Logbook: Chiapas (San Cristóbal & Palenque),
We heard a few times over the past couple of years that Chiapas is Mexico's most beautiful state. Chiapas is Mexico's most southern state, bordering Guatemala. We didn't know much about the area, but what we did know wasn't good. Jan remembered seeing TV news reporting of guerilla warfare in Chiapas in the 1990's. When we arrived in Huatulco, another cruising couple told us they had visited San Cristóbal in the state of Chiapas, and they really enjoyed it. So, we got out our Lonely Planet Guide and did some research.
We read about the Zapatista leftist movement, which still exists in Chiapas but is less combative than in the past. Although the issues are complex, in a nutshell, the Zapatistas are fighting for the return of land, resources and power to the indigenous people. In January 1994, they launched their revolution by taking over and occupying San Cristóbal and other towns in Chiapas, but the Mexican army evicted them within days (killing approximately 150 Zapatistas). Over the next several years, the Chiapas countryside remained tense, and there were occasional clashes. The most recent incident occurred in 2003 when, after failed attempts to pass constitutional changes, the Zapatistas took over an American-owned hotel near Ocosingo (between San Cristóbal and Palenque). Since then, from what we read, the Zapatistas have decided to take a more "pragmatic and patient" strategy concentrating on fund-raising events and other propaganda to gain attention and have their voices heard.
We visited San Cristóbal, some its surrounding areas, and Palenque, which has excellent Mayan Indian ruins and wonderful waterfalls close by. We found the countryside to be extremely beautiful and the history interesting. In several areas, we saw rudimentary signs indicating the presence of the Zapatistas, and there was a strong Mexican military presence in this area. Although we could feel a tension here, we did not feel unsafe; however, the local people in this area were definitely less friendly than in other parts of Mexico. For example, we always ask permission before taking photos of the local people, and in most other areas of Mexico, it's not a problem. In Chiapas, however, a photograph of a local person always came at a price. Usually it was 5 pesos (50 cents), but one woman asked us for 20 pesos ($2) - even after we bought three bags of her popcorn! (We did not take her picture.)
Here's a what we did and saw:
Day 1. We caught a "red-eye" bus in Huatulco just before midnight on a Tuesday night for the eleven-hour trip to San Cristóbal. Fortunately, Mexican first-class buses are pretty comfortable, and both of us were able to get some sleep during the trip.
Founded in 1528, San Cristóbal is a Spanish colonial city with a bohemian ambience. Tourists started coming here in the 1970's, and it draws an interesting mix of people. Most of the travelers we met were European. There are good choices for budget accommodations and cheap (but good) food in San Cristóbal, so it's popular with young backpackers. We would describe the town as "funky" as dreadlocks and hippies were not unusual sights here.
When we arrived in San Cristóbal, the first thing we noticed is that it was cold! The elevation is 2163 meters (7100 feet), and the temperature was probably in the high 60's, which was quite a shock to our systems since we'd come from sea level, 90+ degrees and high humidity. We were immediately wishing we'd brought more clothes! Fortunately, we each had a pair of long pants and a light jacket for the air-conditioned bus, and we wore those clothes for the next couple of days.
After a hearty breakfast, we sought out a recommended coffee shop. Chiapas is Mexico's leading coffee producing area, and we enjoyed some excellent cups of java in this town. Fortified with caffeine, we spent our first day strolling the streets and taking in the following sights:
Since we were operating on less-than-ideal sleep from the night before, we didn't hit the town that night. Instead, we found dinner across the street from our hotel and hit the sack early.
Day 2. The previous day at Na Bolom, our tour guide Pepe told us he would be leading a walking tour the next day through the countryside and visiting some smaller towns. He suggested that if we wanted to come along, we should show up at Na Bolom at 10 a.m. the next morning. We felt this would be a great opportunity to spend more time with a local person. We met him at the hotel at 10 a.m., and no one else showed up, so we were privileged to have Pepe to ourselves for about four hours.
We caught a cab that dropped us off on the side of the road - kind of in the middle of nowhere - but Pepe led us on a trail through a valley filled with greenhouses and told us about flowers that are grown in the greenhouses and exported all over the world. He showed us the "holy rock" that the farmers pray to for rain. And, we walked to a little town called Zinacantán, where we visited a family who showed us their weavings and shared some tortillas with us.
