By Jim Howard and Pat Burrell
We have been winter residents of Huatulco for the past four years and have enjoyed exploring our part of Oaxaca while we have been here. This year, however, we decided to travel farther afield and learn more about southern Mexico. Our neighbouring state of Chiapas was the obvious destination.
We were aware of the topography and history of Chiapas that had made Mexico’s southeastern state seem mysterious, remote, and a bit intimidating. We imagined precarious mountain passes and dense jungle that harbored Zapatista guerrillas or Mayan drug lords.
Instead, we discovered a land of friendly people, bustling modern cities, and pastoral landscapes amid the colonial towns and pre-Columbian ruins. We felt safe and welcome as we crossed over the mountains from the Pacific to the Caribbean coast.
Much of this comfort level can be attributed to Arturo Martinez, our driver and guide during the four-day journey. Arturo is a tour guide licensed for all of Mexico and is based at the Camino Real Zaashila Hotel, where our condo is located. Besides taking us on local excursions over the past few years, Arturo also had escorted us around Oaxaca City in 2014, so we had a great deal of confidence in his services.
We quickly discovered that Chiapas is not so far away from Huatulco. Five hours on the road took us through the windswept Tehuantepec lowlands to the capital city of Chiapas, Tuxtla Gutierrez. We had sufficient time and sunlight left in the day to continue on to our first tourist site: the Sumidero Canyon. This dramatic gorge is accessible by taking a boat ride from the old town of Chiapa de Corzo to the entrance of the canyon. As we progressed up the river, we saw crocodiles lounging along the shoreline, often very close to where children were swimming!
After spending our first night in the modern city of Tuxtla Gutierrez, we asked Arturo to take us up to the miradores perched on the rim of the canyon. The views of the river thousands of feet below were more impressive than from a boat at the bottom. We recommend that visitors check out the miradores before, or instead of, taking the boat trip.
Our next destination was the charming colonial city of San Cristóbal de las Casas, nestled in a mountain valley 6000 feet above sea level. Once again we would point out how close this area is to Huatulco—we could have driven all the way to San Cristobal easily in one day. Yet, it is another world! The air is cool and the hills are green all year round. The colonial town centre is similar to Oaxaca City, but even more compact, with its colourful buildings and narrow streets easily accessible on foot. A number of streets, called andadores here, are closed off to traffic allowing comfortable strolling amid the shoppers and vendors. The place had the feel of a European town, with its churches, shops, restaurants and small hotels, but with the added richness of colourfully dressed native people going about their business. Our hotel, the Docecuartos, like many others here, was a charmingly restored historic home.
But Arturo had another treat for us, a thousand feet higher than San Cristóbal—the mountain town of San Juan Chamula. Here the locals have clung more consistently to their native culture. Most of the women wear distinctive woolen dresses and shawls. Most memorable, however, was a visit to the church in the town square, San Juan Bautista, where pre-Christian native practices coexist with Catholic ritual. Inside the church was a striking scene—absolutely no photographs allowed—the floor covered with pine needles and clusters of votive candles, ribbons strung from the ceiling to the floor, and small groups of worshippers sitting on the floor performing unfamiliar rites. One lady was clutching a chicken that we presumed was about to be sacrificed!
The next two days were focused on exploring Mayan ruins. Arturo had researched a relatively recent archeological discovery—the ancient city of Toniná—about two hours from San Cristobal on our route to Palenque. After traversing the high pine forests of the Sierra (where we saw hairy pigs!) and then descending the eastern slopes, we arrived in the farming area around the bustling town of Ocosingo. Arturo pointed out that this area was the birthplace of the Zapatista movement.
A few miles outside of the town in a pastoral valley, we spotted the top of the giant pyramid complex of Toniná, a Mayan city that rivaled and eventually conquered Palenque. Set on a hillside, Toniná is quite different from any other Mayan site that I have seen with its series of pyramidal structures rising up the slope. The archeological site is well managed and maintained, but whole areas remain unexcavated. We were assigned a local guide, Aristel, so Arturo became a fellow tourist for the afternoon. We were extremely impressed with Tonina and strongly recommend visiting this wonderful archeological site.
After a light lunch of quesadillas at the site, we continued our drive to Palenque, with a short stop at the impressive waterfall at Misol há . Without the stops, I would put the driving time from San Cristobal to Palenque at four to five hours. We overnighted in the busy tourist town of Palenque, saving our visit to the famous Mayan city for the next day.
Palenque certainly lives up to its reputation as a magnificent archeological site. It is set in the jungle at the foot of the mountains and exudes an aura of the exotic and mysterious. The palace is distinctive with its four-storey tower, and several of the temples have intact roof combs. Unfortunately (for tourists) you can no longer enter King Pakal’s tomb (the only occupied Mayan tomb ever found), but a high-tech reconstruction of it can be seen in the adjacent museum (and also at the anthropological museum in Mexico City). The only disappointment, for me, was that the resident howler monkeys didn’t show up the day we were there!
Our final destination was just outside of Chiapas, Villahermosa in Tabasco state, a busy modern city a couple of hours’ drive from Palenque. Our primary purpose for finishing the tour in Villahermosa was to catch a flight to Mexico City the next day. However, we also had one more tourist site on our agenda, La Venta, located 70 miles outside of the city. This was the site of a major Olmec settlement. The Olmecs were an ancient people most famous for the huge heads with negroid features they constructed hundreds of years before Christ. Luckily, we discovered before we set out that the majority of the artifacts, including the heads, had been moved to an ecological/archeological park right in Villahermosa.
The La Venta park was another delightful surprise for us. It turned out that almost all of the original heads were on display because the next day was an anniversary of the relocation. (Normally, replicas would substitute for the originals to help preserve them.) We wandered along well-groomed pathways with various Olmec sculptures (mostly heads) featured at regular intervals. The park also hosted local animals such as jaguars, birds, crocodiles, and yes, monkeys, in captivity, as well as badgers and coatis running wild in the trees. Despite a bit of light rain. we spent several very satisfying hours in this well-maintained park.
After a light lunch on the grounds, Arturo dropped us off at our airport hotel, and then headed home via the quickest route across the Isthmus. He reported that it took him only seven hours to drive home to Huatulco!
Arturo’s speedy return underscores just how accessible the wonders of Chiapas are to residents of Huatulco. In four and a half days, we covered a lot of territory (driving about 750 miles) and enjoyed many different touring experiences. We ended the tour in Villahermosa, but a circular tour finishing in Huatulco would be quite feasible in a week or less. We highly recommend such a get-away to long-term winter residents of Huatulco. We are sure that Arturo Martinez and his colleagues at the Camino Real or other local tour agencies could provide a similar adventure at reasonable rates.