristobal de las Casas, you’ll want to make time for some shopping.
Mercado Viejo/City Market
First, head to the city market to get a feel for daily local life. Only a few blocks north of the Zocalo, this market is bustling with produce stands, prepared food, fresh meat, dried chiles, bread, and just about anything else you might need.
Mercado de Dulces y Artesanías Ámbar (Sweets and Handicrafts Market)
Here you’ll find a mixture of artisan goods, amber stones, and most importantly, sweets. San Cristobal de las Casas is known for their wide array and quantity of sweets, like candied fruits, cajeta, pan dulce, and more.
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Mercado de Artesanias de Santo Domingo
The best place to start your shopping for artisan work and textiles is the Mercado de Artesanias. This large outdoor market is in front of Santo Domingo church, a beautiful baroque style building constructed in the 17th century. You can stroll through rows and rows of stands selling gorgeous textiles, leather goods, ceramics, jewelry, and more.
Artisan Work & Textiles
The style of artisan work in Chiapas is distinct from the rest of Mexico. Textiles are the most famous of the artisan traditions, with vibrant colors and unique embroidery. The mountainous region around San Cristobal de las Casas has the highest concentration of this tradition.
There are also warmer textiles here, like woolen shawls with pom-poms, and fuzzy, textured wool skirts and vests because San Cristobal de las Casas can be quite chilly. Each village and region has their own unique style, so you can spend days visiting different towns on market days, or studying the textile history and tradition at the Centro de Textiles Mundo Maya Museum.
Leather goods like belts, hats, and bags are common here. Pom poms are very popular in hanging strings or as an adornment. Other popular artisan work includes candles, amber jewelry, lacquered gourds, and ceramics.
Besides the artisan market mentioned above, you can find lots of stores in the historic center selling beautiful work.
Visit Villages Markets
If you want to dive deeper, visiting some of the nearby villages who are famous for their textiles will give you more insight into the tradition and variety of techniques and materials.
San Lorenzo Zinacantán is one of the nearby villages that is most famous for their colorful textile work and embroidery. Pro-tip: Time your trip on a Sunday to catch the town’s main market day.
San Andrés Larráinzar is another village famous for their beautiful textiles. They’re known for using the traditional backstrap loom, and bright geometric patterns. The village market day is also on Sundays.
Best Day & Side Trips from San Cristobal de las Casas
San Cristobal de las Casas is the perfect place to base yourself for your Chiapas explorations. There are many natural sites and towns you can visit on a day trip, and other destinations further away that make a great side-trip.
One of the most famous and impressive sites in Chiapas state is Palenque. This archeological site was a Mayan city that was founded in 226 B.C.. It’s a large complex with many interesting buildings to explore. But another unique and amazing thing about this site is its location, tucked deep in the jungle.
The archeological site of Palenque is located about a 15 minute drive from the town of Palenque. On the road from town, you’ll find yourself surrounded by lush leafy forest. And once in the site, you’ll have the chance to view wildlife like monkeys and tropical birds.
Because of its jungle location, Palenque takes a bit of time to get to. Most tourism experts do not recommend that you take the shorter road that passes through Ocosingo, due to robberies over the last few years.
The safest way to get to Palenque is to take the first-class ADO/OCC buses. These take a longer route of about 9 hours, but will get you to your destination safely and comfortably. If you are short on time and don’t mind sleeping on a first-class bus, there are overnight options both ways. Plan for 1-2 nights in Palenque to give yourself sufficient time to tour the ruins, as well as to visit some of the beautiful waterfalls nearby.
Dramatic Sumidero Canyon shouldn’t be missed during your stay in San Cristobal de las Casas. This impressive canyon was formed by a crack in the earth’s crust that formed millions of years ago, and then was further eroded by the Grijalva River. During your visit, you can see the canyon walls rise straight up dramatically, up to 1 kilometer at the tallest point.
Visitors tour the canyon by motorboat with a guide. Most days you’ll be able to see monkeys, crocodiles, many varieties of birds, and lizards. You can arrange a visit with any of the tour agencies in San Cristobal de las Casas. Most tours include a stop in the Pueblo Magico of Chiapa de Corzo, and some tours offer stops at viewpoints overlooking the canyon.
