Staying on in San Cristóbal

After several extensions to our stay in San Cristóbal, we decided that we liked the small, cool mountain town enough to make it our home for a more permanent stay and to finally settle down for some Spanish classes. In addition to the many excursions available around San Cristóbal, we really felt welcome here and had mostly figured out the centro, traveler part of town. Plus it had probably the best collection of restaurants we'd seen so far. On top of that, after researching some prices, Spanish classes here were cheaper than the next several cities on our route by up to 50%.

Wall art at a Sancris gallery

Delicious looking polla a la lena, that we sadly haven't tried

We ended up booking a homestay with our Spanish classes. This is a common offering for foreign language classes in Latin America: you pay one price, and in addition to your classes (usually Monday-Friday), you live and eat with a local family. It can be quite economical to do it this way, especially when booking several weeks up front. It's also that it's a more immersive experience, since to communicate in the home, and especially at the dinner table, you need to really try to use your Spanish. This adds up to a couple extra hours of friendly Spanish practice a day.

For me though, the best perk of this arrangement is that you eat the family cooking that can't be found at tourist restaurants. We were lucky that our host, Christina, was both a great cook and a true Mexican abuela (grandmother). In many cultures, you simply can't replace grandmother's cooking; I know most good Italians (Melissa included 💕) will say that their nonna made the best {gnocchi, lasagna, fresh pasta, etc}. So, we were both pretty excited to start our homestay with Cristina.

The steps up to Iglesia de Guadalupe, not the ones we ran most days

Colorful colonial streets near the homestay

Longaniza tacos (a sausage like chorizo), nopale (cactus) pico, and habanero salsa at Cristina's

We started our classes on a Thursday to get two extra days of classes in, but didn't move in with Cristina until Saturday so that we didn't have to cancel our final reserved days at our hostel. We met our teacher Yasmina at 9 AM Thursday morning and started lessons promptly. Looking back on it, we were a bit unprepared: Melissa couldn't find her pen until the second class and we kept having to borrow blank printer paper from the school. We learned that Yasmina was native to Campeche, although she had lived in San Cristóbal for 20+ years, and lived in Los Angeles for a few years, so (really, very) thankfully we could fall back on English if we needed to be absolutely clear on some things. Another student we met had to request a change of teachers because hers only spoke Spanish and they wasted half the time just trying to understand each other.

So the deal we signed up for was 3 hours of classes a day, for the two weeks plus another two days of classes for 12 days and 36 hours of class total. Our homestay portion was just two weeks, Saturday to Saturday for 14 days and 42 meals. Altogether that cost us a bit under $12,000 pesos (10% discount for booking two weeks) or about $650 USD. While this is not a small expense, our target it to try to keep average spending under $100 USD a day total, and this price gave us two weeks abroad for under $50 a day, plus whatever we spend on incidentals. This was even cheaper than some of the other schools in town, and looking back now we're very happy with the experience.

Cristina's House and Her Cooking

Our sources didn't lie, Cristina was a great cook. She cooked healthy, excellent, typical Mexican meals: chicken, moles, rice, vegetables, salads, soups, stews, tacos, pork, and more. Cristina made her own salsas: nearly every meal had a small pitcher of her blend of habaneros, onions and tomatoes (not too hot). One of our first meals had the best pico de gallo I've ever had, which illustrates the story of the food we ate there. We listened very carefully when she told us how she made it because we didn't expect it to be as simple as it was: chopped tomatoes, jalapenos, onions, white vinegar and salt. That's it, nothing we can't make at home in 10 minutes. So why was this the best pico I've had?

We firmly believe now that the produce here is simply better than almost anything we ever had in New York. This story repeated itself with tomatoes, chayote (a squash like vegetable that can be found in the states), pineapple, papaya, mango; just about anything fresh and flavorful was prepared more simply than we'd dare in our Brooklyn kitchen yet tasted better than it should. So much of what I've read about the cooking in other countries makes more sense now; when I read about people fawning over how simply prepared the food in Italy is, it never really made sense to me until I realized that the ingredients are just better.

