A lot of people compare San Cristobal de las Casas to Guanajuato and there are strong opinions on both sides. Until last week, I’d never been to San Cristobal so I couldn’t weigh in, but now that I have I can say that I’m very glad that Guanajuato is my home. That’s not to say that San Cristobal isn’t a really cool place. It is. It’s beautiful. It reminds me of the higher altitudes in Colorado. But Guanajuato is definitely my kind of city.
Guanajuato is theatrical and artistic while San Cristobal is a city that’s much more conservative. It’s more of a keep-to-yourself kind of city, or at least this was the feel that I got from the place. There are always a number of live musicians playing throughout the centro in Guanajuato along with theatrical displays including a fellow who dresses himself up as a tree (at Christmas he decorates himself with lights), a Mad Hatter, and a variety of other independent actors posing for photos and adding spice to the streets. That’s not to mention the numerous estudiantina groups that offer shows each night. During the day people mill around in the centro in Renaissance garb selling tickets (Lydian is one of them).
Guanajuato is a loud, somewhat obnoxious place at times. The streets get so crowded in the summer and at Cervantino that it’s not hard to get hit (lightly or sometimes with a deadly thump) by a bus if you’re not paying attention. Perhaps San Cristobal has times of the year when it gets really busy too like this, but because San Cristobal streets are laid out in a grid, I doubt that the effect is quite the same. The streets of Guanajuato are laid out “like a pile of yarn” (as I mentioned in a post from 2013). Originally, the streets were planning to run according to how the water flowed down the hill. The result is that people flow downhill to the centro and there’s a consistent and ongoing party-vibe going on down there every day of the year. It’s not a crazy, drunken party-vibe, but rather a carnival-party-vibe or, more aptly, the kind of vibe you’d get off of going to a Renaissance Festival.
San Miguel de Allende is a cool place. A lot of people like it, but this city is also built on a grid. And the gridded streets change things. It changes the way traffic flows. It makes cities more amenable to cars which makes them less amenable to walking. It also makes them more polluted. San Miguel lacks the coherence that Guanajuato has, in my opinion. The culture has been watered down by the presence of expats who believe themselves to be “artists”. All of them wear silly hats and scarves now in a clear, but sadly belated effort at being unique. Unfortunately, if everyone buys a silly hat and wears a scarf in order to look unique, the effect is decidedly canceled out. San Miguel has a real problem with pollution and it has a car culture which just isn’t my thing. Some people like it and that’s cool. I generally try to avoid San Miguel.
I can imagine visiting San Cristobal de las Casas whenever I need a Colorado-fix. The mountains there are a lot
more like the mountains I grew up visiting. There are lots of evergreen trees and the scenery is much more majestic than in Guanajuato where the mountains are much more bald and rocky. But I love the fact that Guanajuato is built in the mountains…literally. The houses perch on the slopes and at night the windows of the city have the lit up ambience of a well-cut jack-o-lantern. When the moon is full, it always feels like Halloween in Guanajuato—like you should go home and get a bag for goodies because everyone else is already out trick-or-treating.
The houses in San Cristobal are architecturally very different from those in Guanajuato. San Cristobal houses have pitched roofs and they use terracotta tiles that give the whole place a very Asian-pagoda-inspired-feel (which is weird). The wind blows in San Cristobal and the temperature is much cooler there. To me, Guanajuato temperatures are perfect at between 50 and 80 degrees all year. But San Cristobal temps are about 10 degrees cooler (or more). When we were there in August, it felt more like November to my Nebraskan sensibilities, but perhaps it was unusual weather for San Cristobal. It’s hard to say given that I don’t live there. But I would guess, given the 10 blankets on our vacation rental bed, that the nights are a bit nippy and that it’s quite a bit cooler there overall than it is in Guanajuato.
On the upside for San Cristobal de las Casas, there were quite a few very decent health-food restaurants and a respectable array of massage and spa treatment facilities. We got a Mayan massage at one of them. There are also a lot of chocolate “factories” and coffee shops. But the main feature that I noticed in San Cristobal was the indigenous culture and from what I learned from a local social worker, there is a very real problem of racism between the dominant Mexican group and indigenous people in the area.
San Miguel de Allende seems to have some problems along the lines of racial divisions as well, but there, the problem appears to involve racial/economic divisions between the local Mexicans and expats who have colonized the place seeking to turn it into a “Little America”. Unfortunately, without some thoughtful consideration, a cool place like San Miguel de Allende easily ends up with a Walmart and a Burger King on every corner and then the price of property skyrockets and the middle class disappears just as it has in the U.S.
Again and again, I return to Guanajuato where locals don’t generally speak English (an advantage if one looks
at the potential problems caused by an over-abundance of expats and the American businesses that inevitably colonize a place) and where the steep hills make it a less than ideal place for tourists who are more in the mood for a destination that requires very little physical or mental effort. That’s not to say that it isn’t fun to visit Guanajuato. It’s a HUGE Mexican tourist destination. There’s certainly no shortage of tourists here. But living here means climbing steep hills every day and finding your way around a city that has no logic to it. These are the things that make Guanajuato endearing to me, but they’re also the things that would make other people reconsider it as a place of residency. And to each their own. I believe there’s a city in Mexico to appeal to everyone’s sensibilities with just a little bit of searching.