From Zinacantán, we took another cab to San Juan Chamula, which was quite an interesting town. The local religion is "Chamulan Catholicism," which is a blend of Catholic beliefs and Mayan rituals. All non-Mayans and Protestants were expelled from this town. There is a church in San Juan Chamula, but they also kicked out their priests. (They didn't want to pray through an intermediary - they wanted direct contact.) Chamulans revere San Juan Bautista (Saint John the Baptist) above Christ, and his image occupies the most important place in the church. We were allowed to go inside the church but photos were forbidden. The church was filled with burning candles, incense, pine needles covering the floor and chanting worshipers. Another interesting part of their worship is the use of Coca-Cola. Chamulans believe that when Coke makes them burp, they are expelling evil spirits. There were a lot of Coke bottles in the church, and the local Coke distributor is the richest man in town!
Our day with Pepe was extremely interesting. In addition to showing us these two towns, he told us stories about growing up in a traditional Mayan family. We felt very lucky to have made his acquaintance and spent time with him.
We returned to San Cristóbal in the early afternoon, and headed for Café Museo Café, a cafe/coffee museum where we could enjoy a light lunch and more of this area's delicious coffee. The museum displayed information on the history of coffee growing in Chiapas. Afterward, we tried to visit an orchid garden, but it was closed, but we did climb up to Cerro de Guadalupe, a church on top of a hill that afforded nice views of the city.
We went out to dinner that evening at a delightful restaurant called La Paloma. San Cristóbal has a reputation for excellent restaurants with a wide variety of foods (including a good selection of vegetarian fare, which can sometimes be hard to find in Mexico). La Paloma has a beautiful atrium, and tables are set around bamboo and banana trees. The outstanding food and ambiance made us feel like this was a huge splurge, but prices were very reasonable. It was a real treat!
Day 3. At the recommendation of Enrique, the marina manager in Huatulco, we took a tour to the Sumidero Canyon. A hydroelectric dam on the Río Grijalva created a 25 km (15 mile) long reservoir through a canyon of towering sheer rock walls, the highest reaching 1000 meters (3300 feet). We toured the canyon on a lancha (motor boat), and in addition to the canyon, the lancha driver pointed out wildlife - howler monkeys, a wide variety of birds, and a couple of crocodiles. It was an excellent trip.
After the canyon, we had lunch in Chiapa de Corzo, a small colonial town close to the canyon.
We arrived back in San Cristóbal in mid afternoon, found the local supermarket and picked up a few snacks because we would be traveling the next day. Rich was very pleased to find his favorite variety of Cheetos here because the stores in Huatulco did not carry them. We picked up several bags.
Day 4. We were up early to catch a 7 a.m. bus to Palenque, which is 250 km (150 miles) from San Cristóbal via mountain roads. When we bought our bus tickets, the clerk told us the trip would take 5 hours, so we expected to be in Palenque around lunch time.
Shortly after we left, Jan noticed that the bus was not headed toward Palenque, but rather toward Tuxtla Gutiérrez, a town in the opposite direction. We were certain we were on the right bus, but we wondered what was going on. The bus took a less-direct route, and we arrived in Palenque eight hours later (famished!). We asked at the bus station about the change in route and were told there was construction on the other road.
Our Lonely Planet guidebook describes the town of Palenque as "a sweaty, humdrum place with little attraction except as a base for visiting the ruins." We found that description to be right on point, and would add the word "crowded" to it. We were there on a holiday weekend (Mexico's Labor Day), so that may have added to the crowds. The elevation here was 80 meters (250 feet), so it was much hotter than San Cristóbal - more like the temps and humidity we were used to at sea level.
We were here only to see Mayan Indian ruins and some waterfalls, so we booked a tour to the waterfalls for the next day, and booked our return bus tickets for the afternoon of the following day, which would give us a morning to visit the ruins. Since there wasn't much to see in town, we splurged on a nicer hotel room with air conditioning and cable TV. Both nights that we spent in Palenque, we ordered carryout pizza for dinner and watched TV. Traveling can be tiring, so the downtime was a good respite.
