This article is from the July 2001 The Mexico File newsletter.
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Chiapas, One of Mexico’s Best-Kept Secrets

by Yvonne Moran 

Yvonne Moran is a freelance writer and a former general assignment daily reporter. Her stories have been published in The New York Times, Connecticut Post, The Advocate, Greenwich Time, Irish America Magazine and Fairfield County magazines, amongst others. She contributes travel stories to several websites and also writes for national Irish newspapers and magazines. She has been writing about travel for more than a decade. Yvonne can be reached through email at for comments and questions.   

The country’s most southerly state abounds in natural beauty, has the famous archaeological ruins of Palenque, and ancient cities. But best of all, Chiapas has many different indigenous peoples who have tenaciously clung to their Mayan traditions in food, dress, crafts, religious practices, festivals and languages in the face of the modern world.  

I recently spent six days traveling there, and that time gave me a good idea of what the 50,000 square mile state, with a population of 3.5 million people, offers in natural beauty.  

Tuxtla Gutierrez, the capital city, was our arrival and immediate departure point for a 30 minute drive to the twelve million year old Sumidero Canyon. The 3,000 foot high, 20 mile long canyon, now part of a national park, is truly spectacular. During a two hour boat ride we visited Vulture Island, so called because of the large number of black carrion birds hanging out or hovering overhead. En route, we observed cormorants, pelicans, herons and egrets – and even more exciting, several small crocodiles, thanks to our boat guide, who seemed to instinctively know where they would be sunning themselves. Sightings of the human kind were also interesting, as the local fishermen threw their fanned nets into the water or waved as we speeded by. Women washed their family’s clothes by the water’s edge, while men washed themselves. Pointing to the canyon’s highest point, our guide recounted the story of how 100 Chipanecans in the 16th century threw themselves from there rather than surrender to the conquering Spaniard Luis Martin. It gave me an eerie feeling to look up and think about that. We also saw the Cave of Silence, which, as its name implies, has no echo, and the Madonna de Guadaloupe shrine, built high in the cliff wall. A procession of boats goes there every December 12 to pay homage.  

At times, the canyon’s walls seemed to surround us, and the long shadows that formed by mid-afternoon made the location a cool, ideal location to escape the day’s heat. The high cliffs gave way to coconut and palm trees and small islands as we emerged from the natural wonder.  

The small town of Chiapa de Corzo is the recommended place to take the 90 to 120 minute value-for-money-boat ride (approximately $8), which can also be done if traveling solo. However, it may take up to an hour to get the required 12 people to fill a boat if you arrive alone.  

Chiapa de Corzo itself is a worthwhile stop. The town, the first established in Chiapas, has one of Mexico’s largest bells. The 10,000 pound bell hangs proudly in the 16th century recently-restored Santo Domingo church. An ornately designed Moorish influenced fountain in the town’s small plaza is a  curiosity in such an off-the-beaten-track location. Its eight buttresses were modeled after Queen Isabella’s crown, but locals have found a modern use for the redbrick covered fountain, as it’s now used as the meeting/gathering place. The town, which has one hotel, had a tranquil, laid back feel to it, and I wished I had more time to simply hang out and observe local life.   Marimba Park in Tuxtla Gutíerrez’s central park was great fun that night. The men and women seemed to be gearing up for the weekend, as young and old couples alike (the latter particularly well-attired), danced for free to the accompaniment of a full marimba band who perform for their own, and their  listener’s, entertainment. Many Chiapas residents claim this music as their own and believe it originated in their state; not everyone agrees with this, however. The 90 minute event takes place from Thursday to Sunday and park bench seats fill up quickly, so get there early.  More music and dancing followed during dinner at Las Pichanchas restaurant, which specializes in local cuisines. I ate the tastiest tamales ever while enjoying the close up, colorful, lively show. The clear, close view provided a wonderful opportunity to photograph the performers of regional dances.  

