Sunday, 13th July
We caught the overnight bus to San Cristobal de las Casas and arrived at around 7am at the local bus terminal. We managed to get some sleep on the journey but were still rather groggy when we got off the bus and hit the cobbled streets of San Cristobal de las Casas. We decided to walk the 20-30 minutes to our accommodation (Kukurutz Apartments) as it was a fairly easy route to navigate and the morning was still cool and pleasant. You also get a good look at a place doing this when you first get there. First impressions of San Cristobal de las Casas are very positive, similar to Oaxaca in that the buildings are colonial, brightly coloured and the streets are cobbled. It seems like a lively place and a nice town to base ourselves for the next week whilst we attempt to ‘get good’ at Spanish, or at least learn enough to get us through the next five months. We are now in the Central Highlands region of Chiapas. On arriving at our accommodation on ‘Calle Real de Mexicanos’ we were surprised to find that we had a large ground floor apartment all to ourselves set around a central courtyard, much more than we had envisaged. We are paying less then US$50 a night for both of us and for that we have a large one bedroom apartment with full kitchen in a beautiful setting, outside courtyard and within the bounds of the historic centre, just down the road from the main market plaza of Santo Domingo. When you are travelling it’s so nice to have these comforts every now and again; being able to cook for yourself once in a while and just have some peace and quiet. We will be making the most of this place. We will also be studiously learning Spanish of course, so the quiet will come in handy. Once settled and showered we went out in search of some breakfast which we found along a lovely pedestrianised street, Real de Guadalupe. A breakfast of coffee, orange juice with a plate of tortillas covered in salsa, a fried egg and some re-fried beans on the side did the job and we wandered back to the hostel to do some laundry and have a rest, the bus journey starting to take effect. After a rest and it being the day of the World Cup final we ventured out to find a place to watch it. As it turns out I got the times wrong so we missed the first half but still managed to catch most of the game in a local restaurant. On the way back to our lodgings we went to a local supermarket to pick up some stuff for a soup and found that we are spoilt with the choice of vegetables back home with stuff flown in from all over the place. Stands to reason that they would only sell what they grow nearby but you just don’t think about it. We turned in early, being exhausted from the bus ride and also needing a good nights sleep before we start our Spanish source the next day.
Monday, 14th July
We got up earlier than usual today and managed to grab a quick coffee before getting to our language school, ‘La Casa en la Arbol’. We only just got the coffee; it seems that if you order takeaway you get seen to first no matter who else has ordered. We had taken a seat and so were seemingly forgotten about. Luckily we had ordered espressos but rather than sip them we had to shoot them. Anyhow, we made it to the school on time and as we were the only two in our class and our teacher was a bit late it didn’t matter. We have noticed that time-keeping is not up the priority list in Mexico, not in a bad way, just something we’ll get used to. Kirsty and I are both people who get their 10 minutes early rather than risk getting there 1 minute late. Our teacher, Guillermo or ‘Memo’, was excellent and we had our first day of 5 hours split across lunch. We covered all the basics fairly quickly and it made for a good revision of our course we had done back in Melbourne and also covered some new ground. We feel as though this five days will really do us some good but another course down the track will be needed. On the way back home from school we tried out some new vocab and got some ‘estampillas’ (stamps) from the ‘oficina de correo’ (post office) for our postcards. We then got a coffee (with a shot of brandy, traditional apparently!) and hot chocolate before going for a stroll down some new streets just to check them out for any nice looking places to eat and shop at for later down the track. It is so nice to be somewhere for a week, which seems like such a long time when you are on the road and constantly moving around, always thinking about the next place, how to get there and where to stay. Once back at our lovely abode we set about making notes from our class and doing our homework before dinner like proper well-behaved students.
Tuesday, 15th July
Today was much like yesterday in that we had a day of Spanish classes. We are finding that they are getting quite tricky quickly so we will have some work to do to make it stick. There are plenty of places to choose from for a morning coffee, lunch and post-class drink and snack which is nice. We opted for a takeaway coffee today so as to not be late but it don’t help, we still got there a few minutes late. For lunch we had some tamales and enchiladas covered in a mole negro sauce. Delicious as always, this was from ‘Tonantzin’, a place recommended to us by Memo. After class we went for a stroll and had a couple of hot chocolates and a maize cake at ‘Carajilla’ whilst transcribing our notes into our fancy new Mexican notebooks. We then strolled home through a different part of town, to see a market area that the locals do most of their trading. We will investigate further another day for today we are quite exhausted and ready for a lie down on the sofa and a restful night of reading interspersed with some Spanish revision.
