8 Tips for Budget Travel in Chiapas
Mexico’s southern state of Chiapas is a land of coffee and chocolate, big waves and rolling mountains, Mayan communities and zapatista revolutionaries. In Chiapas you’ll stroll down cobblestone streets in colonial mountain towns, climb ancient Mayan pyramids in the jungle, and swim with sea turtles at remote beaches, with your next destination only a half day away.
This is Mayan country, and although the Mayan civilization mysteriously collapsed a thousand years ago, the people live on. In fact, a quarter of Chiapanecos don’t speak Spanish as a first language but an indigenous language instead. Mayan women are easily recognized by their colorful woven dresses which, like kilts in Scotland, have patterns to signify where the wearer is from.
Along with modern Mexico, the other great influence on the culture of Chiapas was the Spanish colonial period. The conquistadors established picturesque colonial cities, including San Cristóbal de las Casas, founded in 1528, and nowadays the unofficial capital of tourism in the state.
Other major highlights include the 1,000-meter deep Sumidero Canyon and the ancient Mayan ruins of Palenque, with big, climbable pyramids in monkey-filled jungle at the foot of mountains.
But every corner of the state offers something for the adventurous traveler: the multicolored Montebello Lakes surrounded by pine forests, big waterfalls like El Chiflon and Misol-Ha, the long Pacific coast of under-explored beach towns, and more Mayan ruins in even-deeper jungle, such as Bonampak and Yaxchilán.
It’s a tough choice, but I have to say that, even in a country with so much diversity of both nature and culture, Chiapas is my favorite part of Mexico. Here are some tips from my many visits to the state:
Tip 1: Make San Cristóbal de las Casas Your Base
Not only is San Cristóbal de las Casas (shortened to San Cris by locals) one of the most beautiful towns in Mexico, but its location roughly in the center of Chiapas makes it an ideal base for exploring other places in the state.
Palenque, the other top destination in Chiapas, is about five hours away. Closer still are the Sumidero Canyon and nearby Tuxtla Gutiérrez, the state capital. In the other direction is Comitán, a colonial mountain town similar in size to San Cris but with much less tourism. From Comitán you can travel to natural attractions like the El Chiflon waterfall and the Montebello Lakes, or beyond to the Guatemalan border.
Detailed directions to all of these places can be found in my guidebook to Chiapas, though I’ll gladly answer questions in the comments.
In San Cris, two long pedestrian-only streets (called andadores) intersect at the tree-filled zócalo (center square). They’re lined with with restaurants, bars, coffee shops, bakeries, art shops, clothing stores, and travel agencies. Here you can find hotels and hostels for any budget, many in restored colonial mansions with airy central patios.
An abundance of Mexican and international restaurants offer excellent value, but if you really want to save money…
Tip 2: Shop and Eat in the San Cris Municipal Market
The good smells coming out of San Cris’ justifiably famous coffeeshops are certainly tempting, and at 10-30 pesos for a cup of coffee, cheaper than Starbucks (and better too).
But for a much-cheaper cup of Chiapan coffee — and a little adventure as well — search the enormous Municipal Market. Various vendors sell bags of locally-grown coffee in the maze-like complex, with a half-kilo costing about 50 pesos.
As you wander through the tarp-covered corridors, searching for coffee and marveling at the sounds, sights, and smells of traditional Mayan commerce, pick up a few bags of fruit as well. Look for exotic choices like rambutan, pittahaya, and papausa, along with super-fresh papayas, mangos, strawberries, and so much more.
To complete this breakfast trio of coffee, fruit, and bread, browse the bakeries on the andadores. Besides good Mexican bakeries, you can find international options in La Casa de Pan, which has a stylish restaurant in the back, and Oh la la!, a French bakery.
Most downtown hotels have a central patio or rooftop where you can sit outside and have your breakfast. Of course, you’ll need a kitchen to brew the coffee, but many hotels and nearly all hostels have one. You don’t need a coffee maker — bring a small french press or a pour-over coffee maker, which are must-haves for traveling coffee addicts.
But even if your hotel doesn’t have a kitchen — or if you don’t like fruit and coffee — the Municipal Market is a fascinating place to explore, and small Mexican restaurants scattered throughout serve authentic set meals for as low as 30 pesos.
So, while you can splurge on a big dinner at one of the fancy restaurants on the andadores, be sure to save money, eat well, and get some culture in the Municipal Market.
Tip 3: Fly to Chiapas — Don’t Take the Bus
A flight straight to Chiapas from Mexico City or Cancun costs less than the first-class bus, which obviously takes much longer. For example, the trip from Mexico City to San Cris by bus takes 14 hours, while the flight is less than an hour.
The bus from Mexico City can cost between 1,000 and 2,000 pesos, but with anticipation (more than a month or so), you can find a flight for as low as 800 pesos. So before buying tickets for a first-class bus, check the prices of flights, and the earlier, the better. (This goes for all long-distance trips in Mexico, by the way.)
Although there’s a small airport in San Cris, more frequent and less expensive flights go to the larger airport near Tuxtla Gutiérrez about an hour away. The official name of the airport is the Angel Albino Corzo International Airport, in Spanish Aeropuerto Angel Albino Corzo. Check the prices and schedules of Mexico’s airlines: Interjet, Aerobus, Volaris, and Aeromexico.
