MexicoPremiere contributor Greg Custer, a Mexico expert in his own right, sent us his thoughts on his latest visit to this magical country: a trip through Chiapas, one of the country’s many hidden gems. ¡Gracias for sharing, Greg!
A recent visit to Mexico’s southernmost State reinforces why Chiapas is one of this hemisphere’s grandest nature + culture experiences. Bordered by Veracruz, Tabasco, Oaxaca and Guatemala and spanning Mexico’s narrow southern waist, 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 Houston non-stops into Villahermosa and returning from Tuxtla-Gutierrez.
A typical SIX DAY jaunt begins by landing in Villahermosa (VSA; United has non-stop service from HOU; otherwise connect via MEX). It’s an easy, flat 90 minutes to the town of Palenque, and another 5 short kms to the Palenque archaeological site. There’s non-stop bus service from the airport to Palenque city (fare is around $17US). Stay in the ‘La Cañada’ area, home to a jungle-shaded, gentrified collection of good eats, coffee shops and small inns. (Palenque city has limited attractions beyond its leafy parks.) We stayed comfortably at Maya Tulipanes.
DAY ONE: 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. It is here they found not only towering structures and Egyptian-like tombs, but a nearly uninterrupted record of the site’s powerful dynastic rulers. 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. There are other daytrip options (and overnight journeys) exploring lowland ruins, villages and nature reserves.
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 (‘topes’ in Spanish). 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 experiences. Spanning a towering series of Machu Picchu-like terraces are temples, stela, 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. It had been thought the Toniná acropolis was built atop an existing hill. In 2015 scientists announced the massive structure was in fact entirely build by ancient inhabitants. “It’s a big surprise to see that the pyramid was done almost entirely by the architects and therefore is more artificial than natural” said Emiliano Gallaga, director of the site.
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 Dios 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 resettled and refuge-seeking Maya families, the sad reality of political, land rights, religious and international migration conflict across highland Chiapas.
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 the 12-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. It ran from 1957 to 1980 and investigated social change across Mayan culture.
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.
Have a few extra days? Chiapas is home to several of Mexico’s premier outdoor experiences. The Pacific coast (some 3.5 hours from San Cristobal to Puerto Arista) has largely unvisited stretches of beach, interrupted by an occasional fishing village. Highland attractions include North America’s only tropical rainforest, some of its deepest canyons and several wild, scenic rivers and lakes. Six of Mexico’s finest national parks and nature preserves are here, including Sumidero Canyon, El Triunfo, Agua Azul, and Lagunas de Montebello.
It’s a one-hour taxi to state capital Tuxtla-Gutierrez and its international airport (TGZ; United to Houston or connection via MEX). 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.
Learn more at www.magicofmexico.com
(Text and photos: Greg Custer)