Chiapas: Part One
Waterfalls. Pristine blue lakes. Mountains. Mayan villages. The Mexican state of Chiapas is an oasis of natural wonders, a place where some of mother nature’s greatest creations lie. A place where a short ride in any direction, whether by horseback, boat, or car, leads to a stunning natural adventure. During our two weeks in Chiapas, we explored some of the most amazing sights we have ever seen. However, we also stood witness to some of the most heartbreaking examples of the suffering that the environment and our fellow humans endure.
Our two weeks in the state of Chiapas were split between three cities: Tuxtla Gutierrez, San Cristobal de las Casas, and Palenque. After a ten hour, overnight bus ride from Oaxaca ($23.59), we arrived for our ill-advised stay in Tuxtla Gutierrez. There was nothing particularly wrong with the city, but there was also nothing particularly right about the city. We stopped solely to visit the nearby Sumidero Canyon (which we later found out was cheaper to visit from San Cristobal-despite the canyon being within a half hour of Tuxtla).
We had planned to use our first day in Tuxtla to catch up on our sleep because we both knew we weren’t going to get much on the bus. After grimacing through the nauseating, tight s-turns that descended and ascended the mountains in the dark of night, that is exactly what we did. We groggily headed straight to our tiny, one window apartment ($82.67 for 3 nights) and passed out. After walking around town that night, we quickly realized there wasn’t much to do or many interesting places to eat. Tuxtla isn’t much of a tourist destination. It’s just a city. Nothing special about it. Had we known we could easily get to the Sumidero Canyon from San Cristobal, we would have never stopped here.
We hoped to make a trip to the canyon the next day and despite our reservations of doing an organized tour, we found that was the best way to explore the entirety of the canyon. Unfortunately, we arrived too late to take the tour that day and booked one for the next morning ($48.91). That means we had the entire day to do all of the exciting things Tuxtla had to offer. We headed back to the apartment, caught up on writing/editing photos, watched Netflix, and ate Domino’s for dinner.
The next day, we finally headed to the Sumidero Canyon, our sole purpose for being in this dull city. We usually try to avoid organized tours and just use public transportation to get to our destinations, however it’s very difficult to view the canyon from above without a tour or a car of your own, so we opted for the tour. The van picked us up that morning, and we immediately headed to the boat launch along the Grijalva River, just south of the canyon itself. The two hour boat ride took us up river, providing neck-breaking views of the canyon walls, unreal waterfalls, river crocodiles, spider monkeys, and countless varieties of birds. Sitting on the boat inside the canyon makes you feel entirely cut off from the outside world, just an observer to the abundance and variety of life that exists around you.
About halfway up the river, you are reminded that we are more than just spectators of the natural world. At one point, the river ahead narrows, and as you turn the corner you notice a giant floating mass; an island made up of just about everything you could possibly construct out of plastic. The herons perched atop the trash seem to peer at the passing boats, as if they know we’re to blame for this. We’re here during the wet season, so we were getting a glimpse of the mess at one of its worst points during the year. All of the litter lying in neighboring villages and towns inevitably washes into this river. The park is doing what they can to manage the problem, but they have such an uphill battle to fight. Maybe, hopefully, the juxtaposition of such a terrible blemish on such an amazing creation makes additional people consider the negative impacts we can have if we’re not responsible for our waste and consumption.
The trash heap does not take away from the beauty of the canyon and the wildlife, and we had read about a few people skipping the canyon because of it. If you find yourself in Chiapas, don’t skip it. It is absolutely amazing.
After the boat ride, our tour took us to the nearby town of Chiapa de Corzo, where we grabbed a quick bite to eat by the river. After lunch, we were taken back to the canyon, this time to get a view from above. Our van stopped at a handful of viewpoints, which really put the size of the surroundings into perspective. Each passing boat was barely visible from the viewpoints above. The only traceable evidence was the wake each left behind.
Our next stop in Chiapas was the city of San Cristobal de las Casas. Though Tuxtla is the capital of the state, San Cristobal is more like the cultural capital. It was a quick bus ride ($10.71) between the cities, only about an hour.
We thought we had it good with our Airbnb in Oaxaca. The place we were staying at for our week in San Cristobal might have beat it out as our favorite so far ($144.23 for 7 nights). We were located three blocks from the center of the city, but given the city’s smaller size, it was very quiet. We were within walking distance of nearly everything in the city but were still able to get a good night’s sleep. It was a nice contrast to the dimly light, one room apartment we had just left. We were also able to spend some time lounging in the hammocks in the courtyard and warming up by the fireplace in our room. That was another big difference in San Cristobal, it was much colder than everywhere we had been so far. Being up in the mountains, daytime highs were in the 70s, but the nights got down to around 50.
