Roadtripping Chiapas – the Mexican Jungle

Road trips are one of my favorite traveling styles. It implies plan flexibility, ability to get deep into the country and lots of gazing out of the car window. And also very importantly – camping, since you don’t have to carry all the gear on your back.

I’m a sneaky road tripper, because I’m never the one behind the wheel. Worst case scenario – I’m a terrible navigator. My brightest role – that I do gladly and at my best – the back seat inspirer and chiller. And also local-folk-negotiator and information scavenger.

As I was planning my no-plan one month Mexican vagabonding, two of my friends expressed interest to join me for one week. After some #mexico Instagram browsing, I offered to set wheels to the South-Western state of Chiapas.

Chiapas was a perfect choice. It’s away from the cushy tourist Cancunish areas. Yet it’s doable and accessible by car within a reasonable amount of time. It’s super diverse and entertaining in both nature & wilderness AND local culture & history ways. And road trip is just a perfect way of exploring Chiapas – since it has so many hidden and remote corners you just have to peek into.

GETTING TO CHIAPAS

I had already been mexicanizing for a week, when my friends Natasha and Nikolay arrived. They are a fun and good-hearted Russian-speaking couple from Boston. Oh, they’re are a married couple!:) We met in the evening in a cute Touristic town of Tulum, and the next morning our journey began!

Road trips are not much about the destination , but about the process, discoveries on the way and deviating from the map roads. So we took our time, wherever we found anything interesting. Most definitely check out Mexico’s cenotes – natural sinkholes (bedrock collapses and exposes groundwater underneath). We went to the Grand cenote, which offers amazing underwater caves where you can free dive or even dive!

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Free diving in the Grand Cenote

On the first night we were still en route to Chiapas and decided to stay at the Laguna de los Siete Colores (Seven Color Lake) in a small town of Bacalar.

This place could be advertised like this: ‘If you want to be somewhere chiiiiiil, you have to go camping to the Lagoon’. Through friends of friends we found this camping spot called ‘Olga’s Place’. It’s a little private minimum facilities house with a couple of rooms, open-air kitchen and a backyard for tents. That night I was a blissful solo resident of a 6-person tent:) And it’s oh so nice to wake up and take a dip!

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PALENQUE

After maybe 7-8 hours of driving and eating lots of rotisserie chicken, we arrived to the first Chiapas pitstop – Palenque. Crossing border of this lovely state was a little astounding – a whole toll with tons of uniformed people with machine guns!!! Entering the Jungle never felt so safe:)

We found a cheap camping spot not far from the Palenque ruins. We were finally in the jungle! Hot, steamy, filled with over-the-top aromas and noises, alive! The moment our heads hit the pillows (well, stacks of shirts), we heard some eerie noises of howler monkeys. Their never-ending conversation was our lullaby. This was one of the most memorable moments of the entire week:)

The next morning we checked out Palenque ruins – ancient Mayan buildings and temples, dating back to the 7th century. It was pretty crowded, but let’s not be arrogant here – everyone wants to see this awesome ancient and well-preserved (or well-reconstructed?) place, do some fun stair-climbing and haggle with craftsmen selling their faux Mayan art.

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Then we went off-ruins for a little bit.

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MISOL-HA AND AGUA AZUL WATERFALLS 

Chiapas has lots and lots of waterfalls. After the ruins we were all cultured, sweaty and ready to cool off in one. First we checked out Misol-Ha waterfall. It’s falling into a big and beautiful cenote, and you can walk behind it. BUT! We went there around 4pm and it was almost disgustingly crowded! There was a line (?!) to walk around it, you couldn’t take a picture without ten tourists being in it, and we got whistled at by a life guard for swimming behind markers to the waterfall itself. Serenity turned into a zoo. So if you do decide to go there, do yourself a favor – go early in the morning. Unless elbowing through the crowds and group pictures is your kind of thing.

Then we drove to one of the most amazing places in the entire Chiapas – Cascades Agua de Azul. The waterfall is so big and much visited, that there’s a whole restaurant and souvenir village emerged around it. We came late and camped there, which was a great idea. We were among the first ones to start trekking up the waterfall in the morning, before the tourist-loaded buses arrived.

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First we saw the waterfall from the picture above. Ok, cute! Little did we expect that you can go up. And up. And up. And there will be more and more of this refreshing blue goodness! Slowly we saw people below, arriving in packs. But since we had a good head start and we were determined to climb up far and beyond, we were never in a crowd. In the end we just reached a police post – can’t go any further. It was already very far, and you could see paths leading to remote mountain villages.

Make sure to go up in a swimming suit and look for unmarked remote swimming places.

