Friday, June 21, 2013

Chiapas Part 4: San Cristóbal's pedestrian-only streets - Anador Real de Guadalupe

Pedestrians enjoy a stroll along Real de Guadalupe on a brilliant August morning. San Cristóbal de las Casas has several pedestrian-only streets. They radiate out from the Zócalo, going east, north, and south. The auto-free portion of Real de Guadalupe begins at the northeast corner of the Zócalo and heads due east for three city blocks in the direction of Templo de Guadalupe, which sits on top of a tall hill overlooking the city. When we began our trek along the street, there were only a few people out and about. I have noticed that many Mexicans don't begin their workday until mid-morning or later, but continue it late into the evening. Not being an early- morning person myself, this is my kind of schedule. If you are not shopping, but only out for a stroll, early-to-mid-morning is a quiet, cool, and lovely time to do so. Like Real de Guadalupe, most of the buildings on the other streets in the Centro Historico are only one or two stories high. This creates an intimate, human-scale feel. Some cafes place small tables and chairs along the narrow sidewalks. If the street were open to autos, this would create a problem, but here it is a lovely addition to the scene.

A full-sized Catrina welcomes potential customers while the owner's pooch enjoys breakfast. Catrinas are skeletons, often dressed in elaborate 19th Century styles. The figures were the creation of Jose Guadalupe Posada, a late-19th-Century cartoonist who delighted in lampooning the stylish pretensions of the nouveau riche during the 36-year dictatorship of Porfirio Diaz. Catrinas became wildly popular in Mexico after the famous artist Diego Rivera included them in his huge murals. Today, Catrinas and their male counterparts are portrayed as golfers, motorcyclists, doctors performing operations, women making tortillas, and people involved in any number of other activities. The shop, which is itself called Los Catrines, displays two smaller Catrinas just inside the door. Mexicans have a delightfully quirky sense of humor, and I am always on the lookout for examples to photograph. I usually don't have to search for long. 

As the morning wore on, activity on Real de Guadalupe picked up. While cars are banned from the street, bicycles are apparently permitted. In the background, you can see one of the many that ring the bowl of the Valle de Hueyzacatlán, which cradles San Cristóbal. Automobile-free streets like this are wonderful. They enable a quiet, leisurely experience, without obnoxious auto noise and exhaust fumes. The freedom to wander idly in mid-street without fearing sudden death provides a sense of well-being. That is a feeling hard to appreciate by anyone who has no access to pedestrian-only walkways such as this. Cities elsewhere would do well to emulate San Cristóbal.

A couple enjoys breakfast at one of the inviting little cafes lining Real de Guadalupe. We decided to stop here for a cup of excellent Chiapas coffee. The umbrellas were welcome because, although the morning was cool, the sunlight at San Cristóbal's high altitude (2200 m or 7200 ft) is almost painfully brilliant at times. As you have probably noticed, the street is immaculately clean, another benefit of banning autos. The citizens of San Cristóbal take great pride in their beautiful little community. Its designation as one of Mexico's 83 Pueblos Magicos is obviously one that they want to protect.

Get your groceries, wines, and liquors at Lupita's Zig Zag grocery store! Anyone who came of age in the 1960s will recognize the figure in the sign, as well as its iconic name. I didn't think to ask if cigarette rolling papers were for sale. This was just another of the countless little oddities we discover on our Mexican adventures.

Local police get around on some hot-looking bikes. Armed and armored from head to toe, a couple of city cops get ready to peel out on their racy motorcycles. Given the narrow streets and heavy traffic, bikes such as these make a lot of sense. Also, I suspect that the cops just enjoy riding them. Like the police in many parts of Mexico, they have a para-military look about them. In spite of this, we have always been treated with politeness and courtesy from police officers, even when being stopped for a traffic violation. Local police officers have often gone far out of their way to assist us, even leading us from one end of a town to the other to ensure we don't get lost. Other travelers may have had different experiences, but these have been ours over the last six years.

Templo de Guadalupe

Templo de Guadalupe sits on a forested hilltop with a great view of the city. The dome and steeple of the Templo can be seen in the upper right of the photo. I took this shot from Templo de Cerrito de San Cristóbal, another hilltop church on the opposite side of the valley. The photo provides a sense of the bowl-like terrain of San Cristóbal. Most of the houses, stores, and other buildings are topped with red tiled roofs, a particularly charming aspect of this old colonial town. Real de Guadalupe leads right up to the steps at the base of the Templo's hill. 

Carole consults her map part way up the long, steep staircase.  There are 79 steps, so I advise other visitors to take your time. At this altitude, the effort can leave you panting. There are occasional benches conveniently placed along the way to enable people to catch their breath. The little Templo sits on a flat knob at the very top of the hill. On either side of the staircase are shady gardens and walkways, with a shrine to the Virgen de Guadalupe about half way up the slope.

The view looking down the staircase gives a sense of its steepness. This shot was taken about 1/2 way up. It made me feel better to discover that the young guy coming up was panting just as much as we were. Real de Guadalupe opens up to auto traffic three blocks before reaching the Templo's steps, as you can see on the street below. 