A boozey coffee drink with espresso, Baileys and bananas at Carajillo, one of our favorite study coffee shops

Sunset from the homestay balcony

Double soup lunch!

The traditional serving style for mezcal: with sal de gusano (worm salt) and slices of naranja agria (called sour oranges but no moreso than any other orange I've had). This and the beer were a 50 peso special, so less than $3.

Melissa's first poutine! This was the small version at one of my favorite bars.
If you've never had it before, it's french fries, cheese curds (just cheese cubes here) and gravy, and you're missing out.

Not everything was simple to the point of trivial though, we got a very good mole twice (that had very little chocolate flavor, to Melissa's delight), once with pork and the other time with chicken. (For the record, Melissa has found that she likes Thai curries and Mexican moles a lot more than she thinks when she tastes them abroad. Indian curries next?  EDITOR'S NOTE: NO).

Our first night at Cristina's we got one of Melissa's absolute favorite foods: high quality tamales. These weren't home cooked (too much work to make fresh so Cristina just went out and brought back a half dozen to share). Home cooked or not, Cristina knows where to get the good stuff. As this was our first dinner, we learned how Mexico balances their eating throughout the day: a moderate breakfast, a large lunch, and a very small dinner. I think two tamales was all we ate for dinner that night, but with hearty late lunches we didn't need much for dinner.

The last notable thing about eating at the homestay was how healthy we felt. Many Mexicans on our trip have talked about how healthy certain things are (even mezcal...) because they're so natural, and clean, without pesticides, additives, preservatives, etc. We kind of roll our eyes to this because these claims are pervasive in the US to the point of being meaningless. I have no idea to what extent the food we ate was natural or clean, but we felt great.

I'm saving up many of the details of this trip for an optional Gross Post later on, so for now I'll just say that eating a ton of fiber, like a ton, seems to be really good for you. We've tried in our New York lives to eat lots of fiber and even supplemented with fiber pills for periods of time, but I don't think we ever hit critical mass. At Cristina's, we were eating beans at least once a day, often with breakfast. Those breakfasts always included a large plate of fresh fruits like apples, papaya, pineapple (not enough of that!), mango, or guayaba (guava). Most meals included some form of bread (which we avoided a lot in NY) along with rice and tortillas. Fried food was rare (empanadas once). A salad was often provided but Melissa ate more of that than me because it was never dressed (odd, but ok...). Most lunches included a vegetable side, such as squash, chayote, green beans or potatoes.

Another sunset melting into the mountains. The skies here give you several great pictures every day.

Street dogs have to stay warm!

No matter what she says, this is the happiest Melissa has been on the trip. We have named him Esquirmiendo because of his energy; he and his brothers were raised by some Americans that rescued street dogs here.

And this may be the second happiest Melissa has been. This little grey guy and his brown brother were raised by a Mexican man who spoke good English and claimed that their father was a champion show dog. They walked together with a forked leash and constantly bumped into each other and tripped over each other, hilariously. We saw them several times during our stay.

Although we were often stuffed after our meals (Melissa in particular struggled with the relatively large breakfasts), we never, ever felt the overeater's sense of regret, shortness of breath and fatigue we get after indulgent meals in New York. I did miss being able to go out and visit the interesting restaurants we saw daily, but we really learned a lot about ourselves by having nonstop home cooked abuela meals, and will be making some diet changes when we return.

