Tuesday, 16 September 2014

Days 522 to 526: San Cristobal de las Casas

San Cristobal de las Casas: what a long name for a place. As far as I can tell, the name is a fusion of the Spanish for St Christopher, possibly named after a church in the town, with the "de las Casas" being named after some 16th Century priest called Bartolome de las Casas, who did the radical move back then of suggesting that the natives were, you know, not all that bad and shouldn't be mistreated so much. Very nice, but it's a shame that the local Maya name hasn't caught on - Jovel. Short and punchy, and with a far more apt meaning - "the place in the clouds".

On our mini Mexican tour, it's yet another cold and wet place at high altitude. Yes, there were a lot of clouds during our four days in San Cristobal de las Casas. What are we thinking? Blame Danielle. For Mexico, I told her she could pick the route, as long as it incorporated my Wonders. I semi expected her to select a string of beaches, not a string of cold mountaintop towns. Sometimes the sun managed to squeeze out, and it was a delight, but usually by late afternoon, the thick mist that perpetually hung round the mountains coalesced into menacing dark monsters that gathered vast over the town, before unleashing blasting attacks of rain.

Despite that, however, San Cristobal is a lovely little town-city. It is very much in the model of the traveller-resort, with the main streets peppered with cafes and restaurants and... uh, I think that's it. Maybe a travel agents or two. Lovely, brightly-coloured colonial-style churches are dotted around, just in case two weeks in Mexico hadn't vanquished our appetite for them.

No ancient ruins anywhere. This meant that, for us, San Cristobal was a place to potter about and do very little. I won't pretend that our travels have been full-hilt, pedal-to-the-metal, thrusting pumping all-action mega adventures, but it's still nice to go somewhere sometimes and do very little. And very little we did.

We stayed four nights, although had only intended three. On the afternoon of the third, something very unusual happened - we met a Scottish person! This may be some peculiarity of my travelling experience, but I have almost never, ever met a fellow Scot travelling. In this trip, we have overheard one or two in South America, and bumped into a guy and chatted for ten minutes in Pompeii, but that's been it (with the clear exception of friends and family we've deliberately met, of course). On the Asian travels with Burness, we met a Scottish girl in Vietnam, and I think that was it, the only one in eight months. And on my very first travels, with Varwell in 2001, I think we only met one other guy, in Egypt. Consider the number of Irish, English, German, Australian, even Japanese, and it seems strange that I should encounter so few other Scottish. Where do they go?

The Scottish guy was called Ian, and he was travelling with his girlfriend, Sarah. Kind of the flip side of us, they had only just begun their travels, of a year, just as we're seeing out the end of our ten months. Meeting them fully derailed our plans, which had involved getting up at 6am the next morning for a bus. By five in the afternoon, the first of something like eight bottles of wine had been opened, the banter was flowing just as liberally, and the next day there was no way on earth we were getting an early morning bus.

As it happened, this suited us fairly well anyway. Our destination had been Palenque, scene of my next Wonder, and by all accounts the actual town of Palenque was nothing special. Whereas San Cristobal has a couple of buckets of charm, Palenque was reputed to have less than a thimble, and so by carefully weighing up these measurements we reckoned it would be more fun to stay in San Cristobal. It was - but not because of Independence Day.

Mexico began its fight for independence from Spain on September 16th 1810, securing just over two years later, on September 27th 1812. The first date is the one that is celebrated and it's a national holiday, and so this mean that it's the evening before that the revelries actually get going. Think New Year's Eve and New Year's Day - New Year's Day is the actual holiday, but in fact it's just a day of recovery from the night before.

Another thing that Mexican Independence Eve shares with New Year's Eve - it's totally rubbish. New Year's Eve is such an over-hyped event, in which every venue is uncomfortably full, and people are trying far too hard to make it the most fun ever. I can hardly think of a worse night to go out.It's almost inevitably a let down (note: I first met Danielle, my future wife, on New Year's Eve, so I'll concede that, sure, now and again it can be an alright night). The absolute worst thing about New Year's Eve are the street parties. Whether small town or big city, they are cold, listless things, often visited by rain, and seem to have an inordinate amount of juveniles in attendance. Mexican Independence street parties appear to be direct copies.

The rain started as we filtered into San Cristbal's main square, and only got heavier. A stage was set up, around which local youth and pools of water gathered. At 11pm, the Mexican president appeared on a large screen, no doubt saying wise words, but being drowned out by the ton of fireworks.
Myself, Danielle, Ian, Sarah, and another fellow from the hostel, Johnny, were conspicuous in our foreignness. Since we arrived in Mexico City, numerous stalls have been selling paraphernalia related to the day. I'm talking sombreros, fake moustaches, flag-coloured wigs (red, white, green), face paint, and such like. Seeing so much we assumed that the celebration would be filled with Mexicans joyously decked out as cliched versions of themselves, a riot of colours and sombreros. Nope. Turns out they just wear normal clothes, and leave it to the foreigners to dress like Mexicans.

So the street party wasn't up to much, but we did retire to a bar, which was dry and had some space for us to gather round. This was much better. For because Mexican Independence Eve isn't really something, based upon my one experience, I'd particularly recommend in street party form, the actual evening of bantering with a few fellow travellers was very enjoyable. Unlike the night before, we were a little more moderate in our drinking, and didn't have a 6am bus to Palenque the following morning. Instead, it was noon. Goodbye to our place in the clouds, and hello to my next Wonder.


  1. What a poor memory for Scottish encounters you have, Niall. You're forgetting the bloke from Dundee we met in the Tatras in Slovakia, the couple from (I think) near Glasgow we met getting off the bus in Piran in Slovenia, and the two lassies from Edinburgh we met in Bled (also Slovenia). Admittedly none were long acquaintances. Though I don't remember the one in Egypt - that might have been in the few days after I went home.

    1. Tatras guy... nope, don't remember. Piran couple - yes, I do, although I believe they were on holiday rather than travelling. Likewise the Bled girls (who you vaguely knew anyway, thus invalidating it in my eyes). The Egypt guy was after you left, now I think about it.


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