Of course, an overland trip from Cancun takes you through the fantastic Yucatán Peninsula, where you can stop in Valladolid (and Chichén Itzá), Mérida, and Campeche on your way to Palenque. So, if you have the time (a minimum of two weeks), consider combining these two regions to experience the best of Mexico.
Tip 4: Or, Take the Discount Bus from Mexico City
All over Mexico, first- and second-class buses leave from “official” bus terminals, and third-class, much cheaper buses leave from elsewhere, usually independent stations or offices hidden in the city.
The discount buses to Chiapas leave Mexico City from a market called La Merced just outside the historic center. Go to the Candelaria metro stop and exit the station on the side of the tiangis (market stalls). Walk down the street through the market and look on your right for a church with a big square in front of it. Cross the square and you’ll see offices for several bus companies that go to Chiapas. If you ask a vendor in the market “camiones para Chiapas,” you’ll get pointed in the right direction.
These buses leave in the late afternoon between 5 and 7 p.m. Show up early to reserve a seat, or come to the offices to buy tickets a day or two before. The buses are modern and generally clean, but may get a little crowded.
They make stops in Puebla (on the highway, not in the city center) and much later in Tuxtla Gutiérrez. Then they arrive in San Cris around 8 or 9 a.m. and continue on to Comitán.
One of several companies, Viajes Aury, charges 400 pesos (more in high season) for the trip from Mexico City to San Cris. Expect this to change, but it’s still much less expensive than the “official” buses.
Tip 5: Travel Around by Bus or Colectivo
When you’ve finally had your fill of San Cris’ low-key vibe and lovely landscapes, getting to other Chiapas destinations is safe and easy. Although travel agencies arrange low-cost trips to places like the Sumidero Canyon or the nearby Mayan community of San Juan Chamula, there’s no reason you can’t save time and money by doing in on your own.
Colectivos, small passenger vans, travel practically everywhere in the state. Most colectivos leave from the Pan-American highway, the busy road south of the San Cris zócalo where the bus station is located, although colectivos to nearby communities like San Juan Chamula leave from near the Municipal Market.
Next to the bus station on the Pan-American highway, colectivos leave for Comitán, and from there the colectivos for the Montebello Lakes or the Guatemalan border are only a few buildings away.
A direct bus makes the five-hour trip to Palenque, but colectivos are cheaper and leave more frequently. Take a colectivo to Ocosingo, where you transfer for Palenque. If you can, leave early to explore the busy small town and the nearby ruins of Toniná, where one of the largest pyramids in Mexico was recently discovered under was once assumed to be a hill.
Take a colectivo to Tuxtla Gutiérrez to get to the Sumidero Canyon, but get out before Tuxtla on the highway turnoff for Chiapa de Corzo. Another colectivo takes you into the pretty colonial town, where you walk two blocks to the muddy Grijalva River for the boats to the canyon.
Tip 6: Stay in the Jungle outside Palenque
For tourists, Palenque can mean two places: the ancient Mayan city of limestone pyramids that peaked between AD 500 and 700, or the small tourist town next to it that’s full of hotels and restaurants.
Palenque the town is about 15 minutes by colectivo from the archeological site. The town is perfectly nice, but doesn’t have anything too exciting. You can, however, find inexpensive, good hotels, and from there it’s easy to arrange tours to nearby waterfalls and other ruins.
So, although staying in Palenque town is a decent option, why not stay in a bungalow in the jungle right outside the ruins?
Just before the park entrance is an area called El Panchan, where you can find accommodation for as low as 100 pesos a night. It’s easy to get to the ruins when the park opens in the morning—you just walk up the road—and after dark the animal noises begin, always loud enough to seem just outside the flimsy screen door.
Tip 7: Go to the Beach at Boca del Cielo
I’ve been asked many times, are there beaches in Chiapas? But of course! Although they’re overshadowed by world-famous Cancun and Acapulco, and to a lesser extent by nearby, rustic Oaxaca, beaches in Chiapas are lovely, cheap, and like stepping back in time — the power may be off for most of the day, forget about Wi-Fi, and instead of a shower you’ll bathe by pouring a bucket of water over your head.
You can get to Boca del Cielo in half a day from San Cris. First, take the bus to Tonalá. Although colectivos do go there, you have to transfer in hot lowland towns on the way. Then, once in Tonalá, walk through town to a small station for shared taxis to Boca del Cielo. After the taxi ride you’ll take a short boat ride to the beach.
The beach is on a wide sandbar between the ocean and the long freshwater lagoon that separates it from the mainland. Walk west on the beach to see where the ocean meets fresh water, and walk east to visit a turtle sanctuary. There are no more than 10 small hotels here, and with minimal haggling you can find a room or bungalow facing the ocean for 100 pesos a night or less.
Tip 8: Buy my Chiapas Guidebook
All these tips and many more can be found in my guidebook Your Chiapas Adventure: San Cristobal de las Casas and Palenque. It’s full of detailed maps and directions, cultural insights, and insider advice for food, accommodation, and communicating in Spanish.
Posted on October 11, 2016, in Mexico, Travel in Mexico and tagged canon de sumidero, chiapas, chiapas guidebook, palenque, san cristobal de las casas, San Juan Chamula, sumidero canyon. Bookmark the permalink. 5 Comments.