Chiapas: A Whirlwind Tour of Paradise

After a few weeks in Mexico City, one of the world’s largest metropolises, we started to plan the next two legs of our trip in much less urban locations: Southeastern Mexico and Cuba. Since flights are best bought well before your departure date, we went ahead and bought our flights to Cuba for March 5th, leaving from Cancun (cheaper tickets). We left Mexico City on February 22nd, which left us with just under 2 weeks to see Chiapas and make our way up to Cancun.

Since we started dating, Andrea has been telling me all about Mexico. The food, the smells, the colors, the sounds, Mexico City, the countryside, the beaches, and Chiapas. No conversation about Mexico didn’t include Chiapas. She visited twice as a kid, perhaps around 8 and 12, and fell in love. Although it’s quite far from where she grew up and is the poorest, least developed state in Mexico, it enchanted her all the same. Over the past few years I’ve visited Mexico quite a few times, but it’s always been to visit her family either in Chihuahua or Mexico City and there was never any time to see other areas. Chiapas was a big priority for us on this trip and we wanted to do it right.

Tuxtla Gutierrez

Given our time constraint and the similarity of bus and plane prices, we opted to fly with Viva Aerobus to Tuxtla Gutierrez. It was a nice, easy afternoon flight. After we snagged our bags, we found an official taxi into the city center for $290 pesos and checked into Hostal Tres Central, just a couple of blocks away from the Central Park and Palacio Federal. Ready to stretch our legs after so much sedentary travel, we walked around the center of the city for an hour or so, enjoying live music in the park, chachareando (window-shopping) in the public market, and feasting on some delicious street quesadillas for a whopping $55 pesos (roughly $2.64 USD) before heading home for bed.

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Chiapa de Corzo and Sumidero Canyon

We woke up and enjoyed some free coffee on the rooftop patio of the hostel while we evaluated our options for the next few days. After finding a cheaper AirBnb for the night, we zeroed in on Chiapa de Corzo as our first target pretty quickly. It’s not only the first Spanish town founded in the state (1528) with a few nice churches and fountains, but also a good jumping-off point for a boat tour of Canon del Sumidero, which is a very well-known water-filled canyon inside a national park that draws tourists year-round. We walked to the bus station in Tuxtla, which we’d come across the night before, and hopped on a chicken bus/shuttle to Chiapa de Corzo for $30 pesos. We walked through the town, bought snacks, and saw a nice church (present in virtually ALL Mexican towns) before arriving at the waterway.

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It turns out that the state was working on a new water tower and had lowered the water level of the river so low that the tour operators couldn’t take their boats into the canyon that day. We asked various tour operators, restaurant owners, and others on the street about the situation and confirmed that you simply couldn’t get a tour from Chiapa de Corzo, probably not for the next week or so. Bummer.

We had no idea how to proceed and were discussing options when a tour operator approached us with a proposal: they’d give us a tour from Osumacinta, which was far to the north of the dam and over an hour away. The only problem was that we didn’t have a way to get there. Our newfound friend offered to give us a ride as part of the tour, but the combined ride/tour price was too high, so we had to turn him down. As we were discussing whether or not to stay in Chiapa de Corzo or head back to Tuxtla for the day, a nice couple from Mexico City overhead our conversations and approached us asking for help getting a tour. We explained that you couldn’t get a tour from there, but that it would be possible from Osumacinta. They had rented a car and, miraculously enough, had space and offered to give us a ride there! We reconnected with the tour operator, confirmed where we were supposed to go, and piled in for the ride. Never underestimate the kindness of strangers! 😃

All in all, we spent a few hours zooming through the canyon on a speedboat, touring the Chicoasen Dam (the largest hydroelectric dam in Mexico, which produces about a third of all of Mexico’s hydroelectric pwer), and snapping fun photos of wildlife. We didn’t swim for fear of crocodiles, but really enjoyed the ride.

Our new friends were headed to San Cristobal de las Casas that evening and kindly dropped us off in the outskirts of Tuxtla Gutierrez on their way over. We moved our luggage over the our new AirBnb (at roughly 2/3 the cost of the hostel the previous night, woohoo!) and spent the evening walking through the town square, listening to music at the Marimba plaza, and enjoying local delicacies like tamales de chipilin.

San Cristobal de las Casas and San Juan de Chomula

There’s no rest for the adventurous traveler! The next day we caught a chicken bus to San Cristobal de las Casas early in the morning, dropped our things at a hostel run by a friend of Andrea’s cousin (Hostal La Catrina – also a great bar/restaurant), and caught a bus to San Juan de Chomula, which is a small, autonomous, almost entirely indigenous Maya-speaking town in the Chiapas highlands. We wandered through the small streets, bought a few small souvenirs for family in the local market, and visited the main square. We found ourselves right in the middle of some festival. I immediately whipped out my GoPro and started to film the procession. A group of at least 100 men and boys were circling the square, alternating between a sprint and a slow march. Fascinated, we started to ask questions to local bystanders, who explained that the celebration was for the beginning of Carnival, which varies widely from place to place. When the procession reached us, all the boys started to yell in the local language and point at me. At first, I thought they were simply surprised that I was red-headed (which happens surprisingly often), and froze. There’s really no way around my coloring, so I typically just smile and wait it out. After a couple of seconds that felt like an eternity, the guy we were talking to realized I had my camera out and quickly told me to put it away. As soon as I did, the boys continued their procession. That was how we realized that taking photos or videos of anything ceremonial was a no-no in Chomula. Oops!

