Each morning here in the small mountain town of San Cristobal de las Casas, Mexico, the neighborhood wakes up around you. Birds begin to chirp, dogs start barking, and roosters proceed to cock-a-doodle-doo. Yet what acts as our alarm clock is the nearby church bells that begin to chime loudly for about thirty seconds sometime during the six o’clock hour.
But on Monday morning, we didn’t receive our usual church bell wake-up call. It was a subtle sign to us that today would be different. The Pope was arriving!
It’s our theory that the church bell ringer had neglected his daily duty in order to attend one of the Papal events throughout town on this beautifully sunny day. And who could blame him? It would we a once-in-a-life time occasion for him and other devoted Catholics living all around the surrounding villages who had descended in droves to San Cristobal de las Casas in hopes of catching a glimpse of Papa Francisco.
It was complete happenstance that our paths would cross with the Pope Francis. While back in Mérida, we were attempting to book a small house to live in for our month long stay in San Crisobal de las Casas. We had inquired about rental availability with nearly a dozen different hosts who had all given us the same response, informing us that the entire month was available except for February 14th or 15th. We had thought this little mountain town must be a very popular place to celebrate Valentine’s Day.
That wasn’t the case at all. We were completely surprised to finally learn the true reason why mid-February accommodation was in short supply in San Cristobal de las Casas, Mexico, was due to the Pope’s visit.
Thankfully we eventually did find a home to rent and we moved in days before Pope Francis’s arrival. We really enjoyed our first few days in San Cristobal de las Casas as we discovered its charms. It’s a high altitude town at 2,200 meters elevation, surrounded by pine tree draped mountains. There’s a large indigenous community living here who help to make the quaint cobblestone streets colorful and vibrant.
It was this large indigenous community that had presumably helped to attract Pope Francis to this otherwise small blip on Mexico’s map. Church leaders have frowned upon their practicing a version of Catholicism that blends local culture with traditional Roman Catholic ways. But this Pope would instead come to deliver a message of unity and inclusiveness to the indigenous community.
Additionally San Cristobal de las Casas is located in the Mexican state of Chiapas, which is the poorest state throughout the entire country, with a poverty rate of 75%. So it was befitting that this so-called “Pope of the Poor” would make an official visit to the region.
In the days leading up to this historic papal visit, yellow and white Vatican flags began to line the streets. Thorough cleaning efforts were clearly underway as fresh coats of paint were slapped onto buildings. Roadways began to be cordoned off for the “Ruta de Papa”. Meanwhile the town appeared to become more and more crowded.
The evening before his arrival, in typical Mexican fashion, fireworks began to pop throughout the city as the pulsating energy of marching bands could be heard from several streets away.
It was Valentine’s Day, so we went to have a wander around the town to absorb this excitement while also having a date night of dinner & drinks. Those latter plans were thwarted though. We had a list of notable bars that we were excited to visit. Yet as we trekked over the hilly streets of San Cristobal de las Casas, trying to locate each establishment, we would arrive to closed doors. Meanwhile the restaurants that were open in town, were all strangely empty despite the huge increase in visitors.
We were thrilled when we finally arrived at a café notable for their artisanal mescal and found it to be open. But as the server delivered our menu, he spoke to us in Spanish in an apologetic tone in which I distinctively heard the words “no alcohol.”
It now all made sense. There was a two-day prohibition that had gone into affect banning alcohol sales due to the Pope’s visit. It was a dry Valentine’s Day dinner for us, yet understandably so, as the government wants to ensure that everyone behaves themselves when His Holiness arrives.
The morning of Pope’s Francis visit had come. Absent were the church bells. Instead we opened our windows to hear soft angelic music wafting throughout the town. The Pope would be arriving into town by helicopter and it wasn’t long before we heard a chopper soaring directly about our house. He had arrived.
His first official stop was at the Sedem sport’s stadium to deliver mass to the large crowd of indigenous Catholics. We decided to go against the grain in an effort to rendezvous with the Papal leader en route to his afternoon visit to the town’s Cathedral. It was unusually quiet, as most of the town had possibly already embarked on their mission to see the Pope. Storefronts were shuttered and few people could be seen on the otherwise bustling streets.
As we neared the Cathedral, that all changed. It was packed. Popemania had overtaken the city center. Street vendors were selling Pope t-shirts, flags, coffee mugs, and bracelets to adoring crowds who welcomed all the Pope-branded merchandise, making purchases by the handful. Banners and signs were up all over San Cristobal de las Casas to welcome the Pope to their quaint town in the mountains of Southern Mexico.
People began to line the streets as the excitement built. The festive vibe in the air was similar to that of a group of concertgoers awaiting one of their favorite bands to come out. The “wave” even began along the streets as did chanting. “Long live the Pope of the poor!” and “Welcome Pope of the struggle!” could be heard shouted in unison in Spanish.
The events all unfolded in a surprising orderly manner in this sometimes-chaotic country. Perhaps the faithful were being on their best behavior for Pope Francis or maybe it was from the abundance of police and military that helped to maintain a truly disciplined crowd.
Whatever the case, it was all very organized and well executed. Red Cross officials and ambulances were stationed on stand-by on every street. As the sun beamed down, officials came by to deliver complimentary water to the masses who had gathered to get a glimpse of the Pope.
The almost entirely local crowd grew thicker and thicker. We tried to mix in as fellow Pope-seekers kindly shared their umbrellas to help block the relentless sun.
Anticipation came to a climax shortly after Noon when we began to hear a buzz from the crowd on the route preceding us. The motorcade was approaching. Wide smiles adorned faces as they cried out “Papa, papa!” The Popemobile rolled by much more quickly than we all had imagined.
During the Pope’s swift drive-by, his back was turned to us as he waved to those who had gathered on the opposite side of the street. You could hear a collective sigh of disappointment that the Holy Father didn’t turn around.
Meanwhile we managed to race around the corner to the picturesque Cathedral, which took nearly three hundred years to build with construction that began in the early 14th century. The Pope was in route here for an official visit. We had found a short cut to the site that beat out the motorcade.
We arrived to the intersection with near perfect timing. Off in the distance we could see the Pope coming on a direct path towards us. As if almost on cue, pigeons fluttered in the air in front of the historic Cathedral.
There he was, full of smiles and waves. After snapping a few photos, we found ourselves nearly face-to-face with the head of the Catholic Church. It was a surreal moment.
I yelled out to him “Buen viaje Papa!” (Have a good trip Pope!)
He looked at me, smiled, and then motioned as if he was providing a blessing.
Now I don’t know if he actually heard me or if his gestures were even directed towards me, but it was pretty cool to share a moment with this particular Pope in this special town in Mexico.
He proceeded into the Cathedral of San Cristobal de las Casas to have lunch with the indigenous community along with a papal entourage. We were surprised to find an empty café only a half block away, where we proceeded to chow down on Mexican tortas just a few hundred meters away from where Pope Francis was lunching.
Soon after, he ascended to the altar inside the church to greet the pilgrims who had gathered there. His message to pray for the sick was broadcasted on large TV’s that had been placed so that the throngs of people outside the Cathedral could witness the moment. It was well received, as the crowd seemed to hang on to his every word.
Pope Francis then made a swift exit, departing just as quickly as he arrived.
The adoring crowd rejoiced one final time to his affectionate smiles.
It was a momentous and memorable day. Even for those of us who aren’t particularly religious, it was difficult to not get completely swept up in the enthusiasm that surrounded Pope’s visit. Experiencing local culture can make for extraordinary experiences during one’s travels and this remarkable event in little San Cristobal de las Casas, Mexico, was certainly no exception.