The Backpacker’s Guide to San Cristobal de las Casas, Mexico

San Cristobal de las Casas is every backpacker’s dream. This beautiful city tucked away in Southern Mexico’s mountains is filled with everything you could ask for. There are countless adventures to experience, many of which revolve around the state of Chiapas’ incredible natural scenery. The vibe of San Cristobal is a great mix of local and traveler-friendly. If that’s not local enough for you, then a quick colectivo ride will take you to the heart of indigenous Mexico. And how could San Cristobal be the city of my dreams without a spicy nightlife scene?

I had known for a long time that San Cristobal would be one of my favorite places before I even set foot on its cobbled roads. Everyone told me it had a similar vibe to Cusco, Peru. It’s no secret to anyone who follows me on here or on Instagram that a large chunk of my heart belongs to Cusco. Despite the burden of expectations that I laid upon San Cristobal, it exceeded every single one of those expectations.

Advertisements

Where To Stay in San Cristobal de las Casas

As a budget backpacker, San Cristobal might be one of the most ideal places when hunting for accommodation. There are few places in the world that boast cheaper accommodation than San Cristobal. Right now, I’m staying in a private room overlooking the mountains for $10 a night. At the same time, I have an $8 dorm room booked at Puerta Vieja hostel just to meet people during the hostel’s free dinner, free breakfast, and free cocktail hours. Even if I don’t actually sleep in my dorm bed, it’s hard to deny how flippin’ unbeatable that deal is. After a month in Tulum, San Cristobal was a blessing on my wallet.

Dorm rooms in San Cristobal go for as low as $4 when booking online, although you can get them for even cheaper in person. Most hostels and hotels are more than happy to bypass the online booking fees and find a pleasant middle ground. For example, my private room at La Isla Hostel is $12.50 online, but I got it for $10 when extending my stay. It really doesn’t get much more budget-friendly than San Cristobal de las Casas.

Other hostels that I would recommend are Posada del Abuelito. It’s very cute, budget-friendly, and cozy. It’s quieter and more out of the way, which makes it perfect for a more relaxing experience. Balancing my time between La Isla, Posada del Abuelito, and Puerta Vieja gave me a perfect mix of quiet and party.

The Best Things to do in San Cristobal de las Casas

While the Chiapas region boasts some of the most otherworldly scenery in Mexico, there are plenty of things to do in San Cristobal itself. The neighboring villages that are only a short colectivo ride away are also well worth a visit. If you don’t feel like straying too far from the city, these are some excellent ideas for things to do in San Cristobal de las Casas.

Advertisements

Visit The Village of San Juan Chamula

San Juan Chamula was a very intense welcome back to Mexico. Yes, I’d technically been in Mexico for over a month at this point, but just trust me when I say Tulum and Chamula have no similarities whatsoever. I visited the indigenous Sunday market, taking a $1 colectivo from just past San Cristobal’s bustling local market. We got dropped off at the top of the main street. It was overwhelming looking down at the bustling market below.

There are plenty of other things to do in Chamula to fill up your day, as well. A visit to the church in the main plaza cannot be missed. It is one of the most fascinating churches that I’ve ever visited, and it felt really powerful being in there. A friend and I sat down on the pine needles, lit some candles, made some offerings, and spent about an hour in prayer and basking in the energy. It was a weird and unexpected day, but I was just going with the flow.

There is also apparently a cemetery that people like to visit. I missed it because like I said, I just kind of went into the trip pretty blind.

Another option to get to San Juan Chamula is on horseback. My last day in San Cristobal, a few friends and I decided to go. For 300 pesos, it was worth it just for the laughs. The scenery is stunning, but you spend 90% of the trip just riding the horses on the roads, so it isn’t really that much of an adventure. However, gather a good crew together and throw back some Modelos, and anything will be a good time.

Zinacantan Indigenous Village

Zinacantan is another neighboring village with a bustling Sunday market. If you decide to go to a tour, most tours will lump both Chamula and Zinacantan together. I’m more of a do-it-yourself kind of traveler, no matter how much inconvenience it adds. Thankfully, Zinacantan is also just a cheap and short colectivo ride away. Although it isn’t as lively Chamula, it’s well worth the visit for the cheap fare.

