Five Days of Adventure in Chiapas

Rio Santo Domingo

Lots of people, Mexicans and people back home, ask me how I like Mexico. My answer is that Mexico is an amazing and beautiful country, but the biggest transition for me, and something I still struggle with, is living in a big city. I grew up in a tiny town and my house was literally in the middle of the woods. Even when I’ve lived in cities, they’ve always been smaller ones that have easy access to trails and outdoor areas. Mexico City is definitely not a small city and it’s harder to get to some of the natural areas nearby, especially without a car. So, when Germán was assigned his vacation week in the summer, I began planning a trip that would involve lots of natural bodies of water, camping and adventure. I was between Baja California and Chiapas but it seemed like Baja would be better for the winter/spring so Chiapas won. Within Mexico, Chiapas is known for the high levels of biodiversity and natural wonders and among revolutionaries worldwide, for its strong indigenous population that started the Zapatista movement in the ‘90s. It’s similar I’d say it’s similar to its neighbor Oaxaca but has a grittier, wilder feel. I looked up waterfalls, rivers and lakes in my Lonely Planet guide and found a bunch of places that I was interested in clustered to the southeast of San Cristóbal so we booked our flight and a rental car and headed out for a five-day road trip.

Day #1

We flew into Tuxtla early Saturday morning and waited in line for awhile to pick up our rental car. It turns out that everyone had picked the cheapest option when renting their car and there was only one person working the desk so we were forced to start adapting to the slower times in “provincia” as they say in Mexico City (meaning pretty much everywhere outside of Mexico City). But we finally got our car and left the airport.

We were eager to get out and start exploring in the mountains so we only stopped in San Cristóbal for some breakfast and kept pressing on. We stopped by a grocery store in Comitán to pick up some snacks (I always like to be prepared, especially when venturing into rural areas of Mexico) then continued south. Once you turn off the Carretera Internacional onto 307 service starts to get spotty and houses and buildings start thinning out to make way for fields of milpa and cattle grazing. At this point we were ready to do some exploring and stretch our legs after being in the car for a few hours so it was a perfect time to stop by the Chinkultic ruins.

rural Chiapas

Chiapas mountains

Chinkultic

Chinkultic ball court

Right before the entrance to the Lagunas de Montebello National Park is a turn off to the archeological site Chinkultic. The mayan ruins are free to visit, though you can hire one of the guides who sometimes hang out at the entrance to show you around for a voluntary fee (though I’m sure they would be extremely upset if you didn’t pay them, it just means you decide what to give them). You pass through a sunken plaza first then make your way past some partially excavated ruins on the way up to the step pyramid. On they way up you’ll pass an overlook for a cenote (well/pond) down below that the Maya used to toss valuable objects into for good luck (young girls were also tossed in too according to our guide).

The view from the top is pretty amazing and the pyramid is quite well preserved. Back down below, there’s a ball court and a handful of stone carved slabs depicting important figures. You can walk all around in about an hour as the site isn’t very large but since it’s not nearly as popular as places like Palenque you don’t have to deal with hordes of other tourists getting in your photos.

Mayan ruins

Lagunas de Montebello

Chiapas lake

After leaving Chinkultic it’s only a short ride to the entrance of Parque Nacional Lagunas de Montebello. At this point though, you should start practicing your best uninterested/cold as steel/resting bitch face because before you even enter the park, there will be unofficial guides flagging you down at speed bumps to offer their services. Initially, it seems as if these people have something very important to tell you and we fell victim to one of their agitated waving and were trapped into listening to his schpeal for about 20 minutes and then even when we said that we didn’t want a guide that day (it was getting late and we wanted to get to where we would camp) he insisted on a tip for the information. We learned later that these guides are unofficial because they don’t live in the ejidos, villages, that run the park and thus do not have official credentials and can’t take you to the places that require them. There are signs that warn you about these guides for your safety but from what we saw it seemed more like a political arrangement rather than a safety issue (though obviously you always need to be careful when allowing strangers into your car).

