Adjacent to Guatemala, Chiapas, a half-tropical, half-mountainous region, has an identity that is as unique as it is marked. Here, over 20% of the population is of Native American descent, mostly descending from the Mayans.
If one comes mainly to Chiapas for its archaeological sites, such as Palenque, this fascinating region is also captivated by the beauty of its landscapes, the richness of its culture and the abundance of local life.
A highlight of any trip to Mexico.
Chiapas, Indian heart of Mexico
In the far south of Mexico, Chiapas State affirms a very marked identity, which geographically and culturally announces neighboring Guatemala.
If the region flows east towards the tropical lowlands of Petén, from where the Mayan civilization once radiated, a good part of the state clings to the foothills of the Sierra Madre and Macizo Central. It is there, around 1500 - 2000 m altitude, that the first colonial cities were established very early.
These frías terras bring together highest proportion of Indian population of the country: no less than 12 different peoples live there, representing almost a third of the state's inhabitants - the most numerous being the Tzeltales and the Tzotziles.
Refractory to colonization, hostile to evangelization, some of these ethnic groups have developed astonishing religious syncretisms, drawing as much from the Scriptures as from old Mayan beliefs.
These particularisms undoubtedly contributed to the emergence, in 1994, of a guerrilla movement unlike any other: supported in their time by José Bové and a good number of anti-globalization activists, the Zapatistas of the EZLN have since founded communities. free self-managed on the fringes of the central state. A strange cohabitation.
San Cristóbal de Las Casas: Colonial Chiapas
Le gran mercado, the belly of San Cristobal, gurgles all day. Here are piles of tomatoes, sacks of dried beans. There the spices. Chiles (peppers) in whole handfuls. Dried fish. Music stands, second-hand clothes, shoes at 200 pesos (9 €). And a tortillería-cubbyhole where corn and wheat cakes are cooked on large hot plates.
On the plinth, the central square, the animation coagulates around the large kiosk, under the old palm trees. To the north, the Cathedral draws up a saffron facade sprinkled with white floral glazes. Consecrated in 1528, the year the city was founded, it was rebuilt in an undoubtedly baroque style. Bartolomé de Las Casas, the bishop defender of the Amerindians, preached there before giving his name to the city.
From there theAndador eclesiástico, pedestrian, leads to an abundance of colorful textile stands and the splendid XNUMXth century storefront Santo Domingo templo, on which saints, lions, chimeras and two-headed eagles coexist (memory of Charles V). Here too, the gilded wood seems to want to dazzle the faithful.
In the old adjoining monastery, the Centro Cultural de los Altos exhibits colonial furniture and a beautiful collection of Indian weavings.
From the zócalo, another pedestrian axis leads to Templo de Guadalupe, popular pilgrimage destination, perched at the top of a wide staircase. On the forecourt, a large green Tzotzile cross - an evocation of the Mayan tree of life - seems to defy the Mexican flag and the Virgin of the altar, sparkling with green-white-red neon lights…
San Juan Chamula: bastion of the Tzotziles Indians
With more than 400 people, the Tzotziles form the second largest ethnic group in Chiapas after their close cousins Tzeltales. Their stronghold is at the gates of San Cristóbal, San Juan Chamula.
This seemingly banal town, now almost swallowed up by the extension of the town, affirms a rare determination to live according to its own rules and customs, mixing with aplomb the teachings of the shamans and those of the priests ...
You have to go down to the plaza to understand. Enter the Sanctuary ofSan Juan Batista church to come face to face with a ground strewn with pine needles (sacred). No benches here, but the faithful seated on the ground, chanting in front of the saints well aligned, surrounded by lighted candles - at each prayer its saint, its number and its color of candles. Some take a sip of pox (an alcohol made from corn and sugar cane), spit it out to purify themselves, eradicating the evil. Coke, which makes you burp, also works very well.
Le market de San Juan is held on Sundays. The opportunity to see the men in coarse wool tunics over a white shirt, cowboy hat and sandals. But better not to take out your camera, little appreciated ...
9 km away, Zinacantan is less fierce and its Sunday market, as small as it may be, is not lacking in charm: on the stalls placed on the floor, huipiles (embroidered bodices), rebozos (shawls), balls and bags dominated by wild rose and mauve multiply . Yes, in Zinacantan, we see life in pink!
The Sumidero, a canyon in the Sierra Madre
Descending from the heights of San Cristóbal (perched at 2140 m), the road twists between milpas (plots of corn), hills covered with forest and muddled towns, to reach the overheated plain.
Asleep between its old church, its ceiba with a corpulent trunk almost a thousand years old and its XNUMXth century fountain, Chiapa de Corzo is home to the main pier on the Rio Grijalva to explore the Sumidero canyon. The river, on its way to the Gulf of Mexico, cut this great scar across the Sierra Madre.