San Juan Chamula
San Juan Chamula is a village located less than a 30 minute drive from San Cristobal de las Casas. It’s well known for its church and unique religious practices that are a blend of pre-Hispanic indigenous rituals mixed with Catholic practices.
No photos or videos are allowed in the town’s church, but visitors are allowed to enter and observe after paying a fee. The church looks like a fairly typical Catholic colonial church from the outside. Inside, there are no pews, only rows of religious altars lining the sides and the back of the church. The floor is covered in pine needles, and worshippers kneel on the floor, and create a temporary altar of candles in front of them. You might also be able to observe a limpia (a spirit cleaning) during your visit.
You can visit by a guided tour, or take a colectivo (shared taxi) the short distance and hire a guide at the church entrance. There are also many artisan vendors on the road leading up to the church, as well as around the main market next door.
What to Eat and Drink in San Cristobal de las Casas
While Chiapas isn’t considered one of the top culinary destinations in Mexico, there are delicious things to eat here, and some special food and drink that is unique to this region.
Don’t confuse pozol with pozole (a popular soup in Mexico). Pozol is a thick pre-Hispanic drink made from a base of chocolate and corn. You’ll find this popular beverage in markets, street stands, and in cafes.
Pox and Cometeco
These two drinks are also unique to Chiapas but are distilled liquors. Pox is a liquor made from corn, wheat and sugarcane. It’s used in ceremonial contexts but also consumed in bars.
Cometeco is only made in nearby Comitan, and is the distilled version of the fermented drink, pulque.
Tamales are the most popular traditional food in this region. You can often find the corn masa seasoned with herbs, beans, or peppers.
Tascalate is another non-alcoholic pre-Hispanic beverage. This Mayan drink is made from corn, cacao, annatto, sugar and cinnamon.
The coffee grown in the state of Chiapas is some of the best in the world. Be sure to visit some of the great coffee shops, including Frontera Cafe and Carajillo Cafe, which serve delicious cups brewed from local beans.
Ending a meal with something sweet is traditional in San Cristobal de las Casas. You’ll see sweets and candies for sale in the markets, as well as many bakeries in town. Sweets vary from candied fruits to sweet breads and more. One of the most popular regional sweets are called suspiros (literally “sighs”) which are light meringue candies.
Where to Stay in San Cristobal de las Casas
Cost: 1505 Mexican pesos and up (about $65 per night)
Location: This hotel is as close to the center and all the amenities as you can get. Located on the beautiful pedestrian street of Real de Guadalupe, it’s just one block from the Zocalo (central square), and steps away from great restaurants, bars, cafes, museums, and shops.
Who it’s great for: Casa Lum is great for couples or families.
This is a romantic and charming hotel. The central courtyard is lush and leafy, and includes a garden which the restaurant uses for fresh ingredients. The wood furnishings, splashes of color, and local artisan work give character and warmth to the spaces.
The building was constructed in the 1800s and retains its original style including many adobe walls, wooden columns, and clay roof tiles.
Each room is filled with charming details like colorful local textiles as headboards.
The adjoining restaurant is modern and upscale, but still cozy, and the food is fresh and tasty.
Casa Lum is known for their commitment to sustainability. They were awarded EarthCheck’s Silver Certification, denoting that they have put an environmental policy in place that monitors energy and resource usage in 10 areas.
San Cristobal de las Casas is located at 7200 feet in altitude, so it can get quite chilly in the winter months in the evening. Rooms include heated floors, but I still found the rooms to be a bit chilly at times. It would be great to have space heaters for guests sensitive to the cold.
Casa Lum is on the higher end of price in this town, but it hits the mark with its beautiful design, well organized spaces, great hospitality, comfortable rooms, and excellent location.
Things to Consider: If your room opens into the courtyard, you can enjoy the natural light from the windows, but will need to close the shutters for privacy. Free wifi is available. Breakfast is not included. There is also a small roof terrace to take in the city view.
Check out their Instagram for more images.
Cost: 1180 Mexican pesos and up (about $51 per night)
Location: Sombra del Agua is 2 blocks from the Plaza de la Paz and 2 blocks from the Zocalo. It’s steps from the other main pedestrian tourist street, yet the large colonial structure keeps noise out.
