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Push to fuel Chiapas tourism threatens a way of life

A highway being cut from the highland mountains will open Oct. 31, connecting the capital with remote villages.

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It's a good thing the "El Kiosco" marimba band plays in the evenings in the central bandstand of this colonial city in the Chiapas highlands. Otherwise the musicians' catchy tunes would have to compete with the clatter from all the construction going on in San Cristobl's historic center.

Put on the hip global tourist map by the Zapatista Indian rebellion - which briefly occupied the town on New Year's Day, 1994 - San Cristobl de las Casas somehow managed to remain a mountain recluse despite international fame.

It became a Mecca for the likes of Oliver Stone and Danielle Mitterrand, off to campfire-side chats with charismatic Zapatista leader "Subcomandante Marcos." Word passed to Europe, and the town became an obligatory stop for thousands of Italians seeking out one of the world's last best hopes for "revolutionary tourism." Yet despite all that, San Cristobl stayed a market town for surrounding Indian communities, far from the tinsel of global commerce - the McDonald's and Wal-Marts - that Mr. Marcos had warned about in 1994.

But now it seems this place - known for red-tiled roofs, flower-filled courtyards, and Indian women selling bright weavings and masked, rifle-toting Zapatista dolls - is finally in for some big changes.

The new pedestrian walkways being installed around the colorful town square, along with the city's first storm-drainage system are the least of it. What's really going to hit San Cristobl like a hurricane is the new freeway slicing through the mountains to link San Cristobl with the booming state capital, Tuxtla Gutirrez.

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