There is a curse on San Cristobal. It is designed to keep people away despite the serenity of the place. The water is poison, the food is poison, and the earth it comes from is poison, but only if you’re not from there. San Cristobal has a history of defiance against foreign invaders, and it continues to fight that battle. The only way to survive the onslaught of illness is to live only on the city’s surface and leave.
San Cristobal is deep in the area of Chiapas—a beautiful region famous for the Zapatistas Army of National Liberation. They have been a long-standing nationalistic party and army since 1994, although their war is currently considered “frozen.” But, my guts will tell you otherwise; they were not frozen, and the Zapatista war raged on.
Delicia warned me before we arrived that the water, food, and everything else was riddled with parasites. Of course, nothing should be eaten or drunk unless heavily cooked, but I live by my own rules and suffer my own actions, so I immediately helped myself to a massive plate of street market tacos. Whether it was those or the fact I used ml of water to brush my teeth, or just latent death in the air, I had cramps and discomfort for the entire two weeks. The moment it stopped was the minute I got on the bus to leave, seriously.
Despite the discomfort, San Cristobal was a joy. The city itself is sleepy but still plays host to a beautiful life of locals, music, food, and fascinating art. The streets are narrow and cobbled, and the architecture could have been pulled right from the mountains of Italy. It was the first time I had seen a horizon full of terracotta roofs since leaving Europe, and it was strangely nostalgic for me.
Like everywhere in Mexico I have been so far, San Cris has its own street art style. This city had something very psychedelic going on. Twisted images of faces, skylines, and undecipherable nonsense took up every accessible wall, giving the town a very trippy atmosphere. It combined with the narrow and labyrinthine streets perfectly.
We spent a lot of time together exploring what the city had to offer, and it turned out that although tiny, it had a lot to give. One of the favorites turned out to be Pox, pronounced posh, which is just another of the wonderful things produced from corn. Pox is a liquor traditionally used in ceremonies but is now used by alcoholics and revelers. The Sweet and golden liquor starts at about 45% and can often be found above 50. It is sweet and delicious, and gives a fantastic buzz. It is yet to leave the region, but you get one bearded hipster with a startup micro-brewery in Bristol out there, and it’ll be international. They’ve already started bottling Pulque, Pox is next, mark my words.
It is summer here at the moment, which for a mountainous microclimate like San Cristobal, means rain. The rain only falls for a few hours a day, and it is primarily warm but comes down in buckets. Anywhere between midday and about 5 pm, it is guaranteed to throw down for about 2/3 hours. We even were lucky enough to see hail the size of golf balls, a rare occurrence apparently.
We had gotten ourselves our own place in San Cristobal, one that also provided a kitchen that was rarely used due to the nature of the food there. This meant that when the rain came, we had a place to hide; a home with a big comfy bed, private bathroom, and Netflix pasted on the wall opposite where we slept. It was a luxury I wasn’t used to and already miss. Sitting inside in the warmth and watching the rain and hail hammer down around us was actually rather lovely from the comfort of a private place.
We met some wonderful people through Delicia’s usual swathe of international contacts. On one particularly dry and sunny afternoon, we popped over to a friend of hers apartment complex. It consisted of a ring of inward-facing flats surrounding a beautifully maintained garden complete with fish pond, shading trees, lush grass, and a pavilion. A spread had been laid on, and a big group of expatriated immigrants had come to enjoy the afternoon. The conversation was excellent, with lots of outlandish opinions, spiritual guff, and free laughter. We met some lovely people and managed to net an invite to a games night later in the week with a Torontonian called Sania. Interestingly enough, she had been on the same course at Edinburgh University as an old friend of mine. It’s a small world.
Unsolicited Emotional Taxation
The game night was a lie. I expected risk and uno, but instead, we were propositioned with a game that is usually only reserved for couples who have lost the ability to communicate openly about their feelings if they were ever able to in the first place. The game consisted of cue cards that had some of the most personally direct, intimate questions I have ever heard. This is a challenge for someone who will pay a therapist and just come out of the sessions with 100 new ways to sidestep questions with diverting humor.
I smoked everyone out to the point of being slightly delirious, and we cracked on. It was an interesting evening; the four other people there, alongside myself, Delicia, and Sania, were open with their answers and seemed to enjoy the vulnerability of it all. Watching people speak frankly about themselves does a lot to ease the difficulties of understanding one’s own problems with vulnerability. I would have taken the ruthless capitalism of Monopoly over the bleeding-heart openness of cue card couples therapy given the option, though.
