Chiapas (Mexico)

Chiapas is one of the poorest states in Mexico and one of the most diverse ones as well and as such it is one of the most interesting tourist destinations. It combines some stunning nature with rich cultural heritage and indigenous traditions. In my opinion it is really worth exploring Chiapas and spending some time there to understand the vibe.

We went to Chiapas for a week and spent a night in Chiapa de Corzo to see the Cañón de Sumidero, then we spent three nights in San Cristóbal de las Casas, which is just amazing and offers a good base to explore the state. We went to the nearby villages of Jan Juan Chamula and Zinacantán and to the Montebello lakes on the border with Guatemala. After that we crossed the state towards Palenque, an archaeological high-light of Chiapas, and the sights along the (other) border with Guatemala – Yacxilan and Bonampak.

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It was a very intense week. The main issue is that the roads in Chiapas are not is a very good state and there are frequent blockages. Hence, travelling on your own in Chiapas is not very recommended, we took tours and busses. If I had to repeat the trip again, I’d prefer not to do the road between San Cristobal and Palenque early in the morning. It does not allow you to sleep at all, and the tourist vans are really uncomfortable, so you end up tired even more than you left. I’d rather consider doing it with a regular bus during the day, or separating the trip into two parts (one around San Cris and the other one around Palenque).

Cañón de Sumidero and Chapa de Corzo

We arrived to Tuxtla airport late at night and the only way to get from the airport is with a taxi. They charge $337 pesos to Chiapa (compared to $800 to San Cristobal) and it takes about 30 min. We chose to stay in Chiapa because it’s closer to the airport and the pier for the Cañón de Sumidero is in there as well. There’s another pier close to the highway, but by staying in Chiapa we could also leave our suitcase in the hotel and not worry about it.

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Chiapa de Corzo is a small town and there’s not much to see. The zocalo is quite large, it has an interesting colonial fountain in the middle and arches surrounding the square. The ex-convent of Santo Domingo is interesting to see as well and it is free. Upstairs there are two smaller and rather uninteresting  exhibitions. 

Chiapa is, however, the main departure for the boats to the Cañón de Sumidero. The main pier (embarcadero) is directly down at the river-front, two blocks away from the zocalo. There are several restaurants on the river-front so we had breakfast at one of them (Restaurante Victoria), which was very ordinary. 

At the embarcadero there are two ticket desks – the red boat one and the green boat one. At first we didn’t notice that and it doesn’t really matter much as the price is the same. The standard tour costs $200. After paying they assign you to a boat and you need to wait for the boat fill-up, but on a normal day that should’t take long (we waited 15 mins). Then they call your boat number, take you down to the river and you get a entrance fee payment wristbands (included in the price of the tour) and life jacket. The boats have no roof, there are about 20 seats for passengers and a higher seat at the back for the captain/guide. 

The tour takes about 2h and it takes you through the whole length of the canyon, all the way to the hydroelectric plant, which also made the river navigable. The sights of the walls of the narrow canyon are stunning. In addition to the canyon walls you can also see plenty of animals and various rock formations. The guide explains a lot about what you see and ours was quite good in spotting animals as well. 

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After the canyon we headed to San Cristobal. The taxis charge $600 and there are no direct colectivos. But there is a more ‘adventurous’ route: take a Tuxtla bound colectivo ($8) from the North end of zocalo, which then drops you off at the highway exit for Chiapa called Santa Fe. You need cross the highway at the police checkpoint and there is a bus stop with a San Cristobal sign where you can catch a colectivo coming from Tuxtla ($40) to San Cristobal. It’s quite well organised, there is a person that communicates with the colectivo base in Tuxtla and tells them how many people are waiting. So the most you wait is 25 min, the time it takes the colectivo to come from Tuxtla. In San Cristobal the collective drops you off at the OCC bus station in the south. 

San Juan Chamula and Zinacantán

San Juan Chamula is an indigenous community some 15km from San Cristobal. In essence, this is a Catholic community, but they preserve indigenous (pre-Hispanic) rituals and mix them with the Catholic religion in a very interesting manner.

The main (and the only) attraction in the village is the church. They charge $25 entrance fee and for another $100 you can get one of the locals to explain their rituals (highly recommended as the rituals are quite peculiar). Unfortunately, inside the church photos are not allowed and they are very edgy about photos in the whole village.

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The local rituals consist of purifying the church with incense in all of the corners, drinking herbal tea and praying to candles on the floor. Even though it is a church there are no pews and jesus doesn’t play such a prominent role as in other churches. They don’t believe in conventional medicine, so they have traditional healing rituals involving eggs and chickens. 

To get to San Juan we took a colectivo ($18), which departs from the corner of the Calle Honduras and Calle 16 de septiembre in San Cristobal, but you can catch it also close to the main market (if you can recognise which one it is). It takes about 20/30 min to get there.

From San Juan Chamula we took a taxi to Zinacantán ($80). There is no colectivo between the two. Zinancantán is known for tapestry and weaving. We had a look at a workshop and then we walked around the main square and the church. Here the church is like a ‘light’ version of the one in Chamula but still has some resemblance to the local rituals.