Advertisements

Visit the Bustling Mercados of San Cristobal

I have a love/hate relationship with Latin American mercados. When I got to San Cristobal after nearly a year away from Latin America, I was in pure, unadulterated love. I was so giddy to be back. It is a chaotic and crowded sensory overload, and not one for the faint of heart. The local markets reek of every smell you could imagine, and you’ll be bumped into every few seconds by the crowds of people there. Or sometimes, it’ll be a turkey that bumps into you.

Anything goes at the markets of Latin America. However, I can’t recommend the experience enough. There are quite a few of them in San Cristobal. If you want something a little more calm and less crowded, the Mercado de Dulces, Artesanias, and Ambar is a good, centrally-located option. One can only imagine how much crazier these markets are outside of pandemic times.

Real de Guadalupe and the Iglesia de Guadalupe

Real de Guadalupe is the road that made me fall in love immediately with San Cristobal. We were in the taxi and it was getting late at night when we passed Real de Guadalupe. There were drums, music, and a lit-up walking street lined with colorful buildings and cute cafes. Despite a long travel day, I immediately ran back to this street after dropping my bags off at my hostel.

While the walking street itself ends after a few blocks, Real de Guadalupe doesn’t get any less lively. There are lots of great stores, restaurants, and bars along the way all the way to the beautiful church nestled on the hill. It gets more local the further you get away from the city center, meaning the prices are even more unbeatable. There are a few vintage and thrift stores here that I absolutely adore.

Of course, the Guadalupe Church itself is worth checking out. It’s one of the more centrally-located viewpoints in the San Cristobal area, so make sure to work out your legs with a visit up to here. Watch the altitude, though. At 7,200 feet above sea level, the hike up here can leave you pretty breathless, and not just because of the views.

Advertisements

Drink Coffee, Hot Chocolate, and More

San Cristobal has one of the best cafe games I’ve ever seen. As a digital nomad, I spend my non-adventurous days sitting at a cafe and staring at my laptop. Having an assortment of amazing cafes to choose from in San Cristo has been an absolutely a dream. My personal favorites are Kinoki, La Antigua, Sarajevo, and Amor Negro. There are dozens and dozens to choose from, though. I’m adding a new one to my bucket list each day. And for my fellow digital nomads, Centralita is a great co-working space filled with art and dogs.

Take Some Classes

Salsa? Spanish language? Tortilla making? San Cristobal is the place to do it. Being one of the cheapest travel destinations in the country, San Cristobal is a perfect home base to stay long-term and pick up a skill. At Latino’s, they would host 2.5 hour-long salsa classes for 45 pesos, or just over $2. Seriously, if I don’t walk out of San Cristobal a salsa master, I will be so disappointed in myself.

El Arcotete Eco Park

Even though most of the breathtaking sights of Chiapas are a long drive away, you can find some stuff nearby. The caverns and rock formations of Arcotete can be reached for only 10 pesos by colectivo. If you’ve got a free day in San Cristobal and somehow get tired of roaming the colorful streets, Arcotete is an ideal day trip. While it’s cool to see, the more adventurous traveler can definitely have a field day here. With rock climbing, zip lining, and hiking trails, it’s a perfect spot for a day out in nature.

And hey, you’ll get a great view of the city and the mountains along the way! My friends and I actually told the colectivo to pull over on a random stretch of the road so we can catch this epic sunset view.

The Best Day Trips From San Cristobal de las Casas

While I found myself taking it slow and enjoying the vibe of San Cristobal, some of the best things to do in the area will require a day trip. Although San Cristobal is the main tourist hub of the Chiapas region, most of Chiapas’ natural beauty will be a bit of a journey away. Believe me when I say that everything is worth the journey. Some of this stuff is straight up otherworldly, without a fraction of the renown that other natural wonders of the world have.

Advertisements

Cañon del Sumidero (Sumidero Canyon)

This is one of the top bucket list destinations in the Chiapas region. Honestly, maybe even the world. For a price tag of about $20 for a tour, you really can’t beat it when it comes to value. To get to Sumidero Canyon from San Cristobal, you’ll have to take an hour shuttle ride towards Tuxtla Gutierrez and then set off by boat. Most boat rides last around two hours, but you’ll get your fill of incredible canyon views. There are stretches of the canyon where you’ll find yourself thousands of feet below the rocky walls. This is easily the must-visit attraction of the San Cristobal area.

