Located in the Central Highlands of Chiapas, San Cristóbal de las Casas is easily one of southern Mexico’s most charming colonial towns. In fact, many consider it among the most magical of all of Mexico’s Pueblos Mágicos. A popular stop on the tourist trail between Oaxaca and the Yucatán, San Cristóbal is an ideal slow travel destination. In the following San Cristóbal guide, we’ll be covering the best of what the town has to offer.
With a population of around 180,000, San Cristóbal is largely inhabited by Tzotzil and Tzeltal Mayans. Notably, however, it was one of the few cities in the region to have been built up from scratch and not atop the ruins of an ancient Mayan city. It was originally founded by the Spanish as a military fort in 1528, and some important architecture from this period survives today.
The locations in the following San Cristóbal guide could probably be seen in two or three days, though more are recommended to soak up the local atmosphere. And you’ll definitely want to add more days to your stay to make room for day trips (more below).
Also be sure to check the end of the article for more info on reaching San Cristóbal and where to stay.
Around Central San Cristóbal
The historical center of San Cristóbal de las Casas is pretty compact. And as one might expect, it’s where you’re going to find many of the town’s most notable landmarks.
In addition to the attractions below, you’ll also encounter numerous crafts markets, while you also shouldn’t miss a walk down the main pedestrian street, Real de Guadalupe.
One of the top things to do in San Cristóbal is aimlessly wander around town, enjoying its traditional streets and architecture.
As you’ll quickly notice, San Cristóbal attracts a big New Age crowd, so don’t be surprised to see posters for yoga workshops and wellness retreats on every other block.
Arco del Carmen
One of the town’s most prominent landmarks is the Arco del Carmen, constructed in 1677 to be attached to a 16th-century church. Built in the Moorish style that was popular at the time, the bell tower later came to serve as San Cristóbal’s gateway.
Sadly, the main church was devastated in a fire in 1993, with many of its relics lost forever. The tower, at least, still stands, and remains a prominent symbol of the town.
The Cathedral of San Cristóbal
The Cathedral of San Cristóbal is the town’s most prominent church, with construction beginning in 1528 immediately upon the city’s founding. It was built in the Baroque style with elaborate vegetal motifs adorning its front facade.
It stands in front of the Plaza de La Paz, while the south side of the church is just across from the town’s Central Park. It’s here that regular concerts and festival events take place, while a small informational museum can be found in the park’s center.
Unfortunately, the church was closed at the time of my visit and still is at the time of writing. Apparently, it’s been closed for years due to extensive restorations, but hopefully you’ll have the chance to check out the interior during your visit.
Iglesia de San Cristóbalito
Those who are up for a workout should consider climbing the steps to see the Iglesia de San Cristóbalito, located on a hill near Arco del Carmen.
Also known as El Cerrito, the church dates back to the late 18th century. While the red-and-white church isn’t too particularly impressive in its own right, it makes for a nice little walk, especially for those who want to escape the hustle and bustle of the town center.
Yet another hilltop church, the Guadalupe Church, is located on the opposite side of town. Construction began in 1835, though the hill had originally been home to gallows in the 16th century.
Inside is a painting of the Virgin of Guadalupe, a close copy of the famous image being kept in the Basilica of Our Lady of Guadalupe in Mexico City.
Unfortunately, as is the case with Iglesia de San Cristóbalito, trees obscure much of the view of San Cristóbal down below.
The Amber Museum
One of multiple museums to be situated within a beautiful ex-convent, the Amber Museum is well worth a quick visit. The Chiapas region, it turns out, is one of Mexico’s main sources of amber, a stone formed millions of years ago from fossilized resin of the now-extinct Hymanea Mexicana tree.
Amber was used by the Mayans for both fashion and ritual. It was often used to protect infants from the ‘evil eye,’ and it was a major product which the Mayans traded with neighboring civilizations.
The museum contains an interesting collection of different kinds of amber, both crude and polished. You’ll even find some amazing pieces of sculpted amber created by contemporary artists.
And as you’ll observe at the museum, it’s quite common for amber to contain ancient insects and other creatures fossilized within.
The Museum of Jade
Also within the center is (or was) the Museum of Jade. It’s worth noting that they were in the process of moving to a new location during my visit, and what I found inside was basically just a gift shop.
The Textile Museum
Even for those without a particular interest in textiles, the local Textile Museum is worth visiting for a number of reasons. First of all, it’s situated within the stunning Church of Santo Domingo de Guzmán, built between 1547 and 1551 by the Dominican Order.
It’s recognizable for its beautiful Baroque facade covered in intricately carved religious imagery. Right outside, meanwhile, is a thriving local artisanal market.
As mentioned, the building now hosts a Textile Museum, but it’s also home to a local history museum. Only a couple of small rooms of that museum were open during my visit, however, as the rest was being restored.
While both museums are free, note that they will not let you take any bags or cameras inside. There are lockers near the entrance in which you can leave your belongings, while cellphone photography is permitted.
