Chiapas is the poorest state in Mexico and is our last stop before leaving for Guatemala. The region is known for the Zapatistas, an anti globalisation, Marxist movement who since 1994 have been fighting against the Mexican government for rights for indigenous groups, political reform and land rights. Here more than anywhere else we’ve been we felt the mix of modern Mexico with the pre-hispanic cultures in daily life. The other major feeling we got was the Chiapas has been left behind compared to other parts of Mexico. This time we were also joined by our very special guest traveller Fatem-Zahra before she jets off to Costa Rica. Here’s my thoughts:
We spent more time in San Cristobal than anywhere else in Chiapas. It’s a complete melting pot of indigenous chiapaneco culture and modern Mexican culture and at the same time it’s big enough to have international influences that make it stand out compared to it’s neighbours. It’s mad, there are indigenous women selling handmade textiles on the street in between mezcalerias and sushi fusion restaurants. It’s the best small city we’ve been in so far.
We’re learning more and more as we travel that it’s not just the places you go but who you are with that makes the difference. In San Cris we were hosted by the amazing Beto and Tamara (And their three dogs). Beto is yet another ultimate contact and he and Tamara welcomed us not once but twice to their home. I could write a whole post about what they did for us but to summarise we ate like kings, played ultimate and hit up some very cool spots (El Naufragio: a craft beer brewery that opens a clandestine bar once a month or whenever they feel like it, Puro Mexicano: a mezcaleria owned by an ultimate player, and Santo Nahual: an old reggae venue and art gallery that is now a chic fusion restaurant by a local artist Kiki). Not to mention playing with three crazy dogs and a bike trip around the city. It was our first stop in Chiapas and we spent an few extra nights before catching out bus to Guatemala.
San Juan De Chamula.
From San Cristóbal we made a day trip to a town which is by far the craziest place we’ve been so far. It has a mostly indigenous population with very strong prehispanic culture and roots that has merged with more recent influences.
The centrepiece of the town was once a Catholic church but today the congregation believes in Jesus and the Saints but they pray in the tradition of the Maya. There are no benches inside, instead they coat the floor in pine needles which are considered sacred. If you are suffering from an illness, you hire a curandera (Like a witch doctor) to cure you and protect you. He or she will take your pulse and depending on what’s wrong with you they will offer a prayer to the most appropriate saint. The methods are to light candles, either white or different colours depending on the illness and if it is severe they will bless the patient with eggs, or even a live chicken. Drinks are a big part of the process, either a strong alcohol called Pox or soft drinks, specifically Coca-Cola. Drinking Coca-Cola and burping specifically, cleanses the bad spirits from the body. We were told 80% of the town follow this belief and for all illnesses will use these methods.
So basically you have a Catholic church with pine needles everywhere, hundred of candles in front of dozens of saints and witch doctors lighting candles, praying and waving chickens, eggs and coca cola over people to cure them. I shit you not. Obviously no photos are allowed in the church and we were there during carnaval where no photos were allowed whatsoever, but we we’re allowed take a couple just outside the church.
Beto and Krakens ultimate were nice enough to invite us along to a couple of practices and later a scrimmage match while in San Cristobal. They have a huge contingent of junior players and half the business owners in the town we met were also players. It was great to run around and with so many young players (like 10 years old!), the future of the sport there looks bright.
Growing up in Ireland I loved exploring the ancient castles that scatter the country side. In Chiapas there are phenomenal cities and temples that were abandoned by the Maya over 1000 years ago. We saw Palenque, Yaxchilan, Bonampak and Tonina. The civilisations around here mostly collapsed before the conquistadors arrived and the jungle took over, hiding everything. Depending on the site they were only excavated by archaeologists in the 40s and even as late as the 80s. I was struck by the size of these cities and how much is left to be explored.
My favourite was Yaxchilan which is on the banks of the River border between Mexico and Guatemala. You can only arrive by boat from a town 30 minutes up river. It was like something out of Indiana Jones complete with labyrinths full of bats, massive carved panels and temple’s on natural hills to explore. Even better was we had the place to ourselves except for the spider monkeys in the trees.
Chiapas is home of some of the most beautiful nature we’ve seen so far. The lacandonian jungle is spectacular and there are waterfalls to be found everywhere. We went swimming at Chiflon, Misol Ha and my personal favourite Las Golondrinas which we had all to ourselves. Near Bonampak we hired a Lancandonian Guide named Daniel (and his two kids) to take us through the jungle to a hidden waterfall and plunge pool.