El Chiflon

The cascadas of El Chiflon are among the most beautiful that I’ve ever seen. From the entrance and parking lot, you will have to hike a bit to get to the main attraction, the stunning Velo de Novia falls. I’m talking way more stairs than I expected. Thankfully, there are a few other beautiful waterfalls along the way to keep you distracted from your tired legs. The main attraction is absolutely worth it, though. And no matter how sweaty you get on the hike up, you’ll be absolutely drenched in the powerful waters of Velo de Novia falls.

If you do this with a tour, they usually lump El Chiflon together with Lagos de Montebello. If you aren’t renting a car or anything, it might be worth it to go with a tour. However, I didn’t think we nearly had enough time to experience El Chiflon. The park closes at around 5-5:30 in the evening, and our tour arrived at around 4. It was quite dark, especially with most of the walk covered by the jungle. If you have a way to get there earlier, like much earlier, it would be so easy to spend an entire day here.

Lagos de Montebello

Along the Guatemala border, you’ll find some of the most beautiful lakes in Mexico. At first glance, it honestly doesn’t even look like it would be in Mexico. After Chiapas, nothing would surprise me anymore. Although I didn’t get great weather when I visited these lakes, I could tell they were absolutely stunning. We made the most out of our day, swimming in the beautiful waters and having a mystical photoshoot in the thick fog.

Chiapa de Corzo

Most tours to Sumidero Canyon will tack on a visit to the neighboring village of Chiapa de Corzo. Although I was pretty beat after the boat ride, I absolutely adored Chiapa de Corzo. Some tacos and a cold paleta to wash it down are really all you need to earn my love. Chiapa de Corzo had that, and then some. Although it is very small, the architecture is beautiful and the vibe is very local.

Advertisements

Palenque Archaeological Site

Although one of the more difficult archaeological sites to get to, Palenque is well-renowned as one of the most significant Mayan sites in the country. You have a few different options for getting to Palenque. Taking a bus to Palenque town from San Cristobal is a doozy of an overnight bus. However, if you want to spend more time in the Palenque area without being at the mercy of a tour, it might be your only option.

If you decide to take a tour, they leave from San Cristobal at around 3:30-4 AM and drop you back off at 8 PM. It is a loooong day. Since it lumps three different adventures together, it doesn’t really afford you enough time to see the area. However, a tour is very convenient as it tacks on a few different places, including the stunning Agua Azul Waterfalls.

Most of the other things to do around San Cristobal also revolve around ruins and waterfalls. Although San Cristobal is definitely the more popular home base for travelers, some of the attractions are best done from Palenque or another city. Here are some of the other beautiful natural attractions to see around the Palenque area.

  • Agua Azul Waterfalls
  • Misol-Ha Waterfalls
  • Cascadas las 3 Tzimoleras
  • Cascada El Aguacero
Advertisements

Nightlife in San Cristobal De Las Casas

Oy, let’s chat about nightlife real quick. Unfortunately, my time spent in San Cristobal de las Casas coincided with the Coronavirus pandemic. Fortunately, Chiapas was among the only two states in Mexico given the green light to resume all activities as usual. And hey, the people of San Cristobal de las Casas really rolled with that. Walking around San Cristobal on my first Saturday night in the city was one hell of a shock. Bars overflowing onto the streets? Clubs with not a mask in sight? After spending half the year in the United States, it surely was a surprise.

I still didn’t feel entirely comfortable partying as usual, but I did make my way to a few nightlife spots. Whether it was taking salsa lessons at a local Latin lounge or bobbing my head to electronic beats at an abandoned warehouse rave, I ended up having a pretty good time in San Cristobal. If you are coming here specifically to party, you might want to take a look at the other party destinations in Mexico. However, San Cristobal more than holds its own as a poppin’ party spot.

And hey, it’s undoubtedly one of the cheapest cities in Mexico to party in. Throw back a double shot of Pox for 20 pesos and you won’t care (or know) where the hell you are. You won’t even need to take salsa lessons to take over the dance floor.