The most notable tidbits we learned and saw by eating at the homestay for two weeks:
  • Tons of fruit at breakfast. So much. But really good: with papaya, quality counts and fortunately this was always good
  • The breads from the panaderias are OK, their pan dulces (sweet breads) are not our favorites; they're often not sweet enough to be desserts and aren't flavors we crave. Many are basically a whole wheat breadstick rolled in just a bit of sugar. I doubt I'll miss these but they weren't bad, especially the rare times we had some filled with custard (yum). EDITOR'S NOTE: all the pan dulces were just so dry!
  • Tortillas appear at every meal, and the way to use them is to roll them up into an empty tube and use them as an edible spoon, for moving foods onto the fork and absorbing sauce
  • Tomatoes seem to be good year round here, unlike the US tomatoes that range from mediocre to terrible until late July and August. The whole tomato curve here is just shifted higher, so hopefully the late summer tomatoes are even better
  • Italian food is not unknown; Cristina cooked us a respectable chicken cutlet with spaghetti
  • Habaneros may be less spicy? It's unclear, because her homemade salsa was not very piquant, but some other habeneros dishes were more in line with what I'd expected
  • Mole, especially mole negro (black mole, the top of the pile here) is a special food. It's a food that crosses every line of the society, they say that whether you're rich or poor, everybody eats moles at their wedding. We didn't eat mole negro at Cristina's (it's an extremely involved dish to make from scratch) but did learn a bit about the mole's special role in life here
  • Beans for breakfast can be great. Definitely going to try this at home
  • Cristina didn't care for pizza at all. Her grandsons definitely liked it though (rico)
  • Speaking of rico, when someone is cooking excellent meals for you every day and speaks another language you really focus on learning some words of gratitude. Rico means 'rich', but is used to described excellent, tasty food. Also: sabroso (tasty, flavorful).
  • This one was a bit odd: Cristina took her toast with just a spread of queso doble crema, a fresh, crumbly cheese (not cream cheese!) that was offered at almost every meal. We didn't love it; it was a bit like a feta or goat cheese but much tangier. Not bad but nothing we were going to make sure got in every bite. I tried the cheese and toast; it wasn't bad but I prefer butter and jelly. The doble crema queso is one of the few cheeses made in Chiapas (Oaxaca has a much better cheese scene)
  • We ate french toast without syrup. Never saw any. No idea what that's about, maybe it's expensive or just something she didn't know about or care for? Wasn't bad without but obviously french toast is better with syrup
  • All of the chayote we ate was really good, and heavily salted. That seems to be a key part of cooking chayote, we will keep this in mind next time we see it in the market. I plan to cook this vegetable regularly back at home.
  • Apparently we can go a long time without eating or missing fish and seafood. This really opens up the cities we'd consider moving to when we return (hello Denver and Austin!)
  • Aguas Frescas: these aren't uncommon in NY or any place with at least a moderate Mexican population. The "core" agua frescas, if you're unfamiliar, are jamaica, tamarindo, and of course HORCHATA. An agua fresca is literally a "cool water" drink, not a juice. I'm not sure if lemonade counts as an agua fresca, but it was in the rotation at Cristina's. I love jamaica, or hibiscus as it's more commonly called in NY, so this was nothing new, although it was quite good here. Horchata is our blog namesake and we did not have any at Cristina's, which is too bad because that would have been a great addition to the horchata gallery. Finally, tamarindo, made from tamarind; this one was totally different. We've tried tamarind things before, it's usually tangy, sour and funky and is not a flavor that either of us likes. Cristina's was so much better: sour and tangy but much closer to a good lemonade than a weird flat kombucha. We drank that readily when it appeared.
  • One the same note, since most of her aguas frescas and juices were made and served fresh, she had this amazing pitcher with a rod that connected to part of the lid and a disc on the bottom, so you could agitate the contents in the pitcher without shaking it to ensure the pulp and flavors were well distributed before pouring. Really helpful for something homemade like that.

Cristina's house was built with a very common colonial style floor plan: it was a large square with an open square courtyard in the middle. About half of it was two stories, the guest rooms were on the second story on the right, with a balcony looking out into her courtyard garden stuffed with trees and produce plants. She had at least: an avocado tree, a lime tree, a peach tree, tomatoes, many herbs growing fresh, and probably some other things that we didn't notice. We took one of the two guestrooms on the balcony; the other was empty for the entire first week and a Norwegian girl, Anna, moved in the second week (she was also taking classes at our school). The room was comfortable enough, and it was nice to know we'd be somewhere long enough that it's OK to unpack nearly everything and really own the space for a while.