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This village itself is not that interesting, so we returned back to San Cristobal quite quickly. The colectivos here are basically normal cars that charge $80 and can take up to 4 passengers (or if you pay the 80 you can go alone). 

San Cristóbal de las Casas

San Cris feels like a small village, but it is actually not such a small city. It has a beautiful centre with a couple of lively streets around the zocalo. The atmosphere is very lively in the evenings, there are plenty of people walking around and dining. In the middle of the zocalo there is a two floor kiosk, it is perfect for a meal or a drink at any time of the day. 

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There are not that many tourist things to do in San Cris though, however, the nicest thing is to soak up the local atmosphere. The highlight is the church and ex-convent of Santo Domingo, which houses a nice collection of object from the local history. 

We also went to the Museum of Maya Medicine which is about 20 min walk north of the centre. They said it was officially closed on that day, but they still let us in. It shows the very peculiar traditional Maya healing rituals and if you’re lucky they even perform the healing ceremony with a chicken.

It is nice to walk up the two hills with churches for the view, Iglesia de Guadalupe is in the east and Iglesia del Cerro in the west. Underneath the latter one there is also the jade museum if you’re into that. 

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The house of Na Bolom was also worth visiting.

Food in San Cristobal 

Most people told me that the food in Chiapas is not that good, being an exception in Mexico. However, we (mostly) had great experiences and had some amazing ‘chiapaneco’ food. Here are the ones we visited in San Cris:

El Fogón de Javel: Traditional chiapaneco restaurant on Plaza de la Paz is a good introduction to local food. The food was great and the restaurant is also very traditional with waiters wearing local clothes and music in the background. The usual salsas they brought at the beginning included guacamole and Chiapas cheese. We had a sopa real, which was a veg soup with char-grilled chicken on the side, and a mole chiapaneco. Both were delicious and nicely presented. Recommended for local food experience. 

Tierradento: A Zapatista run place serves typical local and Mexican fare. It offers nice food in a pleasant surrounding, especially good for a simple meal. 

Restaurante Lum (not to be confused with Casa Lum) at the Hotel Bo: The restaurant is really nice and features modern decor. The food was super innovative and delicious. We had a bean soup and jicama tinga to start with and for the mains we had fish in hojasanta and shrimp skewers. Highly recommended.

Tierra y Cielo: Another nice restaurant in a hotel. Looks rather traditional but the menu is quite innovative and delicious. We had a fish ceviche with papaya and cheese with hibiscus to start with and for mains we had a fish and a mole with chicken. The food was delicious. Also very recommended. 

Cacao Nativa: My favourite chocolate place! Chiapas is known for cacao and here they merged the starbucks cafe idea, but all about cacao. They prepare delicious milk based hot chocolate drinks (and other drinks as well). You can chose the percentage of cacao vs sugar (you can taste the mix first). They also have delicious pastry and other sweet things. This definitely became my favourite place in San Cristobal and I wish they could open more branches elsewhere. 

Bars: San Cris has quite a lively night life, Calle Guadalupe and Calle Miguel Hidalgo, just off the zocalo, are full of bars and restaurants and lots of people there. 

Hotel in San Cristobal: Sereno Art Hotel

A new and very modern boutique hotel in the centre of town. The rooms were really nice and they had a cute internal patio. I would definitely recommend the hotel.

Day-trip to Lagunas de Montebello

We took 3 different day tours which we also used for transportation to other parts of Chiapas. We booked all of them with Mexico Destinos because this way it was easier to have it all arranged for, but there are plenty of other agencies and they all provide the same tours.

The first day-trip was to Lagunas de Montebello and cascada del Chiflón. On this day they picked us up at 8.15am and we were driven to cascadas de Chiflón first, which took about 1.5h. To get the full view of the waterfall, you need to walk along a trail for about 1km slightly up-hill, but it’s not too demanding. From the top you have a nice view of the waterfall.

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The same way is also used for the descent. The last bit of the way down you have the option to take a zip line, but they charge $200 for a rather small line and we didn’t think it was worth it. At the end, you can also swim in the water, so bring your swimmers. The water is freezing cold and it provides a nice refreshment after the heat. 

After about 2h, we went back to the van and drove towards Montebello. On the way we stopped for lunch at this place called La Troje. They only had the option of a 3-course menu, which included a soup, a main (chicken or beef) and an ice-cream. The food was so-so and not cheap ($150). 

Lagunas de Montebello is on the border with Guatemala and consists of some 50 lakes. The first one we visited was Cinco Lagos where we could take a ‘boat’ around the lake for a rather inflated price ($200). It was definitely worth it though. The boat was very unstable and we needed to help our guy with paddling, but the lake was beautiful.

On the other side of the lake we could climb up to see another Cenote and have a swim in the lake. Again the water was cold and the air was also much colder.

After the boat ride we climbed up to a lookout providing stunning views of the lake.

