Chiapas – the Mexico so few know (let’s keep it that way)

By | Category: Travel destinations
the green doors at the entry to the Church in san Juan Chamula

the green doors at the entry to the Church in san Juan Chamula

My guide, Pepe, told me how the San Juan Chamula church was intriguing because of its mix of Catholicism with ancient indigenous traditions. Here in verdant, mountainous Chiapas, one of the least westernised Mexican states, I was already used to seeing native people in traditional costumes, speaking a wide variety of tongues. But never did I imagine what I would see in this church.

Before entering, I stopped to admire the intricately decorated enormous green doors carved with brightly painted flowers. As I gazed, a short man in a white burlap-like tunic, crude huaraches sandals on his feet approached. “Una limpieza, señora?” he asked. I told him politely that I wasn’t interested in being “cleansed,” and Pepe explained to me that he was one of several shamans who perform such rituals inside the church. Photography was strictly forbidden, the signs in Italian, French, German, Spanish and finally, English said in large letters.

Entering into the darkness, I was speechless. With mysterious clouds of vapour and smoke rising from  hundreds of votive candles along the walls, aromatic copal incense (a tree resin) burning everywhere,  and fresh green pine needles covering the floor, this church only had a few chairs in the entrance for the  shamans and several musicians. I was mesmerised by an elderly woman with long plaited grey hair, her ankle-length black sheepskin skirt tucked around her, as she sat cross-legged next to her female shaman.

The shaman, also elderly, hunched over to the candles, reciting words in Tzotzil – one of the many Chiapas indigenous languages. As if the scene wasn’t startling enough, I noticed that the “client” had a completely calm, silent, live hen sitting next to her on the floor. “Oh, she’s having the hen blessed before she kills it for dinner,” Pepe explained.

I travelled to Chiapas with Adventure Life, a Montana-based custom tour company that specializes in authentic cultural experiences around the world with local guides that truly know their regions. The itinerary was very well designed – a perfect mix of culture, adventure, nature and gastronomy. We started in the capital, Tuxtla Gutierrez, but set off right away for pretty, peaceful San Cristobal de las Casas, one of Mexico’s “Pueblos Mágicos (Magic Towns),” named so for their conservation and protection of colonial architecture. Everywhere we went during the week, we saw people from many

indigenous groups in heavily embroidered traditional dress, and countless markets selling their wares –    embroidered garments and bags, carved wooden objects, pottery, jewellery, and even “Zapatista” dolls  from the rebellion that occurred there twenty years ago.

a howler monkeys

a howler monkeys

Chiapas is undiscovered and unknown by many north of the Rio Grande (you know who you are, beach  worshippers,) but is beloved by Europeans, who flock to its exquisitely beautiful mountainous terrain  and lush cloud forests, its diverse wildlife (scarlet macaws, toucans, turkey vultures, eagles, hawks,  spider and howler monkeys, crocodiles, jaguars, tapirs, pumas, agoutis and much more,) countryside  ranging from tall pine trees to immense palms and banana plants, mango and papaya trees, and its  organic coffee plantations. They also come to enjoy its delightfully non-westernised culture, best experienced in the San Cristobal de las Casas, or many other towns and villages – with cobblestone pedestrian walkways, plazas with marimba bands playing, colonial architecture, red tile roofs, intricate carved doorways, wrought iron and brightly painted walls.

Visitors relish the distinctive cuisine – no Tex-Mex here – rather, a delectable array of ancient Mayan  and other native dishes using squash blossoms, fresh corn masa, pure cacao, local cheeses,  just-off-the- vine tomatoes, avocadoes, jícama and for intrepid palettes, even grasshoppers  (chapulines.) Ah, and those Chiapas coffeehouses – no branch of that (Starbucks) Seattle coffee chain needed here.

This state is also famous among adventure travellers – it offers white water rafting, hiking, kayaking, mountain biking, rappelling and zip-lining. Chiapas boasts two biospheres – El Triunfo and Montes Azules. Thundering enormous waterfalls, such as Agua Azul and Misol-Há, rival each other in spectacular beauty and deafening sound. The Cañon del Sumidero is a narrow, deep canyon surrounded by a national park located near the oldest colonial town in the state, Chiapa de Corzo (well worth a visit!)



The Grijalva River runs through the spectacular 13-kilometer canyon, which has vertical walls reaching as high as 1000 meters. Boat excursions take visitors to the main sites of the tour – but beware, during the autumn rainy season, there is a large section where sadly, garbage accumulates. It is removed and cleaned in November, when the rains end. Indeed, my guide told me that it is best to visit Chiapas in the dry season, from January through May (except for the very busy Easter week.)

Three major archeological sites are in Chiapas – Palenque, known as the Emerald City of the Mayas, with 1,500 structures (many yet to be excavated) rising out of incredibly dense green jungle, Bonampak, renowned for its amazing, still brilliantly painted wall murals, and Yaxchilán, famed for its well-preserved sculptured stone lintels, or blocks.

Some of my own biggest thrills during my visit were the experiences I had with wildlife – sights and sounds I never had before in numerous trips to jungles in other areas.  One night, at 3:30 a.m., I was sleeping blissfully, with a cool breeze coming through the screen, tropical insects buzzing and humming outdoors and the pattering sound of raindrops. Suddenly, that sleep came to a crashing halt – with a sound I can only describe as a deafening blend of a lion’s roar, a Rottweiler barking and a very large braying donkey. I knew exactly who to blame – the alpha male howler monkey living on the grounds of  Las Guacamayas Ecotouristic Center and Reserve, where I was spending the night in a fuchsia-painted  stilted bungalow. I had enjoyed watching and listening to the howler earlier in the day from my table in  the property’s restaurant (nothing like enjoying a cold Negra Modelo beer and watching howler  monkeys cavorting a few feet away!,)  but now, in the middle of the night, I’m wishing I had brought  my earplugs in preparation!

Las Guacamayas offers a two or three-hour river boat excursion, which I enjoyed very much – seeing numerous huge crocs, (including one with three butterflies on its face!,) many spider and howler monkeys, rare birds, and best of all – many of the hotel’s namesake – critically endangered scarlet macaws (only some 400 left in Chiapas,) with their beautiful red, yellow and blue plumage. The property is devoted to conserving and increasing the numbers of these birds, and one morning before dawn, the founders took me on a short hike to see some 15 of them in a tree “dormitory,” from which they alight, dramatically, when the sun’s rays hit.

indigenous people hospitality

the local speciality; pozol, a chocolate drink

Another evening, at the rustic, very out-of-the-way Campamento Rio Lacanja, owned and operated by a group of Lacondon (indigenous) people, I slept in a much more rustic bungalow along a wide river, to the comforting sounds of pouring rain. I awoke early to see several adorable agoutis snuffling in the underbrush – and then heard wild squawking overhead. Two toucans were some 12 feet over me, fighting with their big bills, hovering in the air, while others were flying all around me – all I could think of was how I wished someone else was there to share this National Geographic moment.

My senses and memories reeling, when I boarded my return flight from Tuxtla Gutierrez, I felt very disoriented. My week in Chiapas was heady, thrilling, a total and rich escape from my modern everyday existence. Not a ‘beachbum’ vacation, but so much more of a rich experience – relaxing and refreshing in its own way.

For more informtion about Chiapas, click here.



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