Magical Chiapas; Palenque, San Cristobal and Beyond

Chiapas, Mexico’s southernmost state bordering on Guatemala, is a magical place. Jungles and rivers give way to pine covered mountains. Waterfalls pour out of thick forests, ancient Mayan ruins lay deep in forests prowled by jaguars, remote colonial cities reflect early Spanish life in the New World while one third of the population retains their Mayan heritage and speak Mayan as their first language instead of Spanish. There are various indigenous groups across the state; Mixes, Chiapa and various Mayan groups (Tzotzil, Lacandon, Tzeltal). Each retains their individual customs, clothes and towns. The whole place is endlessly fascinating.

Chiapas has always been a place apart. Even after Mexico won its independence from Spain, Chiapas chose either independence for itself or alliance with Guatemala rather than be part of the newly formed country of Mexico. That didn’t last long and the new government of Mexico seized control of Chiapas, but even today Chiapas remains more culturally connected with the Maya people of Guatemala than with the mestizo culture of Mexico. Periodically this inherent conflict boils over, most recently in 1994 when indigenous people, tired of broken government promises for land reform, occupied some towns in Chiapas including San Cristobal de Las Casas, and the Zapatista movement was borne. The Mexican government forcefully put down the rebellion, but the struggle for indigenous rights lingers on to this day in an uneasy peace between the Zapatistas and the government of Mexico.

Our goal for Chiapas was to see the ancient Mayan ruins of Palenque and the more remote ruins of Yaxchilan and Bonampak in the Lacandon jungle. Then we would spend time in the colonial, small city of San Cristobal de Las Casas high in the pine covered mountains (named after a Catholic priest that championed indigenous rights). It was November, a perfect time to visit Chiapas.

We started off with a long bus ride from the seaside town of Campeche along the Gulf of Mexico, through the steamy lowlands of Tabasco, to the town of Palenque arriving at dusk. We immediately took a taxi a few miles outside of town to El Panchan, a collection of cabins set in the jungle with an outdoor bar and restaurant in the center of it all. We found Chato’s Cabins, a collection of clean, simple cabins set along the jungle pathways for 250 pesos per night, dropped our bags off, and went to the restaurant where we had a surprisingly good pizza. A duo started singing songs from the small stage in front of the tables and many of the audience began to dance. This was followed by a fire-baton twirling act. We hadn’t expected to be entertained here in the jungle and as we walked back to our cabin, small flocks of noisy parrots flying overhead, we were satisfied that we’d made a good choice for our stay at Palenque. In November the days were warm and humid, but not excessively hot, and the night was downright cool, almost long-sleeve shirt weather.

The next day we planned to visit the ruins of Palenque just a couple miles up the road from El Panchan, but first we checked in at the “visitors’ center”, a thatch roofed hut in the center of the jungle camp with information about tours around the area. We arranged for a tour the following day to the remote ruins of Yaxchilan and Bonampak and noticed a handwritten advertisement for ½ day jungle walks out of El Panchan. Thinking we would have time to take the walk and visit the archeological site of Palenque, we paid the 500 peso fee and signed up for the jungle walk.

Our guide, Paco, arrived and we walked out of the camp and into the jungle. We followed a dirt roadway for a while before walking directly through the jungle. Paco pointed out bits of ancient pottery and carved stone that littered the jungle floor. We crossed small streams where the mineral water dripping over rocks had formed hollow stone pipes that you could play like flutes. We came across a small Mayan structure, shrouded in jungle vines and some howler monkeys scolded us from the trees above, throwing nut shells at us to chase us off. We encountered a small Mayan stone building in the jungle that had been partially restored, but was now covered in jungle vines and knew we must be getting close to the main archeological site of Palenque. Soon we emerged from the forest at the entrance to the archeological site after having walked three or four miles on a meandering route through the jungle. We said goodbye to Paco and walked to the entry into Palenque where we immediately sat down at a small café, tired and hungry.

After a quick meal and lots of water we paid the entry fee and walked into Palenque. We’d been to Mayan ruins before; Chitzen Itza, Edzna, Tulum, but Palenque, . . . well Palenque is something special. For the next four hours we wandered through the plazas and temples of Palenque set along a hillside in the jungle. Many of the buildings were adorned with hook-nosed faces carved out of stone, their vacant stone eyes staring down at us. The lintels over doorways had intricate hieroglyphs carved into them. Iguanas scuttled along through maze-like passages in the buildings while howler monkeys grunted their booming warnings at us from the surrounding forest and all of it set in the unbroken jungle stretching away into the horizon. What a great day, but we were tired now, so back to El Panchan for an early dinner and rest for tomorrow’s journey to Yaxchilan and Bonampak.