Twenty minutes later, the boat is speeding along in a rocky funnel with walls sometimes bare, sometimes carpeted with vegetation. Surrounded by waterfalls after the rains, they reach up to 1000 m of vertical drop (torticollis guaranteed). Here and there, crocodiles are taking their (sun) bath. In the line of sight:arbol de Navidad. A rock formation covered with moss, resembling a Christmas tree, sculpted by the limestone deposits of a waterfall rising directly from the cliff. Its spray envelops in a gently refreshing veil ...
On the western side of the canyon, classified as a national park, a winding road serves five belvederes offering an exactly opposite view: from top to bottom.
It is accessed from the suburbs of Tuxtla Gutierrez, the suffocating capital of Chiapas. A large modern city, quite ordinary apart from its charming Parque de la Marimba - where, every evening of the year, the municipal musicians, perched on the central kiosk, make the population dance to their tunes of mambo and cha-cha -cha. Everyone sticks to it, from 2 to 102 years old.
The aquatic wonders of Chiapas
À El Chiflón, the San Vicente river, prancing along the slope, bounces back from cascade to cascade, from turquoise basin to turquoise basin, like so many steps. There are five of them, linked by a concrete path that climbs painfully towards the highlight of the show: the Veil of the Bride and its 120 m high. On weekends, Mexicans flock with their families, picnics under their arms.
Further north, in the dry season, Blue water declines the same tones of Polynesian lagoon (at the time of the rains, the waters are more brown…). The river flows there in stages in pretty cascades and cascades in a succession of large gours (basins) drawn by calcite deposits. Swimming is refreshing, the place is splendid but very popular with tourists.
Closer to Palenque, Misol-Ha focuses on the essential: a tapered waterfall, falling aesthetically into its own forest surrounded by forest. Better to put on your swimsuit to slip into the cave hidden behind ...
Less known, the Cascadas Roberto Barrios evoke something of Agua Azul, minus the crowd. We wade through our drunk, between caves hidden behind the curtain of water and steps carved into the rocks.
More difficult to access, very isolated, the site of Clouds is located in the southeast of Chiapas, very close to Guatemala. We find the same waters of a superb milky turquoise, due to the minerals in suspension. Here they cross powerful rapids and a natural arch under which swallows flutter.
Chiapas, in Zapatista territory
What do you mean, no more buses for Ocosingo ? The companies have grown tired of the endless and all too frequent blockades organized by the population and the various insurrectionary movements in the region - which, at the slightest pretext, completely block the roads or extort a right of way.
The large carretera linking San Cristobal de Las Casas to Palenque has thus been impassable for months. The colectivos, the only ones still circulating, take a 1 hour detour through the towns of Altamirano and Chanal.
We enter the territory of the EZLN there, the Zapatista National Liberation Army, founded in 1994, the same day the Mexican government signed a free trade agreement with the United States and Canada. The Indian peasants of Chiapas knew too well how he was going to ruin them with American subsidies. Despite their poor living conditions, their corn is now too expensive ...
Not very violent, the EZLN, led until 2016 by the famous sub-commander Marcos, has attracted the friendship of many alter-globalists. The attempts at conciliations have all ended in failure: the central government refuses to grant the Indians a right to self-management. It doesn't matter: they took it without asking.
And so it is that, from Ocosingo to Altamirano and beyond, large signs welcome motorists in the "liberated" territories, where " the people demand and the government obey ". Schools, medical and social centers are managed autonomously, but part of the population has migrated to safer, more dynamic lands, where roads are maintained ...
Palenque and Toniná: the great Mayan sites of Chiapas
Certainly, the most beautiful Mayan cities have sprung up in the warm lowlands of Mexico and Guatemala. But the highlands of Chiapas also keep testimonies of its greatness.
If its peak dates from the late classic (600-800), Palenque remains a unique place, one of the major sites of the Mayan world. With its splendid setting of hills and vegetation, its monuments and its royal tomb, it captivates the visitor.
Of the 700 or so buildings listed, none is more impressive than the royal palace, epicenter of the city. A maze of (small) rooms, royal apartments, passages and interior courtyards - including the one where the sacrifices of prisoners were scripted. Where bare stone and bas-reliefs stand today, one has to imagine, as in the entire Mayan world, polychrome walls abundantly enhanced with glyphs, paintings and stucco.
In the center, a unique element stands out: a 3-storey tower, which was undoubtedly used both as a lookout post and as a solar observatory.
Le Temple of Inscriptions he was at the spiritual heart of the city. This superb stepped building (36 m) revealed in 1959 the first Mayan royal tomb integrated into a pyramid. It took 4 years of excavation to reach the funeral vault, where the great Pakal II rested, in a 15-ton sarcophagus conforming to the shape of his body, an exceptional jade mask on his face (exhibited at the Anthropology Museum of Mexico).
At the gates of Ocosingo, Tonina (“Large stone house”) perches its colossal acropolis (80 m) above cow pastures.
Without ever reaching the power of her rival Palenque, Toniná nevertheless managed to defeat her on several occasions, taking three of her kings prisoner. They ended up beheaded to fuel the gods' thirst for blood. Ruled by a particularly bellicose dynasty from the XNUMXth century onwards, Toniná earned the nickname "place of the celestial captives" ... They are found, tortured or severed head, on steles and bas-reliefs (some are presented at the site).
