Tapachula could be just another border town (when your Wiki page starts with “Tapachula is a hot, humid town…” it ain’t good), however, there are two standout reasons to stop.
The first is Casa Mexicana, a boutique hotel with just 10 rooms each named for an iconic Mexican woman. Yes, Frida gets a room. Bt the hotel also pays homage to Doña Josepha Ortiz de Dominguez, known as La Corregidora, a privileged woman who lived in Querétaro and was one of the earliest agitators for Mexican independence. Then there’s Ofelia Medina, a seminal Mexican actress and singer who’s still alive today. And Maria Bonita, a famous beauty who had an infamous affair with a singer who gave her her name. Short bios of each woman are part of the eclectic and colorful in-room decor.
One of the rooms at Casa Mexicana in Tapachula, Mexico.
In fact, the whole place is fun to look at too–chock full of art and kitch collected by the peripatetic owners, including an impressive mask collection, some fascinating religious art and a massive two-part painting of women’s legs in fishnets that was rescued from a burlesque hall in Mexico City.
This pair of paintings at Casa Mexicana was salvaged from a burlesque hall in Mexico City.
Lucha in a box! Just one of the many playful pieces of art in Casa Mexicana.
There’s also a swimming pool, an inviting open air bar, a great restaurant and charming co-owner Manuel. With doubles from around US$80 it’s a great value.
The swimming pool at Casa Mexicana in Tapachula, Mexico.
The second reason to do more than just pass through Tapachula is the Mayan ruins at Izapa archaeological site. Some experts believe that this collection of three little-visited sites which may have played an important role in Mayan astrology and calendar making. Yes, that same calendar that “ends” in 2012 which has sparked theories ranging from “it’s the end of the world” to “it’s a chance for humanity to reboot” to “they must have run out of stone.”
A plaza at one of the areas that makes up the Izapa archaeological site which some experts believe is connected to the Mayan calendar which mysteriously ends in 2012.
A rana (frog) altar at one of the areas that makes up the Izapa archaeological site which some experts believe is connected to the Mayan calendar which mysteriously ends in 2012.
All three of the pre-Hispanic sites lie a few miles outside of Tapachula on the way to the Guatemala border. They’re small, free and overseen by a caretaker family. You will likely be the only visitor there. All day. There are not a lot of structures to see in the Izapa group, but there are carved rocks galore, including what some believe to be the origins of the calendar which mysteriously comes to an end in 2012.
Small stele at one of the areas that makes up the Izapa archaeological site which some experts believe is connected to the Mayan calendar which mysteriously ends in 2012.
An unusual fertility sculpture at one of the areas that makes up the Izapa archaeological site which some experts believe is connected to the Mayan calendar which mysteriously ends in 2012.
Need another reason to put Tapachula on the itinerary? It’s also the jumping off point to the coffee fincas of the Ruta de Cafe, which we raved about in our last post.
The experts tell us that Palenque, which was inhabited from 100-800 AD with a peak around the 7th century, is smaller than, say, Tikal but it sure feels big. The structures are hulking and the area that’s open to the public (a fraction of the six square miles or 15 square km the city is believed to have covered) is full of nicely groomed trails which take you through the city’s “suburbs” so you can see where some of the people lived beyond the temples and main plazas and royal areas.
Overview of the main plaza at Palenque archaeological site in Chiapas, Mexico.
The El Palacio structure at Palanque archaeological site in Chiapas, Mexico.
When Palenque was flourishing it was a major political and creative powerhouse. We know this because the site has been extensively studied for years. Elaborate frescoes and glyphs have been discovered here, demonstrating superb artistic technique and many works also tell the story of the city’s dominating and visionary rulers and their considerable accomplishments.
The discovery of the tomb of Pakal, perhaps Palenque’s most venerated leader, in 1952 by Mexican archaeologist Alberto Ruz Lhuillier was a major find at the site. Ruz Lhuillier himself is buried at Palenque–under the trees in front of Templo XIII.
Pakal, one of the most revered leaders of Palenque, was buried in an elaborate tomb under the Temple of the Inscriptions.
The Temple of the Inscriptions with Temple XIII to its right. This is where the tomb of the so-called Reina Roja was unearthed in 1994.
And yet, they keep finding new goodies. In 1994 archaeologist Arnoldo Gonzales discovered the tomb of a woman underneath the already-explored Temple XIII. The last resting place of the Reina Roja (Red Queen)–so called because she is believed to have been a dignitary and because her body was dyed red from the cinnabar used during her burial–is now a major attraction. The sarcophagus is still at the site and it is, indeed, very red.
