San Cristobal de las Casas is one of the biggest and most interesting towns to visit in Chiapas state of Mexico (biggest, but not really interesting being the capital of the state Tuxtla) San Cristobal is rather small town located 2,200m above the sea level and surrounded by mountains. The vibe of the town (at least in the central parts) is quite interesting as it combines rustic, hip, hippie, backpackers and indigenous Maya feel.
San Cristobal is also a good hub for the travelers to explore the natural wonders of Chiapas like Lacandon jungle (one of the last untouched jungle forests in the area shared between Mexico and Guatemala ), Maya culture and heritage and for those interested in political history - also the famous Zapatistas movement.
Hostels in San Cristobal are very charming - mostly rustic and mostly backpackers oriented, also cheap - one of the cheapest accommodations we got in Mexico. We stayed at the Posada del Abuelito ("Grandpa's hostel") and paid about $18 for a private room with excellent breakfast included.
The town has a couple of main streets around Zocalo (town square) where you'll find most cafes, interesting shops, etc. Our favorite places to eat were: Cocoliche (affordable healthy options from different cuisines, nice atmosphere), Parvati - huge vegetarian day meals for about $5, Entropia bar (great tapas and mains, live music every day, not too expensive), Bar Revolucion (good baguettes, live music, a bit more pricey). Most places have pretty reliable wifi. From Zocalo try heading South towards ADO bus terminal - you'll find much cheaper food options there. If you want to save more money - head to the supermarket on Guadalupe street in the center or even better - mercado principal in the North of the town (actual market) close to the crafts market. Crafts market is also not to miss - affordable souvenirs, traditional clothes etc. (I got some pretty braids done there by a Mayan girl for about $1.5) There is also a great variety of activities available in San Cristobal apart from leaving the town: check Culture cafe/Casa del Pan on Guadalupe street - there are tons of flyers there: yoga, language classes, art workshops, cooking classes, Temezcal experience (Indian sauna) etc. - all for very affordable prices. In the cafe itself there is a small cinema where they screen documentaries and non-hollywood movies every day. There are 3 other cinemas around as well that do the same (except Kinoki also offers to rent an entire private movie room and choose any movie from huge selection - good for going in a group of friends)
We watched a documentary The Zapatistas - one of the saddest stories of Chiapas region - it's a very moving story putting the light on the Indigenous movement in Chiapas (this state has the largest indigenous population), the principles of Emiliano Zapata and the brutal responses from the government. It all started right there - on the main square of San Cristobal when the Zapatistas seized the town in 1994, so give it a thought when walking around, these events are only about 20 years old. If interested, you can also visit Zapatista villages which are many in Chiapas - of course you won't meet the famous subcomandante Marcos (leader), but you can talk to representatives to find more about the movement and principles. These villages are autonomous (self proclaimed) and military, so you need to have a local guide who has a permission from Zapatistas to bring someone into their village.
One of the main reasons to stay in San Cristobal besides to enjoy the atmosphere of the town are places to visit around the town - you'll see many tours available and many hostels will have their own/off the beaten path adventures. We went for visiting Tzotzil indigenous communities in Chamula and Zinacantan (about 30 minutes drive from San Cristobal) Chamula is visited by tourists a lot, but I don't blame them - it's really very interesting, especially if you go with a guide who doesn't just dump and pour mindless tourists into these towns, but is genuinely concerned and caring about these Maya communities and will give you enough information to try to at least partially understand their way of life (we highly recommend the guide Cesar, if you're booking through hostel, ask who's going to be your guide)
So in Chamula you'll have to be very open minded as here as in many other Maya communities Christianity goes together with Maya beliefs (in perfect harmony, mind you) We don't really have photos/closeups from Chamula as the locals believe that taking pictures takes away their spirits. In Chamula they have their own time (it's God's time there vs. government time), their own legislation and system of justice - I won't go into details but you don't want to commit any crime here as the people justice will be cruel (on the other side, for an entire town of more than 50,000 inhabitants there is one prison cell that stays empty most of the time) The church in Chamula is the place to worship Christian saints which aligns perfectly with Maya world's gods, seek help of shamans, purify yourself/family and ask for different desired things by sacrificing chickens inside the church and drinking pox (Maya alcoholic drink made from corn) So besides the visit to the market, prison, town square, church, the ritual of "inauguration" of the new spiritual leaders, our guide Cesar took us to the home/place of spiritual works of one of the spiritual leaders and showed us different aspects of their life of serving the church community. In short, really interesting stuff!
From San Cristobal we also went to Canyon del Sumidero (about 1hr drive towards Tuxtla) - it's a beautiful river surrounded by cliffs and rocks, the boat takes you through the river for about an hour and you get to enjoy the views, the birds and umm...crocodiles chilling on the banks. At the point where 2 currents meet (you'll see brown water meet blue water) there is something of a shock though - islands of floating trash, mainly plastic bottles. The boat captain grimly confirmed the unfortunate situation with recycling and the need of restoring the river to its natural state...shame on you, government.
From San Cristobal we also ventured into Lacandon jungle to camp on a wild jungle lake shore close to the border of Guatemala, but that's going to be another story.