Chiapas is Mexico’s southern-most state, a land with a rich cultural history and the highest indigenous population in Mexico. Unfortunately, it is also the poorest. The colonial jewel in its crown is San Cristobal de las Casas, the center of tourism in the region.
Flights depart from Cancun airport to Tuxtla Gutierrez, which is the capital of Chiapas and about a two hour bus ride from San Cristobal de las Casas.
Buses depart from Playa del Carmen and Tulum to Palenque in eastern Chiapas, via Chetumal. Palenque is home to magnificent ancient ruins and is well worth a visit.
From Palenque, it’s about a 5 hour bus ride to San Cristobal via Ocosingo, with waterfalls and more ruins to stop at along the way.
We have visited Palenque twice, and both times, we stayed in the jungle village of El Panchan, located just outside of the entrance to the national park where the ruins are located.
El Panchan is about a ten minute taxi or collectivo (minivan) ride from the bus station in Palenque town. The town of Palenque is rather unremarkable, and is further from the ruins which are the main attraction.
We like to stay at Margarita and Eds who have a range of clean and comfortable budget accommodation, from thatched bungalows to spotless concrete and tile rooms with A/C and piping hot water.
Margarita is quite a character and loves a chat, although sadly Ed is no longer with us.
Rooms range from 250 Pesos ($21) for a bungalow to 400 Pesos ($33) for an air-conditioned double. She has a smaller double with A/C for 350 pesos also. Non-air conditioned rooms are much cheaper.
It’s a good idea to phone ahead and reserve a room, especially in high season, otherwise just show up and hope for the best.
Margarita and Ed’s is set in the jungle, amongst the sound of birds, howler monkeys, insects and running water from the stream which flows through the property. I took my Mum there on our second visit and she loved it.
My Mum in El Panchan…
The thing we like about it is that you can be in the jungle without, well, being in the jungle. You experience the beauty of nature without the discomfort of humidity, bugs and other critters.
I also think it would be a great place for families and believe they have some family rooms available.
There are other accommodations available in El Panchan, like the dorm-style lodging of Jungle Palace, or the cottages run by Don Muchos restaurant.
Don Muchos restaurant is the center of activity in El Panchan, serving breakfast, lunch and dinner every day. It is reasonably priced and surprisingly good quality, considering the lack of choice around. I like the enchiladas with mole, the chicken with mole (yes I like mole!), quesadillas and the soups. They also do some good looking pizzas.
There is live music at Don Muchos most nights, along with some fire twirling and other fun hippie stuff. Around the restaurant are a few stalls selling goods and tours, and whilst we didn’t do it ourselves, we have heard good things about the jungle walking tour run by a local guide. If you can handle the early morning wake up, you can trek through the jungle and pretend you are an ancient Mayan warrior. We slept in and watched ‘Apocalypto’ instead (and before you say anything, I enjoyed it!).
The Palenque ruins are located about a 10 minute drive from El Panchan. I think the first collectivo departs around 8. Again, I recommend going early.
The jungle-clad ruins of Palenque are impressive and very beautiful. They are well preserved and most structures can be climbed over and through, which really adds to the experience.
The second time we went, the site was shrouded in mist as a light rain fell, creating a mystical atmosphere I’ll never forget.
When you exit the site, be sure to take the path to the left of the restrooms and through the jungle, past more ruins and a beautiful waterfall. It takes about 25 minutes and gets slippery when it rains, but it is well worth it.
Upon exiting the park after the waterfall, there is a small but interesting museum with a variety of excavated artifacts like stone tablets, an intricately carved sarcophagus lid from the tomb of a Mayan King and jade masks. Entry is included in the cost of the ticket.
Collectivos and taxis can be caught from the car-park of the museum and there are also restrooms there.
On our first visit to Palenque, we did the half day tour to Agua Azul and Misol-Ha waterfalls. It was nice to see them, though most of Agua Azul is blocked off for swimming. If you are driving, they make a good stop off on the way to San Cristobal, but we felt like it was a lot to go there and back in half a day.
Agua Azul falls
Something I haven’t done but would love to, is visit the ruins at Bonampak and Yaxchilan. There are full day tours (7AM-7PM) departing from El Panchan, but again, it’s a long way to go in a day. Maybe one day I’ll get there on a longer visit. Apparently you drive several hours to the town of Frontera Corozal then catch a boat for two hours along the Usamacinta river to the ruins deep in the jungle.
Tours also operate to a Lacandon village, who are the only indigenous Maya tribe to have avoided Spanish colonization. I’d love to do something like this, but at the time we couldn’t find any reliable information on these tours to help us decide whether it was worth the cost/time.
