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.
Chiapas in southern Mexico is one of the country’s most beautiful states, with pine-forest mountains, ancient Mayan ruins surrounded by jungle, big waves on remote beaches, and friendly, cheerful people.
Colonial mountain town San Cristóbal de las Casas (shortened to San Cris by locals) is the unofficial tourist capital of Chiapas and an excellent base for exploring this fascinating region. Founded in 1528, San Cris sits in a wide valley of the forested Central Highlands in the center of the state.
Its colorful historic center can be seen in half a day with slow walks down cobblestone streets, up staircases to hilltop churches, and through the massive public market, where you’ll experience the “real” Chiapas, which lacks the polish of mass tourism and foreign-owned businesses common elsewhere in Mexico.
There’s a lot to see and do in San Cris, and even more in the surrounding mountains and indigenous small towns. But take your time. Part this mellow city’s charm is a long morning at a café or a long afternoon on a patio bar, of course with full-flavored coffee, pure mountain air, and views of the green valley all around.
Here are the highlights:
The Historic Center
The zócalo, or parque central, is the exact center of most Latin American cities. The cathedral (the biggest church and often the tallest structure in town) and government buildings face these squares.
Some are wide open and paved with stone, like in Mexico City, but in San Cris the zócalo is full of trees and park benches. You can get a drink and listen to marimba music at the gazebo in the middle.
The cathedral is north of the zócalo, and it faces its own square: La Plaza de la Paz (Peace Plaza). If you’re lucky enough to be in San Cris for a music festival, the stage will probably be set up here.
With the zócalo in the intersection, two long pedestrian streets (called andadores) form a big T in central San Cris. They’re lined with restaurants, bars, cafés, bakeries, travel agencies, souvenir shops, and clothing stores.
All kinds of people fill the busy streets: locals walking to work, Mayans visiting from mountain communities, hippies with sandwich boards full of jewelry, world travelers humping backpacks of all sizes, and Mexican families on vacation.
You’ll walk down an andador every day you’re in San Cris. One ends at the Outdoor Artisanal Market, with the Municipal Market farther on (see below), and the other two lead to pretty hilltop churches.
Two Hilltop Churches
If you get lost in central San Cris, just look up and around for the two churches on hills on opposite sides of the historic center: the Cerro de San Cristóbal and the Cerro de Guadalupe. (Cerro means hill.) The higher Cerro de San Cristóbal is up a long staircase surrounded by trees.
Across town, the Cerro de Guadalupe has a more open panoramic view, and the smaller church is pretty inside and out. It’s also a good landmark and starting point for exploring the east side of San Cris, which has natural areas like Las Canastas (a hiking spot) and Arcotete Park (see below).
The Municipal Market
There are three big markets in central San Cris. Two are full of souvenirs and geared toward tourists, though still worth visiting. The sprawling Municipal Market, however, is the biggest, best, and realest. In Spanish it’s the Mercado Público Municipal José Castillo Tiélemans, and it unfolds over many city blocks.
The greater market with all its extensions isn’t well-marked on maps, and getting lost is easy once you’re inside. Exploring it properly takes time, and once you think you’ve seen it all, you’ll turn a corner and find a whole new section.
This is the place to buy ground coffee, cacao beans (the rawest chocolate), exotic fruit, fresh vegetables, natural medicine, candles, and so much more. You’ll see things you’ve never seen before—don’t hesitate to ask questions and accept free samples. But please don’t drive a hard bargain, and don’t treat it like a photo opportunity. Instead soak up the culture and buy some tasty treats to devour or share on your hotel patio.
The large market building—a hangar the size of a football field—is buried among all the stalls under tarps hung over what were once open city streets. Walk down a staircase to the spacious market building, where you can find cheese, meat, packaged goods, and many of the same things you saw outside, like fruit and bread.
There’s a cluster of restaurants near the northeast corner of the big market building. Just keep wandering—you’ll find them. You’ll get your cheapest and most authentic meal in San Cris at these restaurants, and your fellow diners are more likely to be locals than tourists.
The Na Bolom Museum
If you go to only one museum in San Cris, and especially if you prefer history to jade, amber, chocolate, or Mayan medicine, then go to the Na Bolom Museum.
The Na Bolom museum is the former house of Danish explorer Frans Bloom and his wife, Swiss photographer and fellow explorer Gertrude Durby. On display is their personal collection of historical artifacts, photos, and maps from their explorations into the Lacandon jungle in north-central Chiapas.
Half the fun is exploring the beautifully restored colonial home. Don’t miss the small chapel, used for piano recitals, and the well-stocked library.
Live Music and Nightlife
Talented musicians from all over Mexico come to San Cris to tour or to settle, so after dark the city is full of great jazz, flamenco, salsa, rock, reggae, hip-hop, DJs, and anything else you can imagine.
Bars and clubs go in and out of style, so ask around for whatever kind of music you want, like a friendly waitress or a cool bartender. Strolling down an andador after dark is another way to find a band, as you can hear the music coming from the open door or windows of practically every restaurant or bar.
