Cruising through San Cristobal de las Guasas
I’d been warned about the bus journeys between the states of Oaxaca and Chiapas. ‘Don’t get an over night bus’ I was told by several people. I didn’t listen and found myself waiting at 10pm in Potchuta for the next rickety bus to San Cristobal de las Casas. I had to meet a friend in Cancun and a night bus was the only option. If only I’d left the beach earlier.
It was my first night trip and after one hour I wondered if it would be my last. I was lucky enough to get a window seat, but unlucky enough to be squashed up against it by a Mexican guy who has a particular liking to the greasier Mexican food. He had an endless supply of cheesy flavoured crisps and smelt like he hadn’t showered since last years special crisps promotion. I tried to sleep, I had been told many good things about San Cristobal, a lovely village situated in the Valley of Jovel in the state of Chiapas, it would be worth the ride I told myself and dozed off.
I was dreaming of being back on the beach with the sun beaming on my face, when I was jogged out of it by a policeman shining a torch in my face.
‘You, you, come, come’ My Mexican friend had disappeared. I followed the policeman off the bus, I was still half asleep but nervous, I wasn’t in the mood for hassle.
‘You bag, you bag’ the sturdy copper was pointing in the luggage compartment for me to pull out my bag. I was the only person who had been taken of the bus, the only gringo singled out. I took out my bag and proceeded to open it up following the orders of Senor Sturdy, he searched my bag as a dog sniffed me and my possessions over. Luckily I’m not a smoker and when I was given the all clear Senor Sturdy turned into Senor Sorry, apologised and let me back on the bus. Meanwhile my window seat had been nicked by my so called Mexican friend. I settled for an aisle seat and thanked my lucky stars that it was some coppers who pulled us over and not the bandits that I’d been warned about. I tried to settle my nerves, next time I’d take the day bus.
I only managed a broken three hours sleep but as we came through the valley and I caught my first glimpse of colonial San Cristobal my tiredness was forgotten, it as preciosa. As I left the bus station I was immediately struck by the colours of the traditional clothes. I had seen the people of Oaxaca but these guys were the pros. I walked up to find a hostel I had been told about near the main Zocalo. It was amazing to see the array of different coloured buildings as I got nearer the centre. I had a quick peak at the Zocalo, it was vibrant. I checked into my desired destination and headed out to explore.
San Cristobal is well known for its markets and traditional clothing. I had been in the same pair of trousers for six weeks and needed some new ones. I stumbled across a doorway leading to a deep forest of traditional clothes. There was an abundance of stalls to choose from. I was smiled and greeted by every seller, no hassle mind. I didn’t feel pressurized, not like in Mexico City. I entered one stall and was greeted by a cute smile by one of the Chiapanecans. I picked out a black poncho which she eagerly took down for me to try on.
‘What do you think?’ I asked her.
‘Si Si’ she seemed pleased with my choice.
‘Is it my colour?’
‘Si Si muy bonito’ I wasn’t sure if she understood but her smile told me what she thought, or at least how happy she would be if I bought it. She helped me pick out some trousers, it was time to bargain.
‘Very good price, two hundred pesos’
‘Oh’ my smile dropped as I was sure I could get a better price.
‘Very good price, two hundred’
‘I’m sorry that’s too much’ I rubbed my fingers together and shrugged my shoulders.
‘How much?’ she asked me
‘Sorry no it’s ok’ I took off the clothes and she started to panic.
‘Ok Ok, 170, last price’ I shrugged my shoulders and walked away.
‘No Gracias, sorry’
‘How much? How much?’
‘60?’ She looked at me in disbelief, ok it was a little low but I was told you had to bargain. I continued to walk away and thanked her again. I was walking about another stall when she came running after me.
‘Ok Ok, 70, 70 last price’ I agreed, what a bargain, I was sure she made a decent profit, both of us were happy.
That was enough shopping for me, time to see the city. Plaza 31 de Marzo was my first stop. It was early afternoon and buzzing. Local kids who should have been at school were playing in the street. There were several women in traditional clothes scurrying about carrying huge bags of clothes or food to set up in their stalls. Over on the north side of the Plaza was the huge orange and yellow Santo Domingo Cathedral, once an ex-convent. The locals have made the most of the attraction buy setting up various stalls alongside it selling handicrafts and embroideries to catch the eyes of tourist bargain hunters.
‘You like tese man?’ It was a Mexican Rastafarian.
‘Yeah they’re pretty cool’ He had an impressive array of necklaces and bracelets, not like the usual stuff I’d seen.
‘This one is made of the skin of the shark’ He picked out a thick dark bracelet and pulled it to show how tough it was. I was a bit dubious.
‘Yeah, I caught the shark and made tese, look here the teeth’ I hadn’t noticed the necklaces he had with teeth hanging from them. I wasn’t sure about his story but the stuff was interesting so I bought one.
I made my way up a steep pathway leading to a fantastic view point of the city. It took quite a bit of puff to get to the top as we were already 2000 metres above sea level and the air was sparse, not to mention the strain of the over night bus journey. The effort was worth it. I sat on the wall of the Templo de San Cristobal at the top and looked over the city. I could now see the valley San Cristobal was hidden in, it was amazing. The mountains were clearly protecting the vibrant little city which now looked more like a town. I asked a local woman to take a photo of me overlooking the impressive site. She looked shy at first but then her face beamed as she got the best position possible.
