Wednesday, July 1, 2015

Weekend in San Cristóbal, Mexico

Welcome to part two of my posts about our weekend trip to San Cristóbal de las Casas, Mexico, to obtain our new 90-day tourist visa. If you read yesterday's post, you'll know that we successfully received our stamp and returned home. What I left out was all the sights of our trip! So this will be a picture-heavy post with a few anecdotes thrown in. :)

First of all, I have to tell you that the ride from Panajachel, Guatemala, to San Cristóbal, Mexico, is anything but a peaceful one. Sure, it is a beautiful trip, full of jaw-dropping vistas, interesting towns, and fascinating scenery, but it is also a white-knuckled ride at high speeds through twisty mountain roads with sheer cliffs dropping off within a few feet of your vehicle's tires. Cars pass each other on corners and hills, and even pass cars that are passing cars! Add to that a bus driver who is more interested in talking on his cell phone or chatting with the pretty lady next to him, and you've got a recipe for an ulcer.  :)
But through it all, we did make it there and back alive and actually enjoyed ourselves. I didn't take any pictures while on the shuttle bus because the scenery was speeding by so quickly, but I did snap a few while we were stopped.
The turn-off to Quetzaltenango (Xela) where we stopped for gas. We were treated to a parade of angry chicken buses. 
Bert and the shuttle bus. It was a bit surreal to be stopped at a Shell gas station. Felt like home!
Guatemala truly is a beautiful country and I gawked out the window as much as possible.
It was neat to see the difference when you crossed from Guatemala into Mexico. First of all, the roads were nicer. Second, there was a lot more military. Third, the speed bumps were now called "topes" instead of "tumulos".
Speed bumps, you ask? Yeah, there are a BAZILLION speed bumps all along the main highways. I guess it's the only way they can get the crazy bus drivers to slow down! But what ends up happening is the driver blazes along at 110 km/h until he sees a sign warning of a bump ahead, then he shifts down jerkily, comes almost to a stop, crawls over the speed bump, then shifts up as fast as he can for 100 meters until the next speed bump! It's irritating, but probably far better than roaring through some of those small towns or dangerous curves at ludicrous speed.
Bert gazes out at Mexico!
Another thing I noticed as we drove through Mexico is that it looked a lot like Ontario. It was weird. If you chose to ignore the occasional Brahman cow tethered at the side of the road and the clumps of palm trees, it really did just look like a rural Ontario road.
Anyway, 10 butt-numbing hours of travel later, we arrived in San Cristóbal, the first real city we'd seen in three months. We checked into our lovely hotel and snapped a few pics before heading right back out to find food.
Our hotel was super nice. It was called Posada la Media Luna. I highly recommend it for a mid-priced hotel.
That is the window and door of our room. The hotel roof is almost all glass above the lobby and other areas.
Bert checking out the lobby. In the bottom left corner of this picture is the computer that he Skyped his family from. :)
The jardin (garden). No real gardens, but lots of potted plants and a nice fountain. There is no roof; just open sky above!
That's the door out to the street.
The door to our hotel as seen from the street.
I had heard there was a Burger King in town near the main square but we couldn't find it. Frustrated and super-hungry, we stopped in here when the smell of spitted meat caught our noses. 
This was our condiment tower. All of the salsas were sooo hot!
We had gringas, which are like a meat-filled soft taco. They were amazingly delicious!
We didn't have much energy after our long day of traveling, so we found a nearby convenience store called OXXO and stocked up on junk food before heading back to the hotel. We collapsed on our bed and watched the one English channel on the TV until we fell asleep.

We were awoken the next morning by very loud bells and very, VERY loud banging. Bert went out to investigate and came to tell me it was church bells and fireworks being set off at 6am. UGH. It went on for a long time, so we gave up on sleep, dragged our butts outta bed, and began exploring the town. I did get a bit of video of the fireworks/bangers by the church down the street from us. Below is a picture of the church.
Temple of San Francisco, San Cristóbal, Mexico
Our hotel had given us a map of the city with all the sights marked and numbered. Well, we soon discovered that the majority of the sites were churches! But that was okay, as they were all really beautiful and unique. The first and biggest church that most people see in San Cris is right near the main square. 
The Cathedral in San Cristóbal, Mexico.
The square in front of the church and the park nearby are always bustling with tourists, locals, and vendors. There were also some protesters set up behind where I'm standing in this photo. Not sure what they were protesting, but people seemed to like to listen to them. 

By the way, I used my President's Choice Bank card at the BBVA Bancomer ATM near the main square and had no troubles getting pesos, although there was a MXN$81.60 fee (around $6.50 Canadian).

