Sometimes its obvious why a place becomes so popular that it is an obligatory stop for the backpackers who come through. Major sites obviously have to be seen, and some places literally have such an awesome vibe that they self-perpetuate as a destination. Puerto Escondido and my next destination of San Cristobal de las Casas fall into this second category. People talk about them, more people come. Then there are those places that have every reason to be a well-discovered destination, but for one reason or another they are jut not on the average travelers’ radar. Comitan and the lakes around Tziscao definitely deserve to be more visited by backpackers than they currently are.
Having left Puerto Escondido and the coast I took an overnight bus into the state of Chiapas, known for its indigenous cultures, Mayan ruins and beautiful scenery. My first stop was Tuxtla Gutierrez, which is definitely not a tourist destination. It is a modern, commercial city devoid of attractions in the city itself. I had a fantastic time there however, staying with a couch surfer who was recommended to me. Domingo is an awesome dude and so are all of his friends. I got sucked in to their passion for football while there, and met a bunch of fun people at a party. It was almost a shame to leave after just two nights.
While Tuxtla itself doesn’t have much to offer the tourist, it is very close the Cañon de Sumidero, which is one of the must-see natural attractions of Chiapas. From Tuxtla I took a collectivo to the nearby small town of Chiapa de Corso. From here boats leave on a two hour, 42 kilometre journey up through the canyon where the sheer walls rise up to 1000 metres at one point. There are interesting rock formations along the way, lots of bird-life, and at the end you get to a dam where a floating shop is waiting to sell you beer and fruit drowned in lime and chili sauce. I really enjoyed the trip, and also enjoyed arriving back at Chiapa where I proceeded to try all the local specialities in the market. There’s some good food there!
Most people do the Cañon trip directly from San Cristóbal de las Casas, which was my next stop after Tuxtla. San Cris is an attractive colonial city and the backpacker hub of Chiapas, with plenty of hostels, bars, restaurants with both Mexican and international food, and several things to see and do in the surrounding area. I stayed at a hostel called Puerta Vieja which was a great place. It was in a beautiful old colonial building with a garden out the back where they had hammocks for chilling out in, a bar and a fire each night.
One of the main things to do in San Cristóbal, apart from wander the colonial streets and eat, is visit the nearby indigenous village of San Juan Chamula. There are several small villages nearby, where the women get around in their traditional dress and the people speak their ancient Mayan language, but this is the most famous as it is the only one that has a church unlike any you have ever seen. Well, from the outside it is like every church you have ever seen, but from the inside it is something else entirely.
You are not allowed to take pictures inside, so it is up to me to describe it as best I can. When you enter the first thing you notice is the smoke and the smell, the air heavy with incense and the scent of the pine needles that cover the floor. There are no pews, but people kneel alone or in small groups behind rows of lit candles which they have stuck to the floor, some praying, some simply sitting, some rubbing chickens over themselves. Yes, they have managed to combine their ancient Mayan rituals with Catholocism, so while the church looks fairly average, what goes on inside is anything but. Chickens are thought to ward against the evil eye and are used in healing rituals inside the church. I saw several people, shamans I am told, incanting prayers and passing the chickens over the flames of the candles, before rubbing them over the person to be cured and then breaking the chicken’s neck. They also down lots of coco-cola – in past times a drink made of sugar cane was used in their rituals, but nowadays its easier to get soft drink. It is quite strange seeing coke playing an important role in a religious ceremony. Probably stranger than watching chickens being killed.
Apart from visiting the local indigenous villages, many people also take day trips from San Cristobal to other sights such as the Cañon de Sumidero, which I visited from Tuxtla, and the Lagos de Montebello and Cascada de Chiflon which I decided to take more time to see and do independently. I’m so glad I did. This part of Chiapas right down south near the border with Guatemala is beautiful, friendly and has lots of see and do, and deserves so much more time than a rushed day trip from San Cris. The town of Comitan is much closer to these natural attractions than San Cris and is a beautiful colonial town in its own right. Recently named as a Pueblo Magico (“Magic Town”, or one of important national cultural or natural heritage), Comitan is clean, has great bars and restaurants, very friendly people, and plenty to do in the local area.
We were lucky enough to be there during the festival of the local patron saint, San Caralampio. My friend Pat and I were given candles and invited to join in the parade, through the narrow streets from the Cathedral to the church of the saint, where musicians played and energetic kids dressed as devils danced around. Fireworks were going off the whole time, and there was a bigger fireworks spectacular in the plaza after the parade. There were also games and food; a very carnival atmosphere. Unfortunately the dodgem cars (bumper cars) were not being used, but we gave the foosball tables a good go.
A very worthwhile (and energetic!) day trip from Comitan was a visit to the nearby Cascadas El Chiflon. This series of waterfalls was more spectacular than I imagined. There were lots of steps involved in order to climb up to the very top, but the view was worth it. A dip in the river after the climb was very refreshing and much needed! It would be a nice place to go with a picnic and spend a whole day.
In keeping with the theme of natural attractions, Pat and I also spent a good couple of days exploring the lakes in the Tziscao area, right down south at the border with Guatemala. It was very quiet – barely any visitors in the area and those that were there were mostly Mexican. In three days we saw 4 other foreigners. For somewhere so beautiful and so easy to visit there really should be more backpackers around! There are cute little cabins to stay right on the lake in Tziscao, from where you can walk to the Guatamelan border and cross over without any controls. That’s the most I’m going to see of Guatemala for now!
One day we hired bikes (not the greatest bikes – my chain fell off after a couple of hundred metres, but we made do!) and cycled to the beautiful nearby lakes of Tziscao, Pojoj, Cinco Lagos and Montebello. I think Pojoj was my favourite. The lakes are deep, with beautiful clear water and various hues of blue. Although we were lucky enough to get great weather that day, it wasn’t quite warm enough for swimming. Which was lucky, since I had accidentally left my swimmers in Comitan! I’m leaving things all over this country…
It was such a beautiful and peaceful area that we stayed a day longer than planned, and used that extra day to explore the Mayan ruins at Chincultik. Getting there required a colectivo ride and a walk of about one and a half kilometres off the main road, through pretty and quiet countryside. For some reason there was no charge to get in, and of course, barely anyone else there. The ruins were small but quite beautiful, with pyramids built on a hillside next to a cenote (a deep, circular natural pool), where the ancient Mayans would throw offerings into the water.
Also nearby, another collectivo ride away, were more lakes, as well as a river, a stone arch and caves. There were lots of kids offering their services as guides, but we struck out on our own and found our way, although they weren’t wrong about there being lots of different paths. Again, we saw only two other tourists, which meant that the ladies selling quesadillas at the entrance were paricularly excited to see us. One thing about it being low season and such a small area is that there is not much variety in cuisine to speak of. I just couldn’t face another quesadilla! When we stumbled across a place in Tziscao that had hamburgers I am not ashamed to admit that it was one of the most satisfying meals I’ve had in a while!
After the lakes I spent another day in Comitan and then another in San Cris. Chiapas is a great part of the country and its easy to spend plenty of time around here. I still have yet to get to the ruins at Palenque, which is located in the east of Chiapas and purportedly one of the major highlights of a trip to Mexico. I assume you’ll be reading about in my next post!