Next morning; up at 5:30 to catch the van tour to Yaxchilan and Bonampak. We loaded into the 9-passenger van with the other tourists; two guys from Spain, a young couple from the Czech Republic and a young guy from Italy. Switching back and forth between English, Spanish and broken Italian we soon made friends as we rode along the paved highway towards the small community of Frontera Corozal on the banks of the Usumacinta River that forms the border between Mexico and Guatemala. Along the way the driver pulled over at what appeared to be someone’s house along the roadside. As it turned out is was someone’s house, but they were set up to serve tourists with picnic tables set up under a thatch-roofed cabana. This was a breakfast stop, so we piled out of the van, loaded our plates with beans, eggs and tortillas and sat at the tables to eat while some hens pecked at the table scraps in the gravel at our feet. A large green parrot, one of the owners’ pets, stood on our table as we approached and grudgingly jumped into a nearby tree as we sat to eat. Breakfast done we loaded back into the van and arrived at Frontera Corozal.

At Frontera Corozal we had a full lunch in the large restaurant there. Clearly this place was set up for tourists, but the lunch of chicken, rice and salsa was delicious. After lunch we walked to the docks on the banks of the Usumacinta River and boarded our launch for the 45-minute trip downriver to Yaxchilan (Yaxchilan is only accessible by boat). The boats, piraguas, are 25-foot long wooden canoes with seats and fitted with an outboard motor. We cruised down the river to the sound of more howler monkeys grunting from the forests lining the river and arrived at Yaxchilan late in the morning.

Yaxchilan is a smaller site than Palenque, but exceptionally well kept and very remote. Other than a small collection of bungalows for the park staff at the boat landing there are no settlements near Yaxchilan and the sense of remoteness permeates the place. Here you are truly deep in a jungle wilderness. The grounds were immaculate. There were few people there and the carvings of warriors and jaguars on the doorways and stelae (large individual stones erected as pillars) were very clear and amazing. We walked through the maze-like entry tunnels into the main plaza of the site and climbed the steep stairways to the acropolis with its checkerboard stone work, the ever-present howler monkeys grunting from the trees. I returned to the boat landing ahead of our group to see a large nutria ambling across the pathway to our boats (a 10-kilo rodent resembling a beaver). When I described this animal to one of the park attendants he said that a pair of jaguars had been visiting the boat landing for the past week in the early morning hours. The rest of our group returned, we boarded our boat and returned to Frontera Corozal where our van was waiting to drive us to nearby Bonampak.

By now we were fast friends with the Spaniards, they were a lot of fun. We made the 45-minute ride to the entrance to Bonampak where a Lacondon Indian in his traditional white robe, black hair hanging to the middle of his back, stood, quietly watching over the entranceway. We disembarked from our van to board a small bus operated by the Lacandon people (Bonampak is within the autonomous lands of the Lacandon People who oversee the site).
We reached the archeological site at the top of a hill, the howler monkeys grunting at us as we disembarked from the bus. Bonampak is most famous for the magnificent 1,200 year old murals found in a low pyramid. These murals depict Mayan warriors and prisoners in blue, red, purple and green plasters that have survived remarkably intact. They were protected from the destructive elements inside the ruins, but photos were difficult in the dark interiors without flash. Lacandon volunteers stood nearby to insure these artifacts were not disturbed and for good reason – they are amazing in detail and color. The entire site, though smaller than Palenque, was impressive even without the murals.

After a couple hours exploring Bonampak we returned to our van and made the 2 ½ hour ride back to Palenque arriving about 6:30 in the evening, physically exhausted but emotionally exhilarated, we made arrangements for a van trip to waterfalls of Agua Azul and Misol-Ha the following morning. From Agua Azul we would catch a local second-class bus to the colonial city of San Cristobal de Las Casas high in the mountains of Chiapas, but now it’s time for dinner, a shower and bed.

In the morning we boarded a nine-passenger van along with two young German couples and a single Russian tourist. An hour or so later we arrived at Misol-Ha, where a tropical river pours over a cliff into a pool 50 meters below. This area is developed for tourists but still wasn’t crowded. We walked around the falls, and then followed a trail leading behind them under the cliff. We waded the cool waters, relaxing in the warm morning sun before boarding the van once again for the final trip to Agua Azul. All in all, a very relaxing stop.