Advertisements

The nightlife is centered around the walking streets near the plaza. Real de Guadalupe is a good pregame spot with cheap wine bars and a poxeria, among other cozy bars. Right next to the main plaza, you’ll have the rowdy bar street. I don’t even need to look up the name and tell you guys. On a weekend night, you’ll just hear the street. On the other side of the two plazas is another walking street, where you’ll find a number of nightlife spots. Baruva and La Revolucion are two of the more popular party places on this side. Mezcalito was my go-to spot, though. During the weekends, most places on this road will charge 50 pesos cover. AEME and Laurent are two of the other clubs in this area that seemed nice, but I just never had a chance to visit.

A bit further away from the center is Nierika, which had cheap drinks, live music, and a mini electronic rave after the live music ended. This is where my hostel squad from Puerta Vieja would always go on a Saturday night. They stay open pretty late, and it’s perfect for a good mix of chill and party. Similar to Nierika are the cultural centers of El Paliacate and Wapani, both often home to live music and DJs during the weekend. Like I said, you’ll find your spots in San Cristobal.

Getting To, From, and Around San Cristobal de las Casas

Advertisements

Flying into Tuxtla Gutierrez

The quickest way to get to San Cristobal de las Casas is by flying into Tuxtla Gutierrez airport. The flights are pretty cheap, and you can catch a direct one from major hubs like Mexico City and Cancun. My flight from Cancun was $75, which was almost the same price as the lengthy 20-hour bus ride from Cancun. The $50 baggage fee was a bit much, though. Oh well, you’ll think nothing of it once you see how cheap San Cristobal is.

From the airport, you can take a colectivo to San Cristobal de las Casas for around 250 pesos ($12.50). It’s much cheaper than taking a private taxi, although some people will opt to rent a car. If you plan on adventuring all throughout Chiapas, renting a car isn’t a bad idea either.

By Bus

Whew. Though I tend to stick to my backpacker roots, I’ll admit, gone are the days where a 20-hour bus ride seems like nothing. Mexico is a big country, and although I think it is one of the perfect countries for backpackers, there are long stretches of the country where there is very little in between cities. Since I was living in Tulum before visiting San Cristobal, I opted for a flight over the 20-hour bus ride. From other cities like Merida or Oaxaca, the bus ride is significantly shorter. Oaxaca will take about ten hours, while Merida takes about 16 hours. Yeah, still pretty brutal.

Advertisements

While there are other cities that are close by, they aren’t particularly on the tourist trail such as Villahermosa and Campeche, to name a couple. If you’re up for an adventure through more authentic Mexico, these are fantastic options.

Colectivos and taxis

Once you’re actually in San Cristobal, it’s pretty cheap and easy to get around. Although I’m a huge fan of walking everywhere, some people don’t share that love. When I arrived in San Cristobal, it was another 20-minute drive from the bus stop to the hostel I was staying at. After a month in pricy Tulum, I was fully expecting to pay around $10 for a taxi. I ended up paying $2. That’s when I knew I was back in real Mexico. Within San Cristobal’s city center, taxis never cost more than 50 pesos. If you get charged any more than that, you’re getting ripped off.

The other popular way for locals to get around in San Cristobal are colectivos. I also use colectivos to get from small town to small town. The popular spots of Chamula and Zinacantan can both be reached by colectivo for pretty cheap.

You’ll figure it out. San Cristobal is one of those places where you’ll get sucked into the laid-back vibe and just go with the flow.

If this post helped you out, show some love and support for the blog and help keep my adventures going by buying me a beer! My adventures are entirely self-funded, so any show of support is greatly appreciated, and allows me to keep writing helpful travel guides and creating travel content to help you all travel the world on a budget.

7 thoughts on “The Backpacker’s Guide to San Cristobal de las Casas, Mexico

  1. I haven’t been to Mexico since the 70s! It’s such a beautiful place to visit…backpacking certainly sounds like an adventure. The waterfalls are just breathtaking.

  2. I would love to visit Mexico one day. I love their cuisine and series, I am planning on learning their language. It sounds like you had an amazing time.

Leave a Reply