A Short Travel Guide to Chiapas

Introduction:

There isn’t a whole lot of useful information out there on traveling in Chiapas. Yes, there’s the usual historical drivel, a brief description of the cities, a short list of hotels and the usual mostly useless list of a few places to eat but so what? Why is it most guidebooks can’t seem to quite capture their subjects as in providing a useful distillation of user experiences; anecdotal information that really tells the reader just what in the hell is really going on?

Travelers are interested in six things and six things only: How to get there and get away, a long list of accommodations to choose from, what there is to see and do, highlights of what makes the region special, places to get real food, and readable, extensive and useful maps.

Chiapas Map

And given a list of possibly six to eight major things to do what will you choose to do given your quite possibly limited stay? Do everything? Is that what travel is all about these days?

From the bits and pieces of information we gathered up I know we certainly wrestled with what we perceived Chiapas had to offer. One thing I know we didn’t want to do was visit one of the many indigenous villages for the whole tourist generated tribal experience thing. If I want wall to wall surliness I will visit New York City, thank you very much.

So what to do?

We went to Chiapas first and foremost because we wanted to see the legendary Mayan ruins at Palenque; supposedly maybe the most beautiful of them all. And I suppose the other reason why we wanted to go was to try and understand why exactly Chiapas seems so steeped in the mystery of the unknown. Is it only because Chiapas is the least accessible and most unknown part of Mexico? Or is there more to it than that?

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One of the many temples in the Palenque complex surrounded by jungle

And as trite as it might sound, the only reason one goes to Palenque (or Chiapas) is because you want to go there. I say that simply because the place is just so unconnected. As in it’s not just some part of a long unified Gringo trail like one finds in South America.

So you don’t just pop in for a visit to Chiapas like you’re on your way somewhere else. Because there is nowhere else. There is nothing interesting to see or do that is even remotely close to Chiapas. Getting there and back is easy, at least superficially. But the reality is there aren’t multiple viable entry and exit points. So to do what you want to get done in Chiapas you have to plan very carefully.

For instance there are only two airports in the entire state. And one of them – Palenque – is only open two days a week. So unless you are extremely disciplined and thought your itinerary through to the nth degree then it is highly probable you’ll not just miss out on something interesting but that you’ll also be faced with using Tuxtla Gutierrez as both your arrival and departure points. That majorly sucks because you’ll be forced to eat up precious travel time retracing your steps back over the same eight-ten hours of highway that connects Palenque back to Tuxtla.

Maybe that works for you but study the map and you’ll see that using the Tuxtla as your only gateway presents challenges. As for me when I travel I like to do loops, meaning I never like to take the same road twice. I would rather devote my time in moving in a forward direction, not wanting to look back and certainly not wanting to retrace my steps.

I will attempt in the next few pages to give you an idea of what there is to do, how to get there, and share some of the tips we picked up during our brief four day stay.

Why only four days? In all honesty, while we did have time constraints, I really can’t say that I’d ever really want to spend any more time there than that. Chiapas is not like Alaska or Canada or Europe or South America or Asia. It doesn’t have the infrastructure to support a marathon backpacking trip.

And I would venture to say that while Chiapas might be kind of/sort of backpackable in an adventure seeking sort of way, it would probably be inadvisable to stray too far from the beaten path. The region is famous for its banditos, drug smugglers and substantial population of indigenos who at any given time might or might not have a significant grudge on.

 

First – Stuff to see and do:

From my perspective here are the really important things that you want to see and experience while you are there:

  • The beautiful town of San Cristobal de las Casa
  • The ruins of Tonina at Ocosingo
  • The ruins at Palenque

A secondary list (which we passed on):

  • The pools and natural water cascades at [either] Agua Azul or Misol-Ha
  • The Sumidero Canyon (near Tuxtla Gutierrez)
  • The ancient Mayan cities of Bonampak and Yaxchilan located on the frontier of Guatemala

The Sumidero Canyon near Tuxtla Gutierrez will add an additional day necessitating a stay in the capital city of Tuxtla Gutierrez for a total of five days, possibly six depending on travel arrangements. Tacking on Agua Azul or Misol-Ha will add an additional day to the four days listed in the primary list. Adding the ancient Mayan cities of Bonampak and Yaxchilan will probably add an additional 2-4 days. Yes, they look close on the map but distances as viewed from maps can be highly deceptive especially given wilderness terrain and weather.