Once you pass the ticket booth (entrance fee is 34 pesos), the guides are official but equally as aggressive. You’ll be getting really good at your resting bitch face by this point so that you can get on to your home for the evening. We stayed in Tziscao, one of the ejidos within the park at Villas Tziscao (make sure you take the right immediately after the ticket booth if you’re headed here). It’s a lovely place right on the shore of Lake Tziscao that has a hotel, cabins and camping spots right along the lake complete with your own palapa. We were excited to camp so paid the fee (which includes access to the bathroom with showers) and set up for the night.

Laago Tziscao

camping Chiapas

Villas Tziscao also has a restaurant which is the latest one open in the village and subsequently where we ended up eating. The food in Chiapas is nothing to write home about compared to the rest of Mexico but there’s always your Mexican classics like carne asada and quesadillas and they are very proud of their traditional dish, queso fundido. In the rest of Mexico queso fundido is normally an appetizer but here they serve it with chorizo, beans and mushrooms (with tortillas of course) and turn it into a main dish. We were quite sleepy from our day of early travel so tucked in early but if you want to have a fire without having to make it yourself there are enterprising young boys who will come around offering to make you one. If you forgot to get snacks there are also young women walking around selling food and beverages. Maybe because it’s the poorest state in Mexico or maybe the take no b.s. Zapatista revolutionary spirit but the people in Chiapas are born hustlers.

Day #2

tent lake view

We woke up on Sunday to the weird squawking of local birds but the amazing view outside of the tent overlooking a teal-blue lake made up for the noisy birds. It had rained quite a bit the night before (the rainy season is from August to December approximately and it had just started raining for the first time in months the week before we went down) so we waited a bit for the tent and some of our things to dry before packing up.

We headed out and stopped along the side of the road to get some breakfast quesadillas and a local concoction with an indigenous name I can’t remember that is basically like a bean and cheese gordita (a fat tortilla stuffed with beans and cheese). We continued on into the park and tracked down a guide we had met the day before as we were asking for directions. We liked his more laid-back style so once we found him he jumped in the backseat and we started off our exploration with the Lagos de Colores, lakes of colors. Chiapas colorful lake(Aside: his name is Alex Hernández if you go and want to use a guide, I’d recommend him although he doesn’t currently speak English – he is learning though as the park is trying to attract more international tourists). These are a handful of lakes all very close to each other that vary in colors from almost lime green to turquoise to sapphire blue. All the lakes within the park are volcanic lakes and are very very deep. Our guide let us know that some are dangerous to swim in because of some crazy currents they have going on below the surface and some are prohibited to swim in because they are reservoirs for local ejidos.

Lagunas de Colores view

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Lagunas de colores view

After the colored lakes we went over to the namesake lake, el Lago de Montebello. This is the lake that everyone recommends swimming in although Alex let us know that the beachfront you walk along is super muddy so it’s better to get a boat to get to another shoreline. (I can attest to the quicksand nature of the mud in the park, in one of the colorful lakes I wanted to just put my foot in to see the temperature but I stepped down and my leg got sucked in up to mid calf and my sandal got left behind when I got my foot out. I had to dig around in there for a bit to release my sandal and the straps are still slightly more teal than the blue of the other foot due to the orange mud). So we decided to pay for the boat ride out to an island where it was supposedly nicer to swim and there was also a natural orchid garden. You pay per boat, not per person, so Germán and I spent 500 pesos since it was sprinkling and overcast and not too many other people were lined up for a boat ride. The boats are rowboats as they are trying to limit pollution in their pristine lake so our rower worked hard to take us out to the island. We only saw about two orchids and although it was definitely not hot out I took a dip because I’m the type of person that has to swim in every new body of water I encounter.

boating on Laguna de Montebello

Overall the boat ride was nice but unless you’ve got a big group to break up the price or are an orchid fanatic I don’t think it’s worth it, you could probably get just as nice of an experience by walking along the shoreline.