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After watching the procession, we went to the other end of the square and entered the local church, which, although like other Mexican churches on the outside, was very unique on the inside. Although there is a typical Catholic altar in the center with a large statue of Jesus, the church is otherwise almost completely empty of pews, pulpit, or any other furniture. Instead, the floor was covered with candles in various stages of melting, eggs, soda, and copal, a native form of incense. Entire families were crouched on the ground praying aloud in Tzotzil, a local language belonging to the Mayan language group. The women rubbed eggs, soda, and other items over the bodies of small children to rid them of evil spirits. Learning from our experience in the square, we didn’t take any photos and we are glad we didn’t as we later learned about the steep penalties for doing so.

The people of Chomula’s religion is a unique combination of pre-Hispanic traditions and Catholicism. I’ve always heard that Mexico is somewhat unique in Latin America for the extent of cultural mixing (mestizaje) of pre-Hispanic peoples and the Spanish, but seeing that fusion expressed in a Catholic church was a very illustrative experience for me.

We soon hopped back on the bus to San Cristobal and made battle plans for the rest of the day. As we’re both using Project Fi, which charges you by each megabyte of data, we’ve been relying on Triposo, a travel app that allows you to download offline city and country guides, to figure out what to see in each place we visit. Intrigued by our experience at the church in Chomula, we decided to visit the local Mayan Medicine Museum.

If you’re ever in San Cristobal, this museum is definitely worth a visit. It only cost us $50 pesos ($2.40 USD) to get in and it had tons of information, exhibits, and even a trilingual video on the local midwifery tradition in English, Spanish, and an indigenous language we couldn’t identify (presumably Tzotzil). The healing instruments were a great example of the cultural mestizaje (mixing) of the indigenous and Catholic traditions. Not only do they use copal, flowers, and candles to heal, but also use Catholic prayer, crosses, and, interestingly enough, soda. There was a large exhibit dedicated to the various herbs and plants that local healers have used for centuries, some of which have recently been appropriated/employed by large pharmaceutical companies to create drugs. I’ve included a photo of a sign on biopirateria/bioprospecting, which argued that commercialization of local, traditional medicine denies the sick and the poor access to these precious resources. Andrea and I were very sympathetic to the arguments of both sides. On the one hand, I understand that the commercialization should provide more people access to the medicinal effects of these plants, but I also see that it denies credit and potential profit to local healers and native people for the resources they’ve cultivated, but not patented. I couldn’t help but wonder what the town would look like if the community did get some patent money from the resources.

We spent the rest of the afternoon walking through the center of San Cristobal, seeing more churches, and even catching a changing of the guard ceremony! We ended the day chatting with other travelers in the hostel and listening to some live music at La Catrina late into the night.

Agua Azul and Palenque

With a solid 4.5 hours of sleep under our belts, we quietly rose, packed up our things, and lugged our things over to the bus station to hit our next destination: Agua Azul.

  • Here, I have to include a short travel tip: Don’t take the first bus you find! When we arrived in San Cristobal the day before, we came on a local chicken bus recommended by our AirBnb host. As we were researching the transportation situation, we found a very nice, air conditioned bus terminal that had rides to Palenque, our ultimate destination. The tickets were quite expensive, but left often, so we decided to hold off on buying them in hopes of finding another, cheaper option. As we left the terminal and entered the street, we were absorbed into the hustle and bustle of street vendors.
  • Amid the cries for tacos, hats, sun glasses, and other various items, we heard men yelling the names of different cities in the state, including Palenque. We approached one to ask if there was another bus to Palenque. He told us no, but that we could take one bus and then transfer in Ocosingo to get to Palenque for a total of $330 pesos, which is about $17 USD. The bus tickets from the private company in the terminal were about $290 each. He directed us down the street to another hawker, who explained that this cheaper bus left whenever it was full, starting around 6:00 AM. As we asked him about the route, he told us that we could stop over in Agua Azul if we liked, which is a pretty well-known tourist attraction that we hadn’t thought possible to reach given our time frame and lack of car. Perfect! We told him we’d be back at 6:00 AM the following day, very happy to save $250 pesos and hit a nice waterfall on the way. 😊

After a few hours waiting and then riding a series of buses (the not so glamorous side of long-term, budget traveling), we arrived at Agua Azul!

We bought some quick snacks from local indigenous sellers, got on our bathing suits, and dove in! There is a hike you can do to the top of the mountain and the higher falls, but we were very content to swim in the largest pools at the bottom, jump off some of the falls, and nap in the shade (in the sun for Andrea). The water is in fact just as blue as it looks in the photos due to high mineral content.

We caught a couple more buses to Palenque, found our AirBnb for the night, organized a tour to Yaxchilan and Bonampak, and walked through the main square for a while before turning in for the night.

