Locally grown organic coffee and chocolate highlight the “cafe culture” in San Cristobal de Las Casas, Mexico. The indigenous populations who cultivate these specialities work continuously to preserve the land, the people and the magic of their charming highland pueblo.
After exploring ancient Mayan ruins and enjoying the sun and surf of windswept shorelines, those who want to experience the true heart and soul of Mexico find their way to San Cristobal de las Casas in the Central Highlands of Chiapas. Colonial history, grand cathedrals, museums of amber and jade, natural wonders and charming architecture all combine to provide a deeply cultural experience. Add to that the magical coffee and chocolate of San Cristobal de Las Casas and you have a near perfect aesthetic.
Neatly tucked into a valley near the El Arcotete Forest, San Cris (as it is known to those who love it) is not easy to just stumble upon – getting there requires a bus or car ride of at least an hour and a half, climbing in altitude from one of various start points below.
Our taxi weaves heavenward on the road to San Cristobal, twisting through high passes and around hairpin curves. Perhaps it was here that Jimi Hendrix cognized his iconic song lyric, “Excuse me, while I kiss the sky”… because kissing the electric blue sky really seems probable in this moment. The vista is sometimes shrouded in fog so dense that it is impossible to see even inches ahead. Suddenly, the obscurity lifts and our taxi is surrounded by colossal ferns that cover the mountainsides, looking like remnants of pre-Columbian Mesoamerica.
On the cliff-side, facing sheer valley drops, miniature cherry trees in lacy pink bloom perch tenuously outside the guard rails and grape trellises cling to near vertical precipices. “What human with the agility of a mountain goat has the courage to tend those grapes?” I wonder, in awe.
Finally, a town appears where only seconds before there was nothing but winding road… and now we have arrived.
Pueblo Mágico, Coffee and Chocolate
San Cristobal is celebrated as the “cultural center” of the Chiapan state. This color-washed colonial village gained international notoriety in the 1990’s when it was occupied by the indigenous activist group known as the Zapatistas. Their brief, but successful rebellion championed indigenous autonomy, land rights and cultural rights in Chiapas.
Of the 111 Mexican towns given the modern day assignation of “Pueblo Mágico” (Magical Town) by Mexico’s Secretary of Tourism, San Cristobal de las Casas is considered the most magical of all.
The winding journey there is just part of the enchantment. For the effort, visitors to San Cristobal are rewarded with some of the world’s most divine single-origin chocolate and mountain-grown coffee – the other Chiapan claims to fame.
San Cristobal’s historical town center boasts three pedestrian walkways (andadores) lined with international restaurants, cafes and handicraft shops. Passersby of all ages are amused by a sometimes boisterous and always entertaining street scene of jugglers, fire-eaters and dancers, while musicians serenade patrons of outdoor bars and bistros.
Adding to the atmosphere of this bohemian haven/new-age meeting point, world travelers also hawk their wares, selling handmade jewelery, t-shirts, pipes and memorabilia, spread along street curbs. In between sightseeing, yoga classes, Spanish lessons, guided meditations, massages and outdoor concerts, you will surely want to try a coffee or two… or three…
From the myriad cafes that comprise San Cris’ cafe culture, here is a shortlist of the some of the best coffee and chocolate to be had in San Cristobal de las Casas (not necessarily in order of preference):
Carajillo Slow Coffee
Address: Andador Real De Guadalupe 53. Centro Histórico – San Cristóbal de Las Casas
Carajillo is a bright and friendly cafe. Coffee is taken seriously here, as per founder Jesus Salazar, for whom coffee preparation is more than a work of art – it’s an expression of the soul, produced with the precision of a scientist. Expect to wait while the baristas take time to make your drink with utmost care. After repeat visits, I earned the coveted Carajillo discount card – one of my favorite mementos from San Cris!
Carajillo also serves freshly made breakfast (including hot chocolate) and lunches (slow food, and again, worth the wait). A couple of blocks down the same street is the Carajillo coffee roaster, where you can witness the production process, or visit CAFELOGO, another Carajillo enterprise that offers classes on coffee growing, roasting and preparation for the serious coffee aficionado.
And if you don’t see yourself visiting San Cristobal de Las Casas anytime soon, you can order coffee directly from Carajillo online. Read all about it in this article here, where I have posted a list of my favorite natural gift items.
Frontera Artisan Food and Coffee
Address: Belisario Domínguez 35, Col. Cerrillo, 29220 San Cristóbal de Las Casas, Chiapas, Mexico
Frontera is located a short walk off of the main andador on a picturesque street corner. The cafe is cosy, outfitted with a mishmash of homey sofas and chairs, plus books and games to pass the time. An interior door opens to a central courtyard housing other artisan ventures – a great place to relax and enjoy some peace and quiet.
The local coffee is excellent and my favorite cappuccino was always beautifully presented on a rustic wood tray, complete with a tiny sample scoop of homemade ice cream and a bite of natural chocolate. They serve breakfast and lunch, plus a delicious array of home-made desserts. Roasted beans are on sale for take-away. The baristas are friendly and accommodating; overall, a charming experience.
