San Cristobal de las Casas was deemed a “magical village” in 2003 by the Mexican board of tourism and further recognized by President Filipe Calderon as the most magical of the magical villages in 2010. I’m unsure whether state agencies or presidents have the power or prestige of mysticism to make such designations, but one can see what they mean. Here lies the cultural capital of the state of Chiapas, with many local villages, like San Juan Chamula, making significant contributions. Religious ceremony here is almost always accompanied by the local spirit, pox (pronounced poh-sh), distilled from cane sugar and corn. This strong ceremonial liquor augments that “magical” feeling Senor Presidente Calderon was talking about.
Palenque, an important Maya site, is a curvy and nauseating five hour drive to the east, and the car ride is just as impressive as the tourist destinations. The first thing that strikes you about Chiapas is its perpetual greenness. Chiapas is semi/tropical so it gets quite a bit of rainfall. In San Cris, pine and other evergreens cover the hillsides. Further east, you see palm trees, hear monkeys and birds in the trees, look over valleys entirely covered by the misty cloud cover of rain forests. Along the road are small villages where every house sells either gas or Coca-Cola, or both. The smell of wood burning and chickens roasting fills the moist air. Hens, chickens, roosters, turkeys, cows, pigs, horses, mules, dogs wander about. Boys and girls stand in their front yards watching the cars go by. They walk along the long winding roads with their parents, carrying large sacks of goods with the strap over their foreheads. Vegetables of every kind are cultivated in the space where the lush jungle isn’t overwhelming. Houses are made of cement, wood, and metal roofing. Some houses are of traditional adobe with straw roof. Every structure, if not in a valley, seems to be hanging off the side of the mountain. The clouds and foliage look like a soft landing, but they assuredly are not.
The ride, long, through Chiapas is captivating. We passed through clouds on the high mountain roads, which is still as exciting to me as my first time as a boy on a family road trip through Big Sur. Other tourists in my van slept until we reached our tourist destinations. Agua Azul, a group of waterfalls, where the water was not blue and we were given an hour and a half. I’m not sure what to do at a waterfall for an hour and a half. Another waterfall, more impressive, Misol-Ha has a walkway to go behind the huge waterfall and soak yourself in the mist. Brave old ladies emerged back from the abyss with make-up smeared all over their faces and recently dyed hair pointing every direction.
And on through the beautiful scenery to Palenque. Only given two hours to explore the ancient city, there was a bit of a time crunch. Unlike other ruins that I’ve visited, Palenque was big enough and well preserved enough to imagine what it was like when people inhabited it. I walked through the palace with all of its courtyards and relief sculpture. I visited some of the residential parts of town. One grouping of buildings had an awe-inspiring waterfall close by. In 800 AD, one could take a steam shower in their home and then walk about a minute to bathe in the river fed by the waterfall. Sounds a little better than my crappy Brooklyn apartments.
My tourist companions got plenty of photo opportunities. Adding to their collection of “pictures of me in front of something” they now had a set of impressive Mayan structures to add to the photo album and proclaim to the world that they had in fact been to this place. There is a photo of them right in front of it with a forced smile on their face.
Back the van winded through the darkness and rain to San Cris. Every town has several speed bumps. If you don’t already feel sick from the jolt of the van constantly taking curves, the speed bumps will surely do the trick. After five hours, everyone practically jumped out of the van when it came to a stop in the central square.
There we were back in the most magical of magical places. Here we can enjoy local artisanal chocolate, mezcal, wine, and tobacco. What I like about San Cris is that I can feel ecologically and socially conscious about engaging in all my vices. It’s local, it’s just, it’s delicious.
Thinking about this town and this beautiful state, one does feel some sort of mystical feeling. It is a magical land. Like what Kerouac felt in Big Sur or Thoreau at Walden Pond. Or, it could just be all that pox.