Yaxchilan and Bonampak

When you’re traveling on a budget long term, you have be very judicious with how you spend your money. I’m absolutely a penny-pincher. I record and categorize all our expenses and am always looking for a deal, whether it’s an AirBnb that is cheaper than the hostel around the block, a local bus instead of a commercial bus, or a restaurant that has free bread. When you’re on the road, every dollar you don’t spend today is another dollar you could spend tomorrow, or in some awesome, unknown country down the road. Additionally, you learn pretty quickly to take advantage of all resources and opportunities as you find them. I’m always on the lookout for an electrical outlet to charge my phone, a 30-minute bus ride to squeeze in a quick nap, a hostel with free coffee or breakfast, or a cafe that has Wifi so my photos can back up to the cloud.

Frugality aside, there are times when you have to spend a little money to see what you want to see. Our guided overnight tour of Yaxchilan, Bonampak, and the Lacandon Jungle was one of these times (although you better believe we shopped around for the best deal).  Yaxchilan and Bonampak are two Mayan archeological sites in southeastern Chiapas, on the border with Guatemala. They were active between ~350 and 800 C.E. and both contain interesting hieroglyphics. Unfortunately, they are both very hard to get to and deep in the jungle. Our only other alternative to get there would have been to rent a car and hope we had enough phone signal to get there on our own. Yaxchilan in particular is quite far out of the way and we had to access it by boat on our tour. The tour we found was two days, included all transportation, food, entrance fees, accommodation at a reserve in the Lacandon Jungle, and a guided walking tour of the jungle. Since we really wanted to see the jungle and had time constraints, the tour made a ton of sense and we enjoyed it to the max.

The tour bus picked us up before dawn from our AirBnb and we found seats behind other groggy passengers. We drove 1.5 hours to a restaurant for our breakfast buffet. After a couple of cups of coffee, plenty of eggs, rice, beans, and fruit later, we piled back into the bus with our fellow tour-goers feeling energized and looking forward to the rest of the day. A short while later, my phone sent me a notification saying “Welcome to Guatemala,” alerting me that we were close to the border and our boat ride to Yaxchilan. We eased our way over a wobbly bridge (pictured below), boarded the boat, and rode about an hour along the border to the archeological site. Along the way, we started to get to know the other tourists. We met an older, retired couple from Hong Kong living in California that gave us great advice on traveling in Asia, a middle-aged Mexican couple from Guadalajara that we swapped stories about Jalisco with, and a young Mexican-Austrian couple doing the work grind in Dubai. One of the best parts of travel is meeting people, both locals and other travelers. Everyone has their own story, their own motivation, style, and goal. It’s always fun to share stories and, if you listen, you can learn a lot!

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After about an hour on the boat, we stepped foot on the Mexican side of the border and walked up into the jungle to see Yaxchilan. The tour allotted about 2 hours to see the whole site, so we put on our hats (sun down here is strong), and headed towards the site. We came across the first temple and came to a screeching halt. BATS!

I’ve learned on this journey that Andrea actually is quite nervous around “creepy-crawlies” of all sorts, including, but not limited to bats, lizards, bugs, spiders, and rodents. It took some cajoling and no fewer than 3 smartphone flashlights, but we persevered and passed through the first temple to arrive in the ancient city center, complete with a Mayan ball court, houses, temples, hieroglyphics, and ancient frescoes.

We had quite a bit of fun climbing the mountain, taking selfies and action shots, and generally exploring the area before heading back to the boat, riding up the river, having a group lunch, and heading to Bonampak, where we spent another hour admiring the remains of the Mayan emprire.

At the end of the day, our group split up, with some heading back to Palenque, and some of us boarding another bus headed south into the Lacandon Jungle. After confirming that dinner was promptly at 7 in an open-walled restaurant, we gratefully showered in the fresh water, took a short nap in our bungalow, and relaxed.

It turns out that while we were napping, the Hong Kong couple (who speak no Spanish) and the Mexican couple (who speak no English) were sitting at the dinner table trying to talk. Thanks to offline Google Translate, they had managed to strike up a conversation, but they were both very relieved when Andrea and I arrived to translate. We all sat there sharing sunflower seeds and peanuts for about a half hour while we waited for dinner. Around 7:35 or so, we went to reception to ask if there was a problem with dinner, to which they replied that we were in the wrong dining area. Oops! Misunderstanding is a part of the travel life, so we all laughed it off, bit back our hunger, and switched locations.

The next morning, we joined the Mexican couple from Guadalajara in a tour of the jungle lead by a local, Maya-speaking guide. We walked over rivers, around waterfalls, over hills, and through abandoned temples before finally arriving at a wonderful swimming hole a few hours later. As we were drenched in sweat, bug spray, and sunscreen at this point, we gladly jumped in. We should mention, we had forgotten our swim suits but were quick to improvise and jumped in regardless! We might have flashed a couple monkeys along the way, but they’ll never tell anyone.

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We spent the rest of the day driving back to Palenque, making our way to the bus station, and on an overnight bus to Chetumal on the Caribbean coast, saving ourselves the cost of one night’s hostel and heading towards Cancun in one fell swoop. Yay for night buses!

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