If you need to escape, remove yourself from your normal life, avoid the authorities and/or friends and family, we have just the place.
It is remote.
It is beautiful.
It has enough foreigners so that you won’t stand out.
It has enough to keep you entertained.
It is San Cristobel de las Casas in the Chiapas state of Mexico. It is a long way from the American border and fairly close to Guatemala.
Why is it a good place to lie low?
At 2200m above sea level it has a beautiful climate – the sun shines bright during the day but a chill arrives at night, making sleep easy. There are no mosquitos. It is a good size – 185,000 people. It has lots of tourists, but because you have to make a significant effort to get here (either a flight to Tuxtla and then 1 hr transfer or a 9 hour bus ride from Palenque which is itself 12 hours drive from Cancun), these are the more considered type of tourists. To quote a British café owner who lives here, “We have lots of Americans who come here but I’ve never met a Trump supporter.”
The town came into the world’s awareness with the rise of the Zapata movement in the 1990’s which declared war on the central Mexican government. The start of the fighting lead to intense calls for ceasefire and peace broke out. Apparently tourism blossomed afterwards, with left-leaning people from all over the world coming to visit, inspiring its own moniker for lefties looking for meaning and burritos: zapatourism.
The word spread about this lovely old colonial town in the hills and foreigners started coming. Walk down the pedestrianised streets and you could be in Portobello or Rome or Paris – high quality eateries varying from Lebanese to chocolate shops to pizzas and the best Mexican food we’ve ever eaten.
But you don’t go to Mexico for European restaurants do you? No, but should you need to disappear for 6 months or a year, then you’ll be well fed here.
Yesterday the Sunday afternoon sun was high in the sky and the central streets covered in locals just hanging out on their day off work. The main square had street performers and a clown hustling for cash (performing) and vendors selling the kind of tacky tat that children hassle parents for the world over. Cesca saw the rope-trampoline-machine and declared “this is the best day of my life.”
This felt like the most Mexican experience we have had so far and this feels like authentic Mexico, albeit a good looking and cosmopolitan strain. The indigenous people look very Bolivian, with high cheekbones, long black hair, black dresses and colourful shirts. This town feels just like Bolivia. It casts the more Americanised part of the Yucatan peninsula – like Cancun and Tulum – into another world, the 51st (or is it 53rd) state of the USA perhaps?
Getting here and the two murdered cyclists
Our more loyal readers might remember one of the first posts on this blog, about two long distance European cyclists who were murdered near San Cristobel in April this year. It made me paranoid and fearful about coming here. We read stories about the 30,000 murders last year in Mexico (which is an amazing figure; for context New York has had 140 murders in the first six months of 2018) and we are scared, but rationalise it that ‘that’s just the drug gangs in the north’. Then reading about the cyclists deaths near San Cristobel made us think.
We have learned a bit more about what happened.
3 sides of a square – the direct road via Ocosingo is too dangerous for bus companies now. PS 6 hr 51 mins if you are the Mexican version of Lewis Hamilton.
We travelled from Palenque to San Cristoble and did three sides of a square. The 9 hour daytime bus trip was tedious and it turns out that bus companies do not travel on the ‘direct’ road which can be 5 hours as there have been numerous holdups over the past few years, where modern day Dick Turpins blockade the road and demand money from all the passengers. This is not good for business and I doubt the bus drivers enjoyed it. So now they go the long way, as we did.
It was also this ‘direct’ road that the cyclists were on, going from San Cristobel to Ocosingo. It does not make it more palatable, but it does partly explain it. Even our guidebook says, writing in 2015: “Be wary when venturing out into the countryside in Chiapas – many of the local people are suspicious and they do not like their photo being taken.”
Travelling beyond the news cycle
The double murder is a tragedy, as are the other 30,000 deaths, and it is clear that Andres Obrador, the new Mexican president, faces a huge challenge to tackle his four highlighted priorities: corruption, the violence linked to the drug wars, poverty and the relationship with America.
Meanwhile we continue in our gilded parallel universe, hanging out in a wonderful low-key hotel where we drink coffee (Lucy on 10 cups a day), write our journals, watch low quality American reality TV shops (the girls) and do some reading, school work and yoga.