I was pretty knackered and needed some grub so I went back to the hostel. I was greeted by a couple of local lad’s playing cards in reception.
‘Hey you man, you play cards?’
‘Sure. What ya playing?’
‘Poker, we need one more man’. Carlos and Juan were in great spirits. They had a night off from working in the hostel and were planning a large night. After the usual introductions they quizzed me on my drinking abilities since I was English.
‘You English guys can drink like the fishes’
‘What makes you say that?’
‘It’s always the English or Irish guys that wake us up when we work nights’ I laughed and apologised. He had a good point. ‘No problem man, tonight it is our turn, you wanna try some tequila?’ Carlos got the shot glasses out, I hadn’t eaten and tried to explain I needed some food but they insisted. They were both funny guys, always laughing and joking with each other, their English was impressive.
‘So what do you think of San Cristobal de las Guasas?’ Juan quizzed me.
‘What? De las what?’
‘Guasas. This is what we call our city. A ‘guasa’ is a joke, San Cristobal of the jokes in English’ they both burst out laughing. They were proud of their new name for the city.
The poker game went to pot after a few shots after a while Carlos and Juan announced we were off to a Salsa bar. We got in free because they were friends with the owner. We were all pretty tipsy and sat watching the dancers, it was a very relaxed atmosphere and it didn’t seem to matter how you danced as long as you did, Carlos and Juan were like celebrities and I was introduced to a load of people. We ended up dancing with a group of local girls who were keen to dance with the new member of the ‘Guasas Crew’. I was obliged to take some lessons. The night finished at about 4am as the guys walked me back to the hostel still laughing and making jokes with each other, whilst I was feeling the strain of the lack of sleep and tequila they had forced me to drink, honest.
I woke up as the door shut. My room mates had left again. My head was pounding but I was still laughing inside. As I left the hostel in search of some food I heard two familiar laughs.
‘Hey Barry, how is your head today? I thought English were good drinkers?’ Carlos was grinning.
‘Hey stop tomando a guasa of Barry’ replied Juan.
‘Tomando a guasa?’ I questioned puzzlingly.
‘Taking the mick’ they were still full of beans. We said our goodbyes and I thanked them for showing me around.
‘No problem man, you are welcome anytime in San Cristobal de las Guasas’ and they walked off laughing to themselves even though they both faced a 12 hour shift at work. Their original name truly lived up to itself. I stocked up on supplies for my next overnight trip. As we pulled out the station I regretted only spending a day there. There was still a lot to see. At least I’d had a laugh with some locals.
My first over night bus of many was horrible, I was stuck next to a snoring Mexican who ate a lot of cheesy crisps and smelt of body odour. I reckon I got about 3 hours sleep. It was strange being in a city again after so much time in Paradise. It wasn’t too hectic though; I bought a ticket to Cancun for the next day and found a hostel just up from the main square. The hostel was great, it was clean, big, good showers, I shared a room with three others who I failed to meet. There was a lounge area to watch TV and meet other people. I was in the mood to explore so I chucked my laundry in and took to the streets. I found my self haggling with a woman over a black and white Mexican poncho that took my fancy; I got a bargain in the end along with some white trousers. I had been living in the same pair for 6 weeks and they were looking a bit worn already. Unfortunately the big orange and yellowy Templo de San Domingo in Plaza de la Iglesia was shut, but there was a type of hip hop band playing in the square, quite rare for a Thursday afternoon I thought. There were an abundance of traditionally dressed women in the square either selling things or moving frantically to and fro talking each other. The colours were so bright and cheery. I stumbled on a atrseanian market and bought an amber bracelet for Karen and another braclet for me, I had about 5 on my wrist from the various places I had been. I was starting to feel like a proper traveller. I found an excellent view of the city from the top of a hill, it was pretty easy to see and there was a church at the top called Templo de San Cristobal, definitely worth the walk. I was starting to regret staying on the beach for so long, there were lots of museums to see and trips to do outside of the city but I only had one night, maybe I wouldn’t spend so much time on a beach in the future. Back at the hostel I found my self involved in a card game with some local chaps who had a night off.
‘You want to drink with us tonight?’
‘Yes but I don’t drink’
‘But you are English right? All English drink don’t they?’
‘Of course we do I was joking’ I didn’t have to be on the bus until 2pm the next day so got stuck into a few beers and some local poison water which they assured me would give me strength in my cock.
We continued to play cards when more people turned up to sit in the lounge, an Irish girl got out her guitar and started playing some beatles and oasis tracks and everyone started to sing along, I was getting pretty hamered and wanted to take to the streets and check out what was what. I was in the mood for a few beers because this would be my last chance on my own for a while to let off some stream. I went out with two local Mexican s lads and we went straight to a club because it was about 11pm, the club was just starting to kick off, we did a few tequila shots and were generally messing around. Then a live band started and everyone started salsa dancing, it was pretty mental. I remember dancing in a groups of girls and they were all laughing at me because I took one of my shoes off and danced round it. The band were awesome, not a word I usually use but it just seems right, a bit cheesey but good. We ended up walking home at 4am, well two of us anyone, one of the boys had got lucky after my magic dancing round the shoe trick.
I woke up late as expected, had a quick shower, grabbed my laundry and oacked and then shot off, I didn’t see the lads again and doubt I ever will. I had a spagehiti dish in the restaurant over the road with a banana milkshake, grabbed some supplies for the bus and it was off to Cancun, a twenty hour bus ride, quality.
By Barry O'Leary