Set back from the shore is a line of comedores (food stands) and we were hungry for lunch at this point so Alex took us to his aunt’s comedor. The speacialty item was once again queso fundido but we opted for carne asada and quesadillas (it was a good thing I brought my trail mix and we had stopped for fruit and granola bars or I think my diet would have been 100% quesadillas on this trip). After lunch we went to Cinco Lagos and Alex showed us a super secret overlook that had amaaazing views.

IMG_7254A side note here about getting a guide: it’s really not necessary at all but it’s nice for a couple reasons 1) we did actually get lost the first time we entered (no service for Google Maps), hence the asking for directions 2) you will stop being bothered as much by the other guides on the road if you have one with you 3) they can give you some more info about the area and the lakes and know about super secret viewpoints and finally 4) it’s a good way to directly support the local economy in an area where tourism is important and most people live below the poverty (and extreme poverty) line.

Cinco Lagos was probably my favorite of the lakes we saw, there are steep cliffs going down to the shore though apparently there are ways to get down there because we saw a boat floating around. If I had come here before Montebello I definitely would have sprung for the boat ride here instead. It was so beautiful and peaceful that I felt like I just wanted to build a little cabin on the overlook and live here forever.

Cinco Lagos view

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Cinco Lagos, Chiapas

After stopping by another lookout on Cinco Lagos we decided to skip the international lake (you can walk across the shore to Guatemala even if you don’t have your passport) to get started to Las Nubes. We had to head back to the entrance to drop off Alex and then leave the park to fill up on gas since there are no gas stations beyond the park for a long time (they sell gas in plastic containers on the side of the road in the villages if you’re in a pinch but it’s obviously more expensive). Another word of warning is that according to Google the driving time from Lagunas de Montebello to Las Nubes is 1 1/2 hours but it was actually more like 2 1/2. The roads are quite twisty turny as you drop a lot in elevation after the park and every time you pass through a village there are topes, speed bumps, which are just looking to take a chunk out of your car’s underbody or send you flying into the air if you don’t slow down to an almost stop.

Las Nubes

Rio Santo Domingo

You have to turn off the highway at the turnoff for Jerusalén to get to Las Nubes and then take a couple other turns after that but there are signs marking the way for you (just know that they sometimes refer to the ecotourism project as Causas Verdes Las Nubes, Las Nubes is the name of the town that it’s located in). Once you get to the home stretch you’ll get to a road that is half paved and half dirt but not in the way that you’d think with the beginning half paved maybe and the second half not. Oh no, on this road it alternates back and forth between paved sections and dirt sections, we were quite perplexed on why and how this happened, wouldn’t it be easier to just keep continuing the pavement instead of breaking it up??

Chiapas mountain scene

Road paving techniques aside, Las Nubes is a lovely spot along the roaring Rio Santo Domingo. The climate is a lot more tropical compared to Lagunas de Montebello and the rain here is serious. The night before my tent had leaked on us (I love it but it’s quite old and has been through a lot when it was my home for a few summers when I was an Adventure Guide and a Trail Crew Leader) and we had driven through a crazy rainstorm on the way with more rain on the horizon so we decided to spring for a cabin. I really mean spring because this cabin was actually more expensive than the hotels we stayed at in Comitán and San Cristóbal at $1,000 pesos/night ($50 USD). However, they are very nice, each one has a bathroom attached and a fan which is nice with the humidity and your own private porch. Plus, the whole area is very nicely cared for. We enjoyed the hot shower and felt especially good with our decision that night as we heard the rain pouring down outside.