San Cristóbal de las Casas, our destination and base for the next two days, is considered by many to be one of the most beautiful towns in Mexico. It lies 200 miles east of the capital, is surrounded by mountains and is an ideal location for visiting the nearby indigenous villages of San Juan Chamula and Zinacantán. The peoples of both villages speak Tzotzil, one of the largest of the nine distinct language groups in Chiapas.  

San Juan Chamula, six miles from San Cristóbal, is the spiritual and administrative capital of the fiercely religious Chamulas. The men in this Mayan indigenous group wear traditional white or black wool tunics over pants, while the womenfolk are attired in blue blouses and black wraparound skirts. Life in the small village revolves around the plaza’s church, a pretty white stucco building that can be seen from the nearby hills. The church’s lovely doorway is decorated with colorful flower motifs, and on the day I visited, several local men were busy painting it. When I tried photographing their activities, one of them very angrily threw something at me, a serious reminder that using a camera in this very conservative village is frowned upon. While I knew photography inside the church is absolutely forbidden, I didn’t realize the hostility that would result by taking a photograph of its exterior. Many of the locals believe that taking their photograph steals their souls, but I believe they also feel exploited by tourists. Some of the Chamula residents weren’t especially welcoming or even friendly, but the longer I remained there (I visited the village twice over several days), the more I understood why – hordes of tourist buses disgorging foreigners seemed like an unwanted cultural invasion into their small village.   

The fascinating rituals that take place in this church have to be seen to be believed. Part Catholic ceremony, but predominantly Mayan, the reverential locals sit on the church’s pine-covered floor (the church has no pews), and light candles of various sizes and colors. The use of particular candles denotes the requests that are being made, our guide informed us. They also drink soft drinks or alcohol, and they chant or pray facing different statues of saints placed in glass cases along the length of the church. Sometimes eggs or live chickens are used as part of the religious activities.  

“The most important element is faith. If you don’t believe, you won’t get cured,” said Gabriela Gudino Gual, the director of tourism in San Cristóbal, who accompanied us to the two villages. The ceremonies are performed with the hope that the physical or spiritual problems the people are dealing with will disappear, she added. Chamula church is not a Catholic church, as it has no priest and only one Roman Catholic sacrament, baptism, is performed there – and John the Baptist, whose blue robed statue holds central position on the altar, is the patron saint of 17 local communities. There was no statue of Jesus in sight.

While there wasn’t much to see in Zinacantan, three miles away, the villagers made our visit a memorable one. They treated us to a traditional lunch on our arrival at the small museum of Sna Tzotz’lebetik, which translated from the Tzotzil language means the bat’s house. In the museum, we learned about daily activities like back strap weaving, saw some of the traditional costumes worn for weddings and others for positions of authority, and learned about the history of the Tzotzils, who originated in Guatemala and moved to Chiapas sometime after 900 B.C. Some of the women and men in our group tried on the ornate wedding costumes, much to the amusement of our hosts.  

Unlike the church in Chamula, the village church of Saint Lawrence has no shamans, and Mass is celebrated every Saturday. Statues of the Virgin Mary and Jesus Christ, clothed in traditional costumes, were also evident. As we were leaving the church a group of men arrived playing traditional musical  instruments. Photography, however, is also forbidden in this church.   San Cristóbal, which is situated at a cool 6,000-plus feet above sea level, is the economic and social center of the highlands and was once the colonial capital of the region. The city was named to honor Fray Bartolome de Las Casas, the “protector of the Indians,” who fought against the colonizers’ oppression against the original inhabitants. The city is full of pretty, cobble-stone streets and low lying colonial buildings. Some of the lovely structures have been converted into craft stores, and others have become some of the city’s 140 small, intimate restaurants.  

The town is small enough to visit in one day, but is worth staying several. It’s an ideal location to explore the region’s lakes, villages, and architectural sites, or to simply sit in one of the local cafes and soak up the ambience.  