We rode along for a while when our driver suddenly turned off onto a dirt side road announcing we were stopping at Agua Clara (clear water). We didn’t realize we were stopping at this place, a large clearing in the forest where the nearby river formed into a large pond. It was a beautiful, tranquil, grassy meadow under the trees, the water a brilliant turquoise yet clear and cool with a cable suspension bridge leading over the river to the village on the other side. A crowd of elementary school kids followed us hoping to sell homemade cookies and corn bread, but they were more curious about us than aggressively trying to sell and we had fun with them asking about their school studies. We waded in the cool waters and were going to visit the village when our driver notified us that it was time to go, so we re-boarded the van and drove out the dirt entryway towards the paved highway below.

As we approached the entrance to the highway we saw a group of local people gathered on either side of the road. They pulled a rope across the road to prevent us passing. We stopped and they asked the driver for a payment for visiting their area. As our driver argued with them the German couples shrank from the windows in fear, but we knew that these people were just asking for a small fee to visit their lands and there was no danger. So, while the driver negotiated the payment, we bought some fried cornbread from the kids crowding around the van and soon enough we were back on our way to Agua Azul, enjoying our new found meal.

At last we reached Agua Azul. This area was clearly prepared for large groups of tourists with vendors’ stalls surrounding the parking lot selling food and souvenirs. Crowded though it was, it was a beautiful place where the turquoise waters of the river poured through the surrounding forest over a series of low limestone cascades forming pool after pool of clear, cool water perfect for swimming. We walked up the trail alongside the river, bought fresh-squeezed orange juice, and swam in a large pool at the top of the cascades, the water refreshing but not cold.
We relaxed for a couple hours alongside the river before strolling back to the entrance meeting our group at the van in the parking lot. The rest of our group would take the van back to Palenque, but we were continuing on to San Cristobal de Las Casas, so we had the van drop us at the crossroads of the turnoff to Agua Azul, a wide spot along the highway where the local busses stopped. Half an hour later the local bus arrived, we boarded, and we finished the day riding up out of the jungle lowlands into the high, cool pine forests of the Sierra del Sur (southern mountains) of Chiapas.

The bus arrived a dusk and as we disembarked from it the cold mountain air had us scrambling through our travel bags for long pants and shirts. We had underestimated the dramatic climate change from the jungle below to the mountain highlands we were in now. San Cristobal de Las Casas is located at 7,000 feet (2,200 meters) elevation in the southern mountains of Chiapas. Here the temperatures can reach freezing in winter, but days are normally pleasant in the 70s Fahrenheit.

We had made reservations at the Hotel El Paraiso in San Cristobal. The hotel was nice, clean with the rooms surrounding a pretty Spanish courtyard, but the room was very small and we decided to find accommodations more centrally located in the city. We walked down the main street through town which was blocked off from vehicle traffic to form a pedestrian walkway and found the hotel La Casa de Elisa for 550 pesos per night (about $45 usd). The hotel was small, only five of six rooms, but the rooms clean and large with fireplaces, private bathroom, hot water (or warm at least) and a café at the entryway – perfect. As we settled into the spacious room for the night we noticed that we were the only guests and then discovered that the fireplace was not just decorative, it was the only heat. The night was approaching freezing so I asked the desk man for firewood and he brought a few pieces, enough to raise the room temperature a few degrees, but said he would bring more in the morning. So we snuggled up under thick wool blankets and slept well. The next day we found there was no more firewood available, so I collected some wood scraps from a construction site behind the hotel and brought them to our room. We soon found that in San Cristobal you need to ask and verify that there is heat and hot water in the rooms, at least in budget hotels.

The next day broke cold, a mild frost on the ground, but soon warmed to a glorious, sunny day. We walked around San Cristobal. Chiapas is a major coffee-growing area and there are plenty of coffee cafes in San Cristobal. Now I’m a coffee-drinker and I can say that the coffee in Chiapas is the best I’ve ever had, . . . anywhere, . . . anytime. San Cristobal is also known for the amber which is mined nearby and I bought a small amulet of clear amber passing up on the more expensive pieces with ancient insects imbedded in them. We walked to the Mercado Central (central market) which is a massive, cavernous place that you could get lost in. There were indigenous women hand-weaving blankets and shawls, men selling half-beefs out of pickup trucks, cobblers making sandals, fruit, vegetables and food stands and crowds of people milling through the whole place. Many of the goods were Guatemalan reflecting the close ties and proximity of Chiapas with Guatemala. We found a small counter selling tamales de bola (chile and meat wrapped in corn dough and steamed). They were delicious and we returned to this stand a few more times during our stay.

In the afternoon we walked back towards our hotel when we heard someone calling to us in Spanish. It was our Spaniard friends from Palenque. We joined them at their table in a street-side restaurant for shots of mezcal, laughing and talking about our various adventures travelling from Palenque to San Cristobal. After that we walked back towards our hotel stopping at the Museo de Artisanas (literally the museum of the artists but also a marketplace for locally made crafts). The crafts inside were beautiful and Juana, a Tzotzil woman working there, described the art and the Tzotzil culture to us.