The textile museum contains over 2,500 pieces, with many of them coming from nearby Zinacantán.
The tradition of Mayan textiles has been passed down through the generations since pre-Hispanic times. It’s survived to the present even after so many other traditions have died out.
One eye-catching item on display is a replica of Yaxchilan’s Lintel 24, which depicts the king and his wife performing a type of self-sacrifice ritual. While very few original textiles from ancient times have survived, the garments the royal couple is wearing give us a good idea of the way that royal Mayans dressed.
For example, the queen in the carving wears a huipil, a blouse-like garment still worn by Mayan women today.
Casa Na Bolom
Arguably the top attraction in this San Cristóbal guide, Casa Na Bolom is special for a few different reasons. Not only is the house itself beautiful, but it was the former home of Frans Blom, a very important figure in the field of Mesomaerican archaeology.
Note that you first buy your ticket in a separate building which houses the gift shop. And upon purchasing the ticket, you’ll be a shown a short documentary, after which you can then start exploring the main museum.
Blom’s main focus was the Lacandon Maya, a group that has traditionally lived deep in the jungle. Interestingly, they speak a different dialect of Mayan from that of their neighbors, and it’s believed that they first immigrated to the Chiapas region in the early colonial period for safety.
Along with his wife Gertrude, a formidable anthropologist in her own right, the couple dedicated their lives to the preservation of Lacandon culture. And there’s currently no better place for visitors to learn about the Lacandon than here.
In addition to numerous artifacts, the museum details important Lacandon myths and folktales. And you can also look at rare photos taken of the Lacandon in the year 1960.
For those visiting the ruins of Bonampak in southern Chiapas, you’ll inevitably encounter some modern Lacandon Mayans, as they control the surrounding jungle and manage all transport to and from the ruins.
Another room presents the story of Frans Blom’s life and work. Born in 1893 in Copenhagen, Denmark, Blom developed a passion for ancient Mesoamerica during his first trip to Mexico in the 1920s. He’d then go on to study archaeology in the US.
Upon multiple return trips to Mexico, he’d survey sites like Palenque, La Venta, Comalcalco, Toniná and more. And of course, he’d also repeatedly visited the jungles of Chiapas to visit the Lacandon. Eventually, he’d decide to live in Mexico full time.
Blom passed away in 1963, just days after becoming a naturalized Mexican citizen.
In the room dedicated to his life story, you can find an interesting collection of artifacts he discovered during his numerous excavations.
The house itself is another highlight of visiting Casa Na Bolom. Though originally intended as a Catholic seminary, it was never used for that purpose.
Frans Blom was able to buy it with inheritance money following his father’s death, and it’s said to be the first Neoclassical building in all of San Cristóbal.
Around the house, you’ll find things like a dining room, a library and even a chapel. You can also go out and explore the expansive garden which contains Frans Blom’s grave.
North SAN CRISTÓBAL
Outside the center, you’ll find a few notable attractions to the north of San Cristóbal’s always-busy main market. The northern area is accessible on foot, though local colectivos can take you there as well.
The Mayan Medicine Museum
As the name suggests, the Museum of Mayan Medicine is the place to learn about the traditional healing methods of the Maya that persist to this day.
You’ll learn about specific rituals and ceremonies along with the symbolism of the objects used in them. You’ll also learn a little about medicinal plants and midwifery.
Furthermore, you’ll find many full-scale recreations of modern Mayan altars, while mannequins have been placed to demonstrate important rituals.
Another room features a placard criticizing the big pharmaceutical and biotech companies for using medicinal plants from this region in their for-profit products. (It really wasn’t that long ago when such companies were viewed with healthy suspicion by both sides of the political spectrum.)
Most visitors to San Cristóbal make a side trip to the nearby town of Chamula, in which you can witness traditional rituals taking place inside the local church.
You can learn more about Chamula in this article, where we’ll also be going over the topics covered at the museum in greater depth.
The Moxviquil Orchid Reserve
To the northeast of the Mayan Museum and about 15 minutes on foot is Moxviquil, an orchid reserve and nature trail.
While often touted as one of the top activities in town, this is the one location in this San Cristóbal guide that I don’t actually recommend. But why?
First is the pricing system. Seeing the orchids and walking along the nature trail requires two separate tickets. And they charge $80 MXN for EACH! Well, just sometimes, apparently.
The strange part is that there are no signs indicating the price. And looking at recent reviews, it seems like different people are asked to pay different amounts. It’s all very fishy.
I opted to do the nature trail only which took about an hour and a half round-trip. But it was anticlimactic, to say the least.
There was hardly anything noteworthy to see during the entire trail with the exception of one small cave. And despite being on a hill above town, there were no unobstructed views of San Cristóbal down below.
But if you’re a nature lover staying in San Cristóbal, where would be a good place to go? The answer is easy: El Arcotete.
