Chiapas in Mexico is often regarded by locals and tourists alike, as one of the most beautiful and diverse locations to visit in Mexico. No wonder it is so popular for landscape pictures and travel pictures alike. Abundant in historical sights, ruins and temples, more traditional and cultural relics than you could possibly imagine, and a place called home by many foreigners who choose the laid-back and friendly lifestyle that is so prominent there.
Our base for 2 weeks was a beautiful boutique hotel called Hotel Bo, located in San Cristobal de las Casas, a small picturesque town situated in the heart of Chiapas. The streets are lined with ornate and colourful colonial houses in the city centre, which host shops selling coffee from the region, local artesanal goods, clothing and restaurants and small cafeterias where one can try exquisite local cuisine from the region, or simply just on one of the terraces and watch the world go by.
It also served as a good hub to organise tours and explore the surrounding areas, some of which can be visited on a half-day trip, other excursions require travelling much further afield and organising accommodation outside of San Cristobal de las Casas.
Unfortunately the condition of the roads and what seems like an infinite number of speed bumps on the road in Chiapas does tend to prolongate travel times and become quite tiresome.
That said, it is well worth bearing the discomfort on the roads to fully experience the natural beauty that awaits you in each area of interest.
Our first tour was to San Juan Chamula and Zinacatlan, 2 indigenous villages where photography is strictly prohibited except within designated areas, and when permission was granted. As frustrating as it is, one has to respect their culture and traditions.
Cascada El Chiflón
We arrived at the bottom of El Chiflón Waterfall at approximately 9am, the climate was warm and humid but bearable. I was unsure what to expect of this place, I was told it was a large waterfall. However, having seen many a waterfall that, from a photographer´s point of view, don´t justify the beauty because of their inaccessibility.
However, I was very pleasantly surprised. In a nutshell, the main and largest waterfall "El Chiflón" is situated at the top of a 1268 metre paved walk, en route, there are many other smaller waterfalls and natural pools that ooze beauty in the form of alluring turquoise waters and lush green vegetation, creating a scene that could be reminiscent of a setting for a fairy tale.
This particular landscape shot was a panoramic shot taken on tripod at approximately 10am at "Cascada Ála del Ángel", a small scenic area at the base of the path that leads up to El Chiflón waterfall. Part of the beauty of arriving early at such destinations is not only a more attractive light than midday or early afternoon, but no tourists also meant hassle free landscape photography!
Another big plus with this area, is the fact you can camp at the base of El Chiflón, meaning endless ability to photograph some of Mexico´s finest nature.
The Lakes of Montebello
Our guide told us, that the Lakes of Montebello comprise of 52 lakes in total, one of which is shared on the Mexico - Guatemala border, and others extend into Guatemalan territory and form part of the Parque Nacional Lagunas de Montebello. Each lake gloats a different water, which is best seen when the sun is shining, and not on overcast days (as when we visited).
The Ruins of Toniná
These are probably some of the most impressive ruins I´ve seen with such spectacular green surrounding scenery. Its an ample site situated in the middle of the countryside, the pyramids are steep to climb and one should be careful as they can prove hazardous.
Unfortunately, we arrived here mid afternoon so the light wasnt at its most flattering. Professional cameras are admitted without problem, but to enter with a tripod, one needs a permit from the appropriate authority in Mexico City, and....5,000 pesos for that permit (at the time of writing).
Exploring the Town of San Cristobal de las Casas on Foot
One can easily spend weeks exploring the Chiapas region and its abundance of natural gems. It does however become tiresome with all the travel and tours, and it is a pleasant experience just to explore the streets within the city of San Cristobal de las Casas.
A diverse artesanal market can be found next to the cathedral and one can obtain some real bargains on clothing, bags, rugs and souvenirs from the region. Some haggling may be required, but even so, artesanal goods here are far cheaper than what you will find in the larger cities.
The city itself is swarming with indigenous people who come down from their villages very early in the morning to sell their locally crafted goods in the street. It is a good opportunity to purchase goods, and many indigenous peoples will let you take their photograph if you purchase from them.
If you do get bored of walking around San Cristobal de las Casas, there are many a place that will rent you a bicycle to explore further afield.
Chiapas is a paradise for Coffee and Chocolate lovers, as it is a premium product grown in the region and generally everywhere you go, you can buy different brands and blends. So if you are looking for consumable souvenirs whilst in Chiapas, Coffee and Chocolate are a fantastic gift.
One does need to take into consideration that Chiapas is one of the poorer states in Mexico, and as such, there are many children on the streets with nothing on their feet, selling artesanal goods to make money for their families, or begging for money.
