San Cristobal: Coffee, Spanish Lessons, and Zapatistas

San Cristobal de Las Casas is a colonial mountain town called the “cultural capital” of the state of Chiapas. The population of Chiapas, Mexico’s southern-most state, is made up of one-third indigenous people, making this area one of the most authentic-feeling larger cities in Mexcio that we visited. The people selling handmade goods on the street were in traditional dress, the women carrying babies on their backs, and the markets were largerly focused around handcrafted local goods, more so than the areas where more tourist-centric items were the norm. We felt safe in this beautiful town, but the disparity of wealth was more evident here than it had been in previous places.

The city has seen political unrest in the last 50 years starting primarily in the 60s and 70s when the indigenous people began leaving the Catholic church. To combat this, a newly appointed Bishop joined with Marist priests and nuns following an ideology called liberation theology. Together they formed a new form of Catholicism, called simply “Word of God,” that mixed traditional Cathlolic practices with Indigenious rites and beliefs. In the following twenty years, the Mexican federal government adopted neoliberalism, which clashed with the leftist political ideas of liberation theology and many of the indigenous activist groups. Economic marginalization among indigenous groups soared, with resentment strongest in the San Cristóbal region and in migrant communities living in the Lacandon Jungle. Thus was born the Zapatista Movement.

As this unrest brewed, the Zapatista Army of National Liberation (Ejército Zapatista de Liberación Nacional, EZLN) emerged. On January 1, 1994, the day the NAFTA treaty went into effect, an estimated 3,000 EZLN forces occupied and took over the towns of San Cristóbal de las Casas, along with six other Chiapas communities. They read their proclamation of revolt to the world and then laid siege to a nearby military base, capturing weapons and releasing many prisoners from the jails. The guerrillas enjoyed brief success, but the following day Mexican army forces counterattacked, and fierce fighting broke out in and around the market of nearby Ocosingo. The Zapatista forces took heavy casualties and retreated from the city into the surrounding jungle. Over the next year, their leader, known only as Subcomandante Marcos, negotiated between the EZLN and authorities even though his leftist activism made him suspect to many authorities. This would undermine efforts and eventually the Catholic Church would split from the Zapatista movement. However, the negotiations would lead to the San Andrés Accords and a peaceful end to this particular rebellion. By the time he died in 2011, Subcomandante Marcos was locally given the name of “Tatic”, which means “father” in Tzotzil, and received numerous distinctions including the Simón Bolívar Prize from UNESCO and the International Human Rights Award in Nuremberg.

Though we didn’t encounter any of this unrest personally, its presence is still felt in Chiapis. On a short walk from the school down to the main road we passed by a building we assumed to be a Zapitista stronghold, based on the signs and insignia on the gates, and when out bar hopping with new neighbors we visited a Zapatista run bar for late night Cerveza Artesanals. The movement is still alive and well in the area, but at the moment it seems to be quietly abiding. It may be the only thing quiet about the town as everything from mid-day/mid-night fireworks, to karaoke, to late night Zumba classes could be heard from our camp. Also, almost daily funeral processions made their way down our street, sometimes featuring music, sometimes only accompanied by the mourning of the loved-ones. There was always something happening in our little piece of San Cristobal.

We always say how much we’d like to stay longer in a place so we can really have time to explore and get the feel of the town. Since Mazatlan we had been running from place to place to make it to San Cristobal in time for a much-needed week of Spanish lessons, and were ready to plant some roots for a week or so. When we got settled in, we took a wonderful trip to a local coffee farm (see pictures below), arranged our classes and a cooking class for later in the week, and then KP immediately got sick. He was out for a night and a day, thankfully before classes started so he didn’t have to miss anything. We then spent the next two days up to our eyes in Spanish verbs and conjugation. By the time KP was fully recovered, we had a couple new neighbors to greet, a wandering French-Canadian artist in a Winebago, and a lovely American couple enjoying retirement in their comfy 30 foot RV. We all went out for drinks and dinner to get to know each other, and had a lovely time telling travel stories, listening to Benoit’s very interesting views on life as a single photographer, and being serenaded by Spanish guitar. All was wonderful until I woke up in the middle of the night with the same thing KP had.

I was out for a full day and a half as well, missing 1 of my only 5 days of Spanish classes, which was such a bummer. Luckily our wonderful teachers arranged for me to come in early the following day for a “make-up class.” Still fevery I made it for my make-up class plus our two regular classes and then it was back to bed. I barely made it to our cooking class that evening, but it was worth dragging myself back up the staircase (did I mention that our school was halfway up one of those crazy hills/staircases that are my favorite feature of any Mexican mountain town) for this one-of-a-kind experience. Our neighbors Mike and Diana had signed up for classes as well with the school set to start on Monday, and so were invited to join in on our cooking class. The four of us had a wonderful time making Pico de Galo, Guacamole, and all the fixings for Mexican Chalupas (nothing like you would get at Taco Bell). Did you know they add carrots and beets to their chalupas in Mexico? Neither did we!

All the sudden, it was our last full-day in town and we realized we hadn’t done any of the stuff we had said we wanted to, and thought we’d have time for. There were wonderful churches and museums in San Cristobal and we hadn’t seen a single one. We did a little more wandering in the town trying to take all the pictures we’d said we’d get later, before returning back to our camp to meet our neighbors, plus the new addition of a very wonderful couple from Holland, for a little group outing. We went out for a dinner of Mole and Enchiladas in a tiny restaurant that Benoit told us was the best in town. It wasn’t the best food we had ever had, but the company was wonderful, and you can’t beat a dinner for 6 that costs less than $300 pesos (about $15 USD).

We may not have seen everything that San Cristobal had to offer, but we experienced a wonderful sense of comradery all around, especially at the school and our little “trailer park” neighborhood. The people we met in town were wonderfully accepting and forgiving of our terrible Spanish. The classes seem to have just brought to light how much we don’t know and how much more we need to work to learn the language, but we’re ready to keep practicing.

I didn’t want the post to be too long so I left out the story of our trip to the coffee plantation from the account. I included pictures and descriptions below to show a bit of the experience. It was definitely extraordinary. Also if you’re interested in the Spanish school we studied at here is a link to their website: We highly recommend their classes. We took their 15 hour/week group lesson (though it turned out to just be the two of us) for $109 USD/week.


Coffee Plantation-