We spent the first couple days in San Cristobal the way we usually do in each city, checking out the sights within the city limits and getting a feel for the city and its layout. We walked each of the three pedestrian streets, which extend out from the city’s central square. Each was lined with a differing combination of cafes, bars, restaurants, and shops. Of course, there were street vendors. Some were selling food, others were selling just about any handmade craft you could imagine. One kid was even sitting on a street corner with nothing but a scale in front of him. 20 pesos to see how much the bloated Americans weigh?
We climbed the stairs to the Templo de Guadalupe. Then we climbed even more stairs to the Iglesia de San Cristobal de las Casas. From atop both, we admired the colorful city below and the surrounding pine-covered mountains. We were quickly falling in love.
For our first adventure outside of the city, we planned a horseback ride up to the nearby Mayan village of Chamula ($21.74). The town, which has a unique autonomous status within Mexico, contains the mystical Iglesia de San Juan, where practitioners combine Catholicism with Mayan religious traditions. As our horses trotted us up the roughly one hour ride, traversing the dirt roads to the village, we knew we would be in some pain the next day. This was Andy’s first time riding a horse, and he definitely felt it the next day...and the day after that. Part of the mysticism surrounding the village is due to the fact that photography is banned within the church and frowned upon throughout the village. (Sorry, I know you all only read these posts for the pictures, but there are none of Chamula).
We were given about an hour to hang out in the town. We spent the bulk of the time in the church ($2.72 entrance fee). We stood there as long as possible trying to imprint the images in our mind. It’s odd to see something that you will likely never see again. Something you won’t even be able to flip through pictures to relive. We tried to take it all in.
The near entirety of the white, tile floor covered with pine needles. Candles melted directly onto the floor in small cleared areas. Four large cloth drapes hung from the ceiling. Purple. Yellow. Green. Candles. Lining the walls were statues of Catholic saints, within wooden displays blankly peering out of the glass. Candles. Each saint surrounded by dozens of candles. Worshipers knelt on the hard floor, chanting in the native Tzotzil language. Candles. Some crying. Others stern-faced. The smell of incense filled the building.
Once we turned to head back, we had to do a couple of double takes to make sure the images were still with us. At the same time, we felt a bit uncomfortable acting as spectators to what appeared to be very intimate, personal moments for the locals.
A few days later, we were boarding a tour van heading about three hours south ($38.04 for entire tour). Our first stop was the waterfall El Chiflon. As we walked the path towards the waterfall, we were in awe over the color of the water running through the creek next to us. We had to keep asking each other if it was actually real. The waterfall itself was no less impressive. We made a trip up to the observation deck at the base of falls, which had us soaked in less than a minute. Of course, looking at the falls from below was not enough, so we hiked to the top to get a better view of just how tall El Chiflon was.
The second stop on the tour was to Lagos de Montebello, a series of lakes scattered throughout mountains and pine forests along the border with Guatemala. The hues of blue that made up the lakes were unlike anything we had seen. Again, was this real?
Unfortunately, due to the schedule of the tour, we only had time to briefly take in views of three of the lakes. Like we mentioned, organized tours are not our favorites, but given how far we were from El Chiflon and Lagos de Montebello, public transportation would have been a big hassle. Nonetheless, though we felt a little rushed, we would undoubtedly do it again.
What seemed to be a growing trend in the state of Chiapas, San Cristobal was a city of contrast. The city offered everything we could ask for in a big city, while having the welcomeness of a familiar town. Homeless children walked down the street next to foreigners on vacation. At home we’ve all seen homeless adults but homeless children begging for a few pesos to buy a bag of chips is not a familiar sight. In fact, it's something we could have gone the rest of our lives without seeing. But that’s the point of experiencing this beautiful, ugly world. You can’t enjoy the best aspects without acknowledging that there is still so much that needs to be done to make it better. Why should we be able to drink a beer in a hammock each night, while there are children who aren’t sure where they’re going to sleep?
Despite the humbling reflections, San Cristobal was one of our favorite cities. Not just on this trip, one of our favorite cities we’ve ever been to. If you have a weeks vacation, some airline miles, and about $400, you should be going there. We loved the atmosphere of the city, which is small enough to serve as a nice getaway, but still have plenty of places to eat and drink. You are able to experience authentic indigenous culture and see a plethora of breathtaking natural sights.
(Pictures shown above are of a popular street snack called Marquesitas, which are crispy, thin, rolled crepes filled with any topping of your choice. We always opted for Nutella, and it was our favorite way to end a night. One marquesita is roughly $1.00!)
We still had more to see in the state of Chiapas, but rather than take another long tour, we decided to move to the city of Palenque, which was more centrally located to the sights left on our list.
Did we mention we loved San Cristobal?