Thursday, June 27, 2013

Chiapas Part 1: San Cristóbal de las Casas and its Zocalo

San Cristóbal's 18th Century Catedral occupies one side of the city's Zocalo. The Zocalo, also known as Plaza Mayor or Plaza 31 de Marzo, is filled with activity from the early morning to late in the evening. At night, flood lights bathe the Catedral and other buildings around the Zocalo with a lovely glow. Above, Maya vendors have spread out their wares in the broad flagstone expanse in front of the church, anticipating the evening crowd of tourists. Carole and I had long ago put the State of Chiapas, and its former capital San Cristóbal de las Casas, on our list of proposed adventures. However, given the length of that list, we didn't get around to this visit until August of 2012. Given my backlog of un-posted adventures, I didn't start work on this Chiapas series until the spring of 2013. Since the Chiapas trip was one of Carole's all-time favorites, she kept after me until I finally got around to it. Chiapas is the southern-most state in Mexico, and shares a long border with Guatemala. Around most of its perimeter, Chiapas is surrounded by hot, humid lowlands. However, the center of the state is very mountainous, with high, lush valleys. San Cristóbal, at 2200 m (7200 ft), lies in one of these valleys, near the very center of the state. The altitude gives the town a mild to cool climate, ranging from an average high of 22.4 C (73.6 F) in June to a low of  4.2 C (39.6 F) in January. Keeping a sweater or jacket handy is a good idea for most of the year. For a Google map of Chiapas, click here. For a map of San Cristobal de las Casas and its Zocalo, click here.

Overview of the Centro Historico

View of San Cristobal from the hilltop Templo del Cerrito. Across the bowl-shaped city you can see the dome of another hilltop church, Templo de Guadalupe. In the background, heavily wooded mountains rise, as they do on all sides of the city. There are almost no tall buildings in San Cristobal. Other than churches and public buildings, most of the colonial structures have only one or two stories, roofed with red tiles. This gives the town a feel that is very human-scale. When the Spanish under Diego de Mazariegos arrived in 1528, they built a fort and founded a town they called Villa Real de Chiapa. The valley that the town occupies was named Hueyzacatlán, which means "pasture" in Nahuatl, the language of the Aztecs. The Spanish could never have conquered Mexico without the thousands of Aztec, Tarascan, Otomi, and other native troops who formed the overwhelming majority of their armies. Consequently, Nahuatl names sometimes appear in predominantly Maya areas like Chiapas. The colonial city had several additional name changes, Villa Viciosa in 1529, Villa de San Cristóbal de los Llanos in 1531, Ciudad Real in 1536, and finally Ciudad de San Cristóbal in 1829. The final change came when "de las Casas" was added in 1848 to honor 16th Century Bishop Bartolomé de las Casas who defended Chiapas' indigenous people against abuses by the Spanish. In the Maya's Tzotzil language, the name of the town is Jovel ("the place of the clouds"). San Cristóbal de las Casas and its differently-named earlier incarnations formed the capital of Chiapas off and on until 1892, when the seat of government was removed to Tuxtla de Gutierrez, an hour by automobile to the west.

A torrent of rain pelts the zocalo in one of the periodic downpours during our visit. San Cristóbal gets an amazing 1085 mm (43 in) of rain each year. May through October is the wet season, but even in the dry season there is a respectable level of precipitation. Anyone visiting San Cristóbal should remember to pack some rain gear, even during the so-called "dry" season. Still, during our August visit we had plenty of clear, brilliantly-sunny days, along with the occasional downpour. Actually, we didn't mind the rain, because it left everything beautifully green and moist, and the air fresh. When I took the photo above, Carole and I were caught out in the middle of a torrent that went on and on for more than an hour. The rain was so outrageously abundant that people were left trapped in whatever handy shelters they could find. Carole ended up in a doorway and the humor of it led her to share a laugh with a Maya woman similarly trapped across the street. Neither spoke the other's language, but in some cases comical situations can be universally appreciated.