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SAN CRISTOBAL DE LAS CASAS

San Cristobal is the must-see! Getting there can be an adventure itself: Chiapas has just a one-way highway, circling around the mountains. Hope you don’t have motion sickness! But that’s only half the deal. Have you ever heard about Zapatistas, or the Zapatista Army of National Liberation? It’s a revolutionary leftist militant group, who is against the Mexican government. The base is in… you guessed it, Chiapas! Now, don’t be scared, usually you’d never hear about them if you are not looking to, we were just lucky to see history in making:)

So we’re driving from Agua Azul, suddenly the one-lane highway stops. Long line of cars. What’s the hold-up? If there’s an accident, that’s really bad news…around are only mountains! Children selling fried plantains make the most out of the situation, literally attacking stopped cars! Somehow we get to know that the next village is a Zapatista one. They put a log across the highway, blocking cars both ways. After quite some time and growing apprehension, we learn that they’re about to open the “border”, charging 50 pesos per car to pass. We’re the only white tourists in the vicinity. We don’t really get the situation. Oh, and everyone seems to have a giant machete. All I mean to say: it’s an interesting and colorful situation:) As we pass, they try to charge us more, but we just give 50 pesos.

They give us an A4 sheet with a whole “Declaration from December 30th, 2015” (they prepared for this log ‘control’, it’s all legit!) The Declaration talks about the unfair situation in Mexico and corrupt government, etc. I had mixed feelings about all that. Regardless, it was a unique insight in the deep jungle village political thought and grassroots opposition methods. And I’m not being sarcastic right now.

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Arriving to San Cristobal from other parts of Chiapas, make sure to have a couple layers and warm shoes at hand, as the temperature really drops! It’s a colonial town with cobble-paved streets, colorful houses and plenty of cozy cafes, bars and backpackers.Located in a valley among the mountains, from above it looks like a toy! We celebrated the New 2016 there, firing torches with local kids on the main plaza and stuffing our mouths with grapes at a Cuban restaurant, as the clock beat 12 times!

Chiapas is also known for its indigenous cultures and handicraft markets. I am usually really not a big fan of souvenir shopping. From all the travels I’ve done, I probably own a few postcards and some earrings. But in Chiapas everything was so colorful and authentic, that it was a pleasure even just to walk around the markets and look. Girls, look out for some white cotton blouses with bright embroidery and belts. And my favorite was seed bead jewelry:)

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GRUTAS DE RANCHO NUEVO

San Cristobal by itself has a lot of things to offer, but our hearts were asking for more nature:) So the wonderful Natasha found this place in the google debris.  Gruras de Rancho Nuevo is just a short 30-minute drive from San Cristobal. It was the New Years eve, so after checking out the pretty awesome caverns, we popped a bottle of champagne, celebrating New Year back in Motherland (Russia and Ukraine). And then rode horses a bit and devoured quesadillas.

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SIMA DE LAS COTORRAS

When I was little I had a parrot. He lived with us for many years and could talk… Well the point is, I am still obsessed with these birds, and on the first day of 2016 we had a long and bumpy journey to the no-road no men’s land just to see them.

Sima de las Cotorras is a giant sinkhole in the karst, 160 meters deep. Thick forest on the bottom is densely inhabited by greek parakeets. Many many beautiful wild green parrots
… only they migrate away for December-January!
Are you kidding me? For two lousy months a year and it just had to be now! I was heart-broken:)

IMG_1378We had to get out of that lost place, abandoned even by the parakeets! Another “issue”that day was, that it was January 1st and everything in Mexico was closed! We couldn’t really buy any food (besides junk on gas stations) and were pretty hungry by then. On the way to and from the Sima de las Cotorras we saw many big (and most likely rich) kettle ranchos. On one of them we saw a huge family, having a huge dinner from two huge pots that were deliciously steaming on fire. We stopped, drooling, not sure what to say:)

Finally the main guy in a cowboy hat walked to us and we explained that we were very hungry. They set us a table and treated to muy rico chicken soup with lime and bunch of tortillas and home-made cheese. Fernando – the rancho owner – sat with us and dined, and told us about his kettle and orchard and cheese production. In the end we were named a price for lunch. True business man:)

CANYON DE SUMIDERO

The final accord on our Chiapas trip – and probably one of my favorite ones – was visiting the Sumidero Canyon. It’s a huge narrow canyon surrounded by a Sumidero National Park.

IMG_1565The first day we drove around the park, exploring the so-called Miradores, or the five viewing points. The walls of the canyon reach up to 1000m, so it’s quite a view. Especially at the sunset!

The next day we took a 2-hour boat trip and saw the canyon from the opposite perspective: bottom – up. You most definitely see crocs, monkeys and white herons (birds). Beautiful ‘Christmas Tree’ water-falls, that really look like one. And even a shrine to the Virgin of Guadalupe, all decorated, since Christmas was just recently then.

Apparently – and surprisingly to me –  it’s not really a thing to hike or camp in the Canyon and Park area! It’s either visiting Miradores by car or going on such boat trips. I’m sure there have been some rebel Indiana Joneses, but I’m yet to find one to tell me how it went!

IMG_2141I ended my Chiapas trip is Tuxtla Guiterrez – a big and super boring town, from where I caught my bus to Oaxaca. My friends Natasha and Nikolay drove back to Cancun. In total we spent a week in Chiapas, and it was a beautiful and eventful roadtrip, full of natural and cultural surprises.

I’d say, that if you are not in a rush and love wild nature, give it a little bit more time. Go even deeper, go more off-track, explore some lesser known waterfalls and pyramids. There’re plenty of obscure road signs, luring away from the highway. Just be aware of howler monkeys and Zapatistas!:)

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