San Cristobal de las Casas, Cathedral ©Solange Hando
In the central highlands of southern Mexico, this stunning cathedral in San Cristobal de las Casas draws locals and visitors alike from morning to night. With its warm colours and slender minaret-like turrets, it's the most striking legacy of colonial times in the ancient capital of the Chiapas state.
Weaving in Chiapas State ©Solange Hando
But alongside the Catholic faith, the indigenous culture is alive and well and the tourist market outside Santo Domingo's church is a great place to bargain for local craft. Chiapas is known for hand-made textiles -head for the villages to see weavers at work-, amber and jade but you will also find the usual assortment of tourist trinkets from hats and gloves to dolls or water bottles.
Southern Mexico Central Highlands ©Solange Hando
At 2,200 metres, Cristobal de las Casas nestles in a valley framed by pine-covered hills where streams,waterfalls and springs babble in fragrant greenery. Up in the mountains indigenous communities often live in isolation, following their own set of rules and even laws.
Chiapas may be part of Mexico but as proved by its turbulent past and frequent unrest, the descendants of the Maya are their own boss and do not appreciate any kind of interference.
Market Day in San Juan Chamula ©Solange Hando
Up in the hills, roughly 10 km from San Critobal de las Casas, the weekly market of San Juan Chamula attracts a fair number of visitors keen to enjoy the bright local colour and have a look in the unique temple-church. There, families who gather to pray sit around candles on a floor covered in pine needles; no pews or chairs, only indigenous gods and Catholic saints jostling side by side along the aisles.
As long as you are prepared to respect the rules, it is well worth a visit. No photos in the church or market except from one specific spot on the square. Don't try it on, you will be caught, shamed in public and unless your guide has untold patience and connections, you can say goodbye to your camera. Same applies to most of the of nearby villages.
Colonial Style, San Cristobal de las Casas ©Solange Hando
Back in town, the atmosphere is far more relaxed as you wander past elegant villas and cool arcades or head down the pedestrian street with its enticing restaurants and café-terrace, its food vendors and balloon sellers, giggling children and Maya women who do not shy away as long as you're prepared to bargain and buy.
On the town square, elders and weary-eyed tourists doze under the trees while the hypnotic notes of a traditional xylophone -played by three pairs of hands- drift in the evening air.
San Cristobal de las Casas, Chiapas, Mexico ©Solange Hando
Meanwhile in the back lanes just minutes away, lovely character hotels hide among the colourful local dwellings which line the paved alleyways, heading straight as arrows towards the wooded highlands.
Cristobal may be a city these days but it is still called 'the most magical village' and in the fresh mountain air, it truly feels like it.