 

How to get to Chiapas and how to get away:

If you are coming from the Yucatan then you probably want to fly into Villahermosa and take the two hour cab/bus from there to Palenque and do the route clockwise: Palenque (and if added: Bonampak and Yaxchilan, start and end from Palenque) – Ocosingo  (Tonina ruins) – San Cristobal – Tuxtla Gutierrez. And then exit Chiapas and fly out of Tuxtla Gutierrez to your next destination.

Note: Both Agua Azul or Misol-Ha are located on the road between Palenque and Ocosingo so you can choose to add visits to one or both as day trips from either town.

But if you are coming from somewhere that is going to bring you through Mexico City or Guadalajara then you might want to do the route counterclockwise like we did.

We flew from Guadalajara nonstop to Tuxtla Gutierrez (2.0 hours). We then caught the deluxe bus departing from the airport for a direct 2 hour ride (220 pesos each) up (and up) to the misty shrouded city of San Cristobal.

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Sarah taking a photo on the streets of San Cristobal

We spent 2 days exploring San Cristobal then caught the early morning combi (65 pesos each) – which runs every 30 minutes – for the 2 hour trip to Ocosingo.

We got into Ocosingo early enough to visit the ruins at Tonina the same day. Tip: Don’t spend your dough on an expensive cab ride out to the ruins. Instead go to the Mercado and take the local combi bus which costs a mere 12 pesos per person each way.

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A partial view of the immense Tonina ruins

We left Ocosingo the next morning early, choosing this time to take the slightly more expensive taxi option (280 pesos for the both of us) for the additional room, speed and convenience. By taxi it was a 2.5 hour drive. There were lots (and lots) of ups and downs, all with tight curves in the road and many (many) speedbumps. And the taxi option might be for you too if you don’t want to risk someone’s car sick prone kid puking all over you in the combi. I say that because it was quite possibly one of the windiest and rollercoasterish pieces of highway I have ever traveled.

We got to Palenque in time to see the ruins the same day. The taxi to the hotel on the road to the ruins and then out to the ruins cost 160 pesos. The combi back to the hotel cost 20 pesos each.

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Another of the many temples at Palenque

The town of Palenque has a small airport that operates 4 Interjet flights a day (2 inbound/2 outbound) just two days a week: Thursdays and Sundays. We flew nonstop to Mexico City. A 1.5 hour flight that cost $110/each. We then caught a connecting flight back to Guadalajara (1.25 hours/$75 each) where we spent the remaining two days of Sarah’s trip.

So an inter-region distance recap:

  • Tuxtla Gutierrez to San Cristobal (2 hours by nonstop bus leaving directly from the airport)
  • San Cristobal to Ocosingo (2 hours by combi bus)
  • Ocosingo to Palenque (2.5 hours by cab)

We didn’t want to waste a day or a night in Tuxtla Gutierrez (not a very pretty town from what we read) and the Sumidero Canyon although highly praised as being very beautiful didn’t particularly interest us so we timed our arrived in the Tuxtla Gutierrez airport so that we could immediately make the 2 hour jump up through the mountains to make San Cristobal in time for cocktails, a cigar and then dinner at a reasonable hour.

[Important Note: Tickets sell for the direct Tuxtla to San Cristobal bus inside the airport. It departs something like every hour beginning about 3:15 pm. Do not take a cab from the airport to the bus terminal in Tuxtla. It’s a waste of time and money.]

Ocosingo is not a town where you are going to want to linger – it’s not pretty and there is nothing to do there – and thankfully the nearby Tonina ruins, even as massive as they are, can be easily toured in an afternoon.

Palenque. The town itself is not very pretty so we decided to stay at a resort on the road that leads out to the ruins. That decision turned out to be both a good thing and a bad thing. First, the bad thing is we committed the unforgivable travel sin of staying at a resort. Resorts are like islands, if you didn’t bring it with you then you are forced to pay through the nose for the resort’s amenities.

