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Daytripper: Cool Trips. Close by.

Daytripper is XelaWho’s regular monthly series on day trips within easy reach of Xela. This issue focuses on: a visa run to San Cristóbal de las Casas, the Other Cool Mayan Highland City.

By James Gray

Just a few days left on your ‘tourist’ visa? Need a happenin’ place to facilitate your border crossing and 90-day visa refill? We’ve got just the place for you, mate: San Cristóbal de las Casas, Chiapas, Mexico. First we’ll give you a primer to the place; then just below we’ll tell you how to get there.

A 7-hour trip from Xela, San Cris is spookily similar to our fair city. San Cris is full of lovely colonial architecture, sits up high at 2000 meters (Xela’s at 2300m) and has a strong indigenous Mayan influence.

There are some differences, though. First, San Cris is a little bit smaller and more influenced by the tourist influx than Xela. San Cris is also cleaner, more pedestrian friendly and ‘slicker’, the latter simply because Mexico is significantly wealthier than Guatemala. In sum, we would put San Cris a notch closer to Antigua on the Antigua-Xela ‘real city’ spectrum (of course Xela being the ‘real’ city and Antigua the baby boomer-saturated colonial Disneyland).

Second, the Mayans groups are different, namely Tzotzil and Tzeltal (rather than mostly K’iche’ and Mam here in Xela). We enjoyed exploring the differences and similarities in clothing, crafts, language and more.

Though we’d love to cover everything, we were mesmerized by the great variety and quality of restaurants bidding for our attention. The following establishments earned our pesos.

La Revolución (a.k.a. “Revo,” 20 de Noviembre at 1 de Marzo), a few blocks north of the cathedral on the “Andador,” the pedestrian-only street that runs through the center of downtown, is a bar with live music, livelier patrons and credible guacamole. Goes down well with an ice-cold Bohemia con sal y limón.

La Salsa Verde (20 de Noviembre 7), a taqueria a few blocks in the direction of the zocalo, is cheap, open late and attracts a mostly local crowd. They show soccer and pro wrestling matches, but if that’s not your thing, watch your tacos being made on a long grill right in the dining room.

Emiliano’s Moustache (Crescencio Rosas 7) has, on the authority of a long-term expat we met, the best tacos in town. I tried the tacos al pastor. They didn’t disappoint. Don’t go for breakfast (underwhelming) and don’t be scared away by the kitschy rebel decor.

Walk into El Caldero (Insurgentes 5-A) and it feels like you’ve wandered into somebody’s kitchen. Homestyle soup, the way grandma always made it – if your abuelita happened to make killer caldo tlalpeño.

Finally, because we can’t live on pan de elote alone, we’d like to give a shout-out to La Pared (Hidalgo 3), a well-stocked and entirely central bookstore whose owner knows the city well.

And now the directions…

Getting to San Cristobal, Mexico from Xela by public transit is easy; options are good in Guatemala and even better in Mexico. The trip has 5 ‘legs’ and will take around 7 hours. (Note: Mexico is 1 hour ahead mid-March to early November.)

Leg 1 – Xela to Las Vegas (1.75 hours, Q20 fare): Hop on a Huehuetenango bus at Minerva Terminal and alight at Las Vegas, a major intersection before entering Huehue. Change to a La Mesilla bus on the highway leading to the left. (Continue into Huehue and you’ll waste an hour on chicken-bus hurry up and wait shenanigans). Las Vegas has restaurants, tiendas and baños if you need a rest stop.

Leg 2 – Las Vegas to Guatemalan border at La Mesilla (1.5 hours, Q20 fare): Your La Mesilla-bound bus should take you all the way to the border, but beware because some will put you onto a mini bus at Camojá (but will pay your fare) for the last stretch. Buses terminate at the terminal at the edge of La Mesilla. The border is a 15-minute downhill walk (or quick tuk-tuk ride). Clear Guatemalan immigration on the left as you exit La Mesilla.

Change Quetzals for Mexican Pesos with a money changer at the border for banks don’t do it (go figure!). Exchange rate at this writing (Oct. ’09) was 1.55 MX$/Quetzal.  Check out the site www.xe.com for the official rate (use the “Select all currencies” option to get the Quetzal to show up).

Leg 3 – Border crossing to Mexican immigration station (0.5 hours): Trust me…none of buildings on the immediate Mexican side of the border are of use to you, so take an orange collectivo taxi (MX$10 per person, MX$30 for dedicated trip) to Ciudad Cuahtémoc – takes about 5 minutes – for Mexican immigration.

Leg 4 – Ciudad Cuahtémoc to Comitán (1.5 hours, Mx$30 fare): Next door to immigration under the red tent is Transportes Alfa & Omega, a colectivo van service to Comitán. They leave when full, approx. every 15 minutes. Or, across the street is the OCC bus station, which offers departures to San Cris (MX$80) at 12:15, 12:40, 13:40, 18:55 & 22:00.

Leg 5 – Comitán to San Cristóbal (1.5 hours, Mx$30 fare): Your van will arrive in Comitán; simply get off and jump into another taxi colectivo waiting to fill up and bolt for San Cris. You’ll be amazed at how efficiently Mexico’s colectivo systemworks – vehicles fill right up and off they go. Not in a hurry? Detour to Comitán’s lovely, historic centro.

Alas, you’ve made it! Your taxi (or OCC bus) drops you off at the edge of San Cris’ centro. If you’re not too loaded down you can easily walk into town.

Finally, two notes about returning. First, a border guard confirmed that you do NOT need to pay the MX$262 departure tax if you stay in Mexico less than 7 days. Second, if you board a Xela-bound bus at Las Vegas (outskirts of Huehuetenango), they are generally packed.

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