A family of Maya vendors crowded under the arched portales to escape the rain. The east side of the Zocalo is made up of a long covered walkway lined with shops and coffee houses and restaurants. The arches that separate the pillars are called portales. The European tourists shown above were enjoying some of the excellent local coffee while they waited out the storm. The Maya family sitting on the floor next to them had similarly fled the downpour. They decided to attempt a sale to their captive audience of tourists. In our experience, the Maya are some of the most enterprising people in Mexico. During our visit, we were puzzled by the absence of tourists from the US, or even Canada. Except for us, all the other tourists we encountered seemed to be either Europeans or Mexicans from other areas. The majority of Europeans we saw were young people who appeared to be in their late teens to early twenties. Toting backpacks, they looked vibrantly healthy and towered over the Maya, who tend to be quite small. At 5'10", I am used to being taller than many Mexicans, but even I felt dwarfed by these blonde European giants. Good food and universal health care are having their effect, I guess.

The Zocalo's kiosco and garden area

Sant Cristóbal's kiosco is one of the more unusual that I have found in Mexico. Virtually every Mexican town has a plaza and almost every plaza contains a kiosco (bandstand), usually located in the center. Originally the Zocalo was an open area, used by merchants and those who came to collect water from its fountain. In the early 20th Century, this kiosco was added. Walkways radiate out from the kiosco like the spokes on a wheel. Gardens with shade trees and flowerbeds separate the spokes. All of this is very typical of a Mexican zocalo or plaza. What makes this kiosco unusual is that it contains a bar and restaurant on the first level, and a marimba band regularly entertains the restaurant patrons and pedestrians in the general area by performing on the second level.

A Maya woman in traditional dress carries her goods in both arms, looking for a buyer. She wears her long black hair in a braid that extends well below her waist. Her blouse is a satiny material much favored by Maya women. Her skirt is typical of her village, Chamula. It is made from shaggy black sheep's wool and extends to mid-calf. It is held up by a broad belt that is almost a sash. On her feet she wears sandals, even in cold, wet weather. On her left arm, she has draped an assortment of hand-woven belts. From her right forearm dangle several embroidered purses. She no doubt spent hours working at home to create these wares. Behind her passes another Maya, with a nearly identical skirt and similar satiny blouse, but of a different color. The Maya women tend to cluster together in groups, like flocks of colorful birds.

One of the "spokes" extending from the kiosco leads to the plaza's east side portales. The gardens are protected by wrought iron fences like the one on the right. On the left is a single-seat shoe shine stand, with a blue canopy. The shoe shiner is on a break. On the right is a small stand with a red conical roof where you can buy newspapers and magazines. Both of these are very typical of Mexican plazas. Nothing in a typical US city compares with a Mexican plaza. It is a source of relaxation, socialization, free entertainment, and an endlessly changing mixture of people. It is literally the heart of the community. The typical American shopping mall is plastic and sterile and, in my opinion, can't hold a candle to a zocalo like this one.

A family of Maya vendors takes a break on one of the many benches in the zocalo. The two on the left wear rough linen skirts, while the partially obscured woman on the right is dress in the more typical black sheep's wool version. One of the hardest things to find in a Mexican plaza is an unoccupied bench in a shady spot, but if you wait a bit, one will eventually open up.

Not far from the Zocalo's kiosco stands a statue honoring Dr. Manuel Velasco-Suarez. Dr. Velasco-Suarez (1914-2001) seems to have been a rather amazing person, a sort of Mexican Renaissance Man. He was not only a gifted neurosurgeon, but served on the Faculty of Medicine of UNAM (Mexico's National University) for 50 years. He founded the National Institute for Neurology and Neurosurgery, the National Bioethics Commission, the Autonomous University of Chiapas, and the State Ecological Research Center of the Southeast. Dr. Velasco-Suarez was also active in the international movement of physicians against nuclear war. On top of all that, he was Governor of Chiapas from 1970-76. He received many honors, including awards from Costa Rica, Peru, Panama, Venezuela, Yugoslavia, and Italy. A quote from Dr. Velasco-Suarez is attached to the statue: "A man's  value is found in how he serves, not in what he knows, and even less in what he has." 