Day 5. This was our waterfall day, and we were booked on a tour to see Misol-Ha, Agua Clara and Agua Azul.
The first stop was Misol-Ha, a waterfall which is 35m (115 feet) high, and was used in the filming of the movie "Predator." It was gorgeous and peaceful.
The next stop was Agua Clara, a place along the Shumulhá River with pools of beautiful turquoise water. We're not sure what it is in the water that causes it to look so blue, but it was very pretty.
The final stop was Agua Azul, and while we had only a half hour at the two previous sights, we had three hours to explore and play in the waters here. There was a bit of a crowd in the pools near the parking lot, but there was a path that ran along the waterfalls (upstream) for probably a half mile or so, and as we walked up the path, the crowd quickly thinned out. The waterfalls were beautiful, and we found some great pools for a refreshing swim.
Day 6. The Palenque ruins are set in the jungle, and it gets pretty hot by late morning, so we caught an early shuttle van and arrived when they opened at 8 a.m. We, along with a German couple, hired an English-speaking guide, and Jose did a good job of showing us around and sharing the story of this Mayan city which rose to prominence under King Pakal, who reigned from AD 615 to 683.
Palenque was abandoned around 900 AD, and the ruins became overgrown by the jungle. (This area receives the heaviest rainfall in Mexico.) The ruins were discovered by some Mayan hunters in the 1700's, but it wasn't until almost 100 years later that an archaeologist investigated the site further. A number of buildings have been excavated and restored, but archeologists believe there are many more hidden beneath the jungle.
After a few hours at the ruins, we headed to the bus station for our trip back to Huatulco. We were scheduled for a 1:30 p.m. departure to Tuxtla Gutierrez (6 1/2 hours) and then we would catch an 11 p.m. bus back to Huatulco (another 8 or 9 hours). When we arrived at the bus station, one of the attendants came over to us, asked to see our tickets and then told us we should see the ticket agent. This was not a good sign! The ticket agent told us our bus was canceled, and they would not have another to Tuxtla until that evening, which meant we would miss our connection back to Huatulco. When we asked her for alternatives, she just shrugged her shoulders. Fortunately, due to our unexpected tour of the countryside on our way to Palenque, we were able to suggest an alternate route - from Palenque to Villahermosa to Tuxtla. There was a bus leaving for Villahermosa at 1:30 p.m., and she checked and confirmed that we could connect there to Tuxtla and make it in time for our bus back to Huatulco. She re-booked our tickets and charged us an extra $26.
The trip from Palenque to Villahermosa went off without a hitch, and we arrived in a beautiful new and modern bus station at Villahermosa - not a bad place for a connection. When we got off the bus, we found comfortable seats in the waiting area for our next bus, which left in about an hour. Jokingly, Rich commented that our next bus probably left from a different station. Jan took his comment seriously though, and went and asked one of the attendants if we were in the right place. Sure enough, we were not! We were directed around the corner - we were actually sitting in the arrival lounge, and the departure lounge was on the other side of the terminal. We walked over to the departure lounge and made ourselves comfortable. This really was a very nice bus terminal! While waiting for our bus, we met a very nice young Mexican couple with a new baby (6 weeks old). The proud papa was walking the baby around, and Jan was smiling at them, and the next thing she knew, the father handed her the baby to hold. The baby had quite a puzzled look on his face when he saw Jan's fair hair and blue eyes! Fortunately, they took the baby back, and shortly afterward, we boarded our bus to Tuxtla.
The Tuxtla bus station was the exact opposite of the Villahermosa bus station. It was old, dirty, small and packed with people. We could barely find a place to stand. We had about an hour between buses. As our departure time grew near, we worked our way to the boarding area. Announcements for buses were made over a loudspeaker system that was almost impossible to understand. We doubt we could have understood the announcements in English, much less Spanish. Several times, Jan asked one of the station attendants about our bus, but it was running late. We finally heard an announcement about our bus, but we couldn't understand it. Fortunately, someone came and got us and directed us. We were the last two to board, and we believe they came looking specifically for us. Since they had our names (they take that info when the tickets are booked), they easily picked us out of the crowd.
We left Tuxtla by midnight and arrived back in Huatulco around 9 a.m. the next morning. Although the travels were good, we were happy to be back at home on Slip Away.