Las Nubes resort

Day #3

Las Nubes cabin

It was a good thing that we had prepared for this trip and stocked up on snacks as the on-site restaurant wasn’t really open while we were there (it was a Tuesday and the high season was pretty much to an end). So we ate some granola out of a box and looked out to the river. After our improvised breakfast we set on on some of the hiking trails that they manage. Super close by is a suspension bridge over the river which was absolutely raging due to the heavy rains that had just started. I tend to get a little freaked out on suspension bridges and having a super intense river churning down below me didn’t help much.

raging river

 

Then we decided to go back to a trailhead we had passed on the way to the bridge to check out the mirador, or overlook, because who doesn’t like a mirador? The hike up was pretty short but the tropical climate left me sweating profusely by the time we made it up. But every drop of sweat was completely worth it – the view is to die for!

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mountain river view

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Outside of the rainy season the river is normally a bright turquoise but I felt like I was equally as impressed with the river’s power as its beauty so I didn’t mind that it was a turbid brown. At this point our check-out time was looming over us so we hustled down and put our stuff in the car. I of course had to take a dip in the one shallow part of the river and we hung out a little more on the river’s edge before heading to our next destination.

river in rainy season

Lago Miramar

To be clear up front, I am not recommending going to Lago Miramar as part of this five day trip, but include this as a word of warning for anyone who sees the description in Lonely Planet and thinks that it would be a lovely place to go. Reading the section after the fact, it does say that it’s accessible by air or boat but I understood it to be accessible by land outside of the rainy season. We made it as far as the tiny village of Lomo Bonito where we discovered that you still needed to drive a bit farther to get to the boat launch, then travel in a boat for about 4 hours before starting a few hour hike (the hike was the part I was prepared for). We decided to forego that trip as we would have probably barely made it back for our flight and we still wanted to check out more places near Comitán and San Cristóbal. However, I wasn’t really upset that we had driven a few hours in vain as we got to admire more landscapes and meet more people deep within Zapatista and Maya land.

Zapatista territory

An interesting experience we had as a result was being stopped in the middle of the highway by a group of about 40 indigenous men all carrying machetes and demanding 100 pesos for highway maintenance (in a friendly way to be fair). This happens pretty frequently in Chiapas once you get more into rural areas but I’ve heard that it’s not normally that expensive. I think being a foreigner and a light-skinned Mexican duo meant we got the güero tax in this situation. Anyway, apparently as long as you just give them what they’re asking they won’t stir up any more trouble though it is a bit intimidating to be surrounded by a large group of armed men speaking in a language you can’t understand. I don’t think I mentioned before that many people in rural Chiapas don’t speak Spanish as their first language, rather their local indigenous language, so don’t be surprised if you hear an accent when they speak Spanish or if they don’t even speak Spanish at all.

Comitán

After our failed Lago Miramar attempt we decided to head back to Comitán for the evening. We had to turn around along the same road we came out on instead of the lovely loop I had originally planned (I don’t love going out and back on the same trail or road but in this case it was hours and hours shorter) but I still got to see some views in a different way.

Chiapas mountain view

If you went straight back to Comitan after Las Nubes then you would arrive with some daylight for exploring but we got there pretty late so we just ate dinner and watched some Orange is the New Black in the hotel – there’s something about chilling in a hotel that just feels so luxurious to me, plus you need to relax a teensy bit on vacation, right?

Day #4

breakfast in Comitán

We woke up and got some typical Chiapaneco breakfasts at Doña Chole then explored Comitán. The center has a charming square and the streets surrounding it are nice but as you get farther away from the center I found that it starts losing it charm.