We’ve seen wild crocodiles, toucans, iguanas, spider monkeys, tarantulas and heard loads and loads of howler monkeys but never spotted them.
Another small city in Chiapas we arrived with much lower expectations. Compared to San Cristobal, it’s way quieter and more of a local feel (After 9pm the streets are empty.) We started with a couch surfer Victor Hugo who hosted us in his spare room. The best part was Victor had just opened the first cocktail bar in the city with his pal Pancho where they specialised in Comiteco, a drink similar to Mezcal. We ate great local dishes, and tasted their entire portfolio two nights in a row all the while listening to Victor’s other passion, techno music. What more could we ask for.
Moctezumas revenge 2: The Intestine Strikes Back
We were warned Chiapas could be even worse than other parts of Mexico for food hygiene. We had two incidents while here.
- The first was a taco “restaurant” where our bus stopped on the way to Palenque. The next morning all three of us were suffering while climbing the ruins. Julie had to rest for a day, Fatem had a slow burn sickness for several days and I was lucky enough to have only stomach cramps for 24 hours.
- The second was supposed to be our last night before heading to Guatemala. A quick stopover back in Betos place with a 6AM shuttle to the border. Right before going to bed at midnight my body decides its the perfect time to start violently vomiting. This went on until 5:20 AM. When the shuttle arrived to collect us Julie had to explain that we were not fit to travel. Mexico didn’t want me to leave and gave me a present of an extra two nights. After sleeping through most of the morning and drinking loads of fluids I was feeling fine, my current theory is that it was a stomach bug.
We experienced this somewhat in Oaxaca but in Chiapas it was just ridiculous. There are speed bumps everywhere. Many times they are poorly made meaning that even the slightest speed means the whole bus goes flying. Or local kids seize the opportunity to of a stopped vehicle to try and sell something. On the road to San Cristobal we saw the current record of 15 speed bumps in a row. The results are banged heads and upset stomachs.
Toll Booth Takeover
On a day trip from San Cristobal we arrived at a toll both which had been taken over by about 50 local townspeople. They covered their faces with bandanas and balaclavas. They were charging the same 50 Peso toll for each car that passed and once paid two of the lads would lift the barrier for you. We asked what it was all about and they said they were from the town next door and were being evicted. Their take-over was a little fund raising project for their cause. I don’t know the details of their cause but I couldn’t help but be impressed by the idea of a marginalised majority hijacking infrastructure for their own benefit.
On a number of occasions we saw groups of children and also adults on the roads holding a rope from one side to the other. The idea is that they stop traffic and charge you a toll or the kids try and sell things to you and won’t let you leave until you buy something. We moved around in public transport so we were immune from motion of these but it was another sign of how rough things can be for these communities.
Apart from the home made road stops there is a big military presence in Chiapas. We saw a good few bases and probably passed a dozen checkpoints. In fairness they were very relaxed and only once did we have to stop as they checked everyone. Still passing through fully armed check points regularly is a bit discomforting.
- I have yet to see a bald indigenous person. They have great hair. Of course that means in Chiapas I stand out even more but I think I’m winning on the beard competition.
- The day we went to Las Golandrinas and Yaxchilan we were adopted by Ruben and his family. We met them swimming at Misol Ha, he’s Mexican and lives in France. He was traveling in Mexico for 6 weeks with his two kids who were obviously bilingual and his mother. They picked us up the following morning for an random family road trip.
- There are tiny little booths everywhere charging you (very little) to access these great places. For example to get to the Waterfall at Misol Ha we paid 30 pesos per person only to use the 1.5km of road, then another 45 pesos just to arrive where the restaurant and car park was. I might add that both of these cabins had 3 people working in them.
- There are no ATMs in the jungle. We had to change our plans because we ran out of cash and the nearest atm was 3 hours drive back in the direction we came from in Palenque.
- We spent a night in Ocosingo which was the first time we really stood out as tourists. There are plenty of backpackers in San Cris, a few in Comitan and we only saw two others in Ocosingo.
- Manuel Velasco is the governor of Chiapas and has spent an insane amount of money on a propaganda campaign that puts Kim Jong Un to shame. Also he looks like a classic Bond villan. I only have one photo but I’ll find more.