Though coffee and Zapatistas might be the first things that spring to mind when you think about travel in Chiapas, this high-altitude state in southwestern Mexico also offers sophisticated city fun in San Cristóbal de las Casas, the remains of Mayan cities with unusual architectural features and plenty of great ways to get wet in the tranquil lakes of Lagos de Montebello National Park to the raging El Chiflón waterfall.
The famous pottery of Amatenango del Valle
After extending and re-extending and re-re-extending our stay in San Cristóbal (we had our reasons) we finally packed up and headed toward Comitán, passing through Amatenango del Valle which is famous for its pottery. Hand crafted animals of all shapes and sizes and colors are for sale everywhere you look in this town. We really loved the plump doves which make excellent planters by the way.
The classic cowboy town of Comitán
Following the smorgasbord of indigenous (and foreign) cultures that make San Cristóbal so addictive, Comitán struck us as shockingly mainstream Mexican. Dudes in cowboy hats, norteño music, cattle farms, a Walmart (something the residents of San Cristóbal had successfully fought against).
An art filled boutique hotel
Our base as we explored this so-called Frontier area (because it’s on the border with Guatemala) was the Santa Maria Parador Museo hotel, the sister property to the Parado San Juan de Dios where we stayed for a few nights in San Cristóbal. Like its sibling, the Santa Maria has been created by art and antiques dealer Mario Uvence as a completely unique art-lovers’ paradise.
The small simple chapel which served this 19th century hacienda has been turned into a thoroughly modern museum housing a fascinating collection of religious sculptures and paintings. The boutique hotel’s eight rooms (some of them on the tiny side), are all located in a long tile-roofed building that was a storeroom and each room is full of more art and opulent antique furniture. All open up onto a breezy communal patio that runs the length of the building. A fantastic restaurant and delicious coffee made from beans grown on-site plus a gorgeous little pool and a huge tented room decorated like a kasbah round out this unexpected gem.
Chinkultic Mayan archaeological site
Not far from Comitán lies the Chinkultic archaeological site where the remains of a Mayan city that dates back to 600 AD can be toured. Unlike most Mayan cities, large sections of Chinkultic were built on a hillside and ridge top not on an artificially leveled plateau. We hear the views from up there are fabulous, stretching all the way to the brilliantly-colored lakes of Lagos de Montebello (more on them in a minute).
During our visit to Chinkultic, however, all we could do was look up at bits of the ancient city poking tantalizingly through the wooded hillside as we stood stranded on the wrong side of a flood. Rain had turned the normally-docile creek that runs through the site into a wide, deep river that swept away the foot bridge.
The good news? The site’s entry fee was waved for as long as the flood persisted. We contented ourselves with the well-preserved stelae that are on display at Chinkultic–some even have some color left on them. The stelae are located out near the (oddly asymmetrical) ball court. Don’t miss them.
Parque Nacional Lagunas de Montebello
Parque Nacional Lagunas de Montebello was created in 1959 and its 15,000 acres and the surrounding area are punctuated with more than 50 gorgeous mountain lakes in varying shades of blue and green and blue/green. A good paved road winds through the park past a group of five lakes called Laguna de Colores because each one is a distinctly different hue.
All of the lakes in the park are visible from convenient roadside turnouts along what is one of the closest thing to a US-style National Park road we’ve seen in all of Mexico.
A warning though: as soon as your vehicle slows down you will be swarmed by men and boys offering to be your guide along trails to and around various lakes. If you happen to want a guide, look for 14-year-old Emmanuel. He is charming and has somehow learned how to speak very good English and if ever there was a kid who was worthy of your pesos it’s Emmanuel.
Past the lakes we parked the truck and took a short walk to see the caves and natural rock arch at Grutas San Rafael de Arcos. Ignore the Propiedad Privada (private property) sign and walk down the dirt road past a small group of houses and corn fields to get to the trail that winds through the forest. High water, again, prevented us from reaching the arch but we did get to see a group of caves with water raging through them. Pretty spectacular.
From there we backtracked past Lagos de Colores (where we waved goodbye to our new friend Emmanuel) and headed for Laguna Pojoj. After paying 10 pesos (about US$0.80) per person to the ejidos (local communities) that own the lakes on this side we found ourselves amongst huge buses full of Mexican tourists hell-bent on getting onto Huck Finn style rafts and being paddled around Pojoj and deposited on a picturesque island. We fled.
Laguna Tziscao had more tour buses and more rafts plus a marimba band, which reminded us just how close to Guatemala we were. A bit further on, Laguna International is actually bisected by the border between Mexico and Guatemala and you walk across the border, enter Guatemala, then re-enter Mexico during a stroll around the lake–one of the rare visa-free crossings we’ve ever encountered.
A quick trip into Guatemala…
The Lagos de Montebello area is right on the border with Guatemala and marimba players walk over the border and perform for lake visitors. Check them out in our video, below:
There were some tempting two story bungalows on the lake here, but we resisted their charms and moved on to the Cinco Lagunas area where (you guessed it) five more lakes awaited. Cobalt blue Laguna La Cañada was the most spectacular of this group with rocky spits on both sides which nearly cut it into two separate lakes. Just begging for a kayak.
High water at Cascadas El Chiflón
The next day (after more of the terrific coffee at Santa Maria) we headed to Cascadas El Chiflón for water of an entirely different nature. Where the lakes had been tranquil and relaxing Chiflón was raging in high water, beyond control, totally out of its banks due to the recent heavy rains.
And still, the trails and picnic tables and cabins and a few camp sites around the falls were busy with Mexican holiday makers. We put on our Crocs and grabbed a plastic bag for Eric’s camera (and our own picnic supplies) and walked up the trail toward the action.
The area’s namesake waterfall, Chiflón (which means big whistle), is near the bottom of the trail. The real star, however, is Cascada Velo de Novia (Bridal Veil Falls), a nearly 400 foot monster at the top of the trail. With high water raging, this waterfall is more like a waterwall and Eric got soaked getting pictures and video for you–the spray alone was like a heavy rain.
Wet and hungry, we grabbed a picnic table back down at the bottom of the trail and made sandwiches while secretly wishing that one of the Mexican families grilling up beef and onions would take pity on us.
Tenem Puente Mayan archaeological site
Before leaving the region we also made a stop at Tenem Puente archaeological site. The remains of this Mayan city, possibly inhabited as late as 1200-1500 AD, are now grassy and inviting. Built along a series of slopes and hills, the site is more multi-level than most Mayan cities. It also boasts some wicked-long walls and sets of stairs.
Note: We’d read that the Tenem Puente site was free but we were asked to pay 31 pesos each. We paid, but when we got a less-than-official receipt (always ask for a receipt or ticket stub) we smelled a rat. Turns out, the site is now legitimately 31 pesos per person as confirmed by INAH, the Mexican branch of government which oversees archaeological sites.