CHIAPAS – Mexico´s green oasis

Chiapas is one of the greenest areas in Mexico. It comes with amazing turquoise waterfalls, pre-hispanic ruins and the very authentic city of San Cristobal.
In my opinion it’s one of the completely underestimated locations in Mexico, already a famous travel destination among mexicans but still not really discovered by international tourists. Therefore it’s probably one of the cheapest places you’ll visit in Mexico and I think as well one of the most beautiful.

Tuxtla

Tuxtla Gutiérrez itself is not really among the nicest locations in Chiapas but most probably it will still be one of your destinations as the airport is there and all bigger roads to the west cross it.
Although the city itself is not really worth a visit in my opinion, if you’re already there you should definitely use the chance to visit “Cañon del Sumidero”. For a fair price you can get a 3h boatride through the canon (it depends on how full the boat gets, but expect something around 10€). You’ll not only see an incredible landscape but as well a lot of wildlife like birds and monkeys and very probably crocodiles!
If you’re done with your boatride you should check out “Rio”, a close-by restaurant with view on the river, good prices and huge portions (You can easily share the shrimp salad for example – for one person it’s just too much. Read closely because you’ll probably never hear me say “to many shrimps” again!).
A hostel I’d recommend in Tuxtla is “La Casa del Jardin”. It’s a lovely little guesthouse and restaurant. The people are nice, the food is good and it’s very cozy.

 

San Cristobal

After five months in Mexico I ended up with San Cristobal being my favourite city in the country.

With about 160.000 inhabitants it’s not too big. Because in the South of Mexico there still lives a big share of indigineous people, I found it very authentic. Especially its markets are exactly like I imagined Mexican markets: smoky, dense and colourful!
And because of the Zapatista influence, many people from all over the world settled there to rebel peacfully agains capitalism.

Although I definitely wouldn’t consider myself an anti-capitalist, I enjoyed the vegan food (which is pretty hard to find in Mexico!), the unique handcrafts and the relaxed atmosphere a lot!

Additionally it’s the ideal starting point for trips to different destinations in Chiapas! I would recommend taking a rental car in San Cristobal to do several daytrips from there because you’ll love to have dinner in the city and stay in one of its amazing, cheap hostels! (I recommend Panda Hostel, 6€ per night including breakfast.)

Some food places I really enjoyed:

  • Napoli: A REAL Italian restaurant with amazing food. A really nice change if you had mexican food for 3 months.
  • Cafe Kukulpan: A little coffee shop with amazing smoothies, good coffee and tasty pastries.
  • Delicias Naturales: A tiny restaurant that serves amazing vegan and vegetarian dishes.

As well you shouldn’t miss out on doing a Free Walking tour in San Cristobal, visiting the “Mercado de ámbar”, where you can find amber for unbeatable prices, and the normal market. It’s divided into sectors and you’ll find usual sectors like meat, fruits, vegetables but as well candles, kitchen ware and electronics.

Just be aware that San Cristobal is located nearly 2000m above the sea and at night it gets pretty cold. Among the things sold most on the street are sweaters and beanies.

 

Cascada el Chiflón

About 3h from San Cristobal to the South you’ll find Cascada el Chiflón, several waterfalls one upon the other. Supposedly they are 7 or 8, of which you can reach the first four for a cheap entrance of 30 mexican pesos (about 1,50€).

From the top of the second waterfall you can take a zipline all the way down, that costs about 10€. You fly over the water, it’s amazing!

Some tips:

Bring your own food.
There is no real option to buy something. The only things you can get there are drinks and chips.

The watercolor changes.
It can basically take all kind of colors between turquoise and brown. We were really lucky because it hadn’t rained for a while. Talk to other backpackers or call there if you want to be sure.

There are two companies.
Each of them occupies one side of the waterfalls. The only real difference are the points of view from where you see the falls. I don’t think one of them is better than the other.

There are guides.
After the stairs end, you could climb further to reach the higher, completely lonely falls. This is a pretty tough rise though and I´m not really sure if it´s officially permitted, but we had a guide who showed us.
At the entrance they will ask if you want a guide. The payment is based on voluntary tips and we gave him about 10€ together. Because we wouldn´t have gone further up without him, he was worth the money in the end, but I think it was just luck that he showed us because it seemed like he hadn´t been there for a while either.
There is NO WAY to get lost on your way to the first four falls and as he didn´t explain anything, in general I wouldn´t recommend taking a guide except you value a personal photographer.