Wednesday, 16th July
Another day of Spanish classes. We are finding that the standard is increasing quite quickly and we are having to work hard to keep our heads above water. As we learn new things, however, we are using what we have previously learnt which helps to put it all into perspective and we get a chance to practise. Our teacher conducts the lessons almost entirely in Spanish so we have to understand when he explains things in Spanish which we are getting better at. He is kind and uses simple Spanish though! For lunch we tried somewhere new, a nice restaurant serving up just breakfasts it seems. Kirsty had some fried eggs over tortilla chips, tomato and beans (chilaquiles) whilst I had some tamales. The afternoon lesson was fun as we did mostly talking, trying out some Spanish in the process. Simple stuff but really to put it into practise. After class the heavens opened and we were stuck at the school for 30 minutes or so whilst it bucketed it down. When it eased we wandered home, stopping for a ‘chocolate caliente’ (hot chocolate) on the way. We are really enjoying our time in San Cristobal de las Casas (SCLC for short) and are pleased we chose to stay here for a week as there were other options for where to stay whilst studying Spanish. It is funny to note the number of new-age hippies here though, plenty of people walking around in woven clothes, carrying some kind of stringed instrument (e.g. ukelele), with half their head shaved. We can’t work out why SCLC is such a centre for this type of traveller. It has our teacher, Memo, confused also. We had dinner in and then had a brief wander around the cobbled streets in the dwindling light. It’s a lovely town to walk around with plenty to look at; beautiful buildings, markets, shops and cafes. At night it kind of transforms with different places open and lit up making you feel that you are walking around a different part of town to where you were during the daytime.
Thursday, 17th July
Our penultimate day of Spanish classes was fun as always. We are getting quite advanced, or so we think! If we could only retain all the knowledge that is imparted to us that would be even better. Memo took us through some Spanish and we broke for lunch when we went to a small taco joint where we got our lunch for under $10, which included 6 tacos and a quesadilla. We are really enjoying the food here! With the afternoon classes wrapped up we set off to find a doctor as I have another ailment to get treated, this time just a knock on my elbow. Nothing serious, just annoying. Anyway, finding an English speaking doctor proved impossible so I used my limited Spanish to get treated and a prescription. A success in putting my Spanish to use! With that out of the way we decided to walk up to one of the many churches (The Guadalupe Church), this one being on a hill overlooking the town. We never got there however as a torrential rainstorm took place. One of the worst I have ever been caught in, maybe the worst. There was hail, torrents of rain and winds blowing the rain across the streets. We took cover under a balcony of a house but it wasn’t sufficient to prevent us getting saturated. Towards the end of the storm I finally managed to wave down a taxi and get the driver to take us home. We spent the evening in, drying off, drinking cups of tea and practising some Spanish.
Friday, 18th July
Today is our last day of Spanish lessons. We started our day as per our usual routine of the past week and walked to the school with coffee in hand to start the day. The day was enjoyable as usual and we finished up with certainly a greater understanding of Spanish than when we started the week but still a long way to go. After the class we went for a walk, determined to see something in the afternoon before the rains started as has become the norm here. We walked up the many steps to the Church of San Cristobal de las Casas which gives you a view of the town and surrounding countryside from up high. After we walked down the steps we stopped in at a small cafe for a coffee and hot chocolate. They had the Mexican equivalent of ‘Family Fortunes’ on the television and I was pleased to find that I could actually follow most of what was happening, using the Spanish we had learnt over the past week. We then strolled back to our abode in the sunshine with the clouds overhead getting darker and darker. An afternoon rainstorm is usual here and we didn’t want to get caught in one today so we went straight home. We did some chores at the apartment before heading out for dinner. Walking through San Cristobal de las Casas we realised that we hadn’t really seen much of it at night as we had been staying in mostly, making the most of our awesome apartment. Calle Real de Guadalupe was pumping with lots of people milling about, eating and drinking at the restaurants and bars. It is now summer holiday season for Mexicans and the tourist population has visibly increased substantially. We didn’t feel like eating amongst a crowd so we wandered some more and found a restaurant that our Spanish teacher, Memo, had recommended a few days ago. It was called ‘Cocoliche’ and the menu had a variety of dishes, none of them typically Mexican. I had a curry and Kirsty some grilled Salmon. To be honest it was nice to have a different cuisine from the past couple of weeks and the restaurant was really nice. It made us feel like we were going out for dinner rather than just filling a need which is what it can get like when you are travelling for so long.
