Feeling right at home in San Cristobal

Looking for the perfect mate? The city of Asheville has found it in southeastern Mexico. San Cristobal de Las Casas, Asheville’s official twin in the International Sister Cities Program, is its mirror image in many ways. From the beauty of mountainous surroundings to the relaxed ambiance of downtown streets, the similarities are astonishing.

“It’s magical! Enchanting!” exclaimed Fania Tuomey, who has traveled enough to be slightly jaded about new places. Geologist Dr. Rob Turner and teacher Pat Bruder found the night life great — as did environmentalists Dr. Delores Eggers and Glen Locascio, and project coordinators Tom Sanders and myself.

Ten delegates recently returned from a week in San Cristobal as part of an Asheville Sister Cities trip to develop joint projects on environment and culture. Located in the cloud forests of southern Mexico, San Cristobal is to the Los Altos highlands what Asheville is to the Blue Ridge Parkway and the WNC mountains. The view from most sites in both cities is of mountains; cool nights and summer breezes attract visitors, making tourism the major industry in both cities.

Similar environmental treasures and concerns? You bet! Both cities are surrounded by pine and oak forests. The regions around each are lush in biodiversity: more species of trees in WNC than anywhere, and more species of birds in the Los Altos than in all of Europe. Yet in both places, forests and wildlife are endangered, and in both places, conservation groups are beginning to have clout in addressing the problems.

As in Asheville, the street scene in San Cristobal is laid back, easygoing. Sidewalk strollers find a myriad of restaurants, bars, cybercafes and shops, radiating from Centro Plaza up Real Guadalupe and Insurgentes — as from Pack Square up Haywood Street and Lexington Avenue. Short walking distances: Strollers in the Plaza are seldom out of view of the huge pink and yellow Catedral San Cristobal (rebuilt in 1693), and in Asheville, seldom far from the historic Basilica St. Lawrence.

For shoppers, there are exquisitely woven and embroidered textiles, including clothes, pottery, leather goods, original art, some of the world’s finest amber (rivaling that of the Baltic Sea area), turquoise and jade set in silver and gold. A few blocks away, the market bursts with ripe mangos, papayas, pineapples, bananas, limes, grapes, melons, avocados, tomatoes, peppers, corn, squash, fish, chicken, beef, pork and a profusion of flowers unlike any other place.

Undulating sights and sounds mesmerize visitors with vibrant colored huipiles of the Tzotzil women, business suits on professionals, jeans and T-shirts on teens, and lovely white dresses on young girls out with their families in the plaza. Calla lilies and dozens of other flowers are sold by vendors and also bloom in the plaza gardens, under palm trees around a central gazebo. Sounds of guitars, drums, rattles and the ubiquitous marimba pervade the streets, and polyrhythmic strains float in from interior courtyard cafes as one wanders down the streets. Asheville’s dress code and types of music, however, are both more freewheeling than San Cristobal’s, so a visitor from here should not plan to bare nearly all while in the Centro Plaza or in any other public place.

Both cities offer superb restaurants and little dining rooms serving natural foods, often featuring multi-whole-grain breads. Favorites in San Cristobal include NaBloom, the guest house where our group stayed, with its long dining table seating 26, and its chicken, eggs, breads, vegetables and salads laden with herbs freshly picked from extensive gardens on the premises. Another is Madre Tierra, a vegetarian oasis with a whole-grain bakery next door. Frida Kahlo looks down on diners from large prints, reminding them of Mother Earth.

The art, natural-food restaurants, sights and sounds, eclectic mix of people, mountainous setting, conservation efforts, stunning wildlife and night life — the similarities between Asheville and San Cristobal go on and on.

Steppin’ out, San Cristobal style

What does one do for night life in the mountain city of San Cristobal de las Casas, located in the center of Los Altos, the highlands of southeastern Mexico? A Belgian lass who was just passing through recommended the nightclub Las Margaritas. She and her group had been there the night before and were impressed by the house band. Further investigation produced the band’s name: Arena — Espanol for “sand.”

Our intrepid group was also impressed. Of the seven nights we spent in San Cristobal, at least half of our group of 10 went to Las Margaritas to enjoy Arena. Paco, the band’s leader, exchanged e-mail addresses with Dee, our environmental scientist from UNCA by day and enthusiast of polyrhythmic sounds by night. Would it be possible to get Arena to come to Asheville?

Paco plays the diablo out of a classical acoustic guitar in the first set of their act, and a bass in the second set. He is also the singer, with an easy patter, a ready smile and frequent exhortations to his bandmates and the audience. His major strength is his right hand, which is astonishingly quick, precise and always rhythmic. The primary percussionist — a jaunty 19-year-old — is equally gifted, regardless of whether he is playing castanets, a metal box or, most frequently, a trio of congas. Together, they make the music move. This core is always accompanied by another musician who alternated between bass guitar and supportive percussion.

Arena is a cover band that’s out to entertain an audience with a wide range of Latin styles. Their first set features more serious approaches to musicianship. Songs are stretched out to allow for percussive improvisation and dazzling guitar runs. To me, a novice of Latin music, most of the first set had a Spanish/flamenco feel. Indeed, the band used to be called the Flamencos. Recognizable cover songs included works by the Gypsy Kings and from the Buena Vista Social Club album.

For the second set, Arena morphs into a party band. A keyboard player joins them on-stage, while Paco switches to bass guitar and the first-set bass player switches to a standup drum kit. Some Cuban music gets the blood pumping in the second set, but the mainstay is salsa. The music, and the evident joy Arena has in playing it, is infectious.

Our Sister Cities group hopes to bring Arena to Asheville. Should we succeed, I heartily recommend that you make the time to experience Arrena live.

— Rob Turner

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