San Mike or San Cris?
Differences between San Cristóbal and San Miguel
For years, I had been hearing about two pueblos that had become tourist hotspots in Mexico: San Cristóbal de las Casas and San Miguel de Allende. They always seemed to be compared to each other. Something about this comparison stuck with me, and as I traveled more of Mexico, I finally got to visit both of these idyllic locations.
Therefore, it occurred to me that for those of you who are looking for a spot to either visit—or possibly even live in—then this article on first impressions might help you decide which pueblo might be right for you.
Introduction to San Miguel de Allende:
I have spent quite a bit of time in San Miguel de Allende. For one, WeExpats has an office in San Mike and work inevitably draws me there roughly once a year. This last visit, I stayed the longest I ever had—for several weeks—actually renting an apartment and living as a local does.
San Miguel de Allende is a stunning pueblo in the state of Guanajuato. This town has come to be known for its neo-gothic cathedral which is situated in the heart of what was once a quaint little village. The cobblestone streets wind around the Centro Histórico and you can feel that history is still alive here.
Introduction to San Cristóbal de las Casas:
Recently, I got a chance to visit San Cristóbal de las Casas when a friend of mine moved there, and I made sure to do my best to get a feel for the place (as much as one possibly can in a long weekend). However, I think that, in that brief stay, I began to understand how this small city works.
San Cristóbal de las Casas holds its charming-village feel, in no small part because it is nestled among the rolling fog of the mountains in the Mexican state of Chiapas. San Cris boasts its own cathedral—towering high over the pueblo like a perched crow—seeming to remind the visitor that pulsing beneath every footstep is a deep spirituality that remains a part of this town’s identity.
The Similarities Between San Cristóbal and San Miguel:
Being familiar with one of these amazing villages, and then visiting the other, it is no surprise why they are constantly in comparison. If we are to discuss their differences, then we should first mention why they are even in the same conversation.
– Architecture –
First of all, just walking along the streets, their architecture is nearly identical. The small colonial feel resonates in every building. Though San Cristóbal de las Casas has a splash more color to their architecture (unlike San Miguel de Allende’s insistence on remaining almost entirely brick red and yellow), the painting in San Cris is still overwhelmingly yellow punctuated with almost accent walls of color that help to bring home that you are in Chiapas.
– Tourist Magnet –
This lovely architecture and idyllic scenery in both pueblos have attracted a variety of tourists from all over the world to both locations. European and Asian tourists are not an uncommon sight in either pueblo—whereas they are nearly unheard of in the touristic pueblos in my small state of Morelos. The point is that these towns are international hotspots for tourists to come and experience the charm of Mexican pueblo life, safely, with all the conveniences of a larger city and only an hour away from a major airport.
– Trendy Pueblo Turned City –
Drawing this much tourism has inevitably helped to bring these villages to the cultural forefront. Both villages sport trendy coffee shops, posh hotels, a solid foodie scene, and a vibrant nightlife—which acts as a lodestone to artistic youths eager to express themselves. These pueblos have both grown so much that technically I should be referring to them as small cities.
– Population Roughly the Same –
In fact, their population is more or less the same. The municipalities of San Miguel de Allende and San Cristóbal de las Casas can be estimated at roughly 200,000 people—not counting the massive influx of tourists that flock to either site each year.
The Differences Between San Cristóbal and San Miguel:
– Expat vs Nomad –
Many of these are obviously metaphors, and it is wise to remember that the mark of a metaphor is: that when it is taken literally, it is reduced to absurdity. However, I think that this metaphor has some validity.
The first point is that San Miguel de Allende is the hub of expats. Most of these expats are an aging retired population that has come to create a gentrified, First-World pocket in Mexico. They have come to reside in this area, and that carries with it both good and bad attributes. In San Mike, nearly everyone is capable of speaking in English (in fact I find myself speaking in English more than in Spanish). It has a better infrastructure, which every year has been dragged further from being a sleepy pueblo’s infrastructure to accommodate a sizeable population in a modern, technical city with fiber optic cables.