The Church and Ex-Convento of Santo Domingo is San Cristóbal’s most noteworthy building. The church’s elaborate baroque facade is particularly striking during the late afternoon sun when the frontage turns to a golden color, justifying its reputation as the prettiest church in Chiapas. The former convent, which became a jail in the 1950’s and is now the Sna Jolobilm cooperative, sells exquisite, high quality traditional clothes and craft items from the surrounding municipalities and beyond. It provides the visitor with a glimpse of the immense cultural differences existing in the region. The expensive local weavings and embroidered clothing from Chamula, Zinacantan, San Andreas, and Huistan, for example, vary greatly, as residents in each of these municipalities wear different clothes even if they all belong to the same indigenous group. The cooperative is open every day except Sunday.  

Budget visitors can shop in the large open air craft market in the church grounds and its surroundings for jewelry, bags, clothes, and traditional textiles. While many of the products are Guatemalan, and the quality is not as high as that found in the cooperative, it’s still a good place to stock up on gifts.  

The Ecclesiastic Walk, a pedestrian route that goes from Santo Domingo church to the El Carmen ex-Convent of the Sisters of the Incarnation has several upmarket amber stores that tempt even the most budget-minded traveler. I parted with $30 and bought myself a pair of silver, dark colored amber  earrings to match a pendant I’d purchased several days earlier. The ancient, millions-of-years-old resin that is predominantly gold colored, comes originally from the sap of trees; in Chiapas, the country’s main deposits, it is mined from local caves. Amber is considered by many to have magical powers, including the ability to ward off illness or bad luck. The price of this precious commodity in San Cristóbal was considered high by local standards, but was much more reasonable than what I found in stores in Playa Del Carmen, in the Yucatán, which I visited two weeks later.  

The highly recommended Na Bolom Museum and Cultural Center is well worth a half day’s visit. Na Bolom, or House of the Jaguar, was established in 1951 by Danish archaeologist Franz Blom and Swiss photographer Gertudis Duby to advocate ethnological and ecological conservation. The focus of their  attempts was in the Lacandón area in eastern Chiapas, said to be the second largest rain forest in the western hemisphere. The work the couple began in Mexico’s last frontier continues to this day.  

The center has a library, a handicraft store selling Lacandón artifacts, and a museum that recounts the Lacandón people’s traditional lifestyle. There are also some of the founders’ personal items displayed, in a kind of time warp, in their original rooms A vegetable and herb garden grows produce for the thousands of visitors and researchers who stay in the center’s 14 guest rooms every year, each of which is individually decorated according to the designs of a particular indigenous group. The money raised by paying guests goes toward the not-for-profit, private institute’s work. The center is also an invaluable resource for those studying the region as it has 150,000 photographs on Chiapas and its peoples and 5,000 books on Mayan culture.   The Lacandóns, Maya descendants who came from the Yucatán, were the only people in Mexico not colonized by the Spanish. However, their custom of not marrying outside the tribe is causing serious genetic problems and their numbers, which have never been large, have been reduced to about 600.  Incursions by developers, land-hungry settlers, and Guatemalan refugees are transforming this indigenous group’s centuries-old homeland, adding to this small group’s survival problems.  We arrived in Palenque the next day, having survived 140 agonizing speed bumps during a three hour road journey heading east. Thankfully, we made two intermittent stops during the trip to visit the wonderful waterfalls of Aqua Azul and Misol Ha. The scenic breaks helped us to recover from the  mountainous roads’ grueling bends and the constantly stopping-starting-lurching vehicle.  

Agua Azul waterfalls, or blue water, is a magnificent series of many sized waterfalls whose water sources come from a variety of locations. Unfortunately, the water wasn’t blue, but a muddy brown, due to the onset of the rainy season which begins in April and lasts for several months. The missing blue, however, didn’t dampen my enthusiasm for the breathtaking sight of so many waterfalls together in one place, and the nearby tranquil natural swimming pools.  

One hour later, we were in Misol Ha. The single, 90-foot-high waterfall was also spectacular, and the surrounding area had fewer foreign and local visitors, less makeshift restaurants, a nicer walking route, (Agua Azul’s was very muddy and slippy), and was better organized than Agua Azul, despite the fact that both sites are owned by the Chol people. Individual entry to both locations is five pesos, and a car costs 20 pesos.   We stayed in Palenque overnight at the lovely Hotel Mision Palenque. I couldn’t have asked for a more relaxing way to spend some time than by listening to the humming insects in the lovely gardens at sundown.  