 

Palenque – Waterfall Misol-Ha – Agua Azul

This classic tour is very rich in variety. It starts by visiting Palenque, one of the most important and biggest ancient Maya sites in the world. It goes on with waterfall “Misol-Ha”, behind which you can enter a cave with another waterfall inside. The tour ends at “Agua Azul”, several beautiful smaller falls with amazing turquoise water most of the year.

Although it’s doable if you start really, really early in the morning (meaning 4 or 5) I would highly advise you against going with your own rental car for the following reasons:

The road between San Cristobal and Palenque leads you through mountains inhabited by indigenous tribes. For different reasons – some do it as signals of protest against Mexico’s politics that largely ignore the indigenous, some for the money – they stop passing cars on the street and rob them.
As soon as it gets dark there’s basically no way to avoid encountering several men, a truck or even nails on the street. You cannot pass safely except you’re in the caravan of tour busses that leaves everyday at 5pm from Palenque accompanied by the police. Although you can join that caravan with your own car, it’s one of the most stressful things you’ll ever do. They drive crazy and you´re left with the options of following them with 200km/h through curvy mountain streets you don’t know or being left alone and stopped by the street blockades.

And even if you manage to do the whole trip at daylight (which is highly unrealistic, as it get’s dark super early) the route is lined with unforeseeable speed bumps all the way that make driving not only annoying but at times really dangerous.

BUT luckily there are two options to see the before mentioned sights without a heart-attack:

1. Take a tour from San Cristobal.

Although that distance in a day is still a long ride, if you’re not driving and navigating yourself, you’ll be able to sleep and relax on the bus. The drivers know the road and will bring you back safely.
The tours are a little pricy though, so let me give you another, cheaper option.

2. Plan an overnight stay in Palenque.

Although the city of Palenque itself is not exactly nice, it’s a good spot to start your tour stress-free. Plus, you might have time to visit some less touristy spots around there, which are not part of the “classic route” I just described.

 

Indigineous village Chamula

Around San Cristobal there are several communities living in the highlands of Chiapas. They speak different indigenous languages and have their own religion. They only use money if they get in touch with people from outside the community (for example for purchasing things they cannot produce their selves). But other than that they completely abandoned the capitalist system and they are not controlled by the Mexican government. They are completely autonomous.
Most of these communities prefer to stay between themselves, but some allow tourists to visit and see their lifestyles. One of this communities is “Chamula” close to San Cristobal and you can experience real indigenous life there if you just give them a reason why you want to enter!
Read more about how to get to Chamula and what to do there here.

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Lagunas de Montebello

Those 59 lakes in the middle of a pine forest, some of them smaller, some bigger, are located at the border with Guatemala, about 3h drive away from San Cristobal. Here the first national park in Chiapas was created in 1959.

It is quite a big area, so you cannot see everything in one day and you have to decide for the lakes you want to visit. As soon as you arrive, you´ll be told which are the nicest ones depending on how much time you have. The distances between the lakes are often pretty large, so the best way is to come with your own rental car. That´s actually as well the only option, except from organized tours that are way more expensive and in this case not really worth the money in my opinion. You can easily do it on your own and get your guide on-site.

As it happens quite frequently in Mexico, you´ll be charged more than once in different places, but in total, depending on which entrance you choose, it will be about 50 mexican pesos (~2,50€), so it´s very affordable.

Upon arrival you´ll immediately encounter guides who are happy to show you around and as well work tip-based, so you can decide freely what you want to give them. There I indeed think it makes sense to take a guide, as the route is not as straight-forward as at “Cascada el Chiflón”.

At the lakes you can do horseback riding, swim in the lakes, do a kayak tour or be chauffeured on a so-called balsa, a wooden raft. As well you could pay a quick visit to Guatemala without any bureaucracy.

(I´m actually writing about a “second-hand experience”. Many thanks to Larissa´s and Martina´s lively narrations about that day when I was fighting my first food poisoning in Mexico back in San Cristobal.)

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Chiapas is a huge, verdant and amazing area. It´s landscapes are not like most people (including myself) expect Mexico and it ones more showed me the endless diversity of this country. Chiapas is one of the places I definitely want to go back to some day because there is so much more to discover and I highly recommend you to include it in your tour through Mexico!

Are you missing anything in my explanations? Comment below!

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