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Relatively few travel agencies list Chiapas as one of Mexico’s premier tourist destinations, but for anyone willing to do a little extra research, amazing discoveries will be made. Home to some of the oldest civilizations in the Americas, this part of Mexico is as diverse as the indigenous people whose ancestry ranges from ancient Olmec and Mayan tribes to Spanish explorers to Africans brought from their homeland as slaves, with descendents of other cultures and characteristics also in the mix.
Chiapas’ history contains more wars and rebellions than many parts of the world much better known and documented, and it has never been a center of power by any standards. As the southernmost state of Mexico, it borders Guatemala and the Pacific Ocean, with the states of Tabasco, Vera Cruz and Oaxaca to the north and west, Chiapas has only recently been ‘discovered’ by the rest of the world.
Restoration of Mayan Buildings, Carvings and Hieroglyphs
Even so, that discovery has not led to any major development; the state of Chiapas includes several cities in which most of the action in recent years has been excavation and partial restoration of Mayan buildings, carvings and hieroglyphs.
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Palenque, for example, is the site of an archaeological exploration that has uncovered an incredible wealth of buried treasures from around 2400 years ago, in the form of tombs, monuments and other architecture. But archaeologists believe that the 3 square kilometers or so that has been excavated and explored is only a fraction of what’s still buried under the jungle that surrounds the city today.
Palenque Mayan Ruins
Tuxtla Gutierrez (the state capital) is also the largest municipality and centre of commerce and transportation. It does not comprise a tourist attraction on its own; it’s the hub from which visitors are most likely to gain access to the real wonders of Chiapas. However this city does have some strong attributes, not least of which is its designation in 2011 as a “safe city” The first city in Mexico to earn that plaudit from the Federal government and the Karolinski Institute due to its remarkably low crime rate.
Tuxtla does not attempt to re-invent the past, rather it embraces the present and future, which is a very nice thing for visitors who can enjoy its clean, well-kept streets, parks and shopping/commercial districts. There are also museums, botanical gardens and one of the most highly praised zoos in this part of the world, the Zoologico Miguel Alvarez del Toro Zoo, usually just called ZooMAT.
ZooMAT – Chiapas Mexico
ZooMAT is well worth a visit, especially for those who prefer their jungle in small doses. This zoo is dedicated to studying and preserving the hugely diverse native species of wildlife, many of them in danger of extinction from the depredations of human commerce. Jaguars, tapirs, howler monkeys, ocelots and more than 200 others including the exotic and very rare quetzal range freely in natural habitats; ZooMAT represents only the animals native to this area of Mexico.
It’s interesting to note that Tuxtla does not promote itself as a tourist destination; rather it offers a new international airport and a modern efficient bus station and service to other areas in the state. The tourism office reportedly does not offer ‘tours’ of the city, they indicate there’s nothing to see and steer tourists to other attractions. But there are top class hotels and restaurants on offer, so visitors often make Tuxtla their base of operations and exploration.
San Cristobal de las Casas
San Cristobal de las Casas is the third of Chiapas’ significant cities, and considered by many to be the best-preserved Spanish colonial town in Mexico. It still consists of a number of adjoining but separate ‘barrios’ or neighborhoods where different trades and customs are prominent, such as carpenters, iron workers and such. This is the place to wander, shop, take a break for refreshment and wander some more. Many of the streets are closed to vehicular traffic and lined with stalls and shops offering local handmade products and fresh produce.
Yarn For Sale in San Cristobal de las Casas
The ‘local handmade products’ mentioned are supplied in the main by locals who don’t even live in town but out in the rural area of farms and forests. Farming, both with livestock and crops, is now the chief source of revenue since a vast amount of jungle and rain forest has been destroyed for the purpose, not to mention the hardwoods exploited by the Spanish and others for commercial use.
However, much of the area’s past is still very much present in those outlying mountain villages like San Juan Chamula, about six miles from San Cristobal. Be aware that though visitors are welcome and the population is friendly, this is home to a determinedly independent community of Chiapas’ largest indigenous group, the Tzotzil Maya.
Cascadas de Agua Azul – Chiapas Mexico
Select a Guide
It is highly advisable to visit with a guide who can explain, interpret and help visitors interact with the locals and their customs. Visitors must be aware and respectful of local customs and traditions, as anyone should in a different country. However if you’re truly interested in learning, this is a high point of your stay in Chiapas.
Wherever your ‘base’ may be in Chiapas, you’ll want to experience some of its magnificent natural resources in the form of wildlife both plant and animal. El Chiflón is one you should not miss; if possible go during the dry season (November through March) for the most glorious spectacle. El Chiflón (“the Big Whistle”) is actually two waterfalls, one about 80 meters, the smaller one the source of the “whistle” name. There are campgrounds, small restaurants and restrooms with showers.
Lagunas de Montebello – Chiapas Mexico
Lagunas de Montebello is another must for any nature lover. It’s almost 65 kilometers east of San Cristobal, but there are numerous tours available or you can do your own exploring in a rental car; either way it’s unforgettable. This is a national park that covers nearly 15,000 acres of pine forests and 56 lakes, the largest being Montebello Lake. No motorized vehicles are allowed; horseback excursions are on offer to some of the caves, giant sinkholes and other lakes, rowboats or paddle-boats are available by the hour. You can swim in any of these beautiful lakes, but there are no lifeguards on duty, so be careful.