Mayan Holiday

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

May 1993By Comments

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 bus. Actually, the easiest way to travel is by rental car, but at $75 or more a day, plus mileage, this can be prohibitively expensive. After about two hours of steady climbing, with the muggy air growing more bearable at each turn in the road, I arrived at Palenque. In Graham Greene’s day, this was a quiet ranching community called Santo Domingo. Today the town is overrun by tourists who use it as a base for exploring the Mayan ruins of Palanque, about twenty minutes west of town and halfway up a mountainside.

Palenque was one of the most magnificent of the Mayan ceremonial centers, with nearly five hundred temples and platforms and pyramids, only a handful of which have been disentangled from the ever-creeping vegetation. If you visited Palenque long ago, you should go again: In the last year archaeological work has uncovered even more structures, and what were once tumbledown piles of stone and green mounds overgrown with tree roots are now reconstructed buildings. The single most astonishing sight at Palenque is the tomb of the ruler Pacal, deep inside the Temple of the Inscriptions—indeed, it is enough to make you want to chuck it all and become an archaeologist. The crypt, with an enormous stone slab covering Pacal’s body, was discovered in 1952 at the end of a sealed passage and a stairway filled with rubble. To get there, you ascend 69 steps, then descend into the guts of the temple via a steep, suffocatingly steamy stairway. At the bottom is where Pacal’s untouched burial cache was found, including his jewel-adorned skeleton and jade death mask. I emerged wet with sweat, happy I’d made the climb but gasping for air. Unfortunately, Palenque is hot and steamy year-round; bring mosquito repellent and sunscreen.

Thanks to breakthroughs in the last two decades, we can now understand many of the ancient hieroglyphic inscriptions on the structures at Palenque and other Mayan sites. This alone is reason enough to visit Chiapas: to comprehend the stunning revolution that has transformed our knowledge of the ancient Maya. Gone is the image of them as a peace-loving people who spent their days designing pyramids and their nights gazing at the stars. They were actually a ruthless people obsessed with blood. The rulers mutilated themselves in shocking rituals and tortured and sacrificed their captives.

The best place to stay at Palenque is not at one of the many hotels in town but at Chan Kah, a collection of roomy cabanas scattered at the edge of the rain forest. From your private porch you can sit in a rocker and watch the wild parrots, toucans, and hummingbirds. Some guests claim they have even seen the quetzal, the sacred bird of the Maya, with its iridescent green feathers, crimson breast, and long curved tail. I have my doubts; quetzal sightings are the fish stories of Central America. I myself have seen only three, and two of them were stuffed. The third was in a cage at a zoo.

From Palenque, it’s possible to make a side trip to the even more far-flung Mayan ruins of Yaxchilán and Bonampak, both near the Guatemalan border. Flying into those sites is expensive (charter flights from Palenque cost $650); one alternative is to join a small group and make an overland journey for only $100. It’s a grueling trip: five bumpy hours down a washboard road, then an hour by boat up the Usumacinta River to Yaxachilán. Like Palenque, Yaxaxhilán is a bewildering complex of overgrown temples, pyramids, and ball courts with elegantly carved stelae depicting bloodletting rituals, including one showing a woman pulling a thorny rope through her tongue and another with a man about to pierce his penis with a sharpened bone. But Yaxchilán is also a place of moods: Its beauty lies in its remoteness and in the contemplation of its silent fallen stones.

Bonampak was a disappointment. If you don’t fly in, the only way to reach the ruins is by a narrow path; the day I went the ground was muddy and slippery, and it took us four torturous hours. Even worse, the very thing that makes Bonampak famous—the brilliant murals in the Temple of the Frescoes—was accidentally destroyed with kerosene, which intensified the colors but caused the paint to flake off. Reproductions exist as the Museum of Anthropology in Mexico City. My advice: Skip Bonampek and spend more time elsewhere.

