There’s something about mountains, and mountain towns. Natural places to stop, they attract all sorts of runaways and misfits, and people nursing broken hearts. The proximity to nature can be a powerful healer; the sense of lejanía can provide a sense of sanctuary. I lived for a few years in the Blue Mountains outside Sydney, through a long season of grief, and it was the refuge that I needed at that time. I admired the locals’ passionate identification with their place, and the place in that community for every kind of eccentric. But in the mountains energy also pools and becomes stagnant. The refuge became a place I was reluctant to leave; the eccentrics a cautionary tale. I could see my own quirks and decided habits hardening into a shell, until no other life was possible for me. San Cristobal de las Casas, which in its beauty and strange, blocked energy reminds me powerfully of Katoomba, brought back these ambivalent feelings.
For a long time San Cristobal was the administrative centre of Chiapas, in the south of Mexico. The Europeans preferred its climate to that of their other early settlement, Chiapas de Corzo – at 2200 metres, San Cristobal is at least ten degrees cooler. They still do: like the Blue Mountains, San Cristobal attracts crowds of French and German tourists, seeking out landscapes that remind them of home. On my last day there, I saw a tall Aryan striding around in Bavarian shorts and braces. A whole hippie economy has sprung up to serve these people – hostels and knitting circles, artesanías and tarot, yoga and vegetarian food. There’s a white man who sits on Real de Guadalupe, one of the main pedestrian thoroughfares, playing the didgeridoo. Like so many pretty places with an olden-days atmosphere, San Cristobal has an ambivalent relationship with these visitors. In Blackheath, my Blue Mountains town, the local businesses relied on tourists, but the influx of people on weekends and holidays elbowed locals aside. San Cristobal is not so bad as Cartagena, a colonial city on the Colombian coast, where the hotels, restaurants and shops that serve foreign tourists have evicted the locals from the old centre – it’s still a place where people live – but it’s experiencing the same pressures. It was striking, and discomfiting, to realise how often the indigenous faces there belonged to street sellers and beggars. Tourism is usually depicted as an unalloyed good, but it can be another form of colonialism: wealthy foreigners once again driving people from their homes.
The hippie culture in San Cristobal is more a way of life than a mode of consumption (which sets it apart from Tulum, a New Age retreat on the Caribbean coast, where the mantras are slogans for beach resorts). People drift into town and stay for weeks or months: the owner of my accommodation is an American who has lived there fifty years. They rent apartments or live as permanent residents in hostels, in a grotty bohemia like bohemias all over the world. It also has politics: the artesanías produced and sold by or in collaboration with local indigenous people; collectives that organise rallies, talks and film screenings; a concert protesting the Coca Cola factory’s monopoly on a local aquifer. (In the villages around San Cristobal, Coke is often more readily available than clean drinking water.) The knitting circle (where I learned to crochet) is primarily for men, to challenge old ideas about gender roles; yesterday I did my small part, crocheting a blanket on the bus to Oaxaca. In 1994, an indigenous movement called the Zapatistas organised into an army and occupied San Cristobal and other Chiapas towns, protesting the free trade agreement with the United States and demanding a better deal for indigenous communities. Today much of its iconography has been turned into souvenirs for tourists to buy along with their textiles and amber jewellery, but the Zapatistas’ example still lends the politics there a radical edge.
San Cristobal was unusual in that the colonial settlement did not displace an indigenous community: no one lived in the valley, and the Spanish brought people from other parts of Mexico to populate it. The Mayan communities lived (and live) in the mountains around the city, and have fought in the years since the Spanish arrived to preserve their traditional ways of life. In this they’ve been assisted by geography. The region reminded me of the mountains around Sapa in Vietnam; there too ethnic minorities have preserved their ways of life long after the Viet majority monopolised the prime flat farmland, and have an arrangement with the government where they receive services like health and education while preserving their autonomy. The communities in Chiapas define autonomy in different ways. The different approaches are exemplified by two towns, traditional enemies, near San Cristobal: Chamula, which refuses any outside influence, and Zinacantan, which is more open. It’s possible to visit Chamula, but outsiders are forbidden to live there; in recent years, the community has driven out tens of thousands of its members who practice Christianity instead of the traditional faith, which mixes Mayan beliefs with Catholic iconography. (They view Christianity as a colonising force: like Coca Cola, the missionaries usually come from the United States.) These people now live in a slum in the hills above San Cristobal. The town has its own system of justice, the men (recognisable by their white wool jackets) serving time as police officers: this justice can be hair-raising, like the three accused rapists tied to trees and set on fire in nearby Las Ollas. Zinacantan also administers its own justice (I watched the town magistrates in session) but the independence there is not so fierce, and the economy is built around growing flowers for San Cristobal. The Chamulans believe the valley in which their town is set is the navel of the world; little wonder the town is so inward, a more pronounced version of the inwardness of San Cristobal.
Alpine beauty can so easily turn grim, even frightening, as David Lynch understands so well. The approach to San Cristobal is bleak, through deforested hills littered with rocks. Often the slopes are blackened as well; as in Cambodia and Laos, there’s a dry/wet rhythm here, and towards the end of the dry season the farmers set their fields on fire to fertilise them for the coming wet. Through the month of May there was pall of smoke over the entire state of Chiapas. Often these fires get out of control, or seem the work of firebugs, like those burning among the trash on the roadside verges. The rain had started by the time I arrived in San Cristobal, and it was hard to tell where the smoke ended and the clouds began; the daily rain was never enough to scrub the grey from the air. Deliberate fires are a part of managing the landscape in the Blue Mountains as well, but the smoke reminded me of those Australian summer days when I’d scent smoke on the air and immediately check to see how far away the bushfire was. The fires in Chiapas don’t threaten the city, but earthquakes do: the mark of the last one, in 2017, is still on San Cristobal, with several of its major landmarks still fenced off as unsafe. The Baroque façade of the Convento de Santo Domingo de Guzman is covered with netting, to protect it from nesting pigeons; several dead pigeons hang from its web, another detail along with the Moorish columns and saints and Hapsburg eagles. I thought about the way that, every so often in the Blue Mountains, someone would walk into the bush and disappear forever, walk right out of life; I thought about the resignation of my colleagues at the factory, people who were born there and never left. (Like any small Australian town, you either left when you finished school, or you stayed and made babies.) San Cristobal had some of that same ominous potential. I thought about the DVDs circulated on the streets of San Cristobal of those rapists on fire, or the stories of death threats against anyone who broke with the conservative status quo, and I left with a sense of relief.