After my only workout at Iglesia de Guadalupe, I saw some people on the church roof that happened to be from the free walking tour. I climbed up without any idea if I was allowed to and managed to get some good pictures. I still owe the guy who opens the gate $5 pesos...

A rare selfie from the roof of Iglesia de Guadalupe

Up ahead, those are the stairs we ran daily. Steep

The routine for two weeks of classes

You really miss some aspects of having a predictable routine after two months on the road, so the classes and respite from constant change was welcome. That is not to say that these two weeks were easy - in some ways they were the hardest stretch we've had on the trip so far. We took the early classes, so our basic routine went like this:
  • 7:30 - wake, descansar (relax) until breakfast
  • 8:00 - breakfast downstairs with Cristina. Either all carbs (toast, coffee, fruit) or occasionally Mexicano with some eggs scrambled with tomatoes, beans and tortillas. Another meal we will copy at home
  • 9:00 - class with Yasmina
  • 10:45 - a much needed break for 15 minutes. We'd often walk around a nearby block to see more of the city and get some air, or get a coffee or chocolate drink. Occasionally we'd run errands, such as our penultimate day when we split up to retrieve laundry and book our shuttle to the airport
  • 12:00 - after class, we'd walk a mile to the other side of town at the base of La Iglesia de la Cerrita or the Church of the Hill. Workout time. This is a huge hill with stairs, alternating very long steps and normal flights. Keep in mind the altitude here before judging our workouts, we're 30% higher than Denver and the thin air has an extremely noticeable effect as soon as you exert yourself. I would run as far up the stairs as I could, I got to at least 2/3rds of the way by the end but wasn't getting much closer to making it all the way. Melissa would hike up with our backpack full of rain coats, notebooks and water. We'd meet at the top and walk over to a little Mexican workout playground with odd bodyweight machines. I'd do a short strength session of pullups, dips and L-sits, and after we were all recovered, we'd take different routes on the way home and explore the city more. We found some great things this way, most notably a fondue restaurant that served a type of pizza made by a Mexican woman who spoke excellent English with an Italian accent. She'd lived in Italy for 20+ years and brought some of the food back to this part of the world. It was fantastic but we only ever grabbed a slice there so as not to ruin lunch. Other days, we'd go to an internet cafe and upload as many GoPro videos as we could for $6 pesos an hour (40 cents?) since it would have taken all week for one video at the homestay. We'd also run errands as needed, like visiting the only car rental agency in town.
  • 14:00 - lunch, although in week two the Norwegian girl had class 12-3 so lunch moved to 3. We preferred 2 PM but dealt with it.
  • 14:30 - 15:30 (or later) - descansar (to rest) in the room, digest, catch up on calling family, reading internet stuff, playing iPad games, and occasionally writing blog posts.
  • 15:30 - we'd go to a coffee shop to copy notes from class and study. We got a really good mix of coffee shops and saw more of the city this way by seeking new ones out, but we did have our favorites (Carajillo on Real de Guadalupe for Melissa!). On a particularly productive day, we might get to a shop early, do our individual studying, and head to a bar for a beer and to quiz each other in Spanish. Most days, it would rain sometime between 1 and 5, so some days we'd get stuck somewhere for a while, with the worst being the day before the homestay began when we stayed at a ramen and Korean restaurant for about 7 hours and ate two meals. I personally really enjoyed it when we were able to get to a bar, have a beer and quiz, and at one in particular, Melissa finally got her first taste of poutine at one of these bars! It's crazy how a Canadian food, that Melissa was always destined to love, evaded her until now.
  • 20:00 - dinner at Cristina's, conversations about weather and the prices of things in New York
  • 20:30 - relax upstairs finish any homework or studying before bed
Naturally we deviated from this a bit each day but that was the basic structure. It really wasn't easy, the language classes moved fast. We estimate that in 2 weeks we got through maybe a couple years of high school level language classes, although with less raw vocabulary. Yasmina said that if we continued on, we'd be done with all the grammar in 5 weeks total, and move on to fluency and refinement. Most classes we were learning 2-3 hours of new material, and then repeating and studying it for 2-4 hours daily after that. Our brains hurt. We tried really hard to talk to Cristina and her grandsons or other family members that visited from time to time in Spanish, and while they were understanding it wears on you to constantly work to use knowledge you just learned. We're not sure if we could have done more than 2 weeks there at the rate that we were going, and we liked our teacher and the material.