Who it’s great for: This hotel works well for almost any traveler. Though it’s quite large, it feels intimate and boutiquey. The romantic decor and common spaces make this a great place for couples. But the number of rooms also make this ideal for families, groups, or events.
This is a gorgeously designed hotel. The historic building itself is beautiful, but the furniture and decor are impeccably curated. The sleek minimalist furniture gives a modern feel, but the hotel also pays homage to the indigenous groups of Chiapas through art installations and artisan work throughout their spaces.
Sombra del Agua is the oldest hotel in San Cristobal with over 100 years of history. The common spaces and rooms are filled with colonial charm, yet have been remodeled to be modern and comfortable.
Rooms vary in size and number of beds, but you can expect to find roomy spaces, sleek furniture, artisan touches, and modern bathrooms.
The in-house restaurant serves a buffet breakfast each morning that you can purchase. I was impressed with the quality, texture, and freshness of the food. There is also a made-to-order omelette station. Besides the restaurant, there is an in-house bar that is beautifully designed in the style of a speakeasy and serves tasty cocktails, as well as a full bar. You can enjoy the beverages in the stylish bar or in front of a firepit on the leafy patio.
Space heaters/air conditioners are available in each room for maximum comfort.
Sombra del Agua is just about perfect. Perhaps offering a second breakfast option, besides the full buffet, would be nice for some guests that want a simple and more economical breakfast.
Sombra del Agua’s cost to quality ratio is excellent. It’s a gorgeous, well-located hotel at a great price.
Things to Consider: Wifi is available throughout the hotel. Most, if not all, rooms open into shared spaces so you need to decide between natural light and privacy.
Check out their Instagram for more images.
Cost: 760 Mexican pesos and up (about $33 per night)
Location: Only 1 ½ blocks from the Zocalo, and right on one of the tourist pedestrian streets, the location can’t get any better.
Who it’s great for: Artistic and creative travelers who want to save a little money but still enjoy a great atmosphere.
The hotel has artistic touches like murals, colorful textile accents, and modern furniture. The hotel also has a stylish bar and a leafy courtyard with a fountain.
Sereno Art Hotel was a project created to be a mix of a hotel and cultural center. The hotel has worked with artists to create artwork and installations.
Rooms are decorated with a mix of modern furniture, warm rustic details, and industrial chic decor.
The hotel includes a beer garden where you can sample artisanal beers, and a stylish bar to enjoy a happy hour drink. There is also an onsite restaurant.
Wifi and parking are available.
Some guests have felt the common area can be a bit loud, so keep this in mind if you are sensitive to noise.
Sereno is a great option if you want to save a little money but still stay in an artistic space with plenty of amenities.
Things to Consider: Some rooms might be noisier than others. Each room also has a unique decor theme.
Check out their Instagram for more images.
How to Get Around San Cristobal de las Casas
San Cristobal de las Casas is quite a small city, so it’s easy to walk anywhere in the historic center. Taxis are also readily available if you are feeling tired or need to get to the bus station.
The best way to arrive in San Cristobal de las Casas is to fly into Tuxtla Gutierrez International Airport, in the nearby capital city. From here you can take a shuttle bus to San Cristobal de las Casas or a private taxi.
If you happen to be on a long overland trip, you can catch buses from Oaxaca or tourist shuttles from Guatemala.
Taking day or side trips from San Cristobal de las Casas is simple, as there are dozens of tour agencies in town that organize shuttles, or you can check the ADO ticket station on Real de Guadalupe Street for departures.
How Long to Spend in San Cristobal de las Casas
You can visit most of the main tourist sites in the city of San Cristobal de las Casas in about 1.5 to 2 full days. However, San Cristobal is also a great place to base yourself for day trips and overnight side trips around the state of Chiapas. I’d recommend 3-4 days in San Cristobal de las Casas, to give yourself time to take some of the day trips above, and then consider heading out on some multi-day side trips to Palenque, the Lacandon Jungle, or nature sites around Comitan.
San Cristobal de las Casas and Chiapas offer a distinct and unique experience in Mexico. The rich culture is unlike anywhere else in the country and the number of impressive natural sites will keep the adventurous traveler busy.
We hope you enjoyed this San Cristobal de las Casas Travel Guide!
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