If old stones don’t interest you, just eleven miles south of Palenque on the road to Ocosingo is a series of spectacular waterfalls ideal for cooling off from the heat. At Misol-Há, a column of water drops from a height of ninety feet into a large shimmery pool. Fifteen miles farther south on the same road is Agua Azul, where a bright turquoise stream cascades down a series of limestone terraces. Even if you don’t swim, you can sit on a log, engulfed by mist, and watch the water froth, swirl, and seethe.

South of Agua Azul the road curves and rises through the mountainous countryside dense with pine. Indian villages appear and then vanish behind vaporous clouds. Most tourists press on to San Cristóbal de las Casas without stopping at the town of Ocosingo. Set amid rolling ranch land, Ocosingo is famous for its soft, tart cheese and its cowboys. Judging from the number of cowboy hats and boots, you might think you were in Laredo. About half an hour east of town are the ruins of Toniná, one of the smaller and less-frequented Mayan sites, yet unforgettable for its heart-stopping view of the green Chiapan hillsides from the crest of the main temple. The Mexican government is now rapidly excavating Toniná as part of what is being called the Ruta Maya, a tourist promotion plan by Mexico, Guatemala, and Honduras to polish up those countries’ Mayan sites and make them more accessible. If the Ruta Maya succeeds, Toniná will become a familiar stop on the road to San Cristóbal.

Perched at seven thousand feet, San Cristóbal is the Katmandu of Mexico, a legendary destination that has lured intrepid travelers for generations. Even Graham Greene, after traveling for weeks, dreamed of reaching this city among the clouds. If you arrive as I did, tired and dirty on a chilly afternoon, you might not immediately perceive its charm. But the next morning, as you sip cinnamon-flavored cocoa on the plaza as barefoot Indians plod by on their way to market, you will begin to understand. San Cristóbal is an artifact of the Spanish colonial era, with cobblestone streets, gilded churches, and pastel buildings with wrought-iron window grates and tile roofs. The weather is cool year-round and often downright cold at night. During the rainy season, from May to October, it rains most afternoons.

There is plenty to do in San Cristóbal, yet no one is in a hurry to do it. The large expatriate population, made up primarily of Europeans, runs most of the handicraft shops, bookstores, jazz bars, and cafes. At the center is the main square, Plaza 31 de Marzo, with straight streets extending out to the edge of town. Virtually every street has restaurants and shops—stop by the tourist office on the west side of the plaza for suggestions. The city’s most beautiful church is Santo Domingo, with its sumptuous gold-leaf interior and peach-colored baroque façade. (It’s a short walk off the main plaza at the corner of Utrilla and Chiapa de Corzo.) In the old monastery building next door is the Sna Jolobil Weavers’ Cooperative, where you can find lovely handwoven and embroidered Chiapan textiles. About a ten-minute walk from the square at Vicente Guerrero 33 is Na-Bolom, a cool and stately Spanish colonial-era mansion built around courtyards, with a small museum of Mayan artifacts. The doyenne of Na-Bolom is Trudy Blom, now in her nineties, who has long championed the cause of the dwindling Lacandón Indians and recorded their lives in her book of photographs, Bearing Witness.

In San Cristóbal you can find any type of accommodation, from budget to luxury, including the old Hotel Español, where Graham Greene collapsed, exhausted after fourteen straight hours on a mule. It is only one of several colonial-style hotels in town, with cozy rooms arranged around a flowery courtyard. The best have dark beams, tile floors, porcelain washbasins, and fireplaces.

San Cristóbal is the perfect base for exploring the Indian villages in the surrounding highlands, each with its own rituals and customs. Ask at the tourist office how to link up with a private tour, or catch a colectivo (“minibus”). One of the most visited villages, San Juan Chamula, is only twenty minutes away. Although a cavernous white church dominates the town square, it has no Catholic clergy and hasn’t for years. Like many Maya people, the Chamulans observe their own half-pagan, half-Catholic rituals. I happened to visit on a festival day; inside the church, the air was clouded with incense, and pine needles carpeted the room. Groups of people knelt on the floor amid burning tapers, fresh-cut flowers, raw eggs, and bottles of posh, a sugarcane brew. What it all meant was open to interpretation. I went with a tour guide who spoke Tzotzil, the local Mayan language, but even she couldn’t explain it. When you go, remember that the local people do not like having their pictures taken. Be sure and ask first, especially in the church. You may have to pay a small fee.