Exterior of the Templo, showing its cúpola (dome). The little church was built in 1835, but its location left it isolated from San Cristóbal's population until the city grew out and around the base of the  hill. Between 1854 and 1864, the original church was renovated by Bishop Carlos Maria Colina y Rubio. In reward for his work, the Bishop was appointed Commander of the Order of Guadalupe by then-President Antonio Lopez de Santa Ana, of Alamo fame. In 1866, during the campaign against the French occupation of Mexico, the Templo was the scene of fierce fighting. 

The Templo interior

After the somewhat austere exterior, I was surprised by the more ornate interior. For a relatively small church, this one is beautifully decorated. The arched ceiling was constructed from varnished pine, cut from the slopes of the heavily wooded mountains surrounding the city. The slight pink tint in the color of the walls is an optical illusion created by the reflection from the ceiling. The walls are actually cream colored.

The Neo-classical interior of the Templo is in the style popular in 19th Century Mexico. The Corinthian capitals atop the columns, along with the decorated cornices, show a definite Neo-classical influence. In the niche on the lower left, Jesus sits on the right hand of the Christian God under a sunburst. Given that these two sit at the top of the Christian hierarchical pantheon, I am always struck by the subsidiary position they tend to occupy in most Mexican churches I have visited. God himself is rarely portrayed, and Jesus is usually found in a niche like this or perhaps in a side chapel. The figure that dominates most Mexican Catholic churches is Mary, the mother of Jesus. One of her almost countless guises, is the Virgen de Guadalupe

A black Jesus hangs on the Cross in a side niche. This is a rather unusual portrayal of Jesus, in that the statue is black. Most usually, he is shown as caucasian. Below the black statue is another in a glass-sided casket. It is possible that the dark-skinned Jesus is intended to appeal to the dark-skinned Maya of the area. After all, the Virgen de Guadalupe is also portrayed as dark-skinned. This, among other things, has led to her veneration by Mexico's indigenous and poor people.

On her knees, a Maya woman crawls the length of the central aisle toward the altar. At short intervals, she stopped to pray audibly. The Virgen de Gualalupe is the patroness of Mexico, and particularly of those at the bottom of the social and economic scale. She was first seen by an indigenous man named Juan Diego, who had converted to Christianity only a few years after the Conquest. In the  century after Juan Diego's encounter, there was considerable controversy among Church authorities over whether it was a valid sighting. The Franciscan Order objected, suspecting a subterfuge by the Aztecs to continue their worship of Tonantzin, their ancient eath-goddess. The Franciscan officials were especially dubious because the Virgin was first encountered in the ruins of Tonantzin's temple on Tepayac Hill near modern Mexico City. The Dominicans and Augustinians noticed that the native people flocked to this dark-skinned Virgin. Evangelization skyrocketed when they used her as a Catholic symbol. That settled the argument. The Church has always been very practical about its own best interests. Notice the red, white, and green lights that frame the Virgin's image. They are colors of the Mexican flag, with which she is often associated. She has long been a powerful political symbol in Mexico, as well as a religious one.

A statue of San Charbel stands off  to the side, draped in ribbons filled with messages. San Charbel Makhluf (1828-1898) was a Lebanese Maronite Christian who spent his life as a monk and a solitary hermit. Although respected for his piety during his life, he did nothing that made him eligible for sainthood until after his death. Then, a series of miracles were reported, including finding his body intact and still capable of bleeding years after his 1898 death. His other post-life miracles include a series of healings over the years. This led believers to seek his help, particularly with their health issues. The petitioner generally writes a request on a ribbon and leaves it draped over San Charbel's arm or hand. Pope Paul VI canonized ("sainted") him in 1977. Since, at the time, the Catholic Church was seeking to bring various Mediterranean-area Christian sects, including the Maronites, back into the Catholic fold, it is reasonable to suspect some practical motives here, too. 

A Maya man stands reverently before still another image of the Virgin of Guadalupe. Notice the furry wool coat he wears. This is the same material used for women's skirts seen in my previous San Cristóbal postings. Coats like this are part of the traditional wardrobe for Maya men in the San Cristóbal area. Tradition only goes so far, however. He is also wearing blue jeans. The statue of the Virgen de Guadalupe seen above was carved in the early 19th Century and was presented to the Templo by the Dean of San Cristóbal's Cathedral in 1850.

This completes Part 4 of my Chiapas series. Next time we'll look at another one of the pedestrian-only streets. I hope you have enjoyed this posting. If you would like to make a comment, please do so 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. Beautiful Jim. Kim and I would love to return to San Cristobal.....beautiful city. Your photos are lovely as usual, the comments interesting and informative. I appreciate being able to vicariously travel Mexico, thanks to you and Carole. Keep going.

    Leslie Hunter - Eugene

  2. Très joli. Muey bonita this looks fantastic, thanks for sharing.


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