It can be frustrating at times too, and not just when you make stupid mistakes in homework and in class. Yasmina and Cristina were both pretty good about speaking slowly and mostly sticking to words that we knew, basic stuff. So while most of our interactions during the week are largely successful Spanish conversations with teachers, bartenders and baristas, on the weekend we got out of town and all of a sudden realized that we weren't as far along as we thought. Full speed speakers would leave us dumbfounded and we walked away from many interactions with 0% comprehension. We're glad we did the classes, and while we may try another 2 weeks later, we are glad we didn't book more than these two and we didn't do more than 3 hours of classes a day.


Overall, we got a ton out of this experience. Slowing down to stay a month in one place is a different kind of travel, and it's really nice to change it up like that. One of my biggest complaints was that 3 meals a day provided for doesn't let us try all the new restaurants we see. We skipped 3 meals at Cristina's: once we offered to fend for ourselves because she going out for a family celebration dinner (Italian place, fresh pasta), and the other two when we went to El Chiflon (Burger King and nothing). My complaint is tempered by the fact that it was good for me to eat at her house every day and try a new way of living. We both agree that if we could have one major quality of life upgrade, it would be to have a home cook preparing fresh, healthy meals every day (and to clean up!). Other than cost, the difficulty with that is that we love to cook and would still want to a few times a week!

Some nice trees in centro

Cristina's incredible mole.

The clouds hung low on the surrounding mountains on one of our last days.

A peak into the homestay garden and courtyard.

We did sneak in plenty of snack foods outside of the meals to keep it interesting. San Cristóbal has some excellent bread shops - particularly notable was an "artisanal" panaderia that had hot, crusty onion rolls and chocolate & strawberry Danishes. We sampled many chocolates, the local Starbucks equivalent is a chain called Cacao Nativa selling chocolate drinks ranging up to 100% pure cacao. The bar Con Tenedor (with a fork) had really good poutines and great mezcal specials. Our school was in a complex called La Casa Del Pan (the house of bread), which housed a vegetarian restaurant with cafe, specialty food shop, a Zapatista theater, a yoga studio (and reiki...), a garden where much of the restaurants food is grown, and AirBnb rentable apartments. We met the owner of Casa del Pan and saw one of these apartments, it was recently redone and stunning. Third floor, great views of the city and mountains, with a beautiful wood finished interior and creative bathroom. It was way out of our price range but worth if if you're considering a nice vacation in San Cristóbal.

Oh and the last thing about Casa del Pan: even though this was a vegetarian, nearly vegan, restaurant, every time we left class for our break, the entire place smelt like grilled cheese, or melting cheese and butter, or buttered toast. We could never quite pinpoint exactly what it smelled like and never figured out what they were cooking that made that smell, because we never saw a bit of cheese or butter in the entire place. Vegetarian secrets maybe?

In the end we were sad to leave San Cristóbal but had to move on if we were ever going to finish up Mexico. And even though we felt great living on Cristina's cooking, we want to sample a wide variety of foods here, and we like trying new restaurants and specialties. We booked reasonable flights to Oaxaca from the regional airport, had a bit of an adventure getting up there when our $400 peso shuttle never showed up (they hired another driver but with a much smaller vehicle...) and caught our flight for Oaxaca at 1:30 on Saturday. We're glad to have met Yasmina and Cristina, tried Cristina's cooking and stayed in San Cristóbal for just about one month.


  1. Catching up! Weeks behind on reading your adventures. It makes me happy to picture you guys living with your surrogate abuelita and having a comfortable routine for a few weeks. :)

    1. Don't worry, we're months behind writing but catching up.

      And for some reason, we just saw this comment otherwise I'd have replied earlier.