SAN CRISTOBAL DE LAS CASAS
A colonial town and a thriving tourist center, San Cristobal de Las Casas alternates between authenticity and commercialism, leaning to the commercial side. It is very beautiful, set in the mountains surrounded by mist-shrouded peaks and filled with ornate Spanish churches and cobbled streets, filled with the delicious aroma of freshly roasted coffee.
Tourism is the focus of the local economy, from the indigenous women and children selling shawls in the plaza, to European style cafes and wine bars.
It took me a while to warm to the town actually, while most people I know rave about it. It takes a bit of extra effort to get out of the gentrified colonial center and into the local neighbourhoods, but luckily it is a great walking town (though the altitude may mean you have to catch your breath a little more regularly).
Both times we have been to San Cristobal, we have stayed at Posada Belen, a small budget hotel on an outer square called Plaza de Mexicanos. It doesn’t have a website, but if you find the square, you’ve found the hotel.
Plaza de Mexicanos
Front of the Belen Posada
It is really quaint and has a great roof terrace with a lovely view of the surrounding hillsides and the church opposite. Rooms are a mere 350 Pesos ($30) for a double with private bathroom and cable. Last time we were there we found the rooms a little damp and the hot water almost non-existent though. It gets cold in San Cristobal, especially in winter, so hot water is important.
Most of the accommodation is located on the main pedestrian avenue, Real de Guadalupe.
Due to the high-altitude induced cold temperatures, you’ll be looking for some comfort food. While there are some great pollo asado places and other local eateries around town, we found it hard to go past the El Punto Pizzeria on Real de Guadalupe who do the best wood-fired pizzas I’ve had in Mexico. It has two levels of seating, including a second-floor balcony area.
The open-air market in front of the Santo Domingo church is a great place to browse local handicrafts and textiles from the surrounding villages.
I’m so glad a friend told me about this gem of a place, which is the restored home of Getrude and Frans Blom, a Danish/Swiss couple who were some of the first European residents of San Cristobal de Las Casas.
Sign for the Na Bolom museum
Frans was an archaeologist and worked on the Palenque excavation, while Gertrude, or ‘Trudy’ was working as a journalist, photographing the Lacandon tribe deep in the jungle.
Their shared interest in the culture of the Lacandon resulted in them buying a monastery in the town and setting it up as an educational resource center for preserving the delicate culture of the Lacandon, as well as providing a place to stay for villagers who required medical treatment in town.
Though the couple have now passed on, their legacy continues at Casa Na Bolom (House of the Jaguar) which operates as a museum, restaurant and guest house.Entry tickets are 40 Pesos per person, and all profits go toward the preservation of the Lacandon culture and protection of its people.
Rooms of the home are set up beautifully with Frans’ archaeological equipment, journals and photographs of his many expeditions to uncover lost Maya civilisations.
There is a room dedicated to Trudy with her beautiful collection of jewellery, hats and her beloved cameras, and all of her stunning black and white images of the Lacandon are displayed around the property.
Trudy’s room, full of her clothes, jewellery, art and photography equipment
The center holds large dinners in the impressive dining room, has an extensive library of reference books relating to the Maya and the Lacandon, and co-ordinates a range of environmental and educational projects for local children.
The dining room
If you want to discover a couple of true adventurers, as well as learn more about the Lacandon people, then a visit to Na Bolom is a must.
AROUND SAN CRISTOBAL DE LAS CASAS
There is much to see and do outside the town, including many small villages. We rented a scooter on our first visit and took off on a scenic loop, taking in the renowned village of San Juan Chamula.
The church of San Juan Chamula – I recommend a visit!
I hadn’t heard much about it at the time, and so was completely dumbstruck by the religious rituals taking place inside the church’s interior in a haze of copal incense. I don’t want to ruin it for you either, so suffice to say, just go and soak in the weird and wonderful events taking place inside. There is a small entry fee of about 25 Pesos per person, and photography is strictly prohibited inside the church.
It’s also nice to sit on the square and observe village life unfolding.
A local family in San Juan Chamula
Riding through the mountains through small local villages is one of my favourite memories of our time in Chiapas and I highly recommend it. You can also catch a collectivo to San Juan Chamula, or take one of the many organised tours available in town.
Other sites which we didn’t get to but may be worth a visit are the Sumidero Canyon boat ride, as well as tours to other surrounding villages.
There is so much I am yet to do in Chiapas, like visiting the pristine lagoons, and climbing volcanoes. You could easily spend a few months exploring it to experience all it has to offer.