El Arcotete Ecotourism Park is the best way to get out in nature during your stay in San Cristóbal. About a twenty-minute drive from the city center, you can get there easily via colectivo (shared minivan).
It’s unclear exactly where these colectivos originate, but the route may start from the main market. In my case, I walked toward the Guadalupe Church and then headed north a couple of blocks, watching the east-bound vehicles go by. It was then only a couple of minutes before a van for El Arcotete approached.
Despite being much larger and prettier than Moxviquil, El Arcotete costs a mere $20 MXN. But before your visit, it’s best to understand what the park is not.
El Arcotete doesn’t contain any real hiking trails and won’t take up more than a couple of hours of your time. Unless, of course, you decide to camp there, as there are plenty of on-site cabins in addition to a restaurant.
Other people come for zip-lining, while you can also explore a cave. The cave costs just an additional 10 pesos extra and is definitely worth doing.
The park itself is named after the stone arch you’ll see at the cave entrance, which is said to be the site of a local legend about a love triangle that resulted in a tragic death.
The cave itself is quite expansive and very fun to explore. You’ll also find a number of signs pointing out what some of the rock formations resemble, which is everything from alien heads to Spiderman.
Finished with the cave, I went for a walk along the Rio Fogotico. The scenery was beautiful, though I’d end up hitting a dead-end before long.
One traveler I met told me it’s possible to walk alongside the river until you arrive back in San Cristóbal, though I didn’t see any plausible way to do so without getting soaked.
As mentioned, El Arcotete doesn’t contain any proper hiking trails. But before heading back, I wanted to be sure. Exploring the area, I discovered some more beautiful views, but I didn’t end up finding any trails and decided to call it a day.
You’ll find colectivos back near where you got dropped off, though the departure times seems somewhat irregular. Fortunately, as the driver picks up plenty of passengers along the way, you won’t have to wait until the van fills up.
Day Trips From San Cristóbal
In addition to the attractions in the San Cristóbal guide above, the Pueblo Mágico also makes for a good base for day trips.
Another must-visit in the area is the town of Chamula, where you can witness a fascinating indigenous healing ritual in a local church. The nearby Zinacantán, meanwhile, is famous for its textiles.
Many tour agencies around town offer day tours to both locations, while you can also book a tour online. But you can also get there yourself via colectivos if you so desire.
Another popular tour is one that takes you to both the El Chiflón Waterfall and the Montebello Lakes on the same day. The tour, though, is extremely long. I opted instead to spend a few days in the town of Comitán, from which I could easily visit both locations as independent day trips.
As a town of only 180,000 people, San Cristóbal is not especially large, and most of the accommodations are located somewhere in the town center. This allows you to reach most of the spots in the San Cristóbal guide above on foot.
I stayed at an Airbnb about a 10-minute walk south of the bus station. This made it easy to take a day trip to the Sumidero Canyon, while I could get to the town center in around twenty minutes on foot.
While not many tourists stay in this southern area, I found it to be a safe and convenient neighborhood which maintains an authentic local atmosphere.
Generally speaking, though, staying anywhere in the historical center should be fine, and you’ll find accommodation for a wide variety of budgets.
Personally, however, I would avoid staying right by the main market, which is known to be unsafe at times.
The nearest airport to San Cristóbal is located in the state capital of Tuxtla Gutierrez, about an hour drive away. You should be able to find direct domestic flights from all around the country.
Despite being in the same state, the reason the bus from Palenque takes so long is because all coach buses now use a longer route via Villahermosa, Tabasco.
This is due to regular blockades and occasional armed robberies on the road between San Cristóbal and Ocosingo, the town about halfway to Palenque.
If you’re willing to take the risk for a shorter journey, you can get to/from Palenque via two colectivos with a transfer in Ocosingo. I’ve met people who’ve done this without any problems, but you never know.
In any case, Villahermosa, Tabasco is well worth a couple of days in order to see the Olmec heads at Parque Museo La Venta along with the Mayan ruins of Comalcalco.
You can also easily get to San Cristóbal from Comitán, which is further south in Chiapas and nearby the El Chiflon Waterfall and the Montebello Lakes.
You may also be able to reach San Cristóbal direct from Guatemala, but it’s best to ask for details on the ground.
There has been increasing talk lately about safety concerns in San Cristóbal. In my own personal experience, I stayed for around ten days in total and had zero problems. But I also got back to my rental apartment pretty early each day.
I’ve met other travelers who were mugged at gunpoint right outside their hostel in the historical center. They’d gone out late at night and then had trouble with the keys to the hostel as they tried to get back in. Some criminals saw this from afar and took advantage of the opportunity.
Aside from the occasional robbery, articles like this one mention the rise of armed biker gangs, while political unrest seems to be on the rise as well.
While most tourists like myself don’t have any problems whatsoever, it would be wise to update yourself on the situation before your trip and avoid going for long walks late at night.