I spotted our next target, the Temple of Guadalupe, far away up the hill. We set off walking in the lovely cool morning air. San Cris is a gorgeous town with lots of colorful Spanish Colonial buildings, and houses with those neat ripply Spanish tile roofs.
Bert spotted the little sign by this tattoo parlor. :D
Colourful painted walls of San Cristóbal, Mexico.
I noticed that a lot of the streets were tiled with hexagons. It made for interesting patterns. Also, San Cris is much cleaner and more urban than any city we've been in in Guatemala. It was cool to be using sidewalks again!
The daunting steps up to the Temple of Guadalupe. What was even harder was that each step was really wide and sloped... it was like walking up stairs and a ramp at the same time! Feel the BURN. 
Totally worth the climb as we got a magnificent view of the city.
I snuck into the church and took a few quiet pictures as a baby wailed at the front, protesting its christening.
A very emotional Mexican Jesus.
Strange to see neon lights being used in a church. 
I think this is Guadalupe? Not sure what the ribbons are for. Maybe wishes or prayers.
I guess the christening ended soon after we arrived as a guy waaaay up top on the church started the bells ringing. (Video here!)
Using our handy map, we continued wandering around the town to the highlighted places.
This is a VW bug. Okay, so big deal, right? WRONG. There are soooo many VW Bugs in San Cris, it's MENTAL. And most of them were in really good shape too, almost mint condition. They must have an obsession with this car!
Another church... which one was this? Um, maybe Cerillo?
The side door of Santo Domingo church. This church was AMAZING inside. But super dark. My pictures didn't really turn out. :(
All around the Santo Domingo church was a huge open air market of clothes and textiles and crafts.
This picture is special because it shows the lady's traditional outfit. I wish I had taken a better picture so you could see. They wore these furry black skirts made of sheep fur or something. It was really neat.
The front of Santo Domingo church. Tough to get it all in the frame! It is far more stunning in real life than a picture can capture.
The Santo Domingo church was mobbed with tourists and tour guides. Bert commented later, "The senior gringo tourists dress like they're on safari." Ha!
Along the street near the church were dozens of fruit vendors. 
My breakfast: papaya, watermelon, mango, melon, and chocolate rice krispies in strawberry yogurt.
Next we walked over to the local market. It was NUTS. Absolutely insane and awesome. It was a maze of stalls all covered over with plastic, plus numerous vendors milling around the edges.
This lady has a live turkey hobbled near her feet. 
Beans for sale at the market in San Cristóbal
Trying to capture the madness that is the mercado municipal in San Cristóbal
These are LIVE chickens!
Those chickens are not live. :)
San Cristóbal is a great town to walk around. There are several pedestrian-only streets that are lined with restaurants, bars, and shops. So nice not to have to dodge traffic!
Bert strolling down a pedestrian lane.
The Arch of Carmen
There were motorized trolley cars for tourists to ride in. Really neat! This one is passing right outside our hotel entrance.
Ours second set of daunting stairs, 200 of them!
Amazing graffiti on the way up to the church on the hill.
I still find it fascinating that plants we struggle to grow in gardens back home are growing wild and free here. 
Bert heading on up!
A view of San Cristóbal from partway up the stairs. I love the Spanish tile roof and colourful walls of that house.
More stairs. (It was exhausting so I stopped to "take pictures", aka rest!)
This handsome rooster mocked us as we climbed.
Almost there! The last few steps. That's my head at the bottom of the frame. Bert almost didn't go all the way to the top, but I teased him that he couldn't have come all this way to not go the last 20 stairs!
Even the chuchos are tired after climbing!
Where we came up!
An amazing view of San Cristóbal
It was a gruelling climb but worth it for the vista! We decided to not go down the stairs, and instead walked down the back road that curved around the hill. It was very peaceful and cool in the shade of a pine forest. Bert really liked it. He misses the pine trees of Ontario, and so do I! :)
How many soccer fields does one town need? 
A cool tower that is part of the Amber Museum, which used to be a church. And look, a NEW VW Bug. :)
Bert took this amazing picture of an afternoon storm rolling in over the Museum of Amber.
The park near the museum had shrubberies with faces! We came back here after dinner to walk around.
The park near the Amber Museum.
A Hulk piñata! 
Most of the public buildings had these signs in them, restaurants, bars, the hotel, everywhere.
The top part is what to do during an earthquake, and the bottom part is fire.
"Conserva la calma!" (Remain calm.)
Afternoon showers.
An umbrella salesman talks to a cotton candy salesman. Still regretting I didn't buy any cotton candy. *pout*
When the rain started, everyone took cover under the arched storefront near the main square.
See the guy on the right? He's selling candy in that little wooden box on the folding table. There are tons of these guys all over town. You will never want for suckers or gum in San Cristóbal!
Here is a neat video I took of the main square, which is called the Zocalo.
San Cris is known for its high quality amber, so I had been looking for a nice small piece of amber to buy as a souvenir, but most pieces had been made into necklaces and bracelets, or they were too expensive. There were vendors selling pieces of it on the street around the church, so I stopped to glance through one man's wares. 
After choosing a nice piece of amber and bargaining a price (100 pesos, or around $8 CAN), I looked up to find I had been surrounded by vendors selling various items from jewelry to textiles to candy. I felt like I was in a petting zoo and had just put a quarter in one of those machines that dispenses pellets for the miniature goats! I extricated myself from my mini-mob with a hundred "No, gracias" and went off to find Bert, who hadn't realized that I had been left behind! 

One thing that was disconcerting about San Cristobal was the amount of beggars, plus small children selling things on the street (unaccompanied by parents). We were concerned at the sight of a young boy of about eight years who was selling slide whistles. He was shadowed by his two brothers, who appeared to be only six and four. They were all dirty and disheveled, wearing torn and ragged clothes. We bought some slides whistles from them (three for 45 pesos) and Bert flat out gave them 20 pesos and told the oldest that it was for him and his brothers. We hope that that money didn't go straight into the hands of negligent parents. We know there are children and families even worse off than those boys, but it's truly hard to walk away and not feel pangs of guilt.
But we only had so much money to give away, so we walked on to see more of the city until darkness fell and we retired to our hotel.
Super pretty blue church!
Bert took this picture of a delivery truck.
I guess these weird pottery birds are somehow iconic to this city. They were all over the place.
Happy me resting my tired feet!
Oh, I almost forgot to mention: we did find the Burger King! It was the best freaking Whopper I've ever had in my life. YUMMMMMMMMY. I regret nothing!  :D

In summary, I would highly recommend a trip to San Cristóbal for anyone in the area. It is a clean, lovely, energetic city with many fine restaurants, mezcal bars, museums, churches, and shopping. We hope we can return someday!

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