El Naufragio — Beer and Community in the heart of Mexican Cowboy Country
I was deep in Mexican mountain country, my heart racing a little faster than usual. The air’s thinner here, being a little higher in altitude than the majority of Europe’s ski resorts.
This is San Cristóbal de las Casas, a colonial-era Puebla Magica (“magic town”—according to the official badge of honour given by the Mexican government to certain places of outstanding beauty and cultural significance), that’s becoming less of a well-kept secret and more of a tourist hotbed with each passing season.
This increasing popularity is all the more impressive given how much of an absolute pain it is to reach. Your travel options? A toss-up between a twelve hour stint on a public bus from the mezcal paradise of Oaxaca, or an internal flight/bus combo from Tuxtla Gutiérrez in the western part of Mexico’s sprawling, mountainous Chiapas region. The latter being better known for its Caballeros—real-deal Mexican cowboys—and intricately detailed textiles, than being the home of a good pint.
I was feeling just about ready to wind my night down as I walked away from a residential address in the north-central part of town. The usually reliable Google had assured me my destination opened to the public at 7:30pm on Fridays to dish out some life-changing enchiladas. No dice. Just a confused man who lived at said address and looked at me as though I had two heads when I knocked on his door to ask him to get the cheesy tortillas on the grill in ropey Spanish.
About half an hour after this disappointment I found myself walking past a nondescript, signless, wrought iron door, cracked open just a fraction. Dim lighting and laughter-soaked buzz poured through this opening and onto the street. With nowhere else to be following enchilada-gate, I pushed through the door and entered El Naufragio for the first time.
The first thing that struck me (other than “crikey, they have some beer taps,” something that’s less common than you’d think in what is still very much a bottle-oriented Mexican beer scene) was that this felt nothing like any other bar I’d occupied on a late Friday evening. Young families were messing around with a toy chest provided by the bar. Dogs snoozed in the courtyard. A small local art exhibition had a healthy crowd milling around it in an anteroom. A Japanese Folk band were tuning up quietly in one of the corners ahead of their 9pm set time.
And everyone—bar the toddlers and the dogs—had a glass of beer in hand.
Seeing the contents of many of these glasses bore the trademark hazy paleness that screamed craft beer post-2017, my excitement steepened.
Striding through the candlelit courtyard into the main bar area—a room no bigger than 30 metres squared—I joined a friendlier-than-usual bar scrum and clocked the beer board. Staring back at me was the broadest mix of styles I’d seen in any bar during my previous five weeks of travel across the Yucatán, Campeche, and Chiapas regions of Mexico. Chalked up there were the details of house-brewed kölsch, IPA, DIPA, Vienna lager, foreign extra stout, and a beefed up British pale ale (pithily named Brextensión) that I’d have believed was Fuller’s ESB had nobody told me otherwise.
In addition to the ESB that evoked memories of gulping wintertime pints in London, the rest of the board continued to excite. The DIPA had all the mango, sherbet, and resinous bite of West Coast heavyweights that once sent the beer world into a collective fluster, while another IPA pleased the modern haze-mad crowd with its soft, pineapple juice notes. Their Vienna lager gave the caramel coated crunch of decoction mashing that you might expect from some of Bohemia’s finest. It’s what I wished every bottle of Mexico’s omnipresent Dos Equis Ambar would taste like.
The kölsch was arguably playing the role of gateway beer to a light lager oriented local crowd, but passed the bar just fine. Up last was the stout, all deep cherry, fig, and dark roast coffee. No bum notes and nothing costed more than the equivalent of £2 for a 33cl serving, or £3 for a 45cl glass.
My delight in finding such a wonderful little slice of this Puebla Magica didn’t stop there either. The simple plates on offer made my stay at El Naufragio all the more appealing.
Homemade sausages paid homage to the best hot dogs from Poland, Bavaria and Tuscany, all served in cloud-like buns alongside tangy sauerkraut-inspired coleslaw. Not forgetting their country of origin, the chef was also whipping up a variety of tortas, with the Eastern Mexican slow-cooked spice and orange infused pork shoulder, Cochinita Pibil. It was the star of the show, for a little under what would be £1.50.
I left two hours later, rosy cheeked and full to the brim, having basked in an atmosphere of convivial joy in its purest form and parted ways with less than £15.
Only two things troubled me as I left El Naufragio. First, the urinal hidden in a faux red UK phone box in the centre of the courtyard that I’d unwittingly been sat next to for the best part of an hour, nodding politely to folks going inside. Secondly, the crushing realisation that I’ll probably never set foot in there again.
Illustration by James Albon