The Vast and Varied Beauty of Mexico's Chiapas

A slippery hike, stunning Mayan ruins, and a rustic overnight stay make a memorable visit to this southern state

Standing in the Chiapas jungle with its Mayan ruins and prolific flora and fauna, shivering as a heavy mist seeps through one of the Mexican state's dense, high forests, or exploring one of its Spanish-colonial towns accented by traditionally and brightly clothed Indians, it's not hard to understand why the Zapatista rebels took up arms here on Jan. 1, 1994.

Chiapas is a place worth fighting for.

This vast and varied area of southeastern Mexico has been captivating visitors since the Spanish first came here in the 16th century. Today the visitors are more likely to be French or German tourists looking for pre-Colombian Mexico or American college students curious about the home of Subcommander Marcos. But they still tend to speak about the place in superlatives - usually because Chiapas is so different from whence they came or even from other parts of Mexico they may have visited, such as Mexico City, the beach resorts, or the northern border.

"We wanted to see the jungle, the Mayan civilization and the place where the Zapatistas are from, since we heard so much about them," says Anna Maria Carrassa, an Italian from Milan who recently spent part of her Mexico honeymoon in Chiapas. "It's just so different."

Curious, then, that tourism here remains down after the plunge it took in the wake of the Zapatista rebellion. After falling off by two-thirds in 1994, the tourists began venturing back last year, but their numbers are still down from pre-rebellion figures by about a third, according to state tourism officials here.

Visitors removed from fighting

It's true, of course, that Chiapanecos are still fighting, even though the Zapatistas have pretty much laid down their arms and are on the verge of becoming a nonviolent political movement. But the battles that sadly tear at this simultaneously wealthy (oil, timber, hydroelectric power, tropical fruits) and poverty-stricken state rarely touch visitors.

La Hormiga, a favela-like neighborhood stretching up a steep mountainside in San Cristobal de la Casas, doesn't look like the product of religious persecution, but it is: Most of La Hormiga's residents are Evangelical Mexicans expelled over recent decades from their traditionally Roman Catholic communities. And unless he inquired, a passing tourist might never know that the smoke he saw rising from the northern Chiapas village of Bachajon was not someone cooking or performing simple farming tasks, but rather the burning of houses as a result of the region's seemingly never-ending political land battles.

The point is that, while Chiapas can't be described as a paradigm of social harmony, that shouldn't discourage the visitor to Mexico who is interested in more than lying prone on the beach from discovering Chiapas's treasures.

One of the must-sees of Chiapas is San Cristobal de las Casas, a colonial jewel founded by the Spanish in 1528. The city, one of several briefly "occupied" by the masked Zapatista rebels over the first cold days of 1994, is a pageant of mestizo Mexico with its Spanish colonial architecture, neighborhood festivals, and markets brimming with traditionally attired Indians selling crafts, clothing, and farm produce.

The city has several charming and comfortable colonial-style hotels, and they usually have good restaurants serving interesting variations on local cuisine. (During my most recent visit I stayed at Casa Mexicana, about $35 a night, which has a delightful European-Mexican restaurant with tables focused on the hotel's jungly atrium). But I was interested in seeing the Lacandon Jungle, so I settled on a three-day, two-night exploration organized by Yaxchilan Tours in San Cristobal.

Yaxchilan Tours, operated by local social anthropologist Hugo Camacho, offers a picture of Chiapas's struggling tourism. The agency, that is heavy on nature and local contacts and light on the kind of luxuries one expects in Cancun, had to close in 1994 for the dearth of tourists. Named after the ruined Mayan city on the Usumacinta River that I ended up visiting during my jungle tour, the small agency reopened only in December 1995.

"It's been rough, but the tourists are coming back," says Mr. Camacho. "The trend towards ecotourism and growing interest in the Mayans is helping us out."

The tour I took - an Italian newlywed couple and me in one car, four Spaniards (they preferred "Catalonians," being from Barcelona) in another car arranged by another agency - included two nights spent with a family of Lacandon Indians at their settlement near the jungle. Called Lacanja Chansayab, the sparse settlement had electricity but no running water other than the stream passing nearby. We slept in hammocks under a palm-thatched roof, the boys among us teasing that giant cockroaches and man-eating snakes and spiders would very likely slink down the hammock ropes to their prey. Miraculously, no one disappeared during the night.

The days were spent visiting the Mayan ruins at Bonampak, where stunning Mayan paintings, their greens, reds, blues, and coppers still vivid, can be viewed, and Yaxchiln. After sliding for more than three hours one way over oozing jungle trails (this was in the rainy season) to reach Bonampak, the poll I took among my fellow tourists was unanimous: The paintings, tucked in a 1,500-year-old hillside temple, though beautiful and rich in historical insights, weren't worth the slog. And the state of the trail, virtually a road hacked through the jungle, made walking so difficult that one had little opportunity to look around at the trees and flowers.

An afternoon hike through dense jungle - no machete chops in sight - to a deafening waterfall won much higher points.

Our guides on the two hikes were Lacandon boys, who wore the traditional Lacandon bleached-white tunic, their copper-streaked hair long and untrimmed. And they hiked barefoot - for some reason preferring to carry their sandals rather than wear them.

Hair and how it is worn serves as the latest indicator of how the outside world is influencing the Lacandon Indians, who up to a couple of decades ago were still largely isolated. Now Lacandon adolescents are divided between those who wear their hair long and untrimmed in the traditional manner, and those who have opted for the shaved-on the-sides, a tad-longer-on-the-top coiffure that is favored by Mexico's urban youth.

"It's the same cut as the soldiers you see around here; the kids want to copy the soldiers," one elder Lacandon told me, explaining the influence of the soldiers who have manned roadblocks near Lacanja since the Zapatista uprising. Another Lacandon leader said he wished it was the influence of the soldiers, but that he guessed it was more accurately kids mimicking the young drug traffickers who drive around in shiny new trucks, windows shaded - and with the close-cropped hair.

A more successful hike

The visit to Yaxchilan proved a greater popular success than the Bonampak hike (It should be noted that a road is now being cut to Bonampak so that future visitors can see the paintings without the hike. So much for eco-tourism). Yaxchilan is only reachable by boat or by small plane. The hour-long boat ride we took to reach the ancient city, thick jungle on both the Mexican and Guatemalan riverbanks for most of the way, let us imagine what it was like for Mayan traders to ply these same waters to reach their customers.

At its height some 1,500 years ago, Yaxchilan was a city of 10,000 families. Today only about a quarter of that ancient city has been uncovered. The central ceremonial plaza in particular, though it already seems rich in architectural interest, stretches on for another mile under the jungle's as-yet undisturbed carpet.

What sets Yaxchilan apart from other high Mayan archaeological sites, like Palenque or Tikal in Guatemala, is the emphasis on human sacrifice and self-mutilation. In one doorway carving or stele after another, city rulers are shown either overseeing the inflicting of pain on others - or on themselves. The carving is impressive, but otherwise it is not a pretty sight.

The only torture we faced was from the mosquitoes that paid no attention to the repellent we applied. As we returned to the boat launch, a spread of tropical fruits prepared by our Yaxchilan Tours guide awaited us, welcome succor as the hot jungle sun rose above us.

Just a few hours later we would pass through the Chiapas highlands on our way back to San Cristobal, the fog and clouds thick and cold. It was another reminder of the variety that is Chiapas.

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