Palenque’s archaeological ruins are some of the most important and beautiful in Mexico, and despite the heat and humidity, I spent most of the day visiting the manageably-sized, four square mile site of well preserved buildings located in a picturesque jungle setting. The ceremonial city deserves, at the least, several hours visiting time. Lots of water, sunscreen, a hat and mosquito repellent are absolute must-haves. It’s extremely hot, so it’s recommended to visit early.  

Palenque was built at the height of the Classic period, reached its zenith between 600-800 A.D. when 20,000 people lived there, lasted for 600 years, and was then mysteriously abandoned. The ever encroaching jungle absorbed centuries of creation and one of the most important cities in the pre-Hispanic world. The jungle was something the site’s former residents had to continually contend with also, as they grew their crops and continued to expand their city. The ruins were rediscovered in 1740 when a Spanish priest accidentally dug into a buried wall while trying to plant his crops; several  expeditions followed in the 19th century, and a serious one was undertaken by Na Bolom cofounder Franz Blom in 1923. Work continued intermittently until 1952, when Mexican archaeologist Alberto Ruz Lhuillier found the Temple of the Inscriptions which housed Lord Pacal’s tomb. The discovery was a bonanza, because the temple was where Pacal, the founder and organizer of the first ruling dynasty in Palenque, was buried. It is one of Palenque’s most important buildings.  

I felt like an early archaeological explorer when I descended the 69 steps (symbolizing the length of time Pacal is said to have ruled), into the depths of the dark temple and saw Pacal’s beautifully carved, five ton sarcophagus lid above his 30-ton sarcophagus. A small triangular shaped door protected the tomb, which was also discovered by accident. Five young Mayan noblemen, found nearby, had been sacrificed to be the guardians of the body. It seems they were successful in their role, for the tomb yielded 900 items, including Pacal’s jade, shell, and obsidian masks and his diadem, buried with him for use in his next life. The temple was a rare occurrence in Mayan pyramid construction as it had been specially built to cover his crypt, and is also an architectural masterpiece, given the massive weight of the pyramid built  over the tomb. Six hundred and twenty hieroglyphs were also discovered, and they recount details of Pacal’s ancestors, astronomical events, and major happenings that took place every 20 years, including ceremonies in which the dead leader was a participant. The temple was closed to the general public two years ago because of damage resulting from the large number of visitors, but individuals can still visit the tomb with a permit from the onsite office. 

Temple 19, which has a 10 foot high inscription, Temple 20, which was discovered 100 years before the Temple of the Inscriptions, the Palace, and the Plaza of the Cross, amongst others, are also worth visiting. So far, only 39 structures in Palenque have been excavated in the past 200 years and almost 1,500 remain to be explored, said our guide, an archaeologist who works at the site. At that rate of excavation it will take 5,000 years to complete, he added.  

The ruins and wonders of Palenque were an appropriate ending to a state chock-a-block-full of natural and human-made wonders.  

Recommended Accommodations: 

Hotel Maya Sol: Tuxtla Gutíerrez. Boulevard Dr. Belisario Dominguez, 1380 Jardines, C.P. 29020. Phone: 61-5-05-48 or 61-5-13-34. Fax: 61-5-07-79.   

Hotel Rincon del Arco: San Cristóbal de las Casas. Ejercito Nacional #66, C.P. 29220. Phone: 01-(9)-678-12-12. Fax: 01-(9)-678-15-68. Email:   Website:   Hotel Mision Palenque: Palenque. Rancho San Martín de Torres S/N Monterrey C.P. 29960. Phone: 934-5-04-99 or 934-5-02-41. Fax: 934-5-03-00.  

Restaurante Las Pichanchas: Av. Central Oriente #837, Centro C.P. 29000. Tel.: 61-2-53-51 or 61-1-11- 39.   Mexicana, Aviacsa and Aerocaribe all fly into Tuxla Gutierrez, most of them via Mexico City.