Outside of the center square, there were a few cute spots we discovered. For souvenirs and Chiapas artesanía, el Centro Cultural y Artesanal El Turulete is a lovely area with many shops circling the center courtyard. If you’re interested in trying out or bringing home some of the coffee Chiapas is known for, Comitlan Tostadores de Café is your best bet here. The owner is a passionate coffee toaster, barista and aficionado and can make you feel like a complete novice but you’ll also learn a lot if you speak Spanish and ask him about any of the varieties or brewing methods. He only has a handful of types at a time and tries to have representation from other areas of Mexico, not just Chiapas, but whichever you prefer he can grind up to the size you need for your preferred brewing method to take to go. And of course while you’re deciding you can enjoy a coffee there, just don’t even think of ordering a mocha chip frappe, he is a purist who believes that putting sugar in your coffee is sacrilege. He made us a deliciously refreshing cafe “on the rocks” which was an espresso with mineral water and ice.

In my opinion of San Cristóbal and Comitán, San Cristobal has a lot more to see/do than Comitán so I would recommend starting out around mid-day to be able to enjoy the rest of the places on your itinerary and spend more time in San Cristóbal.

El Chiflón

El Chiflon waterfall

To the southwest of Comitán is the impressive set of waterfalls known as El Chiflón. There are two entrances which lead to two separately-run sets of trails, camping spots and cookout areas. From Comitán we took the second entrance just because we missed the first but I was happy with our choice once we got up to the last waterfall. The side run by Paraisos Indígenas (where we went) doesn’t get you as close to the falls but was much better for views of the complete waterfall.

The hike up to the waterfalls is not at all a backcountry experience, there are even cafés along the trail where you can buy drinks, beer or light snacks. However, this means the trail is very nicely maintained and if you want to celebrate vacation by drinking a beer then you can. From the very beginning the beautiful turquoise waters are amazing to admire but as you get farther up and start to see some of the smaller waterfalls and crystal clear pools it gets really magical.

El Chiflon waterfall

 

The final waterfall, el Velo de Novia is maybe the most impressive waterfall I’ve seen. It’s enormously tall and powerful, even outside of the rainy season. And while the Rio Santo Domingo in Las Nubes had already changed from turquoise to brown due to rains, the pools along El Chiflón were still bright and clear. The contrast of the turquoise blue with the sand-colored rock along the river was an amazing combination that I’ll never forget.

view of velo de novia falls

On the way back down we stopped at one of the pools farther up that I had scoped out on the way up for swimming. For my New England cold sensors the water temperature was lovely and refreshing but for Germán it was too chilly for swimming. I splashed around in the clear water until we were kicked out by staff as the park was closing. Overall it was probably my favorite experience on this trip.

Something to keep in mind though is that we were there later in the day during the week but it seems like the type of place that could fill up significantly on the weekend so you may need to switch around some things if this day falls on a weekend for you.

San Cristobal de las Casas

San Cristobal de las Casas street

We arrived in San Cristobal and got a room at the Parador Margarita Hotel, a lovely but not too expensive place in an old stone building close to the center. I would definitely recommend it if you go, it even has parking down the street if you rent a car. It was already later so we went straight to dinner, a Peruvian restaurant called Peruano that Germán’s dad recommended in the center. I really like Peruvian food and have had some good stuff in Peru but their pisco sours and ceviche lived up to my standards (though Germán tried one of their flavored pisco sours that I wouldn’t recommend). The little plaza it’s located in (San Augustiín) is also super adorable, and full of international options if you’re not feeling like more queso fundido 😉

We walked around afterward and were surprised that late on a Tuesday evening a lot of the downtown streets were still hopping with people selling artesanía and tourists strolling around or getting drinks at one of the many bars whose tables spill out into the streets. When we had passed through before to get breakfast our first day I had gotten a much more mellow/traditional vibe but this evening I saw that you could also have a pretty lively time if you felt so inclined.

Day #5

Chiapas hotel garden

The next morning we had breakfast at the hotel and set out to explore the city. In contrast to Comitán the charm here spreads out even into the outskirts of the city and the center is filled with pedestrian streets, cafés, shops and quaint restaurants and a definitively international hippy vibe. The coffee expert in Comitán had recommended some places in San Cristobal so we went to check out Cafeólogo, a chic modern café that also rents out rooms in the back. The owner had first opened Carajillo, a café/restaurant also in San Cristobal but noticed that the high quality coffee they were serving was in demand so he opened up Cafeólogo to really showcase Mexican coffee along with high-quality toasting and brewing. Again, not the place to come for a unicorn frappe but if you really enjoy coffee or are trying to appreciate it more (like me) then this place is for you.