In this metaphor, San Cristóbal de las Casas is more geared toward nomads. In fact, it draws backpackers traveling through the mountains of Chiapas and Oaxaca, often as a pit stop on their way to Palenque. These nomads leave their mark on the pueblo, however, they don’t rewrite the culture in their own image.
That said, San Cris is left with a struggling infrastructure that can press even the most patient person. Everything is conducted in Spanish (sorry folks, you’re unlikely to find an English menu here!) Furthermore, the average foreigner is about 30 years younger than the average expat in San Miguel.
– Electronic Music vs Rock Scene –
With the above having been mentioned, trust me that San Miguel de Allende can party. If anything, it likely parties harder than San Cris. The residents are not all elderly, and many of them are sons of these retirees who either visit or choose to live close to their parents. Also, San Miguel draws a wealth of youths looking to get out of Mexico City or nearby Querétaro, so don’t think that if you land in San Miguel de Allende, you will be partying with grandma.
One of the features of San Miguel’s party scene is that it is mostly electronic music. DJs are everywhere, and live bands are more of a hassle to find. If you’re into any type of electronic music, you will find it being played in San Miguel de Allende eventually.
It is different in San Cristóbal de las Casas. Live music is played nearly everywhere at all hours of the day. And these aren’t just cover bands, San Cris has a thriving original music scene featuring more laid back vibes. In addition, you can expect lots of live cumbia, and even some corridos. That is not to say that there is no electronic music in San Cristóbal, my friend who lives there is a DJ and he’s playing this weekend. I’m simply stating overarching themes that I noticed in my time there.
– Posh vs Hippie –
As you can expect from the previous sections, the two pueblos host vastly different demographics. San Miguel hosts a posh crowd dressed in the latest fashion. Let’s just say, the rips in their jeans were put there on purpose. And the local economy reflects this! San Miguel de Allende is one of the most expensive places in Mexico—prices are on par with the nicest neighborhoods in Mexico City.
San Cris, on the other hand, is one of the cheapest economies in Mexico—it is even considered inexpensive for Chiapanecos! Sitting on a street and watching the locals wander by is like being at an Phish concert—with people taking pride in their massive tangled beards, their grubby, artsy, and eclectic dress, and their ever-genuine smiles.
– Guanajuatenses vs. Chiapanecos –
I have always been impressed by the Guanajuatences. A couple months before my stay in San Miguel de Allende, I traveled through Central Mexico with some American buddies. I found the Guanajuatenses to be kind, honest, fun-loving, and safe—compared to other “shadier” parts of Mexico. I largely found them to be on par with most Mexicans—like the Guayabos of Morelos where I live.
However, we cannot kid ourselves here. San Miguel de Allende is becoming more dangerous. Though I felt safe walking at odd hours of the day, I was always wary that crime was increasing (which is often the byproduct of gentrification pushing those residents who cannot survive on their previous income to find other avenues of income—like crime). Currently, in San Miguel de Allende, there are three gangs fighting for turf. I would not say that it is a notably dangerous place, but there are places to which we must adhere to caution—and San Miguel is one of them.
On the other side, San Cristóbal de las Casas struck me by how safe it was. I was jaw-to-the-ground flabbergasted that this could be Mexico! I hadn’t known a Mexico like this in decades—since I was growing up in Colonia del Valle in the 80s. Children were playing on the street past midnight! Not one person complained about the safety in San Cris, and the one taxi driver who I found that had any complaint was about petty bribery getting out of jail. Not even petty theft.
Similarly—and this is not an attack on Guanajuatenses or any other Mexicans—I was shocked by the Chiapanecos. They were, on the whole, the best Mexicans I have ever met. It’s beyond their kindness and this genuine warmth that I felt from the start. Each one is willing to go above and beyond to help you in so many ways. To be frank, the people felt like the best example of Mexicans I had ever encountered. I stand in awe.
If I had only one complaint about the Chiapanecos is that you cannot have a conversation without someone trying to sell you something. They are pushy about it too! Every two minutes you can expect someone to interrupt your conversation in hopes of selling you anything they have, and they will not take no for an answer. Hey, we all have to eat.
