Mayan Holiday

In Chiapas—Mexico’s wildest state—you can find cowboys, Indians, and ancient cities in the mist.

Chiapas is the southernmost state in Mexico, the wildest state, the poorest state, the forgotten state. Few tourists go there compared with the throngs who visit other states; those who do are mostly ruins explorers or Europeans with backpacks or holdover hippies searching, as one guidebook put it, for “the score on the ’shrooms.” I myself had not planned on Chiapas; I was going to spend my three weeks of vacation on the Yucatán Peninsula, but on one ferociously hot morning in Cancún, I spied a travel agency, dashed inside, and bought a one-way plane ticket to Villahermosa. I had heard that somewhere south of there was a place called Chiapas, with waterfalls and sapphire lakes and roads winding through mist-shrouded mountains where it was always cool, even in summer—and that was where I wanted to be.

Chiapas is at the very bottom of Mexico, at the lowest part of the isthmus that stretches between the Gulf of Mexico and the Pacific Ocean. To the north are the swampy lowlands and oil refineries of Tabasco, to the south the hot, fertile Pacific Coast, and to the east, Guatemala. From the sixteenth century until 1820, Chiapas was actually part of Guatemala, and in terms of landscape and indigenous culture, it seems as if it still ought to be.

I had not realized when I started my journey that I would be following in the footsteps of British novelist Graham Greene, who journeyed through Mexico in the winter of 1937 and 1938. From his experiences, Greene wrote a travelog, Another Mexico, and later his masterpiece, The Power and the Glory, the story of a fugitive priest on the run in Tabasco and Chiapas during the anti-Catholic purges of the thirties.

Some things, of course, have changed since the days when it took Greene three days to reach San Cristóbal de las Casa by mule. Today there are paved roads, good hotels, and people who speak English just about everywhere. But some things haven’t changed: the steep serrated hilltops, the isolated impoverished native villages, the foggy serpentine roads, and the singular sense of awe and dread that comes when you find yourself all alone, surrounded by the exotic emerald jungle.

Like Greene, I began my trip by heading south from the modern city of Villahermosa, through the flatlands of Tabasco and up into the Chiapan highlands. Greene was on a mule; I was on a public


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