The ascent of the acropolis, which stacks all the buildings in one, over multiple terraces and stairs, is exhausting. But we come face to face with the fresco of the Four Eras representing the sacrifice of the king of Palenque Kan Xul and, a little above, the altar of the Monster of the Earth opening its big mouth.
Beyond, other Mayan ruins testify to settlements in the highlands, which survived at the end of the first apogee (XNUMXth century), when so many other cities were abandoned. AT Tenam Puente. In Chinkultic, where a skinny pyramid moored, unusually, at the top of a rocky peak overlooking both a cenote and the first of the lakes of Montebello, with bluish flashes.
The Lacandons, direct descendants of the Mayas
In the early 1990s, the Mexican government drew up a road in the middle of the virgin forest that followed the line of the Guatemalan border. Curled but quite practicable, this Carretera Fronteriza now provides access to the heart of the Selva Lacandone - little by little eaten away by the extension of farms.
This is where the most direct descendants of the Mayans live: the Lacandons. They are said to be around 2000, shared mainly between three villages.
If they have kept the long white tunic of their ancestors, those of Lacanjá Chansayab, in the Montes Azules Biosphere Reserve, began to trade the trances of their shaman for the prayers of evangelical pastors. One thing remains intangible, however: the love they have for their forest.
Encouraged on the path of ecotourism by the government, they opened a handful of somewhat rustic campsites. They now lead and guide visitors to the ruins of Bonampak, a Mayan city nestled in its cocoon of tropical forest, 10 km away, conserving the most beautiful frescoes in all of Mesoamerica.
We also join under their guidance the waterfall of Las Golondrinas and the sunken city of Lacanjá, which reveals a unique temple - the rest still buried under the vegetation accumulated over the centuries. The jaguar lives in the surrounding forest, but is becoming rare. The puma is more common. But it is especially the howler monkeys that we hear, vociferating through the canopy, up to 5 km around!
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Consult our Mexico online guide
How to get there ?
You can land directly in Chiapas, at Tuxtla Gutiérrez International Airport, located 35 km south of the city. It is connected to Mexico City by Aeromexico and the low-cost Interjet. From there, shuttles lead directly to San Cristobal de las Casas; therefore unnecessary to transit through Tuxtla.
How to travel there?
To get around Mexico, the bus remains the preferred means of transport, with many rotations between cities. In the region, the best established company is ADO (timetables and online reservations: www.ado.com.mx).
Note however that, due to frequent blockages, the connections between San Cristobal and Palenque are now via Villahermosa (a much longer trip). Ocosingo is no longer served except by colectivos (minibuses), with frequent departures before dawn (but which stop shortly after dark).
When to go
Winter corresponds to the dry season, summer to the rainy season. The first is much more pleasant to explore the region, even if it can get cold at night in the highlands.
Please note, only the best hotels have heating (and again, in general, just a radiator on casters). Elsewhere, the number of blankets provided is often a bit tight.
Or sleep ?
Like everywhere in Mexico, you will be spoiled for choice. In the most touristic towns and places, there are private youth hostels, of fairly variable quality. They are very numerous in San Cristóbal, a city which attracts many backpackers and foreign volunteers. Most have dormitories of varying sizes (mixed or for girls) but also rooms, with or without private bathroom - plus the classic kitchen and common area. Many organize activities and some offer inexpensive excursions.
Camping options are limited to ecoturísticos centros and campamentos in the Lacandon forest. Elsewhere, don't take the risk.
The countless small family hotels can reserve the best or the worst. Some are gloomy (no window, neon lights, limited cleanliness, hostile reception…), others are charming and all for the same price, or almost!
Old colonial mansions are attractive, but they have the disadvantage of being dark, with rooms with very (very) high ceilings. In San Cristobal, there are beautiful B&B, often run by strangers. The best hotels more or less meet European standards.
In San Cristobal:
- Posada del Abuelito: c / Tapachula. A peaceful and friendly hostal located in a quiet working class area. Dorm from 160 $ Me, double 300-360 $ Me.
- Nuik B&B: c / Francisco Madero 69. A pretty address with bright rooms enhanced with colorful notes. 6 bedrooms in all. Doubles $ 750-1035 Me.
- Guayaba Inn: c / Comitan 55. Six romantic rooms in one of the oldest houses in town, dating back to the 16th century. Superb setting. Doubles 2000-2400 $ Me.
- Hostal Tres Central: c / Central Norte 393. An excellent base between the youth hostel and the hotel. Dorm 160 $ Me. Doubles $ 400-700 Me firstname.lastname@example.org
- Hotel Casa Delina: 1st c / Poniente Sur 6. A contemporary hotel of excellent comfort close to the zocalo. Doubles $ 1 Me.
In the Selva lacandona:
- Campamento Rio Lacanja: in Lacanja Chansayab. The best address in the area, for its comfortable bungalows, the natural setting and the welcome. 590 $ 1 Me.