– Indigenous vs Vaquero –
Both places have an underlying tone—each with a glimpse of their own version of Mexico. To me, San Miguel de Allende is vaquero. It has a cowboy feel with men roaming the streets in cowboy hats, and a horse or donkey is not an uncommon sight in San Mike. If you want a place that looks like a scene out of a Robert Rodriguez movie, then San Miguel is the town for you. (So much so, that Once Upon a Time in Mexico was almost entirely shot in San Miguel).
Imagine old saloon doors with pictures of Jose Alfredo Jimenez overlooking the establishment like some venerated messianic figure. 10-foot-tall performers on stilts dressed as papier-mache men and women dance in the streets almost every day, followed by a mariachi band celebrating a wedding procession—handing out shots of mezcal and coaxing the buried you from beneath layers of social conditioning. I love everything about it.
San Cristóbal de las Casas is equally cultural, it simply offers a different snapshot of Mexican culture. Everything is very indigenous. Coffee, corn, and textile wares saturate every pore of this town. Live pan flute street performers only add to the feel that you aren’t in the country of Mexico, but in a culture that is far older—perhaps time immemorial.
In a way, you could also divide San Cris and San Mike in that San Mike has a colonial vibe whereas San Cris has a prehispanic feel to it. In the end, they are both aspects of Mexico which are crucial to understanding its culture.
*It should be mentioned that I rode a horse in San Cris and not in San Mike.
– Independence vs Revolution (and 1994) –
Another factor in the underlying culture of each pueblo is its historicity. San Miguel de Allende holds close to its historical identity an association with the Mexican Independence from Spain. It is a living history that breathes again in every celebration, in every event—especially during El Mes Patrio. Statues of figures from the independence like El Pípila and Miguel Hidalgo are found all throughout San Mike.
For San Cristóbal de las Casas, it’s the Mexican Revolution—in particular: Emiliano Zapata. Though I live in Morelos (the state where Zapata was born), there are no daily toasts of ¡Viva Zapata! like you would find in San Cris.
Remember that in 1994, the Zapatistas occupied San Cristóbal de las Casas and successfully changed the face of Mexican politics. I could not have a conversation with lifelong locals (people who were born and had lived in San Cris all their lives) without them mentioning 1994 and how it changed the pueblo. For some people, it was the end of their sleepy little village that had not exceeded a population of 75,000 in 460 years until 1994. For others, it was the justice that the pueblo had been demanding finally coming to fruition. Whatever your viewpoint, know that Zapata and the Zapatistas are a living part of life in San Cristóbal.
*For a wonderful Netflix documentary on the subject of Mexico in 1994, including the Zapatistas, click here.
– Hot vs Cold Weather –
Perhaps of all the metaphors that I’ve listed above, this is the most untrue. However, no article about the differences between San Mike and San Cris could be complete without mentioning the weather.
If I were to say that San Miguel de Allende is hotter than San Cristóbal de las Casas, that might be true. However, because San Miguel de Allende is situated in a high desert, it can also get quite cold. I have been in San Miguel in the dead of winter at night when it was 4°C and windy! Furthermore, San Miguel de Allende is blessed with those summer rains that cool everything down between June and September. That said, from March to June, San Miguel is hot.
San Cristóbal is known for being one of the coolest places in Mexico because it is situated above the canopy line in the foggy forests of Chiapas. However, San Cris can also get hot when the sun is shining directly on you in the heat of the day. Though, the weather in San Cris in the winter is far more temperate than in San Miguel.
– Pox vs Tequila/Mezcal –
Lastly, it is worth noting that in San Cris they drink a corn liquor called pox, pronounced “posh”. It is a distilled liquor that I find quite smooth—far smoother than tequila. It has no smokey undertones like mezcal, and it comes cured in flavors of exotic fruits if you so wish. It is deceivingly strong—the ceremonial pox reaching 53% alcohol! As an ardent fan of tequila, mezcal, and sotol, I was incredibly impressed with Chiapas’ regional spirit.
Ultimately, these are just my first impressions, and your experiences may differ greatly. The traveler brings as much to the experience as the place. Furthermore, admittedly, though I know San Miguel de Allende quite well, I hardly know San Cristóbal de las Casas—and I look forward to future experiences in both of these charming pueblos.
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