Cancun, Mexico City and Guadalajara are all places that come to mind when thinking about Mexico. But go off the beaten track and you’ll find the southern Mexican state of Chiapas, which has a lot to offer keen travelers. Here, Culture Trip highlights some unique experiences to enjoy should you visit Chiapas.
Experience the Fiestas Patronales in San Cristobal
San Cristobal is Chiapas’ cultural hub, with art, food and music at every turn. However, if you want to get away from the crowds and gain a glimpse into the everyday life of Chiapanecos, it’s necessary to scout out one of the San Cristobal neighborhoods on one of the days that they celebrate their patron saint. Parades, prayers, costumes and tiny dynamite displays invigorate the streets of the La Merced neighborhood during the festivities.
After decades below the surface of the Grijalva River in Chiapas, the Templo de Quechula has reappeared and become one of the area’s most fascinating tourist attractions. The 16th-century church had been underwater since the building of a nearby dam, but these days local fishermen act as guides, taking tourists out to peruse its watery atrium and passageway. It’s said this church was one of the grandest ever built in this area of the country, yet if at some point the river floods, the church will once again sink below the surface.
Visit the Zapatistas
In 1994, an indigenous movement dedicated to social justice and in opposition to the economic oppression by the Mexican government and multinational companies sprang up in the Laconda jungle. This group, called the Zapatistas, have taken a step back from their original aggressiveness in the political and social sphere and are developing their communities along Zapatista ideals. There are opportunities for taking a tour with one of the various organizations that work with the Zapatista communities, but you can also just head out on your own by hiring a car or taking a cab.
Trying the local tipple in a new country is always exciting, but having tascalate in Chiapas is definitely a unique experience. This ancient, indigenous drink is prepared as a foamy mix of ground and toasted corn, cacao, pine nuts, chili and the bright orange condiment achiote, a seed common to Mexico. Historians believe the drink was invented around the time of the arrival of the Spanish, and it was prepared for special occasions and dedicated to love. It’s popular in Chiapa de Corzo, Suchiapa and along the coast, but can now be found throughout the country as a pre-prepared powder to be mixed with water. You can find tascalate at most local markets such as the Juan Sabines market in Tuxtla.
Take a boat to Sumidero Canyon
There is a reason this canyon is on all the must-see lists of Chiapas – put simply, visiting the Sumidero is such a beautiful and unusual experience. The canyon was created around the same time as the Grand Canyon and its walls are over 1,000ft (305m) high. Several endangered and threatened species make their home in the canyon, and there are dozens of waterfalls, caves and incredible natural landscapes to enjoy. You can easily hire a boat to take you out into the Canyon from either Chiapa de Corzo or Tuxtla Guitérrez.
Visit the Chamula church
For this one you must leave your camera at home (taking photos is prohibited) and take in the scene as a vivid memory instead. The indigenous community members who are the parishioners of this church have created an interesting religious syncretism between Catholicism and their people’s ancient belief system. Inside the main church in San Juan Chamula – outside of San Cristobal de las Casas – you will find an open floor covered in pine needles instead of pews, candles lit in every direction and local shaman healing and cleansing parishioners.
Explore the Coffee Route
Coffee plantations in Chiapas have teamed up to offer what can only be described as a coffee crawl, where you can visit farms, hike, go birdwatching and do other outdoor activities. Four plantations currently host guests, including the Finca Irlanda, Finca Hamburgo and Finca Argovia, all of which are also boutique hotels. This is a great way to get to know one of Chiapas’ most famous exports and learn the history of its industry in the area. If you don’t want to stay at a specific hotel, you can book a day tour that will take you to several of the plantations.
Discover the Temple of the Inscriptions
While heading to a Mayan ruin in Mexico might not exactly seem unique, the Temple of the Inscriptions is the largest Mesoamerican stepped pyramid structure at the pre-Columbian Maya civilization site of Palenque. As with all Mayan ruins, it is steeped in history and was originally built as a funerary monument for K’inich Janaab’ Pakal, Ajaw in the 7th century. The temple is located in an area known as the Temple of the Inscriptions’ Court; visitors are not permitted to go inside the temple, but just looking at it and gaining a knowledge of its vast history is an experience in itself.
Swim at the Agua Azul Waterfalls
With an array of breathtaking waterfalls in Chiapas – Cascada el Chiflon being one of them – it’s hard to choose just one. So why not go for one of the best? The Cascadas de Agua Azul are a series of waterfalls found on the Xanil River and consist of many cataracts following one after another, creating a sequence of cascades. It’s perfectly safe to swim in, and the trail to the waterfall is dotted with a few shops for food and drink.
Visit the Casa Na Bolom
Once home to archeologist Frans Blom and his wife, Gertrude Duby Blom, the documentary photographer, journalist, environmental pioneer and jungle adventurer, Casa Na Bolom is worth the trip just to learn about the previous owners’ eclectic lives. Casa Na Bolom is now a fully functioning hotel and museum along with having a research centre run by Asociación Cultural Na Bolom, a non-profit organization dedicated to the protection of the Lacandon Maya and the preservation of the Chiapas rainforest. So, a visit here helps local communities and preservation efforts, and it’s a really beautiful place, too.
Ride a raft on Pojoj Lake
The waters of Pojoj Lake are so clear and blue, the instinct to dive straight in takes over. Situated in the Lagunas de Montebello National Park, this network of waters is located in the municipality of La Trinitaria Chiapas, with the lagoons serving as the border between Mexico and Guatemala. What makes a visit to the lake truly unique is a raft ride, made of logs tied with natural fibers and driven by a crew, allowing you to take in the beauty of the surrounding scenery. A swim in the water, a hike in the mountains and a taste of the local coffee and you may never want to leave.
Additional reporting by Vanessa Gainford.
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