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We were taken to see three more lakes: (1) Tziscao, where we only stopped at a lookout; (2) Pojoj, a lake with a small island in the middle where there are also same boats that take you to the island (but we didn’t have time for that there); and (3) Lago Montebello, a large lake with a big ‘beach’ and a pier.

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The way back to San Cristobal took around 3h, making it a very full and tiring day. There was a lot of driving involved and it seems like we didn’t see that much, but Montebello was beautiful. I really liked this day trip.

Aguazul, Misol-Ha and Palenque

If the first day-trip was long and tiring, then this one was a complete torture. We were still a bit tired from the day before, but we couldn’t sleep in, we were picked up at 4.15am on this day. We thought we would be able to sleep in the van for the first couple of hours, but the the road was so bad that it was completely impossible to sleep. With hindsight, I would not do this trip by road again or at least I would have waited a day to get a good sleep. 

At around 7.30am we stopped for breakfast at this super dodgy place. We didn’t know we would stop there so we brought our own food, and I was happy we did. It took another 1.5h to get to Agua Azul, a bright blue magnificent waterfall.

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The best thing is to swim in the blue waters. We were lucky and as we arrived there were still not that many people. It’s a bit tricky what to do with your stuff but there are some dry parts in the middle of the waterfall where you can leave your bags. 

We spent 1.5h at Agua Azul and then we continued to Misol-Ha – another waterfall.

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This one is much smaller and less impressive, but what is nice is to walk behind the waterfall itself. There is a cave that is about 35m long with a small waterfall inside. It’s pitch black in the cave so they give you a torch to help you walk and see the waterfall and bats on the roof. 

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To save time with lunch, we pre-ordered food at a restaurant before going to see the waterfall. By the time we came back it was all ready. The food was decent and at least we were not forced to have a menu. 

After lunch we continued towards Palenque and arrived there at around 14.15. A local guide came on the bus and we agreed on a price of $200 pp for a tour of the site that included a walk through the jungle and around the ruins. I think it was a bit expensive, but I actually liked the tour guide and his explanation. Palenque is really amazing and the whole area is huge, with only about 2-5% of it is uncovered and accessible. 

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The main part of Palenque is a large Plaza with the main tombs. You can even go inside the tomb of the queen.

You can enter the Palace and see the bedroom, temascal (prehispanic sauna) and the lavatories. 

We used this day-trip as a means of transportation from San Cris to Palenque. After visiting Palenque instead of going back on the tour and suffering for another 5h to San Cris, we stayed at a hotel close to the archaeological site. At this point we were extremely tired and fed up with the van. 

Day trip to Yaxchilan and Bonampak

The last one of the day-tours was to Yaxchilan and Bonampak. We were picked up at our hotel at 6.30am and first we drove to a breakfast place where we stopped at around 7.30am. After breakfast it was another 2h drive to Frontera Corozal, a small town on the river which is the natural border with Guatemala. From there we were taken on a 45-minute boat ride to the archaeological site, since that is the only way to get to yaxchilan.

Yaxchilan is a smaller archaeological site, but the setting in the middle of the jungle is quite interesting. First you pass through some corridors inside one of the structures to get to the main patio. It is pitch black in the corridor and there are plenty of bats and other bugs… not for everyone.

The main patio has several structures and stellae and there is one building at the top of a hill with a nice roof-comb.

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At Yaxchilan we also heard a lot of howler monkeys… they are quite scary actually. We took the boat back and had lunch at a restaurant in the town. It was another menu and the food was very average.

There’s another 45 min drive to Bonampak, where the deal is that the local community take you in their vehicles down a dirt road to the archaeological site. The site itself is very small, basically there is only one big structure.

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However, Bonampak is known for well preserved paintings in one of the structures.

Villahermosa and Olmec heads on the way back

After the 3 day-trips we were exhausted and needed to sleep well. The next day we had an afternoon flight from Villahermosa in Tabasco state, so after a good sleep we headed to the Palenque ADO bus station (taxi $50) and took the bus to Villahermosa centre (2.5h) to visit the Olmec heads. We left our suitcases in the left luggage office at the station.

The ADO station in Villahermosa is in the centre, so first we had a quick walk through the centre. Villahermosa is quite an ugly city actually and there is nothing to see at all. It is also very hot and humid, so not that peasant to walk around.

The Olmec heads are placed in an open-air museum / park called Parque Museo La Venta. They were brought there after their finding place La Venta was destroyed. At the beginning of the park there is a slightly sad zoo. The latter part of the park consists of an archaeological trail, where you can see a variety of Olmec objects including the famous giant heads. I think you need about 1h to walk through the zoo and the archaeological part of the park.

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The park is placed next to a lagoon, so it’s quite nice to walk around the water.

That was the end of our 6-day trip around Chiapas (with a short extension to Tabasco) and we really enjoyed it. Chiapas is very different to other parts of Mexico and also very diverse. The trip was, however, also very exhausting. I think if I had the option to re-do it again, I’d prefer to split it into two trips. One, to Cañón de Sumidero, San Cristobal, Camula and Montebello, and the other one to Palenque, Yaxchilan and Agua Azul. The main problem was the really bad road between San Cristobal and Palenque.

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