After exploring ancient Mayan ruins and enjoying the sun and surf of windswept shorelines, those who want to experience the true heart and soul of Mexico find their way to San Cristobal de las Casas in Chiapas. Colonial history, grand cathedrals, museums of amber and jade, natural wonders, and charming architecture all combine to provide a deeply cultural experience. Add to that the magical coffee and chocolate of San Cristobal de Las Casas and you have a near-perfect aesthetic.
Neatly tucked into a valley of the Central Highlands near the El Arcotete Forest, San Cris (as it is known to those who love it) is not easy to just stumble upon – getting there requires a bus or car ride of at least an hour and a half, climbing in altitude from one of the various start points below.
As you make your way heavenward on the road to San Cristobal, the asphalt twists through high passes and around hairpin curves. It’s hard not to imagine that it was here that Jimi Hendrix cognized his iconic song lyric, “Excuse me, while I kiss the sky”… because kissing the electric blue sky really seems probable at the moment. Then, climbing higher, the vista becomes shrouded in fog so dense that it’s impossible to see even inches ahead. Suddenly, the obscurity lifts to reveal colossal ferns covering the mountainsides, resembling remnants of pre-Columbian Mesoamerica.
On the cliff-side, facing sheer valley drops, miniature cherry trees in lacy pink bloom perch tenuously outside the guard rails, while grape trellises cling to near vertical overhangs. It makes one wonder, “What human with the agility of a mountain goat has the courage to tend those grapes?”
Finally, a town appears where only seconds before there was nothing but a winding road… and you’ve arrived.
The Magic of San Cristobal de las Casas
San Cristobal is celebrated as the “cultural center” of the Chiapan state. The color-washed colonial village gained international notoriety in the 1990s when it was occupied by the indigenous activist group known as the Zapatistas. Their brief, but successful rebellion championed indigenous autonomy, land rights, and cultural rights in Chiapas.
Of the 111 Mexican towns given the modern-day title of “Pueblo Mágico” (Magical Town) by Mexico’s Secretary of Tourism, San Cristobal de las Casas is considered the most magical of all.
The winding journey there is just part of the enchantment. For their effort, visitors to San Cristobal are rewarded with some of the world’s most divine single-origin chocolate and mountain-grown coffee – the other Chiapan claims to fame.
San Cristobal’s historical town center boasts three pedestrian walkways (andadores) lined with international restaurants, cafes, and handicraft shops. Passersby of all ages are amused by a sometimes boisterous and always entertaining street scene of jugglers, fire-eaters, and dancers, while musicians serenade patrons of outdoor bars and bistros.
Adding to the atmosphere of this bohemian haven/new-age meeting point, world travelers also hawk their wares along street curbs, selling handmade jewelry, t-shirts, pipes, and memorabilia. In between sightseeing, yoga classes, Spanish lessons, guided meditations, massages, and outdoor concerts, you will surely want to try a coffee or two… or three…
Where to Find Scrumptious Coffee and Chocolate in San Cristobal
From the myriad cafes that comprise San Cristobal’s cafe culture, here are the ones that make the shortlist of some of the best coffee and chocolate San Cristobal de las Casas has to offer (not necessarily in order of preference):
Carajillo (Andador Real De Guadalupe 53. Centro Histórico – San Cristóbal de Las Casas) is a bright and friendly cafe. Coffee is taken seriously here, as per founder Jesus Salazar, for whom coffee preparation is more than a work of art – it’s an expression of the soul, produced with the precision of a scientist. Expect to wait while the baristas take the time to make your drink with utmost care. Since you will want to go back time and again, don’t forget to pick up your Carajillo discount card.
Carajillo also serves freshly made breakfast (including hot chocolate) and lunches (slow food, and again, worth the wait). A couple of blocks down the same street is the Carajillo coffee roaster, where you can witness the production process, or visit CAFELOGO, another Carajillo enterprise that offers classes for the serious coffee aficionado. The classes cover coffee growing, roasting, and preparation.
Frontera (Belisario Domínguez 35, Col. Cerrillo, 29220 San Cristóbal de Las Casas, Chiapas, Mexico) is located a short walk off of the main andador, on a picturesque street corner. This San Cristobal cafe is cozy, outfitted with a mishmash of homey sofas and chairs, plus books and games to pass the time. An interior door opens to a central courtyard housing other artisan ventures – a great place to relax and enjoy some peace and quiet.
