Destination Dispatch: Chiapas
Story and Photography
By Greg Custer
A recent visit to Mexico’s southernmost State reinforces why Chiapas is not only an accessible getaway for lakesiders, but also one of this hemisphere’s grandest nature and culture experiences. Chiapas combines pine forest highlands, steamy jungle lowlands, wild rivers, alpine lakes, deep canyons, and a slice of little-explored Pacific Coast. It’s also the heartland of Mexico’s Mayan patrimony.
Historically, Chiapas has attracted only veteran Mexico travelers, Europeans, and backpackers on their way to Central America. Today it’s an easier-than-ever open-jaw itinerary using Guadalajara non-stops (Viva Aerobus) into Villahermosa and returning from Tuxtla-Gutierrez. And with airfares starting around $100 US roundtrip, why would you stay home?
DAY ONE: Once landed in Villahermosa, there’s non-stop bus service from the airport to Palenque city (fare is around $17US). I suggest you stay in the ‘La Cañada’ area, home to a jungle-shaded, gentrified collection of good eats, coffee shops and small inns. We stayed comfortably at Maya Tulipanes.
Take a full day to immerse your soul in Palenque, the apogee of western Mayan architectural refinement. The jungle hillside setting is breathtaking. An English-speaking guide can divide your visit between the unexcavated jungle ruins, the regal central courtyard of palaces and temples, followed by a downhill, suspension bridge, waterfall path to the site’s excellent museum. Palenque’s importance to Mayan scholars cannot be overstated. Studies will continue for decades-to-come and a day visit leaves you wanting more.
DAY TWO: Within reach from Palenque city are a host of nature and cultural attractions. Most opt for the waterfalls at Misol-há and the turquoise waters of stunning Agua Azul. When visiting from November to May, witness the 15 km-long river’s transformation from rainy season cappuccino hues to dry season’s brilliant blues, greens and frothy white cascades, which are the result of bicarbonate minerals that alter refracted sunlight. You can wander upstream to the river’s source, past vendors, restaurants and quiet alcoves.
DAY THREE: After travelling the sinuous two-lane highway south from Palenque to Ocosingo, you’ll swear there was a Mayan God of the Speed Bump. The road (regardless of whether you use private driver or deluxe bus) is tortuous. ‘Topes’ (the tall ones, not the smaller ‘vibrador’ variety) appear with a maddening frequency like no other route in the Americas. Take Dramamine (and your sense of humor) to compensate. You’re rewarded handsomely some upon reaching Ocosingo and a short jaunt east to Toniná.
This little-visited site belongs in anyone’s TOP FIVE Mesoamerican archaeological experiences. Spanning a towering series of terraces are temples, carved stone walls, residences and pyramids, all climber accessible. A mere 30-40 people tour the site each day! The structure towers 75 meters (246 feet) and is now crowned as the tallest in all of Mexico.
After another two jarring hours of ‘topes’ your journey from jungle to highlands ends at magical 7,000-foot San Cristobal de las Casas. Rest at your hotel, then rally for an evening stroll along the city’s 16th century flagstone pedestrian arcades and marimba serenaded squares. (We enjoyed our stay at Las Escaleras, ten suites climbing a hillside a short walk to the main square. The lovely Parador San Juan de Díos is also highly recommended).
DAYS FOUR AND FIVE:
A walker’s delight, San Cristobal sits in a valley surrounded by pine forested mountains. Highland communities have occupied the region for millennia. Spanish San Cristobal dates to 1528, evident in the city’s handsome squares, Catholic temples, mansions, and red tiled roofs. It was a bastion of Indian conversion to European ways, a work-in-progress that yields both splendor and tragedy.
Across the Highlands, an ancient yet ‘contemporary’ Mayan culture has survived, amidst a patchwork of independent, culturally distinct villages. Of the state’s 5.2 million inhabitants, nearly one million are Native Americans, descendants of the Maya and other ethnic groups. Much of the state’s history is centered on the subjugation of these people. Satellite communities west of San Cristobal are home to re-settled and refuge-seeking Maya families, a sad reality.
With a population now approaching 200,000, San Cristobal still feels like a village. A ‘Pueblo Mágico’ designation has brought gentrification and hip international dining. Take time to visit Casa Na Bolom, a step back in time homage to the Lancandon Forest and its ancestral inhabitants. Blocks away is the12-rooom Parador San Juan de Díos, a series of lovely bungalows, an excellent gourmet restaurant and former home to the Harvard University’s Chiapas Project, a ground-breaking ethnographic field study.
The region’s signature textiles are seen as daily garb and purchased at shops or mercados. The weaver cooperative Sna Jolobil is adjacent to the city’s fine Textile Museum, part of the Templo de Santo Domingo. Built between 1547-60, Santo Domingo’s baroque façade is of soft pink stone is resplendent, while the interior is exuberantly decorated with gilt retablos. Sna Jolobil supports some 800 weavers from twenty Tzotzil and Tzeltal-speaking communities.
Day trips from San Cristobal highlight archaeological sites, traditional villages and nature’s splendor. Take in at least one of these opportunities when not shopping for ambar or sipping Mexico’s best coffee, relaxing in the city’s several plazas.
It’s a one-hour taxi to state capital Tuxtla-Gutierrez and your nonstop home to GDL. Descending over 5,000 feet from the Highlands via a modern autopista, contemplate one of this hemisphere’s most complex cultural corridors, and start planning your next visit.