Later we walked to a central shop for local artisans where the hand-crafts were less expensive (but of lesser quality too). Lots of the souvenirs reflected sympathy for the Zapatista movement; cloth dolls of indigenous soldiers with rifles, T-shirts with ELZN printed on them, posters of subcomandante Marcos, the pipe-smoking ELZN leader (ELZN, Ejercito Liberacion Zapatista Nacional; the National Zapatista Army for Liberation). I bought a couple T-shirts and on the way back to our hotel we stepped into the Media Luna, a budget hotel owned by a young Italian woman that had expatriated from Italy to live in San Cristobal. We had a nice afternoon talking to her and she arranged a car tour for us on the following day to the nearby Tzotzil towns of Zincantan and San Juan Chamula. This had been a busy day so we returned to our hotel, lit a small fire, and again slept well under our wool blankets.

In the morning we walked to the Media Luna to meet our tour guide, Jose. He had a small Nissan sedan and together with a young Mexican couple from Mexico City we rode to nearby Zincantan, a Tzotzil town. At first look Zincantan looks like any other rural town in Mexico. But as soon as you enter you see it’s different. Women walked along in traditional dress of hand-woven and embroidered cotton shawls and skirts in blue and purple. The driver took us to a house in town where a Tzotzil family was weaving blankets and shawls in a courtyard behind their house while a young woman cooked tortillas over an open fire inside. They invited us to try on formal traditional wedding clothes which we did. We bought some hand-embroidered place mats and a hooded sweatshirt from them while watching another woman “belt-weaving”; passing a shuttle through the weave which was spread open with a stick, one end strapped around her waist with a belt, the other end tied high in a tree 5 meters in front of her, and pulled taught by leaning back into the belt.

After the house visit we walked to the nearby church, Iglesia de San Lorenzo and entered. No photographs are allowed inside the church which had previously been Catholic, but now converted to a Tzotzil place of worship. The interior had been renovated and with no pews and an altar decorated with animistic and natural scenes presided over by a Christ figure dressed in traditional Tzotzil clothing. It was colorful but clearly a serious place. As we left three young Tzotzil women asked us to take their photo with us for 20 pesos which we did, the women giggling and barely taller than me when kneeling next to them.

We joined the Mexican couple in the car and drove the ten kilometers to San Juan Chamula, another indigenous town. Upon arriving the driver took us to the city office where we bought a pass to enter the church of San Juan Chamula. Photos were not allowed inside the church in Zincanatan, but here they were downright forbidden and the attendant outside the church sternly warned us against it. We passed through the brightly painted entrance into a twilight interior. There were no pews, just the bare floor covered deep with fresh pine needles giving off a fresh, sweet scent to the whole interior. The figures of Catholic saints along each side wall had mirrors hung around their necks to reflect your image back to you.

There were various groups sitting on the floor in the dim light and near us a family of four sat with a shaman passing around a Pepsi bottle full of liquor and blessing a chicken for sacrifice. We didn’t stare and while watching the scene discreetly a Catholic priest entered from the back of the building with a well-dressed older couple obviously touring them through the church. The shaman rose and confronted the priest angrily. The priest apologized and left with the couple (later we found that the Totzil shamans allowed priests to use the church once or twice a year to perform baptisms, otherwise they were not to interfere with local ceremonies). The shaman returned to the family he was servicing, slit the throat of the chicken and blessed the area by dripping the blood around them on the floor. We stayed awhile longer before walking back out into the bright, sunny day.

The plaza in front of the church was crowded with vendors selling tropical fruit and vegetables from blankets spread on the stone pavement. It was market day and the town was crowded. We walked through the narrow streets filled with vendors and bought some hand-embossed leather belts before returning to San Cristobal where we said goodbye to the Mexican couple. We walked through the community center where notices for meetings about protecting the water supply and recycling were posted, then through the abandoned convent at the end of the andador (pedestrian only street).

For our last night in San Cristobal we went to the Bar Revolucion where there would be live music. We entered and immediately understood the name of the place (the Revolution) as there was a large wall display honoring the Zapatistas, the EZLN.

We found a seat and ordered brochettes of beef which were excellent while watching the show of guitarists and singers, also excellent. It was a very satisfying day and night and we went to bed prepared to leave for Tuxtla Gutierrez, the capital of Chiapas and airport. From there we would fly on to Mexico City but we knew we’d be coming back – to this special, magical place – to Chiapas.

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