A Maya family pauses while the father speaks on his cell phone. The mother, on the left, provides a clear view of the traditional clothes the Tzotzil people of Chamula wear. While the young girl passing in the background wears traditonal clothing, the two little girls between the adults do not, an the man wears modern clothing. Women are the keepers of the traditional customs in many indigenous communities I have visited. Sometimes men will wear traditional clothes, but it is more usual to see them in city clothes like the man above, or blue jeans and cowboy hats if it is in the back country.

A view of the Zocalo's east side portales under which I sheltered from the rain. The general layout of Mexican plazas follows a pattern originally set by King Phillip II, the same man who ordered the Spanish Armada to invade the England of Queen Elizabeth I in 1588. The San Cristóbal Zocalo follows this pattern. King Phillip ordered that each plaza should have covered walkways so that merchants could conduct business under them and people could shelter from the sun and rain. He ordered that other sides of the plaza should be filled by a church such as San Cristóbal's Catedral and public buildings such as its Palacio Gobierno (Government Palace). 

Three Mexican girls, dressed in modern clothes, are out for a morning stroll. None of these young women appear to be Maya, so they may well be tourists from other areas of Mexico. There has been tension between the Maya people of Chiapas and Ladinos (non-Maya Mexicans) for centuries. It flared up again in 1994 with the passage of the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA). A movement known as the Zapatistas, named after Revolutionary hero and martyr Emiliano Zapata, rejected the treaty as unfair to Mexico's poor and indigenous people. On New Years Day of 1994, the day the treaty went into effect, the Zapatistas seized San Cristóbal and held it until driven out by Mexican Army troops. Eventually an uneasy truce was arranged which holds to this day. The leader of the Zapatistas, Subcomandante Marcos, became a hero in Chiapas and in some other areas of Mexico. We saw evidence of strong support for the Zapatistas everywhere we went in Chiapas. Many Maya vendors sell small doll figures of the Subcomandante along with their beads, embroidered purses, and belts. 

Palacio de Gobierno 

The sparkling white Palacio de Gobierno is a late 19th Century construction.  The Palacio de Gobierno (City Hall) occupies the whole west side of the Zocalo. At the time this photo was taken, officials had erected a stage with a rectangular backdrop in front of the building. Later, a local troupe used the stage to perform colorful traditional dances. In my next posting, I'll show the dancers. The Palacio de Gobierno was built by architect Carlo Z. Flores in the Neoclassical style popular at the time. The long series of ground-floor arches are supported by Tuscan columns

View of the Palacio, looking south from the Catedral plaza. When the Palacio was planned, San Cristobal de las Casas was still the Capital of Chiapas State. The building was originally intended to function as the headquarters of the state government. However, when the seat of government was shifted to Tuxtla de Gutierrrez in 1892, the Palacio was only about 1/4 finished. The other 3/4 of the building was never completed. It was planned for the area behind the part you see above,  Instead the space was enclosed with more Tuscan columns and arches and made into a large garden and courtyard

View of the Catedral, looking east through the arches at the back of the garden.  Mexicans love parks and plazas and other open spaces in the Centro areas of their cities. The colonial authorities built these areas of their communities for commercial activity by street vendors, social interaction and the enjoyment of public events. Later generations maintained this tradition. What a refreshing change from the huge, sterile, glass and steel monstrosities that dominate so many city centers north of the border!

Looking out over the Zocalo from the front of the Palacio. An old cannon points out toward the kiosco. It is a relic of one of Mexico's many 19th Century internal conflicts, A group of tourists strolls across the cannon's one-time line of fire. One of them has raised her umbrella to ward off the light rain that had begun to fall. In the upper part of the photo you can see the line of hotels and restaurants that makes up the south side of the Zocalo.