Saturday, 19th July
Today felt like the first weekend we’ve had since we’ve been away, having just had a week of Spanish classes. I had booked myself on a tour, a last minute decision made last night, whilst Kirsty spent her Saturday taking it easy back at the apartment. I got up early and met my tour group in the centre of town at the tour office. We were headed for the Canon del Sumidero, a narrow and deep canyon surrounded by a national park, about an hour’s drive from San Cristobal de las Casas. The canyon’s creation began around the same time as the Grand Canyon, by a crack in the area’s crust and erosion by the Río Grijalva, which still runs through it. We had a full mini-bus load of 20 people, all Spanish speaking. The guy leading the group only spoke Spanish so I had to struggle through the important stuff. I managed thereabouts to understand what was being said, or at least the context. When we arrived at the boat trip location, I found one amongst the group that spoke English to help me understand the detail of what was being said. Sergio, a Brazilian on working in Mexico, kindly translated for me, so I at least knew when to meet back at the bus etc. We got ‘life-jacketed’ and hopped into our small boat to speed along the Río Grijalva seeing the canyon from the river. We saw crocodiles and lots of different birds along the way as well as a spectacular view of the canyon walls, at some points reaching up to 1000m. The boat trip lasted for two hours, one hour upstream which took us a distance of about 30-40km and an hour back to where we started. Sergio translated most of what was being said by the tour guide which helped me understand why we stopped along the way looking at the sides of the canyon. Once back on dry land we boarded the bus and drove on to Chiapa de Corzo, a small town close by for an hour’s wandering around and lunch. Chiapa de Corzo is the site of the first Spanish city founded in Chiapas in 1528. The hot climate led to most of the Spanish moving into the mountains though where it was cooler. They settled in what is now San Cristobal de las Casas, where we are staying. I wandered around Chipa de Corzo with Sergio and we climbed up to the top of the Santo Domingo Church for a view of the town and then sampled some of the local specialities for lunch – Pozol and Cochito. Pozol is the name of both fermented corn dough and the drink made from it, which has its origins in Pre-Columbian Mexico. We had the drink which was the corn dough mixed with water, cocoa and cinnamon and was really quite delicious. It was cold and refreshing in the heat of the day. Cochito is pork roasted in an adobo (type of chilli) sauce, which I had in a soup broth. It is an important dish in this town and defiantly a highlight of my culinary adventure so far. The tour complete, we then went back to San Cristobal de las Casas. It was a good tour, only lasting half a day and seeing a fair amount for around US$25. I met Kirsty back in the historic centre of San Cristobal de las Casas at a coffee shop, ‘Carajillo’ – the best coffee here I reckon; roasted a few shops down from the cafe and grown locally in the hills of the Chiapas region. We then walked back to our apartment buying a Pan de Elote (scone-like cake made with corn flour and corn, effectively cornbread) on the way to enjoy with a cup of tea. For dinner we headed out to Calle Real de Guapalupe, where all the action is in the evening, and had a couple of drinks and empanadas at a Columbian cafe.
Sunday, 20th July
Our last day in San Cristobal de las Casas began with a sleep in. We didn’t need to check out until 1pm and we surely made the most of our leisurely morning. We opted for a cab to ferry ourselves and our bags to the bus terminal after discovering how cheap they are on the day of the rain storm. There we left our bags in the paid storage facility as our bus didn’t leave until 8:20pm. We then wandered back into the central area of the historic district and set about meandering for the day. Our first meander once we had filled up with breakfast at ‘Tontanzin’ and hot chocolates at ‘Carajillo’ was a short walk up to the Guadulupe Church, another church set on a hill up some steps but not as high as the San Cristobal Church. This was where we attempted to visit when we got caught in the rain storm the other day. After looking out over the town from a bench up by the church we walked back into the centre, stopping for a roast pork gordita on the way. This place (‘Cochinito Horneado Zunza Chon’) specialises in roast pork pulled apart and dunked in a spicy tasty sauce before being stuffed into a split apart corn dough flatbread (a gordita), imagine a Mexican kebab. It was delicious. We spent the rest of the day ambling through the cobbled streets counting down the hours until our bus ride to Merida. We finished up our time in San Cristobal de las Casas with a drink on a balcony overlooking the Calle Real de Guadulupe below then having some empanadas at the Colombian cafe down the road. We then walked the short distance back to the bus station to board our ADO bus to Merida. It’s an overnight bus and we would be due to arrive in Merida at around 10am the next day to start our exploration of the Yucutan peninsula. Thus ended our week in San Cristobal de las Casas.