If you think Mexico is all about white sand, warm beaches and all-inclusive resorts, you’re in for a surprise! In the Chiapas region, the dense rainforest jungle is scattered with remnants of the Maya civilisation. You will find traditional villages where people still practice ancient rituals and to top it all off is the gorgeous colonial city of San Cristóbal de las Casas.
Chiapas paints a very different picture of Mexico and it’s a picture you simply can’t afford to miss!
Intrigued? Then check out the best things to do in Chiapas.
1. San Cristóbal de las Casas
I hope you packed a fleece! At an altitude of nearly 2000m, it can get pretty chilly at night in San Cristóbal, even in summer! But don’t let that stop you from visiting! It’s an absolute treat to wander through San Cristóbal’s cobbled streets, checking out the chaotic local markets or soaking up the atmosphere in one of the many bars and eateries on Calle Real de Guadelupe.
Culture buffs are in for a treat too. How about immersing yourself in the traditional Maya medicine at the “Museo de la Medicina Maya”? Or sharing a table with supporters of the Zapatista movement at TierrAdentro, a large courtyard restaurant run by Zapatistas?
If you are looking to stretch your legs and take in the best views over town, you have the choice of climbing the Cerro de San Cristóbal to the west or the Cerro de Guadelupe to the east where churches crown both lookouts.
Where to stay: hostel Posada del Abuelito, great atmosphere, clean and friendly!
2. Traditional villages
Chiapas is home to the Tzotzil people, descendents from the ancient Maya. They maintain some unique beliefs and rituals and many still wear traditional clothes, like tunics of white wool or richly embroidered blouses. The most accessible villages are San Juan Chamula and San Lorenzo Zinacantán, both about 10km from San Cristóbal.
These are closed-off communities, difficult to enter for an outsider, so if you want to have an insight into their traditions and beliefs it is best to go on a tour from San Cristóbal. I would highly recommend Alex y Raul Tours!
The highlight of every visit is the village church in Chamula. The church floor is filled with pine and candles of various colours. Chamula families kneel on the floor in small groups, sometimes asking for advice from the “curanderos” or “medicine men” who prescribe treatments like candles, sugar-cane-based liquor and occasionally the beheading of a chicken! You truly feel like an outsider, so please behave in a respectful way! Photography is strictly forbidden!
3. Cañon del Sumidero
If you’re looking for nature, Chiapas has you covered too! Roughly one hour from San Cristóbal lies the Sumidero canyon, with walls that tower over an amazing 800m above you! The best way to see it is by lancha. (motorboat) During a 2 hour trip you’ll be speeding between the rock walls, slowing down to spot a wide variety of birdlife and not to mention river crocodiles! Try to ignore the plastic trash, washed in during raining season from nearby Tuxtla and focus on the magnificent nature that lies ahead!
The jungle-covered temples of Palenque are one of the top destinations of Chiapas and rightly so! Over 15sq km (but only partly accessible), they are one of the best examples of Maya architecture and contain some of the finest bas-relief carvings. Go early if you want to fully embrace the beauty and serenity of the “Templo de las Inscripciones” before the tour groups arrive!
You can spend hours on end discovering the various temples and palaces or enjoying the viewpoints over the dense jungle. Make sure you follow the path from Grupo Norte towards the museum to visit the lesser known structures. Less spectacular, but the surrounding nature and small waterpools definitely make up for it!
5. Yaxchilan and Bonampak
Jungle-shrouded Yaxchilan is one of the lesser known sites, but one of the most important classic Maya cities in Mexico! Getting there is half the fun: it involves a 40 minute boat ride on the Usumacinta river, the natural border between Mexico and Guatemala.
The ruins are famous for their ornate roofcombs, with Edificio 33 being the best example. Yaxchilan is not as overrun with tour groups as the more famous sites, so you can easily satisfy your inner Indiana Jones by exploring the labyrinths with a headtorch, avoiding spiders and bats alike!
A trip to Yaxchilan usually takes in Bonampak as well, a site that remained hidden deep in the Lacandona jungle until 1946! It is of a very different nature compared to most Maya sites and a lot smaller too. Bonampak means “painted walls” and this is exactly what this site is about. After you’ve climbed the main pyramid, you will find three different rooms inside the “Templo de las Pinturas” where vivid frescoes (some of them badly weathered, most of them in a surprisingly good state) depict the battle between Bonampak and a rival city. It is better to go with a guide or have a guide book at hand, because there is little explanation on the site itself.
Because of the variety, the culture and the history, I found Chiapas one of the most interesting areas I visited in Mexico. Have you been? Any more tips for a future visit?