The bus-barkers on the streets in Palenque, Mexico are relentless. They can spot a gringo from a mile away and as I walked down the main street in town, they shouted rapid-fire destinations at me like the Mexican Micro Machines Man on speed. ”Ruinas, Cascadas? Ruinas, Cascadas?” The words slurred together and sung out like some drunken mantra. “Agua Azul, Agua Azul, Agua Azuuuuuul?” I just shook my head and walked on. ”Bonampak? Yaxchilán?” they called after me, with the names of farther flung destinations.
I’d already booked a ticket to Cristóbal de las Casas, and I was heading to the bus terminal to meet Karine. (If you’re flying into Mexico, you should look for airline tickets to Llano San Juan airport, in nearby Tuxla.) We stashed our backpacks in the storage area underneath the bus and I turned to see the man next to me wrestling to find space for a large cardboard box, the head of a live turkey protruding inquisitively from a hole in the side. Its neck craned wildly around, trying to make sense of its strange new surroundings. The poor thing looked nervous, and rightfully so, he’d likely be someone’s dinner before the week was out.
We boarded, found our seats, and soon the bus departed on a journey that should have taken about 4 hours.
It took 7 hours.
I don’t know what route we took, but there has be be an easier way to get from Palenque to San Cristóbal. Not only was it a 7 hour journey, but it was 7 hours of hairpin switchbacks up the mountain, luggage tumbling down from overhead racks as queasy, carsick patrons stared straight ahead with pale faces, rocking back and forth with the road.
What’s worse: that road has more topes than anyone should ever experience in their lifetime. Topes are basically just speed bumps, but in Mexico, they are everywhere – and I mean everywhere! The government installs them at military checkpoints to slow down traffic for random inspections, the cities install them at the edges of town to slow cars coming in, and the even the local indigenous population gets in on the game: they install rogue, makeshift topes at random places near their pueblos to slow cars enough to try to sell bananas, tamales, and handicrafts to passing motorists.
We get it, mexico: you want us to slow down. It’s a valiant attempt, but it just doesn’t work. All it does is infuriate cranky, gringo bus-riders who want nothing more than to catch a couple hours of sleep on a bus that’s already taking twice as long as it should to get where it’s going. But there was nothing I could do except sit and wait and be intermittantly jostled by tope after tope. They always seem to come in pairs, these things, and it’s worse on the back of the bus. Luckily, I had the Spanish-language version of the movie Australia to keep me entertained, which is actually a terrible film, but somehow, strangely better in Spanish.
After what seemed like forever, we arrived in San Cristóbal late in the evenign, and it was freezing. The city is about 2,200 m (7,200 ft) above sea level, so we expected a temperature shift, and we’d heard that San Cris got cold. But after spending a month on the beaches of Playa del Carmen and a week in the sweaty jungle of Palenque, I really wasn’t ready for the cold. I put on my only long-sleeved shirt, Karine and I tightened the straps of our backpacks, and we headed out to find a hostel.
We didn’t have a booking, we didn’t know where we were going, and it was much later than we had anticipated arriving, but we were feeling adventurous. Actually, I probably would have just gotten a taxi, but Karine prodded me and made me feel like a jaded, old, lazy traveler. She’s a good travel partner like that. So, we asked someone where the hostels were and trudged off in that direction.
We probably walked a mile and a half before we stumbled across a hostel. The place was called La Terraza Hostel, and it was a cute little family-run outfit, just a couple blocks from the artisan market. It had a nice kitchen, a spacious dorm with no bunk beds, some funky murals on the walls, and it was dark outside, but they assured us that during the day the terrace was beautiful. We booked in, had a quick dinner at a nearby restaurant, and called it a night.
The next morning the sun greeted us through the giant windows in the dorm. I rose and stood blinking at the view. the whole wall was glass, and outside there was a sunny terrace with tables and chairs for lounging. Beyond that, a sprawling garden with green grass, hammocks, and a fire pit. In the distance was a hazy view of the city of San Cristóbal and the surrounding mountains.
The terrace was, indeed, beautiful.
Over the next week, I got to know the family that ran the hostel, and through them, I got to know the city of San Cristóbal de las Casas. It’s a beautiful city, with a mix of colonial era architecture, bright colors, gringo-fueled quirk, modern sustainability, and a healthy dose of gritty Mexican mercado chaos. The city is centered around the Plaza Principal — Parque Central and Parque de los Arcos provide great places to grab a coffee and watch the world pass by. The cafe culture in San Cristóbal is thriving, and this city is home to some of the best cafes in Mexico.
From the beautiful Palacio de Gobierno, you can walk up Avenida Miguel Hidalgo, a pedestrian-only stretch of cobblestones where you’ll find lots of great restaurants, cafes, wine bars, jazz music venues, and shops selling handmade trinkets and souvenirs.
The city’s population is an interesting mix. There are many wealthy, local business owners, but at the same time, a large number of incredibly poor indigenous people, many of whom live in the nearby Tzotzil and Tzeltal pueblos, and come to the city to sell goods in the food and artisan markets. Add to that a large population of gringo expats and foreign travelers, and you’ve got a very diverse populace.
An then there are the hippies. One friend said that San Cristóbal had way too many “rope-headed hippies” for his liking. Hippie culture is strong here, for sure. It might be true that San Cristóbal has the highest rate of dreadlocks per capita (oh, a Latin pun!) in Mexico. But for me it wasn’t overwhelming.
More than anything else, I think, San Cristóbal is a city of art. You’ll find street art on nearly every corner, ranging from politically-charged murals about the Zapatista movement to strange and explicit pieces that could easily be transported from New York City Subways. The artisan market has become a permanent installation of tables and booths, sprawling out from the Santo Domingo church, and spilling into the streets every day. You’ll find traditional woven and leather goods, ranging from purses and ponchos to miniature Zapatista dolls that look like masked, Mexican ninjas. All of this at bargain prices, and every purchase comes with friendly smiles and enthusiastic handshakes from the local indigenous, who rely heavily on tourism to make their living.
From the moment we arrived in San Cristóbal, Karine and I both agreed that it was the kind of city we could live in. The friendly folks at La Terraza Hostel made me feel like family from day one, and the city drew me in with its charm, and the kindness of it’s people. It has that magical vibe that you occasionally encounter on the road. It’s the kind of place that makes you want to hang up your backpack for a while and settle down.
But Guatemala was calling my name, and a long road lay before me. After a week, I knew it was time to move on.