If you think Mexico is all about golden beaches and all-inclusive resorts, you’re in for a surprise! During my one month backpacking trip in Mexico, I spent a decent amount of time in the Chiapas, a region where dense rainforest jungle is scattered with remnants of the Mayan civilisation. It’s a place where you will come across traditional villages where people still practice ancient rituals. A place where the scorching sun turns into cold nights in 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!
The most amazing 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. The old centre is pretty compact, so no need for any form of transport apart from your two feet!
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.
San Cristóbal is the ideal place to stay in Chiapas. Most hostels will organize excursions to the main must-sees in the state and there’s enough to keep you busy for at least a week.
2. Traditional villages
Chiapas is home to the Tzotzil people, descendants from the ancient Maya. They have a wariness towards outsiders, maintain some fascinating 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 (+ they charge entrance fees for individual visitors), 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 can highly recommend Alex y Raul Tours, they operate in small groups with respect for the communities.
The highlight of every visit is the village church in San Juan Chamula. From the outside, the church looks pretty average and small, but upon entering, your eyes will need some time to adjust since the interior of the church is only lit by hundreds of colourful candles. Statues of saints in framed boxes line the walls and the smell of incense is overpowering. There is a lot of activity in the church: small groups of people are gathered around colourful candles, sitting on a pine-covered floor. The color of each candle represents something they are praying for: green for a good harvest, white for an abundance of food, orange for tranquility, and black for protection from evil. With the families are the “curanderos” or “medicine men” who prescribe treatments pox, a sugar-cane-based liquor and occasionally the beheading of a chicken!Their religion is a unique combination of their ancestors’ pre-hispanic Maya belief system and Catholicism.It is a very colourful happening in which you will truly feel like an outsider, so please behave in a respectful way! Photography inside the church is strictly forbidden! The same goes for taking pictures of locals. Always ask their permission first, their highly traditional Mayan belief system means they consider that a piece of their soul is stolen with every snap.
The cemetery is worth a visit too to check out the multi-coloured grave crosses. As with the candles, each colour represents something: a white cross for babies, a green or blue cross for children, and a black one for adults.
After visiting San Juan Chamula, Zinacantán tends to look rather bland. It is mainly known for its woven items, so visits will always include a demonstration at a weaving workshop. The women will display the technique using a traditional back-strap loom and you will visit a family home where you will be shown how to make tortillas in a traditional Tzotzil kitchen.
Learning about these unknown cultures is definitely one of the best things to do in Chiapas!
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, cut through by the Rio Grijalva, with walls that tower an amazing 800m above you! The best way to see it is by lancha (motorboat) from Chiapa de Corzo. The boat trip lasts roughly 2 hours. At first you’ll be speeding till you reach the bridge across Highway 190, but soon enough you’ll slow down to admire the towering rock walls, covered in vegetation and spot a wide variety of birdlife, 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!
Most hostels in San Cristóbal organize excursions to the Sumidero Canyon. A round-trip costs +/- 300 pesos.
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 most spectacular Mayan ruins in Mexico 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. The ruins might be less impressive, 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 Mayan 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 Mayan 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 states I visited in Mexico. Have you been? Can you think of any other things to do in Chiapas?