Example. A typical 5 peso 330 ml bottle of water cost 35 pesos. You get the idea. And resorts harbor notoriously passive-aggressive staff. And who can blame them for being pissed off? They are squeezed between their rich owners and their pampered over-privileged whining guests. And who can blame the guests for being pissed off too when they are being gouged over even the most basic necessities like bottled water?

It’s a circular argument. The guests take out their frustrations on the underpaid staff who are naturally contemptuous about the foolish rich people who will pay 35 pesos for a tiny bottle of water. Resorts are chiefly a no win for everyone but the stupid, the lazy or the absentee owners.

On a more positive note we were only there for one day, the resort was close to the ruins, and was only a 15 minute cab ride to the airport. And it also had a great 70 meter long swimming pool that was surrounded by a large lush tropical eco-preserve. And so in addition to hearing some monkeys and seeing some beautiful birds the next morning we even saw a tapir on the grounds!

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Chan-Ka Resort Village’s Dining Lodge

The following is some of the stuff that we found while wandering around. Good restaurants moderately close by your hotel are always a challenge to find. And bookstores – thanks to the Amazon Death Star – are damn near impossible to find anywhere anymore.

Restaurants:

Guadalajara:

  • La Chata, Corona 126, Centro, Zona Centro – serves large portions of excellent local food – and is a two and a half block walk from the Frances Hotel (my favorite hotel in Guadalajara).
  • Restaurante Japones, ‘Kitzune Izakaya’. Calle Libertad 1611, Belgica y Argentina – a small 6 table restaurant run by two young guys serving up some pretty tasty Japanese style fare. We stumbled on this place while trying unsuccessfully to locate a Korean restaurant listed in out LP Guidebook that was supposedly in the same neighborhood.
  • Café D’Val, Pedro Moreno 690, Centro – This is another place that we stumbled upon on one of our long walks through the central part of the city. I could tell just by looking at the facade that it was going to be a great place to eat. It’s an old school (1940s/50s) Mexican restaurant with absolutely delicious food. The ambience and the service is first rate and the food is very inexpensive.

San Cristobal:

  • El Fogon de Jovel, Ave. 16 de Septiembre #11, Zona Centro – Great food and a reasonably priced bottle of good house red wine. We ate here both nights we stayed in San Cristobal and the two most memorable things that we ate were soups. Sarah had a wonderful squash soup and I had a delicious bread soup (the likes of which I haven’t tasted since Italy).
  • Restaurante El Caldero, Insurgentes #5, Zona Centro – I had a very delicious bowl of white posole here. Red and green posoles are much more common in most of Mexico but white posole is harder to find. I wouldn’t be surprised if white posole was mostly limited to San Cristobal, Guadalajara, and Mexico City.

 

Bookstores:

Guadalajara:

  • Librerias Gonvill, Calle Ave. Juarez #305, Col. Centro for a great array of new books published in both Spanish and English.
  • El Desvan de Don Quijote, Lopaz Cotilla 813, Col. Centro for a great selection of used Spanish books and a few English paperbacks.

San Cristobal de las Casas

  • Abuelita Books, Cristobal Colon 2, Col. Centro – a small but charming used bookstore that has a fairly good selection of used books in both Spanish and English.

 

Hotels:

San Cristobal de las Casas:

  • Hotel Casa de los Arcangeles, Ave. Cuauhtemoc, Col. Centro – We paid $220/night for a gorgeous 2 bedroom suite in a very nice boutique hotel in the center of the city. There are typically lots of hotel room choices in San Cristobal but we made the grievous error of making our reservations the day before and in the midst of a peak holiday (Semana Santa) travel event. I count us extremely fortunate to have landed the accommodations that we did at – given the holiday – and at a very reasonable rate.

Ocosingo:

  • We originally tossed our bags in the Hotel Margarita (550 pesos per night) – newly renovated according to my 4 year old LP Guide – but after returning from the nearby Tonina Ruins we bailed in favor of a seeming much nicer place for the same price on the other side of the plaza. Here at this apparently much nicer hotel I committed yet another major travel sin by neglecting to scout the room for amenities (the place looked modern, it was clean and the beds looked nice) where if I had I would have discovered the bathroom did not have a shower curtain, hot water, or even a toilet seat. Dumb.

