Chiapas, the southernmost state in Mexico, was clearly the poorest Mexican state that we travelled through while in Mexico. It has a large indigenous population and a history of rebellions. We felt relatively safe while in Chiapas, but very harassed and much less welcome than in Oaxaca or on the Yucatan peninsula.
The drive from Palenque to San Cristobal de las Casas was an adventure. We were frequently held up by locals with make-shift road blocks who wanted us to pay arbitrary road tolls, or to buy food or handicrafts that we didn’t want. The road was also terribly pot-holed, so much so that we got a flat tyre! (We got the tyre fixed (with a rubber patch!) in San Cristobal de Las Casas for the bargain price of 150 pesos (less than $10 USD) and watched the mechanic fix it by hand, without anything more sophisticated than a wrench. Quite amazing!)
We wonder if our experience in Chiapas would have been different if we had been on our bikes and not in a car, where I suppose we appeared richer. We certainly loved Palenque, and Agua Azul was beautiful, but I think it would be fair to say that on the whole, Chiapas was our least favourite province in Mexico.
On re-reading this blog, I realise it gives a negative impression of Chiapas. But, we think it’s important to be honest about our experiences. We feel very privileged to be able to undertake a trip like this and we realise that we are travelling through developing countries, where people have much less than we do. We try to help where we can, but we simply can’t help everyone. We always try to deal with touts and beggars respectfully, as we know they are just trying to earn a living. That said, despite our best efforts to maintain a sense of humour in Chiapas and deal with the touts with a smile, we started to feel as though we were walking around with dollar signs above our heads, and this became very exhausting after a while. Thankfully, we didn’t experience this level of harassment and negativity anywhere else in Mexico.
For us, Palenque is the jewel in the Mayan crown and is without doubt, our favourite archaeological site. Palenque is set in the jungle and unlike many of the other drought ridden Mayan sites; it has an abundance of water, including a series of waterfalls, and pools called the “Queens Bath”, as well as a sophisticated aqueduct system. We arrived at 8am and had the place largely to ourselves for the first hour or so. The city is certainly smaller than Tikal and Uxmal, but the intricate architecture, combined with the wonderful setting, makes for a truly beautiful site. When we arrived, it was still shrouded in mist! We just loved it.
We highly recommend that you arrive as early as possible to beat the crowds, as Palenque is very popular. We spent the night at Margarita and Ed’s Cabanas – a little jungle retreat in hippy El Pachan and had some great pizza at Don Mucho’s, both of which we would highly recommend.
Misol-Ha is a big 35m high waterfall. We arrived around 10am and had the place to ourselves. You can walk behind the waterfall and go into a little cave and see another waterfall (although, its pitch black inside the cave, so you need to bring a torch). Apparently you can swim at Misol-Ha, but the water didn’t look very clear or inviting on the day we were there. If you don’t have time to visit Misol-Ha, you can probably skip it, but you wouldn’t want to miss Agua Azul, which is really spectacular. Apparently theft can be a problem at both Misol-Ha and Agua Azul, but there were a group of 5 policemen standing around the car park, so we felt totally safe. We had to pay two separate entrance fees to access the falls, in total 80 pesos.
- Agua Azul
Agua Azul is made up of a series of cascading aqua waterfalls and is truly a sight to behold! It is unfortunate, however, that we were held up 3 times after the turn off to Agua Azul. At the first road block, the locals insisted that we buy something or they wouldn’t let us pass. The next road block involved an unofficial “road toll” to get into Agua Azul. We paid the requested 40 pesos. Further along the road we came to a third road block, which appeared to be the official ticket office for Agua Azul, where we paid another 40 pesos as an entry fee. As soon as we got out of the car, we were mobbed by people trying to sell us fruit, and other handicrafts. Other locals wanted money to watch our car, but we said we didn’t need that service (thankfully, our car wasn’t broken into while we were visiting the falls!).
There are numerous lookouts from which to observe the falls. However, the walkway is lined with little restaurants selling empanadas and shops selling clothing, jewelry and other handicrafts. With almost every step we were harassed by the shop owners to buy things, which really detracted from the wonderful experience of visiting the falls. The whole experience reminded me very much of the touts in Egypt and was quite disappointing. Nevertheless, I am happy that we went, because the falls were truly beautiful, with the cascading aqua water. But, you really need to bring a sense of humour with you, in order to enjoy the natural beauty of the place.
Getting back up the steep winding road was easier than going down and we weren’t stopped and required to pay further road tolls, although the villagers did try to stop us again to buy some food before we turned back onto the highway!
- San Christobel del Las Casas
Everyone raves about San Cristobal de las Casas, but we much preferred the colonial cities of Oaxaca, Merida, Zacatecas and Guanajuato. The city is located in the mountains and has some nice buildings and cafes, but we continued to feel quite harassed by beggars and local touts (a theme that continued throughout Chiapas), although we did not feel unsafe. I particularly liked the Cathedral and the Santo Domingo Dominican Convent, although I was disappointed that we had to wade through a market, which had been set up in the Convent’s court yard, in order to visit it. We found a great little hostel with a kitchen so we could cook, but we were happy to only spend a couple of nights there.
- Laguna de Montebello
We were both really looking forward to visiting the Lagunas de Montebello near the Guatemalan border. The lakes that we visited were nice, but it was a cloudy day and I’m sure they would be even more impressive in sunny weather. We paid an entry fee of 28 pesos per person to enter the national park, which was absolutely fine, but the locals then tried to charge an additional fee per person to visit each lake and whenever we got out of the car, the locals started hassling us to buy food and drinks and to take guided tours of the lakes! After visiting a couple of the lakes, we decided that we had had enough and drove onto Las Nubes.
- Las Nubes
Las Nubes is a series of cascades and is quite hard to get to. You need to drive 12kms off the main highway along a narrow track to reach the waterfalls. The cascades are beautiful, but not as impressive as Agua Azul. We planned to stay the night, but the accommodation was exorbitantly expensive at 850-900 pesos per night. We wouldn’t have minded if it was good value, but the cabanas were run down and smelt moldy, with holes in the fly screens and no air conditioning (although you could request an old portable fan). We imagine that the cabanas would have been lovely when they were originally built, but they are run down now and the price hasn’t been reduced to reflect this. After 3 months in Mexico, we have a pretty good handle on prices and this was crazily over-priced for what it was. We tried to bargain with the manager, but he wouldn’t budge on the price, so we moved on. We found a nice little hotel on the Highway for 250 pesos with air-conditioning! We headed back to Palenque along the very windy Frontier Highway (Carretera Fronteriza) the next morning.