On returning to San Cristobal de las Casas as a yearly pilgrimage
I spent the summer and autumn of this year going to new places — to Iceland, to Colombia. Now it is time to return to a place where I know I can stabilize my living situation, refurbish my family’s emotional state — we’ve been living inadequately in relatively expensive Colombia for too long — build my bean money up to a level where I can comfortably travel on to a new part of the world.
We are going back to San Cristobal de las Casas, Mexico at the end of this month and then on to Mexico City in January for work.
I thought I may be able to find a few places in Colombia for two or three shifts (months) of travel, but such places did not materialize as I moved from Bogota up through the highlands to Cartagena on the coast. I visited many great places in this country along with a couple hellholes, but nowhere that I’ve landed seemed adequate for a longer term stay. I felt like a refugee as I moved through Colombia looking for a place to plant roots for a couple months, but, eventually, just gave up the pursuit.
This happens regularly in travel: sometimes places are just not what you expected them to be, sometimes you don’t completely mesh with your surroundings, sometimes you need to employ different travel strategies, sometimes you just need to leave. For Colombia, all of the above possibilities sufficed. This is OK, this is just normal travel, I’ve been here before, now I know.
And knowing is one of the most valuable side effects of travel.
So where to next?
I need a travel safety hub as I sit here in Cartagena trying to claw myself out of the hole I put myself in. Colombia has turned out to be a costly destination, and I’m beat financially. I thought of all my safety hubs around the world: Hangzhou, Bangkok, Olomouc, Darjeeling, Tirana, Suchitoto, Vila Nova de Milfontes, Livingston, San Cristobal de las Casas, and it was the last one that I found myself thinking about more than the others.
San Cristobal de las Casas in Chiapas, Mexico is perhaps the long term traveler epicenter of the globe. You can get a bed there for $75 per month, an apartment for $150, the food is good and cheap, and the living is uncomplicated, rather safe, and there is a potential for work. As for the people there? Well, the city is full of long term travelers making a living playing music, writing, making websites, working, selling things in the street. San Cristobal is perhaps the world traveler’s Mecca, a place to arrive in rather than just pass through — the kind of town that you’re hesitant to leave because you know that you will not be able to live nearly as well and have as much fun doing so elsewhere.
Imagine a colony of working travels who have been moving through the world for many years who join together in a little city to engage in their professions among their brethren. Imagine a place where a traveler can live within their means by doing their art, writing, building websites, or working AND be comfortable. This is San Cristobal de las Casas. Many long term travelers are stopped dead in this town as they attempt to traverse between Mexico and Central America — and for good reason: the life is good here, probably better than anywhere else in this world that I’ve known.
San Cristobal is the perfect safety hub, set in a location that sits on the crux of Mexico and Guatemala.
A traveler needs good, cheap accommodation, good, cheap food, entertainment, work, good weather, and good company. San Cristobal pretty much satisfies all of these requirements. The one that it may lack is good weather — I will be arriving near winter — but for anyone that has grown up in the upper reaches of the northern hemisphere, the climate of San Cristobal is truly nothing to complain about.
But what makes San Cristobal even better is that it is the kind of place that you feel you’ve discovered something that most people miss, that you are the possessor of a riddle that only someone who has been on the road for many years can understand. So many backpackers and tourists move right through this little city on their way to gawk at some restored pyramids in Guatemala or to tour the big sites of Mexico with hardly a second glance. Many people visit, but it takes more than this to know the charm of this city.
Perhaps it takes many years of travel — the experience of seeing hundreds or even thousands of places — before you can truly know when you’ve found somewhere that is truly more excellent than most of the others. While the backpackers zip through San Cristobal, the long term travelers and serial expats stay stuck there, loving it. At first look, San Cristobal seems like a nice place, sure, but to really get to know this place takes time. The cultural underbelly, the parties, the happenings, the truly interesting places to go, the movements of this town are not available to the tourist passing through.
If you haven’t been entrenched in San Cris for at least a month, you are out of the loop, and more than likely will only see a bunch of tourist restaurants, hotels, trendy bars, and indigenous women selling textiles in the street. It takes knowing people, having friends, knowing where to go, knowing who is doing what and where to truly appreciate any place in this world, and, to be clear, San Cristobal has a lot to appreciate.
This is another benefit of slow travel, as you can really see the underbelly, get below the surface, of the places you land in. Subterranean San Cristobal is a truly excellent safety hub on the long road over this world.
You find places where you are happy, can make money, live well and cheaply, have friends, and go to them regularly. San Cristobal de las Casas is on my family’s yearly route of migration, and it is now the season for us to return.
But how to get there from Colombia without spending all of my money on airfare?