1. When people think of Mexican vacations, their minds often go to posh resorts in Cabo or Cancun. What makes an offbeat locale like Chiapas worth visiting?
Chiapas is a great place to discover just how much more Mexico has besides beaches and all-inclusive resorts. Chiapas has beautiful colonial cities, vibrant indigenous culture, fascinating archaeological sites, and incredible natural beauty, from rain forests to waterfalls. It’s much less expensive than places like Cabo or Cancún (or even comparable inland destinations like Mérida or San Miguel de Allende) yet sees only a fraction of the visitors of any of those places. And a new airport in Tuxtla Gutiérrez and improved highways and bus routes make it easy to visit, even if you’ve got just a few days or a week. In short, Chiapas is safe, interesting, and accessible, and for many travelers, totally unexpected. That’s a recipe for a good trip.
2. What’s the best time to visit Chiapas?
Without a doubt, the best time to visit Chiapas is during the dry season–November to May–when the skies are clear and the sun always seems to shine. You’ll also avoid the rain, which can be quite heavy in the summer months, especially June and September. If you plan to travel throughout the state, be sure to bring layers–San Cristóbal de las Casas and the surrounding highlands can be downright chilly during the winter months, whereas the lowlands and the coastal regions are warm year round.
3. Chiapas has seen its share of political unrest. Is it a safe tourist destination? What steps can tourists take to ensure their safety?
Yes, it’s a very safe and peaceful place to visit. We get asked this a lot, and we try to remind people that the Zapatista uprising was fifteen years ago and lasted just 12 days. (Tourists were never the target, in any case.) And virtually all the drug-related violence you hear about in the news lately takes place in a few large cities in the north. Of course, you should take the normal precautions you would anywhere: avoid flashing cash and valuables around, guard your belongings in crowded areas, and take a cab if you’re coming home late (or a bit tipsy). If you rent a car, be aware of animals, people and bicycles on the roads. Roadside hold-ups used to be a problem, but are rare now; still, you should avoid driving at night.
4. What are your top three Maya ruins to visit?
Number one is Palenque, of course, a jewel of Chiapas and the whole Maya world. The elegance of its structures, the serene forest setting, the remarkable carvings and hieroglyphs…there’s just something very special about it. We’ve also always enjoyed Toniná, for its steeply pitched main pyramid and macabre murals and statues. (Both Palenque and Toniná have excellent museums, as well.) We also love the twin sites of Bonampak and Yaxchilán, reachable by day trip from Palenque. Bonampak is famous for a series of colorful murals, while Yaxchilán, reached by boat, has intricate carvings, and is great for spotting wildlife, including monkeys, birds, and big beefy crocodiles. We’ve been to each of these sites multiple times, and have never gotten tired of them.
5. What’s the easiest way to get around Chiapas?
Like most of Mexico, Chiapas is blessed with a reliable and wide-ranging public transport system. First class buses serve all the cities, while a network of combis (small buses or vans) reach virtually every out-of-the-way village in the state. Most roads are in good condition, and new high-speed cuotas (toll highways) have replaced many stomach-lurching mountain passes. For a week or so of hitting the major sites, public transportation will serve you just fine. Travelers interested in Chiapas’s more isolated attractions may consider renting a car—we’ve done so several times, without any problems, though rates do tend to be high.
6. What’s your favorite Chiapanecan cuisine and where can you get it?
We’d have to say tamales, which are to southern Mexico what tacos are to Mexico City and central Mexico (that is, comfort food for the masses). Tamales come with all sorts of creative stuffings, from spicy red pork to chicken and prune (watch out for the pits!), while banana leaves, not corn husks, are the wrapper of choice. Tamales are served at many restaurants and specialty shops, but a great way to sample them is on Saturday night, when families all over town sell homemade tamales from their front doors. Just look for a red bulb or lantern hanging over the door–yes, it’s the foodie’s version of a red light district!
7. What is Chiapas’ best kept secret?
One of the things that’s been most surprising to us are Chiapas’s religious festivals. For example, most people associate Carnival with Brazil or the Caribbean, but it’s marked by raucous celebrations in many of Chiapas’ indigenous communities, too. It just so happens that Carnival coincides with the five ‘lost days’ of the ancient Maya calendar, when chaos and mischievous spirits are believed to rule the land (not too different than Fat Tuesday, actually.) All Saints Day and Day of the Dead (November 1 and 2) are popular throughout Mexico but take unique form in Chiapas, including one community where wooden planks are placed over graves as ‘doors’ through which the living can speak to dead relatives. And the lowland town of Suchiapa celebrates Corpus Christi with a complex procession that includes people dressed as jaguars, bulls and monkeys. The list goes on an on, and we always recommend travelers check if any festivals will be taking place during their stay.
8. Chiapas is a lake-lover’s dream come true. What’s your favorite body of water?
Laguna Miramar, in south eastern Chiapas, is one of the most striking bodies of water in all of Mexico, a large turquoise lake nestled in tropical rain forest. It’s also one of Mexico’s purest bodies of water, thanks to its remote location, and a ban on motor-craft and lakeside development. But being so remote–it takes a day of hard travel to get there–most travelers won’t have a chance to visit. So, as a practical matter, we’d ultimately vote for Agua Azul, the popular waterfall park near Palenque. The name means ‘Blue Water’ but it’s really more a fluorescent aqua marine–an amazing sight. A foot path hugs the shore, with observation platforms alongside the largest waterfalls, and there are a number of calm pools for swimming and wading. True, Agua Azul is a madhouse on holidays and many weekends–and its lower reaches are marred by souvenir stands–but mid-week it’s serene and beautiful, and there are convenient daily tours there from Palenque. Just be sure to visit during dry season, when the water is its bluest.
9. How would you spend a week in Chiapas?
San Cristóbal is a hands-down must-see, with gorgeous architecture, fascinating museums, and cool restaurants and bars. Add to that the many day trips possible from there–Sumidero Canyon, San Juan Chamula, and Comitán among others–and you’ll be tempted to spend your whole week there. The main reason not to do so, however, is Palenque, one of the most important and intriguing ruins in the Maya world, located 5-6 hours by car or bus from San Cristóbal. We always budget a full day to see the ruins, plus another day or two for day trips in the surrounding area. So in a week’s time, we’d spend 3-5 days in San Cristóbal and 2-3 days in Palenque—and then start planning our return visit to hit all the things we’d missed!
10. Chiapas is well-known for its indigenous communities—can travelers visit those areas, and are there any special do’s and don’ts?
Yes and yes. It’s perfectly fine for outsiders (be they Mexican or foreigners) to visit most of Chiapas’s indigenous communities. Many have centuries-old churches, vibrant markets, and fascinating histories and celebrations. You’ll be tempted to take photos of villagers’ colorful outfits and unique customs, but doing so is strictly prohibited in many areas, especially those around San Cristóbal, and during religious festivals and ceremonies. Even where pictures are allowed, like in the Lacandón rain forest, always ask permission before clicking. Bear in mind these are essentially autonomous regions, and village leaders can (and occasionally do!) confiscate cameras or fine visitors for flaunting the rules. Tours of the more accessible towns (like San Juan Chamula and Zinacantán) can be booked from San Cristóbal, and are highly recommended; you’ll learn far more, and the guide will help you avoid accidentally doing something inappropriate.