Here are three tried-and-true favorites, all within a block of each other on or near the Andador Eclesiástico by the cathedral:
Revolution: The spot for hippy rock, hippy folk, and hippy hip-hop, often with no cover. Open for lunch too.
Zirko: The Cuban-led salsa band is excellent, and for a small space there’s a bumping dance floor. The band starts late (11 p.m. or even midnight) and plays into the morning, and on weekends there are DJs in the larger back room.
DaDa Jazz Club: Right around the corner from Zirko and Revolution is San Cris’ premier jazz club. Look for the schedule posted near the front door.
Of course, you can hear live music on the street on warm, busy nights.
Arcoteje Park and Mammoth Caves
In the mountains just outside San Cris are privately-owned nature parks with small entrance fees. Many have caves, hiking trails, and activities like ziplines and rappelling.
I recommend Parque Ecoturístico El Arcotete (Arcotete Ecotourism Park) and Grutas del Mamut (Mammoth Caves) for how nice they are and how close they are to each other. You can see both in half a day, even if you don’t want to spend too much time on your feet. The easiest way is to take a taxi, though you can walk to them from central San Cris.
Arcotete has a small cave above a river, lots of hiking trails, and a high zipline. If you’re an experienced hiker and speak Spanish (for asking directions), you could hike downhill all the way to Las Canastas, another park on the outskirts of San Cris.
For extensive caves with large chambers you could drive a truck into, head up the highway from Arcotete to Mammoth Caves (Grutas de Mamut). Look for the rock formation that resembles a woolly mammoth, which gives the cave its name (mamut = mammoth). Above ground, a small stream passes by the parking lot. You can rent a boat to drift down it, or stick to the hiking trails.
Detailed directions to these parks and all the other places mentioned in this article (Palenque, San Juan Chamula, Sumidero Canyon, etc.) can be found in my guidebook to Chiapas, though I’ll gladly answer questions in the comments.
San Juan Chamula
San Juan Chamula is the best-known autonomous Mayan community in Chiapas. Besides its scenic location in a wooded valley next to San Cris, the main reason to go is its otherworldly cathedral. Instead of pews, there are pine needles and burning candles on the floor, smoke in the air, and praying locals who bring in chickens and cans of soda.
And yet another reason to visit San Juan Chamula is to sample pox (pronounced and sometimes spelled posh), the local corn moonshine. You can buy fancy bottles of it in San Cris, or get the more authentic and cheaper version in reused Coca Cola bottles up the street from the cathedral in Chamula.
Sumidero Canyon and Chiapa de Corzo
A photo of the massive Sumidero Canyon is bound to be on the cover of any Mexican tourist brochure for Chiapas.
There are lookouts above the canyon, but the best way to see it is with the two- or three-hour boat trip from Chiapa de Corzo, the small colonial town on the muddy Grijalva River where the boat tours leave from.
After winding through some sandy banks with thick forest behind, you’ll go under the highway bridge and then between towering cliffs, which at one point are 1,000 meters high.
Most people go in a tour from San Cris, but it’s easy to get there on your own with a 40-minute colectivo (passenger van) ride to Chiapa de Corzo. The little town is worth exploring as well. It’s warmer than San Cris, has a spacious zocalo with authentic restaurants, and there are bigger restaurants with mariachis, marimbas, and cool breezes on the river by the docks.
The Zoo in Tuxtla Gutiérrez
I know, I know, zoos get a bad rap. But Zoomat is different. It exclusively features animals from Chiapas in their natural habitat, which means that you can see animals you would never see otherwise, like the elusive quetzal (bird) or the dangerous jaguar.
Zoomat, official known as Zoológico Miguel Álvarez del Toro, is across the valley from the Sumidero Canyon in the forested valley slopes above Tuxtla Gutiérrez, the capital and largest city in Chiapas. If you get up early, you can see Zoomat and the Sumidero Canyon in the same day from San Cris.
Visiting Zoomat is like exploring a jungle park, with winding paths and little bridges over streams. Follow the route through the whole place, which begins with the crocodiles and ends with the jaguars. The official pamphlet states that it takes two and a half hours to see everything.
Elsewhere in Chiapas
Besides San Cris and the Sumidero Canyon, the other major attraction in Chiapas is the ancient Mayan city of Palenque, with big, climbable pyramids deep in the monkey-filled jungle at the foot of mountains.
But every corner of the state offers something for the traveler: the multicolored Montebello and Colon lakes surrounded by pine forests, huge 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.
Buses and colectivos (passenger vans) go to all these places, most of which are no more than a half day from San Cris. They offer a nice mixture of rustic adventure and good travel services, including hotels and restaurants for all budgets. Best of all, Chiapas is one of the safest places in Mexico, and getting around is generally hassle-free, even if you don’t speak Spanish.
For travel advice for these places and many more, please check out my guidebook Your Chiapas Adventure: San Cristobal de las Casas and Palenque. It’s full of detailed maps and directions, cultural insights, and insider tips for food, accommodation, and communicating in Spanish.
Please click the book for info:
Thanks to Marco Garcia for the photos of Palenque and the Sumidero Canyon.