Chiapas, Mexico

Brian Finch explores the colourful state of Chiapas, Mexico.

Chiapas, the southernmost state of Mexico,  is a high altitude, rugged hill country  full of  rivers and waterfalls and ruined Mayan cities – invariably in beautiful locations. But then, if you head south towards Guatemala you drop several thousand feet and find yourself in semi-tropical rainforests.

The capital Tuxtla Guttierez is just a couple of hours flight from Mexico City, but once your plane lands you will probably hurry away from the city either by car or coach. We hired a van and a driver who was also a guide, which is surprisingly economical, if you can manage with a Spanish speaker, but an English speaking guide is likely to cost another US$50 per day. Since these vans can carry a dozen people price falls dramatically if you join a party.

50km to the south but a 2,000m climb lies the town of San Cristobal which, because of its height, is cooler even to the extent that you may need a pullover in the evening.  The road is good so the journey will only take an hour and the scenery alone would be worth the trip. A couple of times we were on this road and found ourselves driving through clouds only to emerge in bright sunshine and driving above them for a fantastic view of hills laced with puffy clouds.San Cristobal itself is delightful, with plenty of good hotels, restaurants and bars. Its brightly painted colonial style buildings alone bring a smile to the face as you stroll around the streets and squares. The evening market in front of the cathedral draws people wearing distinctive village costumes from the surrounding areas to sell their craft works and there is also a colourful daytime market. 

The town is a good centre for trips to surrounding villages, each with its specialist craft; one will sell distinctive pottery, another weaves clothes and wall hangings whilst another produces embroidered dresses. We just happened to arrive on the 24th  June which is the feast day of St John the Baptist, patron saint of the village of Chamula, which meant it was thronged with people , men wearing distinctive long wool sheepskin jackets and women wearing s skirts of this material and brightly embroidered blouses. The men’s costume shows they are part of the self-regulating officialdom, so be careful about taking photos of people, which they do not like. The streets were filled with a market, colourful shops and wandering vendors of food and clothing. People from surrounding villages who had come in for the party are recognisable by different but also  distinctive costumes.

You must visit the pretty blue and white church on the main square. Connections between the syncretic religion observed here and Christianity are tenuous and it felt more like a festival from a thousand years past, with incense and animal sacrifices in the church and people praying to a wide array of effigies of saints for practical help with ailments and ambitions. Apparently some of these effigies have had their wooden hands cut off as punishment for failing to save another church that housed them from fire and destruction.

From San Cristobal the established tourist trail leads to Palenque in the south, passing many beautiful waterfalls and archaeological sites. There are enough for you to visit some on the way there and some on the way back. The narrow, winding road would take, without stopping, at least four hours. Palenque is the site of a particularly splendid ruined city and the pyramid that used to house the tomb of a famous ruler, Pakal. The contents of this tomb itself has now been moved to the Museum of Anthropology in Mexico City. There are plenty of hotels for an overnight stop either on the outskirts of the town or a few miles out at the archaeological site itself.

We continued our journey a couple of hours to Yaxchilan, which is a Mayan site on the river which forms the border with Guatemala. You stop at a place on the river bank which is a line of restaurants and a car park and then take a forty minute boat ride up the densely wooded river past alligators and assorted wildlife until the ruins emerge from the forest on your left. It is a short walk from the banks through jungle to the ruins which are dotted amongst the trees and, when we were there, we were serenaded by howler monkeys. Less than an hour from  Yaxchilan there is also the site of Bonompak, which is well worth seeing but be aware that its famous murals have  badly degenerated over the years so that the souvenir  pictures you can buy are now better than what is left on the walls. This site is in a protected area where you can stay in local villages of the Lacandon people. Our local guide for this site is a Lacandon, descended  from the man who revealed the site to explorers over a hundred years ago. He was particularly proud of being very short which seemed to add to his credentials as a Mayan.

Returning to San Cristobal we found our route blocked by a demonstration of teachers demanding better pay. Unfortunately for us the police were unwilling to clear them, which led to a seven hour detour: all part of the local colour!

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