The local coffee is excellent and the cappuccino was always beautifully presented on a rustic wood tray, complete with a tiny sample scoop of homemade ice cream and a bite of natural chocolate. Frontera serves breakfast and lunch, plus a delicious array of homemade desserts. Roasted beans are on sale for take-away. The baristas are friendly and accommodating; overall, a charming experience.
Although there are numerous bakeries offering artisanal bread and pastries in San Cristobal, Oh La La (Calle Real de Guadalupe 2, 29264 San Cristóbal de las Casas, Chiapas, Mexico) is a truly authentic French bakery and coffee shop. On the main andador, the cafe is tiny, with only two tables tucked into a corner on the street level, and additional seating up a steep stairway. Their coffee is good, but it is their hot chocolate that will have you returning for more.
It’s difficult to say what makes it so delectable, but it eclipsed many others found in Mexico, and hot chocolate is a Mexican “thing!” Served in rustic earthenware mugs, it is the perfect warm-up on a cold, damp evening; rich, smooth, and not overly sweet.
Oh La La’s pastries are gorgeous little masterpieces, and their croissants are unparalleled in San Cris, especially the chocolate croissant (pain du Chocolat). For a more spacious setting, try Oh La La’s second location on the third andador, which caters mostly to Mexican tourists. The same quality fare is found there, with the addition of a large island counter featuring Oh la La’s own artisanal ice creams. The locale is quite large, with ample and comfortable ground-floor seating.
In the time-honored tradition of the ancient Mayans, Cacao Nativa (Real De Guadalupe 3 (Insurgentes) San Cristóbal de las Casas, Chiapas Mexico) strives to perpetuate the essence of natural cacao preparation through its mouth-watering and inclusive menu. In addition to a wide array of hot and cold chocolate and coffee beverages, they also sell 100% natural chocolate bars and bonbons in a variety of flavors, as well as pastries. For those who have never had the opportunity to savor chocolate that was handmade in small batches from natural cacao, this is a taste sensation you’ll never forget!
On a hot day, try an amazing frozen white chocolate frappé-style coffee capped with a mountain of whipped cream and chocolate sprinkles – a large cup of over-the-top yumminess, plus, it’s beautiful to look at… you just can’t go wrong at Cacao Nativa. There are three chocolateria locations in San Cris and the decor is fresh and modern, with interesting lighting and ambiance.
Museo del Kakaw
If you are really into chocolate, it’s worth a visit to the Museo del Kakaw (Calle 1ro. de Marzo # 16Centro Historico, San Cristobal de las Casas 29200 Mexico), a small museum where you can learn all about the history of cacao in Mexico. The simple displays provide details about different varieties of cacao, including exhibits on cultivation and production methods. The museum also hosts workshops. Participants are led through the process of creating individual chocolate bars, from bean to finished product.
Visit their chocolate shop on the street level and indulge in a cup of hot chocolate, served in an enormous mug – big enough to share! You can select the type of chocolate you prefer (from 60 – 100% cacao) and have it prepared with milk or water, cinnamon, or a variety of sweeteners and add-ins. Additionally, there is a wide assortment of scrumptious chocolate items on offer for souvenirs, from powdered chocolate to bars and candies.
There is a modest entry fee to the museum, although you need not tour the museum to visit the chocolate shop below. However, when you purchase your Museo del Kakaw ticket, they might also provide you with a free ticket to the intriguing Museo del Jade around the corner – be sure to ask if they still offer this bonus ticket.
As the large indigenous population of Chiapas continues its struggle for autonomous rights, you can support the Zapatista farmers of coffee and chocolate by shopping at any of their numerous tienditas (small shops) in San Cristobal. Each shop offers a selection of packaged coffee beans, ground coffee, and powdered chocolate, along with Zapatista-themed mementos. Here you can also pick up a package of Pozol powder – the original Nahuatl Indian (Aztec) “energy drink” made from fermented corn meal and cacao. (It is usually available in an unsweetened form or mixed with sugar, just ask.)
Zapatista shops are recognizable by their eye-catching displays. Most feature the prismatic artwork of renowned local artist, Beatriz Aurora, whose paintings depict the Zapatistas in their daily activities and challenges.
The allure of San Cristobal de las Casas is irresistible. Whether you stay for two days or two weeks or longer, you begin to feel that you were somehow gifted the keys to a secret kingdom or initiated into a maverick tribe.