Living Richly on Less in San Cristobal de las Casas

My husband, Jim, and I had long dreamed of traveling to San Cristobal de las Casas (San Cris for short). However, after two decades and dozens of trips to Mexico, this lush city set high in the mountains of Chiapas remained undiscovered for us. Luckily, a nomadic life lived on the road moves at a slow pace, and we finally found time to set down roots for a bit and truly appreciate this stunning city.

This colonial city remains surrounded by dozens of traditional Tzotzil and Tzeltal villages and is one of the most deeply rooted indigenous areas in Mexico. The city of San Cris is filled with color and culture. The centuries-old architecture has a traditional hill-town feel with low stucco buildings covered in red brick rooftops. Another tradition is the multi-toned paint used to create a festive atmosphere and make every building easily distinguishable from the next. Narrow cobblestone streets make for a bumpy, but characteristic, ride.

As with much of Mexico, the cost of living is very reasonable. A one-bedroom apartment in the city center can be had for around $200 a month and, by shopping at the local markets, food prices are astonishingly low. Even the occasional trip to Walmart or Chedraui for “luxury” items shouldn’t set you back more than $100 for a week’s worth of food.

One of the most appealing aspects of San Cris is the café culture. The ancient, often pedestrian-friendly, downtown streets offer up a nearly endless number of fantastic little sidewalk cafés serving some of the most amazing coffee you will ever find. Days can be spent just sampling the numerous cafés, which often also offer a multitude of mezcal (an alcohol made from the agave plant) drinks.

Perhaps the best part of all is how inexpensive this coffee and mezcal heaven is. Many of the cafés have daily specials and we often enjoyed an entire afternoon people-watching for a mere $3 for both of us to have a coffee or two.

Dining out is another pleasure and, while there are expensive restaurant options, two we found ourselves going back to often were both tasty and inexpensive. The Funky Burrito is just that: Funky! Dog friendly, this colorful spot serves up burritos made to order just behind the bar and some extremely tasty mezcal cocktails. Lunch or dinner for two with a couple of drinks can easily be had for less than $12.

Our very favorite place is Achiote Cochinita Pibil. This little restaurant features all things Cochinita Pibil—slowly roasted pork—and our favorite evening was to choose eight or 10 different options, all less than $1 each, and sample our way through the menu. Each proved more delicious than the previous, and we had to force ourselves to stop ordering each time.

As for sightseeing, this mid-sized mountain town has some extraordinary offerings. For free experiences, just wander this stunning town and check out some of the magnificent architecture at churches such as the Temple of Santo Domingo and the Cathedral de San Cristobal de las Casas. Within the Convent of Santo Domingo resides one of the most interesting museums I’ve ever been to in the Textile del Mundo Maya. The price of entry is less than $3 but the experience is priceless, as you view the extensive display of stunning Maya wearable art.

Along with coffee, Chiapas state is famous for its chocolate, and there is no better place to experience this than at the Kakaw Museum. For another inexpensive entry fee of $2 you can learn about all things chocolate, get some free samples, and order some of their delicious hot chocolate.

The street art, festive colors, ethnic tribes, and stunning downtown of this beautiful city are a feast for the senses and will enchant all who visit. Those wishing to set down roots for a bit longer will find it is easily doable for less than $2,000 a month.

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