January 24, 2019
San Cristóbal de las Casas is a charming and picturesque city high in the mountains of Chiapas. Archaeological studies in the area show human habitation dating back 12,000 years. But the current city, founded in 1528 as a military garrison, had no immediate pre-columbian antecedents. Long known by the name “Ciudad Real”, after Mexico achieved independence it’s name was changed to honor its patron saint, Christopher (Cristóbal) as well as the heroic Dominican friar Bartólome de las Casas.
Originally an apologist for Spanish abuses against the native people, Las Casas had an extraordinary epiphany in 1514 that led him to divest his lands, free his slaves, and to begin preaching and writing in defense of the rights of the oppressed indigenous people of the Americas. He would spend the next four decades working with limited success to mitigate the damage done by the conquistadors.
It is fitting then, that San Cristóbal still represents the confluence of so many indigenous and imported cultures. On the streets one may hear many languages in addition to Spanish, including Mayan dialects such as Chol, Tzeltal, Tzotzil and Lacandón. But many words and place names nearby, as well as pronunciations, derive from Mixtec and Nahuatl - languages of Oaxaca and Central Mexico. The region is a true melting pot.
In 1892 the state government was moved to Tuxtla Gutierrez, an hour away, but San Cristóbal has remained the cultural hub of Chiapas. It was designated a “pueblo magico” in 2003. President Calderón even called San Cristóbal the MOST magic of the pueblos magicos. The city is architecturally resplendent with styles that span the gamut from churrigueresque churches and alpine inspired houses, to neoclassical government buildings.
Renown as the center of amber production, there is a museum in the city dedicated to this material, and others devoted to jade, chocolate, textiles, handcrafts, native medicine, etc. Each is worth a visit.
The city’s landmark churches, the Cathedral, the Church of Santo Domingo de Guzmán, and the tower of the Virgen del Carmén, are presently closed for repairs following last year’s major earthquakes, the colorful and exuberant baroque facades yet visible behind scaffolding and barricades. But adjacent to Santo Domingo the traditional mercado is still bustling, and new shopping establishments inhabit quaint colonial buildings nearby, along the city’s three major pedestrian avenues.
The most intriguing facility in San Cristóbal, and the perfect place to tie up all the threads of our trip with Marina Aguirre was the Casa Na Bolom, or “House of the Jaguar”.
I have previously mentioned the archaeologist Frans Blom, who, working with colleagues from Tulane University, uncovered ruins in Comalcalco, and at Palenque. It was there that he met his wife, the Swiss photographer Gertrude Duby, sent by the Mexican government to document the lives of the seldom encountered Lacandón people. Her corpus of photographs is a monument of ethnographic documentation.
In 1950, using money he had recently inherited, Frans and Gertrude purchased the remains of an old seminary at the edge of San Cristóbal. They renovated the rambling spaces, preserving the chapel, but converting other areas into a cultural center and guest rooms. The Bloms entertained people from around the world, and used the lodging income to finance further explorations into even more remote regions. Some rooms of the house were always reserved for the use of the Lacandón, who could then come to San Cristóbal to address medical needs.
The Bloms made repeated journeys to the jungle, their mules heavy laden with a typewriter and photographic supplies that are still on display in the house. They befriended large numbers of native people, including, notably, the family Ch’an K’in with whom we had been privileged to stay at Top Che Ecolodge. To the native people, Frans Blom was known as ‘Pancho Bolom’, Pancho being the standard hyocoristic for “Francisco”, and Bolom, meaning “jaguar” in the local Mayan dialect, being a play on the Blom’s surname.
Mrs. Blom’s interest in nature and preservation led her to develop extensive gardens at Na Bolom, as well as a nursery to grow saplings for re-planting the over-logged forests of Chiapas.
The current facility is partly a museum, some rooms being preserved as they were during the Blom’s long tenure there, others displaying famous and historic photographs from across Mexico, and still others exhibiting artifacts from archaeological excavations. There are displays of textiles from the area, musical instruments of all shapes, sizes,qualities and materials, and Gertrude Duby Blom’s extravagant wardrobe of clothing and jewelry. A spa and restaurant have been added to the complex in recent years.
We traverse the property reveling in its history, and savoring the marvelous variety of spaces. Under the large trees of the central courtyard, indigenous people are selling fabrics, toys and ceramics. Smaller courtyards radiate from the sides, with class and meeting rooms, guest rooms and the library.
Then, gathering around the same long dining room table that hosted celebrities as disparate as Henry Kissinger and Diego Rivera, we are served a sumptuous feast of Crema de Calabaza, Rajas de Poblano served over potatoes, and a creamy, rich flan. A guitarist serenades as we dine, and takes requests, much to the delight of almost everyone.
We then retire to Mr. Blom’s extensive library, constituting the bulk of what is today an important research center with over 10,000 books about the history and cultures of mesoamerica. One feels almost inconsequential surrounded by so much accumulated curiosity, research and discovery, but it is an exhilarating place to be. Here we convene a final recap of our journey, and compare our responses to the many unusual experiences we have shared, expressing our appreciation for the valuable contributions of our fellow travelers.
Early the next morning, most of our new friends depart for their return flights. We, however, remain in San Cristóbal for another couple of days. Our walk takes us to Guadalupe Church on a promontory overlooking the city. The church includes a collection of stained glass windows depicting the legend of the Virgin, and assorted chapels, grottoes and shrines where elaborately clothed statues and cut crystal chandeliers compete with excessive garlands of flowers and garish red, green and white neon lights. But the vista of the mountains and countryside behind the church is splendid.
(The church of Guadalupe, accessed by 78 steps)
On pedestrian streets below the church we wander amid the wide array of shops with their treasures testifying to the tireless creativity of local artists in many media. At one shop I purchase a jumpsuit for my granddaughter. The shopkeeper, clearly of European or Creole ancestry, asks where we are from. She is eager to expound her views on US politics. She wishes Mexico would follow the US president’s lead and build a wall along the border with Guatemala. (I’m guessing she has never actually seen the jungle that formidably straddles the Usumacinta River!) She decries the large and unruly indigenous population around her beloved city, and believes they are ALL responsible for the political unrest that marked the Zapatista uprisings of the 1990s, and that is lately finding new energy. But it is Guatemalan refugees that draw her greatest ire, for it is they, she asserts, who have caused a spike in local unemployment and crime.
I am not sure how to respond, and I have no desire to offend. Are we tourists different from those Guatemalan refugees only because we have more cash to spend? It is important to recognize all the parts of an equation to get the full picture of a place. But does the fear and anxiety that drive this woman's voice to falter harbor no room for empathy, understanding or compassion? Are these sentiments she expresses not the same that one hears in so many countries today? They remind us that a confluence of cultures brings with it unique challenges.
She smiles broadly as we leave, but I am recalling as well the broad smiles of countless other Mexicans we have met in our travels, Mexicans of many backgrounds, and perhaps greater charity of spirit. Is not the desire to see and understand all these people we encounter, though, flaws as well as strengths, a major impetus for travel? And is it not partially why some of us have chosen to leave our comfort zone and to immerse ourselves permanently in the life of a very different culture?
As we hurry back to our hotel to pack, we have to admit that San Cristóbal, with its many perspectives, is a city that lures you into its orbit. We know we will soon wish to return and explore its historic cobblestone streets once again.