A soldiers guards the front of the Palacio de Gobierno. This one wears body armor and is strapped with an assault rifle and other weapons. Such sights were startling, even a bit unnerving, when we first arrived in Mexico. We have grown used to such heavily armed soldiers and police, and they are invariably polite to us and even friendly at times. In Chiapas, there are problems with the drug cartels, as there are in many other parts of Mexico. In addition, the Zapatistas seized San Cristobal in 1994 to protest NAFTA, and they maintain strong support in the community. Although we felt an undercurrent of tension during our visit, actual violence has been fairly rare since the early days of the Zapatista revolt.

Catedral de la Virgen de la Asunción

The Catedral faces its own broad plaza rather than facing onto the Zocalo. The Catedral de la Asunción's plaza intersects with the Zocalo (see the trees at the right center of this photo). The southeast corner of the Catedral Plaza meets the northwest corner of the Zocalo, so you have two great, interlocking public areas. This makes for an extremely varied scene. The Catedral Plaza attracts many vendors who lay out their goods on the flagstones, as well as various street performers and people running games and rides for children. The Zocalo is centered around the kiosco and is filled with gardens and shady places to people-watch. However, it also has space in front of the Palacio for public performances and political demonstrations. Sometimes, all these things are going on at once, creating a 3-ring-circus atmosphere. Nothing entertains like a Mexican plaza.

The Catedral Plaza's space is broken only with a cross and a few planters. This photo, taken from the front steps of the Catedral, give a sense of the broad, open expanse of the plaza. The base of the cross forms a congenial place to sit and chat with friends. Overhead low clouds threaten more rain, but later the sky cleared. As you can see from the structures in the background, most buildings in San Cristóbal's Centro Historico are low, being one or two stories tall. Sometimes when we strolled by, the plaza was virtually empty. A few hours later, it might be crowded.

At night, the Catedral was lit beautifully with floodlights. Evenings are some of the most active times in the Zocalo and the Catedral Plaza. This spot is where the two large plazas intersect. The Catedral extends down the whole north side of the Zocalo. Crowds of people mill around on the two plazas. Traffic is fairly heavy, so it pays to stay alert while crossing here.

Hopeful Maya vendors mob a prospective customer at the base of the Catedral Plaza's cross. The customer, a Mexico tourist from elsewhere, took all this in stride and with a trace of humor. She seemed to be having fun picking and choosing among all the different wares being eagerly offered. Those shopping for handicrafts and nicknacks need only come to this area and stand still. The goods need not be sought out. They will come to you.

Multi-tasking in Mexico. A young mother walks along the side of the Catedral, feeding her baby and texting at the same time. Cell phones have penetrated to the farthest corners of Mexico, something about which I have mixed feelings. I am personally not a fan of cell phones, and have avoided ever owning one. So often they seem to get in the way of actual, face-to-face human interaction. I guess I'm showing my old-fashioned side (even as I type this into my new MacIntosh laptop).

This concludes Part 1 of my San Cristóbal de las Casas series. Next week, I'll show you some of the many activities that occur in the Zocalo and the Catedral Plaza. I hope you have enjoyed this glimpse of San Cristóbal's Centro Historico. Please feel free to give your feedback and to leave questions in the Comments section below, or email me directly.

If you leave a question in the Comments section, PLEASE leave your email so I can respond.

Hasta luego, Jim


  1. I look at your San Christobal blog, while being in Atlanta. San Christobal is my favorite town in Mexico. For me the best place in this town is Na Bolom. (See ). I wonder if you have been there and if there will be a blog about the place and its history.
    Love from both of us to both of you.

  2. Thanks, Jim, for this introduction to San Cristobal. I have been curious about this place which I have never visited. Your prose and pictures bring it to life. I was especially taken with the black woolen skirts of the Mayan women. In just the first picture of your post, I got a clearer image of what the place is like than all my occasional reading and imagining of San Cristobal.


If your comment involves a question, please leave your email address so I can answer you. Thanks, Jim