Oh La La Pasteleria Francesa
Address: Calle Real de Guadalupe 2, 29264 San Cristóbal de las Casas, Chiapas, Mexico
Although there are numerous bakeries offering artisanal breads and pastries in San Cristobal, Oh La La is the truly authentic French bakery and coffee shop. On the main andador, the cafe is tiny, with only two tables tucked into a corner on the street level and additional seating up a steep stairway. Their coffee is good, but it was their hot chocolate that had us returning for more. It’s difficult to say what makes it so delectable, but it eclipsed any other that I tasted in all of Mexico, and hot chocolate is a Mexican “thing!” Served in rustic earthenware mugs, it was the perfect warm up on a cold, damp evening; rich, smooth and not overly sweet.
Oh La La’s pastries are gorgeous little masterpieces, and their croissants are unparalleled in San Cris, especially the chocolate croissant (pain du chocolat). For a more expansive setting, try Oh La La’s second location on the third andador, which caters mostly to Mexican tourists. The same quality fare is found there, with the addition of a large island counter featuring Oh la La’s own artisanal ice creams. It’s quite spacious, with ample and comfortable ground floor seating.
Address: Real De Guadalupe 3 (Insurgentes) San Cristóbal de las Casas, Chiapas Mexico
In the time honored tradition of the ancient Mayans, Cacao Nativa strives to perpetuate the essence of natural cacao preparation through their mouth-watering and inclusive menu. In addition to a diverse array of hot and cold chocolate and coffee beverages, they also sell 100% natural chocolate bars and bonbons in a variety of flavors, as well as pastries. For those who have never had the opportunity to savor chocolate that was handmade in small batches from natural cacao, this is a taste sensation you’ll never forget.
In the heat of the day, I tried an amazing frozen white chocolate frappé-style coffee capped with a mountain of whipped cream and chocolate sprinkles – a large cup of over-the-top yumminess and pretty to look at… you just can’t go wrong at Cacao Nativa. There are three locations in San Cris and the decor is fresh and modern, with interesting lighting and ambiance.
Museo del Kakaw
Address: Calle 1ro. de Marzo # 16Centro Historico, San Cristobal de las Casas 29200 Mexico
If you are really into chocolate, it’s worth a visit to the Museo del Kakaw, a small museum where you can learn all about the history of cacao in Mexico. The simple displays provide details about different varieties of cacao, including exhibits on cultivation and production methods. The museum also hosts workshops where participants are led through the process of creating individual chocolate bars, from bean to finished product.
Visit their chocolate shop on the street level and indulge in a cup hot chocolate, served in an enormous mug – big enough to share! You can select the type of chocolate you prefer (from 60 – 100% cacao) and have it prepared with milk or water, cinnamon (my favorite) or a variety of sweeteners and add-ins. Additionally, there is a wide assortment of scrumptious chocolate items on offer for souvenirs, from powdered chocolate to bars and candies.
There is a modest entry fee to the museum, although you need not tour the museum to visit the chocolate shop below. However, when you purchase your Museo del Kakaw ticket they might also provide you with a free ticket to the intriguing Museo del Jade around the corner – be sure to ask if they still offer this bonus ticket.
As the large indigenous population of Chiapas continues its struggle for autonomous rights, you can support the Zapatista farmers of coffee and chocolate by shopping at any of their numerous tienditas (small shops) in San Cristobal. Each shop offers a selection of packaged coffee beans, ground coffee and powdered chocolate, along with Zapatista-themed mementos. Here you can also pick up a package of Pozol powder – the original Nahuatl Indian (Aztec) “energy drink” made from fermented corn meal and cacao. (It is usually available in unsweetened form or mixed with sugar, just ask.)
Zapatista shops are recognizable by their eye-catching displays. Most feature the prismatic artwork of renowned local artist, Beatriz Aurora, whose paintings depict the Zapatistas in their daily activities and challenges. With no room in my luggage to carry wall posters, I contented myself with just a few colorful postcards and refrigerator magnets.
The allure of San Cristobal de las Casas is irresistible. Whether you stay for two days or two weeks or longer, you begin to feel that you were somehow gifted the keys to a secret kingdom or initiated into a maverick tribe.
Be sure to plan your onward travel or you may find yourself stranded in this compelling town. Walking on the main andador, I passed numerous backpackers busking, including one in front of a cardboard sign that simply stated, “I stayed so long I need to earn my bus ticket back home to Peru.”
So completely understandable how he fell under the sway of this most magical of pueblos…
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- Header Photo: Yavidaxiu, CC BY-SA 3.0 <https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0>, via Wikimedia Commons
- (1) Road to San Cristobal: Comisión Mexicana de Filmaciones from México D. F., México, CC BY-SA 2.0 <https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.0>, via Wikimedia Commons
- (2) Central Park, SC: Lennart852, CC BY-SA 4.0 <https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/4.0>, via Wikimedia Commons
- (3) Santo Domingo Tower: Minaram, CC BY-SA 4.0 <https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/4.0>, via Wikimedia Commons
- (4) Street Scene SC: Adam Jones from Kelowna, BC, Canada, CC BY-SA 2.0 <https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.0>, via Wikimedia Commons
- (5) Zapatista Dolls and Wooken Toys: Rod Waddington, CC BY-SA 2.0 <https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.0>, via Wikimedia Commons
- (6) Zocalo SC: BIOLOGO JORGE AYALA, CC BY-SA 4.0 <https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/4.0>, via Wikimedia Commons