This is something that is quite hard to grasp and very sad, there are numerous NGOs which contribute to education and social development for communities in Chiapas, but of course it´s a gradual process. If you would like to donate to a charity or cause in the area, and are unable to locate one, please do get in touch and I can make some recommendations.
Amatenango Del Valle
About 40 minutes drive from San Cristobal de las Casas is the small village of Amatenango del Valle. A village that prides itself on producing and selling pottery and hand-crafts, products that are generally made, painted and sold by women in the area.
We were fortunate enough to see the entire process from scratch on how their craftworks are made. Our guide presented us to a local lady who led us through to their "workshop", what can only be described as a dimly lit mud hut. She sat on a tiny stool on the gravel floor and began to work with a piece of clay on a make-shift wooden table. A bowl of water also on the table served as a lubricant to help mould the clay accordingly. Surprisingly, there was no potters wheel or "tools of the trade", all products are made 100% by hand using clay from the region, then fired in a home made kiln and, if necessary, painted...then sold to locals, tourists and businesses in the Chiapas region and the rest of the Mexican Republic.
A symbolic product to buy from Amatenango del Valle, is a minimalist painted bird (as seen in the photo on the right). These hand crafted products can be seen everywhere over Chiapas and are typically believed to watch over the people around them and provide protection.
There is little more to see in this area other than the pottery products handmade from clay, and the typical brightly coloured clothing worn in the region, but given its proximity to San Cristobal de las Casas, its an easy and worthwhile trip to do and spend a couple of hours visiting something different and admiring how local crafts are made. And, if that doesnt tickle your fancy, there is opportunity for some good travel photography there and the surrounding areas. But, ensure out of respect you ask peoples permission prior to taking photos of them.
Our trip to Palenque was long, and tiresome. What would have been a straight 7-hour drive from San Cristobal de las Casas and roads with more curves and bumps than you can shake a stick at, was broken down by short stops at nearby attractions. Palenque is one of the most significant sites of Mayan ruins in the region, and it still has a population that are of Mayan descent. No wonder it is listed as a UNESCO world heritage site.
The ruins themselves are situated in the midst of a jungle, with a sweltering heat and humidity that seems it is too much to bear. But still, the history that surrounds the area is fascinating, even more so if you take into consideration that the whole area encompassed a religious centre approximately 25 square miles, of which, only half has been excavated. Intrigued?
The Blue Waters
Located in the municipality of Tumbalá, Los Aguas Azules, or the Blue Waters as they are called in English, seemed almost surreal, because the rock formations and turquoise waters seemed nearly too perfect to be natural.
Similar to el Chiflón, it has a paved walkway that leads you alongside the Aguas Azules, the difference being this area is much more frequented than el Chiflón, and thankfully, the pathway that leads you upwards is much easier on the legs. In addition, there are a number of market stands along the path on the way up selling local artesanal goods, food, soft drinks and fruit.
Similarly to el Chiflón, Aguas Azules oozes infinite amounts of natural beauty, and at numerous pools around the pathway, one can bathe in the calmer areas of the turqouise waters caused by the high mineral content in the waters.
From bottom to the designated top area (although you can carry on walking as the path continues), it takes approximately 1.5 hours. Time permitting for breaks, a leisurely pace and a bite to eat of course.
Our guide told me, there are occasions at Aguas Azules, when the waters are not as turquoise and pristine as they appear in the photos.
Situated approximately 30km from the Guatemalan border is Bonampak, a small Mayan town and historical site. The ruins here are interesting although not quite as spectacular as those seen in Palenque, they are photogenic all the same, and you can climb the pyramids to the top and get a beautiful view of the jungle below and surrounding hills.
As I started walking down the pyramids steep steps, a large hairy spider crossed my path. I paused to take a closer look and asked the guide what it was. "Oh! thats a tarantula", he said calmy as he continued. Certainly not a sight for arachnophobes!
We left the archaelogical site and our guide introduced us to a local, Daniel Chankin, a man proudly of Mayan descent who was dressed in the traditional white mayan tunic. Daniel led us on a short walking tour into the jungle with his son, Bryan. Daniel provided a valuable insight as to how the Mayans lived and plant remedies in the jungle that are used to cure everything from skin rashes to venomous snake bites.
Daniel, in addition to being of Mayan descent, is a fully qualified tour guide in the region and an expert on first aid. He offers a great variety of other tours, which can be seen on Aventuras Chankin webpage.
This was my first visit to Chiapas, and certainly won´t be my last. I mention a few of the tours we did, and they are quite common.
However, I shall certainly return with a more photographic eye and with more attention to detail. As there are endless other tours one can do, that aren´t on every tourist map, not in every tourists photo album, and give you the opportunity to explore another part of Mexico that perhaps others have not.