From San Cristóbal, you can easily explore Tuxtla Gutiérrez, the modern sprawling capital of Chiapas, about two hours to the west by car or bus. In Tuxtla you will find one of the best zoos in Central America. All the animals there are native to the area. (This is where I saw the real live quetzal.) Not far from Tuxtla is the Cañón de Sumidero, a magnificent canyon best seen on a two-hour guided boat ride. Deep inside, I saw crocodiles, parakeets, and monkeys cavorting in the treetops. Another day trip south from San Cristóbal takes you to the Lagunas de Montebello, a chain of lakes on the Guatemalan border that reportedly range from green to blue to black to gray. On the day I went it rained so hard we couldn’t see a thing. Instead we hurried back to San Cristóbal for another cup of cocoa.

The only person I ever heard about having an unpleasant stay in San Cristóbal was none other than my peevish companion, Graham Greene. The churches, he thought, were empty and ruined, the scenery oppressive, the locals hostile. He spent his days in his room, reading women’s magazines and recording the condition of his bowels in his journal. Your visit should be far more pleasant. You could pass the time going from village to village, sampling the handicrafts and religious rites. Or you could do as I did: Relax in San Cristóbal during the day, haunting the narrow streets and idling in the cafes, and at night, stoke the fire in your hotel room. I met quite a few travelers who were doing just that: Intending to pass through the city, they had fallen under its spell and stayed.

Coming and Going

The most direct way to get to San Cristóbal is to fly to Tuxtla Gutiérrez and take a bus or drive. Just be aware that the Tuxtla airport is often closed because of fog in the mornings; you could be in for a wait. You can rent a car at the airport; or you can take a colectivo to the bus depot, where you can catch a bus to San Cristóbal. The trip over steeply winding roads is only 51 miles but takes two hours. You can also fly into Villahermosa, 200 miles away, and either rent a car to take a bus. Side trips to Tuxtla Gutiérrez, the Cañón de Sumidero, and the Lagunas de Montebello can be arranged through a local travel agency or you can make your way there in a rental car.


San Cristóbal: Posada Diego de Mazariegos (María Adelina Flores 2; 967-8-0513) is a well-appointed colonial-style hotel, the best in town ($74 for a double). The Hotel Español (Avenida 16 de Septiembre and Primero de Marzo; 967-8-0045) has a lovely central garden, moderately sized but somewhat dark rooms, and hand-painted tile in the bathrooms ($85). Another good bet is the Hotel Santa Clara (Avenida Insurgentes 1, on the south side of Plaza 31 de Marzo; 967-9-1140), with large rooms and a courtyard with scarlet macaws ($43). Na-Bolom (Vicente Guerrero 33; 967-8-1418) has twelve charming rooms, by reservation only ($45 including breakfast).

Palenque: Hotel Chan Kah Ruinas (Carretera Las Ruinas, Kilometro 3; 934-5-1100), along the road to the ruins, offers roomy cabanas, private porches, a stream-fed pool, and an alfresco restaurant ($40). Hotel Chan Kah Centro (Avenida Juárez 2; 934-5-0318) is a new hotel downtown ($43). Hotel Nututun Viva (Carretera Palenque-Ocosingo, Kilometro 3.5; 934-5-0100), in a woody setting, has a view of the Chacamax River from its dining room ($78).

Tuxtla Gutiérrez: Hotel Flamboyant (Belisario Domínguez, Kilometro 1081; 961-5-0888) is modern, with a swimming pool, lovely gardens, and a great weekend brunch ($113).


La Ruta Maya by Tom Brosnahan (Lonely Planet, 1991).

On the Loose in Mexico 1993 (Berkeley Guides, 1992).

Yucatan Handbook by Chicki Mallan (Moon Publications, 1990).

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