I had a great time and left feeling like I had met some truly great people. Real characters deep in the process of self-realisation, driving hard for that final triangle on Maslow’s hierarchy of needs. They have my undivided support, skeptical and bitter though it is. The night resulted in further invites to more parties later in the week; I realized I may have met some people I would end up missing rather soon. That just seems to be one of the few boons of travel, I guess.
We had a few more parties to go to. One of which was a child’s birthday party down in the valley of San Cristobal. One of Delicia’s bandmates from Oaxaca lived here, and she invited us along to the shindig. We arrived late, just in time for all the children to leave and the party bags and mezcal to be handed out, so really, we arrived just in time. It was a lovely evening. We chatted away with family friends, and Delicia helped the birthday boy build his toys. The walk back was a different story.
Like many places in Mexico, San Cris is built up a mountain, and an incredibly high one. It sits at 2,200 meters above sea level. This is great for getting drunk due to the lack of oxygen, but shit for trying to walk up stairs, of which there were hundreds. We opted to take the long way home and faced the seemingly endless, twisting route up the side of the city. We burnt off our birthday dinner and a little extra, not that I had much to give in my digestionally-weakened state. The endorphin rush and view at the end were totally worth it, regardless.
There And Back Again
San Cristobal is surrounded by fantastic nature and history, something Delicia and I had endeavored to see while we were there. Unfortunately, time moves very slowly in San Cris, and it becomes somewhat of a black hole for productivity, not to say it isn’t incredibly relaxing and enjoyable. Nevertheless, we managed to get one trip booked in, and my god, what a day it was.
It started with a 4 am start, getting picked up at our little home by a minibus. Thankfully It had aircon because despite San Cris being particularly cool, as soon as we broke out of the mountains, it was a rapid return to the 35 degrees we had so recently left behind. So we relaxed back and tried to catch a few more hours of sleep before our first destination.
It isn’t that easy to sleep on a minibus in Mexico. Every non-motorway road is lined with homemade speed bumps that work as an effort to traffic calming and as adverts for roadside restaurants. Every vehicle has to come to a stop as they traverse the 4-foot-high piles of cement that occur about every half a mile. I presume they’re built to make people pay attention to the small cafés and shops that line the mountain roads; perhaps they are just for the safety of the locals; either way, each one sends your head through the top of the minivan. It makes relaxing with your head on a loved one, window, or pillow impossible without severe facial bruising. Although our trip to the first location was a few hours, it could have been about half an hour without the need to crawl over the bumps at five mph every 5 minutes.
Agua Azul was the first stop. It is a waterfall deep in the Chiapas jungle. The water falls down miles of smooth, caramel-colored rock to pools and streams throughout. As suggested by the name, the water is bright turquoise due to the minerals it has picked up along the way. You can spot the river running through the valleys far below from way up in the mountains as it shines like a sapphire from miles around.
The water was beautifully cold in the heat of the day, and we spent a wonderful few hours swimming, relaxing, and taking beautiful pictures, mostly of ourselves. We’re both better looking than nature; it only makes sense. Finally, we dried off and made our way back to the minivan for the next leg of our adventure: another waterfall.
The second was more of a cascade than the previous one, and it wasn’t blue. The torrent of water fell from the edge of a cliff a good 100 meters to the pool below. It was possible to walk right behind the wall of water to a cave buried into the cliff face. The cave itself was filled with water, running out to join the waterfall outside, and was home to hundreds of bats. We had the chance to swim again but were too distracted by the bats to have time. Once more, we made our way back to the minivan.
The final spot was in Palenque, a city far east of San Cristobal. It hosts a fantastic set of ruins buried deep in the mountainous jungle. We had paid for a tour, but sadly it was all in Spanish, and they weren’t prepared to run a private one for Delicia and I. It was no bother; it meant we could make our own way around and make our own history up too.
The regeneration effort was amazing. The grounds themselves were vast, and the work that had gone into restoring the tumbledown ruins and gardens around it was vast. The huge pyramids had been rebuilt almost to their former glory, with the central building still undergoing considerable construction. We were able to scale a number of them and even visit the Red Queens’ tomb. The relief of being out of the sun was fantastic.
By this point, the sun had reached its hottest. It was absolutely hammering down on our heads and made the shade of the trees a welcome break. Climbing the enormous structures was something that, although steep and severe, had to be done quickly to avoid the unforgiving sun. The top always provided some sort of respite and a chance to get our breath back.