The LP Guidebook listed just 3 hotels for Ocosingo, a city it says has a population of 29,000 people while Wiki disagrees and says the 2010 consensus lists 42,000 inhabitants. Either way one would imagine somewhere in a city that size there are good accommodations. We were only there for a single night so I can’t offer any useful information.

But the ruins at Tonina are worth a look and they are conveniently located on the road to Palenque so a little pain and suffering in Ocosingo seems a fair price to pay.

Palenque:

  • Chan-Ka Resort Village ($107/night) – It’s on the road midway between the town of Palenque and the ruins of the same name. The accommodations are very nice. The setting is lovely and the 70 meter long swimming pool is first rate. But it’s a resort (and an eco-resort at that) so stay at your own risk. The town has considerable hotel and dining options so you can probably do much better somewhere else and for a much more reasonable rate.

 

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Our cabin at Chan-Ka Resort

The Ruins:

  • Tonina – Huge and spectacular, and marvelously lacking all the usual tourist infrastructure so one was able to wander the entire site generally unmolested.
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Another partial view of Tonina
  • Palenque – Breathtaking in a jungle setting that was almost as marvelous as the ruins themselves. But some greedy bribetaking government officials have allowed the entire site to be overrun with vendors thereby seriously marring what should have been a transcendental experience.
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And yet another temple in Palenque

 

Final thoughts:

I’ve been in Mexico for almost 4 years and the country still astounds me with its incredible breadth and depth with respect to both terrain and culture. Big mountains, active volcanoes, jungle, desert, beaches, small pueblos still inhabited much in same the old way that goes back a century. Mexico is also home to huge modern cities; all seemly glaring contrasted to the wilder and more primitive parts of the country but there is always some common ground in that most every region is layered by some of the same civilizations that go back some 15 centuries before Christ.

In my opinion Chiapas is the most enigmatic region in all of Mexico not just because it is the most remote region in the entire country but also because its terrain makes it possibly the wildest place in all of Mexico.

I believe it was the last region that was finally brought to heel by the Spanish colonialists. And according to Wikipedia, ‘Today, there are an estimated fifty-six linguistic groups in Chiapas. As of the 2005 Census, there were 957,255 people who spoke an indigenous language out of a total population of about 3.5 million. Of this one million, one third of the people in Chiapas , do not speak Spanish.’

Read that again, ‘Of this one million, one third of the people in Chiapas , do not speak Spanish.’

That marks it as truly foreign territory my friend.

Chiapas has a remarkable eco-diversity with cloud forests in the highlands that give way to dense jungle in the lowlands. I was amazed on the short two and a half hour drive from Ocosingo to Palenque just how densely forested the jagged looking mountains were.

And the mountains are unique in that they follow no regular pattern, meaning there are no cohesive system of ranges and ridges. Instead the mountains in Chiapas are grouped randomly, poking up through the landscape in some hither and yon fashion whose system must only be known to God.

We found Chiapas to be magical. The drive from Tuxtla Gutierrez  to San Cristobal de las Casas rises from 522 meters in elevation to 2200 meters in just the short 2 hour drive. Upon arrival San Cristobal slowly emerges from the dense clouds that seem to perpetually shroud it. The city felt to be more Andean than Mexican. Even the people  – short in stature and indigenous dressing as they were – also seemed Andean.

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The ever present backdrop of low hanging clouds in San Cristobal

And continuing on, driving eastward to Ocosingo, the elevation drops to 890 meters in just another 2 hours. And Palenque, just two and a half hours further north-northeast, at a mere 60 meters in elevation is almost at sea level .

I wondered aloud why the Mayans didn’t build at San Cristobal like the Incas built at Cusco or Machu Picchu. And then it occurred to me that the Mayans started out as a lowland culture and their feuding and wars were almost entirely among themselves so they had no real reason to push into the highlands. The Incas on the other hand were all about empire expansion. The Incas, while they might have started as a highland culture, their wars drew them down into the lowlands.

After seeing Palenque and Tonina this trip (and other Mayan ruins like Chichen Itza, Coba, and Uxmal on other trips) also got me thinking about the respective architectures of the Mayans versus the Incas. And one of many thoughts that immediately surfaced was that while both civilizations were both pre-Columbian, the fact that the end of the classic Maya period predated the Incas by 600 years helped to explain why both were so different.

PS – For more of the back story on this trip read my other post Chiapas

 

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