San Cristobal has two plazas right in the center and a little to the north is the Templo Santo Domingo de Guzman. Only part of the church and ex-convent was open when we went as the rest was closed for restoration but there is also a market surrounding the church that sells artesanía for a lot cheaper than the hip stores you’ll be drawn into.

In addition to coffee, Chiapas is known for its chocolate so we stocked up on some chocolate here too. We didn’t have a lot of time to fully explore the city since we had arrived late the night before and we left wanting more. You could easily spend a couple of days just in San Cristobal but we thought it would be easier to come back to the city for a weekend sometime so we dedicated more time to the natural areas.

Cañón del Sumidero

Sumidero canyon

Speaking of natural areas, our last stop on the trip was to the Cañón del Sumidero which is very close to Tuxtla, where the airport is located. The canyon became what it is now when they completed a massive hydroelectric dam on the Río Grijalva which filled up the canyon leading up to the dam. I don’t really love hydroelectric dams in general but in this case it did create a protected natural reserve. To see the canyon you can drive to lookout points on the roads above or to really experience it you can take a motorboat from one of the embarcaderos which will take you on a two hour tour along the length of the national park. The canyon’s steep vertical walls make for a super impressive view and you can see lots of different birds, spider monkeys and crocodiles along the way.

bird in canon del sumidero

The sad thing about touring Sumidero, especially in the rainy season, is the amount of trash and pollution that runs into the river. You can tell by looking at the water that this is not a place you would want to go swimming and there are literally piles of floating trash and branches from upstream informal dumps and logging operations. It definitely shows you up close and personal how trash and contaminants are washed out from where they were originally dumped and also how far Mexico has to go in its awareness and attitude towards trash, management of wastewater and use of plastic, agricultural chemicals and all the other things that end up in the river. Since the vast majority of tourists here are Mexicans I hope that seeing the effects in the river could help inspire some change, although I think that the guides should take advantage of the situation to bring awareness to the problem, not brush it off as just some plastic bottles that wash down in the rainy season as our guide said.

crocodile in sumidero canyon

That being said, the landscape is amazingly impressive, you can’t help but be in awe by the enormous cliff walls. And, since #thisisMexico, there are even people on a boat by the dam that drive up to the tour boats to sell beer, sliced up jicama and a variety of other snacks. They did make sure to also include a bag for everyone to put their trash in when they were done so maybe there’s some awareness building happening, maybe? Overall, the canyon is a bit of a tourist trap but the natural beauty really makes up for being squished in a boat with sweaty people in ill-fitting lifejackets.

From el Cañón del Sumidero it’s a quick trip to the airport in Tuxtla where you can board your flight to your next destination or back home.

Overall, Chiapas did not disappoint on natural beauty, I was in awe much of the time we were driving of the amazing landscapes and the places we went to were crazy beautiful. I would definitely recommend going outside of the rainy season because although the rainy season was just starting, the chilly rains did dampen my jumping-into-every-lake-or-river spirit a tiny bit. The people in Chiapas are definitely more used to national tourism so if you don’t speak Spanish it might be a bit of a struggle (and could potentially result in some unpleasant situations if you’re stopped at a roadblock like we were but don’t understand what they’re asking for). Although you could do this same trip using public transportation, it would be a lot more time-consuming and just generally trickier, especially exploring the Lagunas de Montebello National Park as you need to drive to get from lake to lake in many cases. So if you’re a Spanish conversationalist who loves road trips, beautiful scenery and natural bodies of water, this trip is right up your alley – get going and let me know what you thought afterwards 😉