The views were fantastic. Vast vistas of ruins, valleys, jungle, and endless sky lay beneath us, making it clear why the Mayans had built their temples to the gods here. The views were inspiring, bringing thoughts of praise for the beauty of the Mexican landscape and the phenomenal amount it has to offer. The more I learn about Mexico, the more I realize it is a land that has it all, able to provide entirely for the people living there without needing anything else.
After a little trek through the jungle, we made our way back, for the final time, to the minivan and hopefully homeward. The day had been long, wonderful, but tiring. The ride back was going to be a long one, but a comfortable place to stay was promised at the end.
About an hour out of Palenque, there was an accident. A trailer carrying another heavy goods vehicle had collided with a car, blocking the only way into and out of Sac Cristobal. These roads are all single lanes, so it doesn’t take much to block them entirely. Both sides had come to a standstill with little hope of relief. As cars pulled up, they often simply turned around to return the way they came, only delaying any chance of a tow truck making its way past the jam. On either side of the road were fields, completely unmanageable by a vehicle. We were stuck until the jam was cleared.
We took a walk down the road for some beers. The local chicken grill, positioned on what would usually be an almost empty junction, was now heaving and probably hitting the highlight of the restaurant’s income. He sold us some ice-cold cervecas, and we settled in for the long haul, however long that may be.
We made camp on top of the minivan; it made for good watching as people moved up and down the lines giving more information as the evening wore on. There was no hope of a diversion; this was the only road. There was little chance of a removal team either, and I think the ambulance took about 2 hours to make its way through the crowds of cars. As the evening settled in, the Mexicans around us did what they do best, chatted away, stayed very calm, and blamed nobody. What will be will be. Somehow, despite being in the back end of nowhere, guys turned up with trays of food for sale. Cakes, sweets, bottles of coco, everything. Where they materialised from is a mystery to me.
We both dropped off eventually. The long day and early start had finally caught up with us. We woke to the sounds of vehicles starting up again. This was a welcome relief. Our van had been turned off, presumably to preserve fuel, and the aircon blasting back through the interior was like a glass of cold water after a run. We were finally on the way again.
First of all, they let all the smaller cars through. These were all that could fit. Then, as people managed to push the wreckage further out of the way, we were finally ushered down the seemingly endless lines. As we approached, there was a relief team made up of locals who, I presume, had been instrumental in moving the cars. They required payment for their services, asking each far for a handful of pesos as they passed. I think it’s fair, and I have absolutely no idea how they did it. There wasn’t a rescue truck in sight.
We had been in the jam for about 4 hours. The rest of the journey was a delirious blur, and by the time we got back to San Cris, both Delicia and I were dying for the toilet. Every speed bump made my bladder scream in agony. We couldn’t get dropped any sooner at our door.
We finally got home about half one in the morning, exhausted, silent, and a little delirious. I went to the door to enter the code in the pin pad only to find that it had run out of battery and we were locked out. Standing in the cold, with our batteries on empty and bladders on full, we had to call out our landlady and stand in the beginnings of that famous San Cristobal rain. We didn’t have much to say, and nothing needed to be said. Getting inside was golden. Bed was heaven.
A Farewell, Again
The day had been excellent; I would take the ordeal of the journey home to San Cristobal again for the stunning sights I had seen and the perfect company it had been in. It was coming to the end of my trip to Chiapas and mine and Delicia’s time together. I was heading down toward Merida via a visit to Campeche for head-down work, and Delicia was staying with some friends and playing a few more gigs.
I was sad to be leaving Delicia. We had spent some incredible time together, laughing, talking, and exchanging our surprisingly different cultures. For me, I had met someone who would always have a place in my heart, someone I met at a tumulus and exciting part of my life who offered things I had never expected or hoped to get from my journey, yet enriched my time to no end. If it is the last we see of each other, I will be very surprised and very disappointed, but as travel goes, people pass one another for a short time or long. It is mainly about the enjoyment you both receive from those moments you are given. I have met a few people so far that will sit with me as an experience and a learning opportunity, but mostly as treasured friends, and I will always have a space for them by my side in whatever capacity they need.
I left Chiapas a little sore in the heart but happy I had had the chance to feel what I had. Again, I was leaving a place that the more I stayed there, the more it pulled me in. Everywhere has a charm, and anywhere can be home, given half a chance. I hopped on my bus with fingers and ears filled with the famous San Cristobal amber and a heart full of happiness.