Palenque archaeological site in Chiapas, Mexico.
Patio of the Captives in the El Palacio structure at Palenque.
Relief of a captive at the Patio of the Captives at Palenque.
Masks still stare out from the El Palacio structure at Palenque.
In 2010 archaeologists also discovered the only known pressurized aqueduct system in the Mayan world at Palenque.
Part of the charm of Palenque is its park-like setting, including a beautiful stream and waterfalls like this one called Baño de la Reina.
So, there’s lots to see and plenty of fascinating structures and design elements and nooks and crannies to explore (though you can’t climb much anymore) AND Palenque retains a sense that is still has plenty of secrets up its sleeve. It’s intoxicating and we spent more than three hours here, not counting time spent in the adjacent (free) museum.
Here you can see a replica of Pakal’s tomb (the original is not open to the public) with its intricately carved sarcophagus. The museum also has a large collection of pottery incense burners and plenty of English on their signage.
A panel of Mayan glyphs in the free museum at the Palenque archaeological site.
This Tablet of the Warriors from the 7th Century AD is on display in the free museum at the Palenque archaeological site.
As we left the Palenque museum we passed this Lacandon man wearing a robe made out of pliable tree bark which, he told us, had been softened in a waterfall.
Be aware: Palenque is a rock star and it draws rock star crowds. We parked at 8:45 and the lot was already swarming with tour buses and it just got worse as the day wore on. The ticket booth employees were dealing off a stack of tickets that was at least a foot and a half tall. Also, there are a LOT of vendors selling cheap tourist crap set up right in the main plaza, which breaks the spell a bit.
We also wonder why Palenque is a National Park with it’s own separate fee of 25 pesos per person (about US$2.50)? There is no apparent ecology protection or national park-like infrastructure in the area–just a gate with a guy who has an excuse to charge an entrance fee.
This carving, which we like to call "Old Smokin' Dude," is unusual in its depiction of old age and of smoking.
The modern town of Palenque, about a 10 minute drive from the site, is really nothing to write home about (hot, dusty, noisy) but there is one notable relatively new addition to the tourism landscape: Palenque now has a bonafide boutique hotel half way between town and the site. It’s called Boutique Hotel Quinta Chanabnal and it’s run by Italian Mayanist Raphael Tunesi and his Mexican wife (whom he met at Palenque).
The hotel, which Raphael built using modern interpretations of Mayan construction methods and designs, has seven huge rooms and a lovely pool. The dining room, where you can enjoy traditional Mayan dishes (like snail and chaya soup) if you ask in advance, is decorated with modern versions of Mayan carvings depicting milestones in Raphael’s life (the birth of his daughter, the building of the hotel, etc). For more, read our full report about Quinta Chanabnal for iTraveliShop.
Raphael is putting his expertise in Mayan glyphs to work with lots of new seminars and tours of Palenque and other Mayan sites scheduled for 2012–the year in which the Mayan calendar “ends.”
Raphael Tunesi, Mayanist and hotel owner, on the grounds of his Boutique Hotel Quinta Chanabnal near the entrance to the Palenque archaeological site.
Our video, below, delivers a view of the main plaza at Palenque, including the Temple of the Inscriptions, as shot from the El Palacio structure.
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.
A selection of the famous pottery made in Amatenango del Valle in Chiapas, Mexico.
We stumbled upon a small wedding procession as we drove through Amatenango del Valle in Chiapas, Mexico.
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).
Iglesia de Santo Domingo on the plaza in Comitán.
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 but powerful museum inside the small chapel at the Santa Maria Parador Museo is full of religious art.
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.
The airy patio in front of the eight antique-filled rooms at Santa Maria Parador Museo.
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.
Because of high water, we couldn’t reach the main part of the Chinkultic archaeological site which was, oddly, built on the hillside you can see in the distance.
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.
Just one version of the many shades of blue and green displayed in the lakes of the Laguna de Montebello region in Chiapas.
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.
One of the inviting lakes of many colors in the Laguan de Montebello region of Chiapas, Mexico.
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.
The border between Mexico and Guatemala cuts right through Laguna International in the Lagos de Montebello region of Chiapas.
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.
Laguna La Cañada in the Lagos de Montebello region of Chiapas.
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.
Dramatically high water at Cascadas El Chiflón in Chiapas, Mexico.
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.
Cascada Velo de Novia (Bridal Veil Falls) is a nearly 400 foot monster at Cascadas el Chiflón in Chiapas.
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.
Tenem Puente archaeological site in Chiapas, Mexico.
This wall of stairs at Tenem Puente archaeological site was more than 200 yards long.
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.