Into Zapatista territory: Exploring the Mexican state of Chiapas

If you haven’t heard of the state of Chiapas in southern Mexico, you’re not alone. An overnight bus ride away from major tourist hubs like Cancún and Mexico City, Chiapas might just be the country’s most diverse region– as well as its most underappreciated.

Visitors to Chiapas are rewarded with scores of things to see and do: from crocodile-spotting on a boat ride through a a gorgeous canyon, to strolling the cobblestone streets of the super-cool highland town of San Cristóbal de las Casas, to climbing the Mayan ruins at Palenque, some of Mexico’s most beautiful (yes, better than Chichen Itza).

Located right in the heart of Chiapas, the Spanish colonial town of San Cristóbal de las Casas (pop. 300,000) is rapidly becoming a big-time travel destination, and for good reason.

Although San Cristóbal is the headquarters for the well-known left-wing revolutionary group called the Zapatista Army of National Liberation (popularized and supported by, among others, the band Rage Against the Machine), outward signals of the group’s influence in the town are limited. The group’s initials in Spanish, the ubiquitous “EZLN”, are spray-painted all over town, and you’ll find countless vendors selling Zapatista-related memorabilia– take some time to dwell on that irony– with most items printed with the group’s famous logo of a red star on a black background.


But San Cristóbal has overcome its tumultous past, including a brief Zapatista takeover in 1994 led by the (in)famous Subcomandante Marcos, to place itself firmly in the category of a bona fide travel destination. In fact, Matt Gross, the New York Times’ Frugal Traveler, recently praised the city in a dispatch writing, “San Cristóbal was a city that had me joyously roaming its streets from morning till night. In fact, these lanes, paved with hexagonal stones, may have been the most roamable I’ve seen.”

And when you’re done exploring the city’s churches and markets, San Cristóbal has no shortage of bars and cafes to keep you well-hydrated and in good spirits. Cafe-Bar Revolucion is recommended if you’re looking for scores of local hipsters shaking their money-makers to Cuban music. (And who isn’t?) The creatively-named Backpackers Hostel is highly recommended for its nightly campfire and daily excursions.

A final note about San Cristóbal: bring warm clothes. The town’s location in the highlands means it gets cold– not cool, not brisk, cold!– at night, and few hostels or hotels will have heat.

Speaking of heat, just four hours away from San Cristóbal is the steamy town of Palenque, famous for the awe-inspiring Mayan ruins located several miles away from the town proper. Though the town itself is run-of-the-mill, Palenque’s nearby ruins are anything but.

Surrounded by dense jungle, the ruins, which date back to at least the 600s, are some of Mexico’s most accessible and best-preserved. Within walking distance of the ruins is El Panchan, a popular collection of campgrounds and cabanas where many visitors to the ruins spend at least a couple nights.

If you’re looking for a daytrip from Palenque, hop in a colectivo (shared taxi) and head to the series of waterfalls known as Agua Azul. This place is breathtakingly beautiful (see photo below) and more fun to hang around than any theme park (except for you, Silver Dollar City!).

The town of San Juan Chamula, about six miles from San Cristóbal, also cries out for a day-trip. In its oft-visisted church, worshippers fuse ancient Mayan traditions with those of Christianity in a series of customs that must be seen to be believed. Pine needles are spread to cover the entire floor, hundreds of lit candles line the walls, and worshippers kneel on the ground while drinking Coca Cola in hopes of keeping evil spirits at bay. (You might want to read that sentence again.) Be sure to take a guide if you have any hopes of figuring out what’s going on.

For natural beauty and wildlife, head to the Cañon del Sumidero an hour away from San Cristóbal. Here you’ll take a boat ride on a river flanked by thousand-foot-high cliffs, all the while doing your best to avoid the crocodiles on the river’s banks and the vultures overhead. Avoid years of depression and regret by bringing your camera.

Zapatistas, ruins, crocodiles, waterfalls: Why don’t more adventure-seeking travelers look to Chiapas as an affordable, authentically Mexican destination?