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Driving in Mexico: Everything You Need to Know

There’s no reason for a competent and experienced driver to be intimidated by driving in Mexico. In fact, driving around the country is an excellent option, especially with low prices for rental cars and an abundance of out-of-the-way destinations like colonial towns, national parks, and virgin beaches.

Sure, things are a little different here, but like anything else unfamiliar in Mexico, the main thing you need is patience. And a few tips.

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To Drive or Not?

Your budget is the first factor to consider for whether you drive in Mexico or not. Right now, all over the world, renting a car is super cheap, as low as 10 dollars a day. This means that despite toll highways and somewhat pricy gasoline (compared to the U.S.—it’s still lower than in Europe), renting a car may actually be cheaper than using public transportation, especially if you travel in a group or visit places outside of major cities.

Toll highways can be expensive, however, and navigation can be confusing, so before you rent a car to drive between distant cities, at least take a look at the price of domestic flights. Flights within Mexico can be incredibly cheap, often cheaper than a much-longer first-class bus ride.

Also, if you will confine your trip to only one city, then you can easily use public transportation to get around, which will save hassles like getting lost and finding parking. This is especially true for Mexico City, which has an efficient, inexpensive, and reasonably safe metro (subway) system below ground and incredibly busy and confusing roads above. Other major cities also have comprehensive public transportation systems and an abundance of taxis.

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For longer trips, buses and passenger vans called colectivos travel to nearly every corner of Mexico, usually for cheap, but again I recommend you compare the price of bus tickets to the price of flights for any trip longer than ten hours.

To get an idea of how much your proposed road trip will cost, you can calculate the tolls and gas on this website, which is only in Spanish but easy to use.

Besides your budget, the second factor for deciding whether to drive in Mexico or not is how many people are traveling. If it’s only you, or you and just one other person, then it’s probably better to fly long distances and take public transportation for short distances. But if you have a group of, say, four or five, the price of a car rental, gas, tolls, and parking should be less than the combined total of all those bus and plane tickets.

So, with your budget and the number of your travel companions in mind, the next thing to consider is what kind of places you plan on visiting. Can public transportation get you there efficiently? To explain I’ll give some example itineraries below.

As I mentioned above, regardless of how many are in your group, if you have a week or less to explore Mexico City, don’t rent a car. You can get around just fine on the metro system without the headaches of traffic, parking, and getting lost. You can use taxis late at night when the metro stops running, but remember that waving them down on the street isn’t safe—ask your hotel for the number of a “safe taxi.”

But if you want to visit Mexico City and then take a trip to a nearby colonial town in the mountains, like Taxco or Tepoztlan, renting a car will give you a lot more freedom and access. Although buses do go to these places, they may not take you to the center of town (bus stations are typically outside the city center, especially in larger cities) or to the trailhead below the mountain you want to hike. You’ll need a local bus or taxi for that, and with a car you can go straight there without delays or haggling.

Another example would be if you wanted to visit the city of Querétaro, where the bus station is far from downtown (although you can easily get there by taxi), and having a car makes it easy to visit nearby destinations like the Pena de Bernal.

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If you’re going to Cancun or a nearby town like Playa del Carmen on the Mayan Riviera, and your main object is to hang out on the beach, don’t rent a car. You can take public transportation for day trips to the main nearby destinations like other beaches, cenotes (underground caves and rivers), or the most popular ruins of Tulum and Chichen Itza.

But, if you want to visit more distant pyramids or cenotes, then renting a car makes sense because you won’t be at the mercy of rigid bus schedules and indirect bus routes. Also, if you’re in group, that car rental might be cheaper than the combined total of bus tickets.

In sum, renting a car is a good idea if you want the freedom to explore and see the country at your own pace, and it will probably save you money if you’re part of a big group. On the other hand, if you’re traveling alone, will only stay around one area, or are worried about getting lost, you can travel well on public transportation, which provides a different kind of freedom: freedom from hassle.

Renting a Car

If you use a third-party website like expedia.com to rent cars, which often has really low prices, be aware that you’ll still have to buy insurance at the rental counter, which may double or even triple the original quote. Third-party insurance (such as the liability insurance that comes included on Expedia rentals) is not valid in Mexico.

So, to prevent getting shaken down buying pricy insurance at the car rental office, take a look at company websites. The usual suspects are all common in Mexico, like Hertz, Alamo, National, Budget, Thrifty, Europcar, Avis, and Sixt.

Consider all the options for pick-up and drop-off locations, and carefully read all the details about the car (the cheapest ones are usually manual transmission) and about the contract, like insurance and mileage. Usually you’ll pay a smaller deposit when you buy more insurance, so if you don’t want an expensive package, make sure the credit card you use for the deposit has a high limit, like thousands of dollars.

If you only want the car for part of your trip, then you can pick it up at the airport and then drop it off at an office in the city near your hotel. This is also a good option for traveling between distant cities. The rates are calculated by day, so if you pick the car up at 4 p.m., you’ll drop it off at or before 4 p.m.

Or you can pick up the car somewhere in the city in the middle of your trip and later drop it off at the airport when you leave. For example, if you were going to spend a week in Mexico City (where you wouldn’t need the car) and then a week driving to nearby towns, you could take the metro to one of the rental offices in the city to pick up the car and then drop it off at the airport before you fly home.

(Be aware that cars, rentals too, must have a special permission to drive in Mexico City. This is both to reduce traffic and because of environmental concerns. So if Mexico City is your final destination and you’ll be arriving by car, think about dropping off the rental as soon as possible to avoid getting a ticket. If you rent a car in Mexico City, however, it will have that permission.)

Part of the process of renting a car is when the agent walks around inspecting it for previous damage and recording it on a piece of paper. Pay attention during this time—if he fails to notice something, you’ll be charged for it later.

Finally, you don’t need an international driver’s license to drive or rent a car in Mexico if you’re from the U.S., Canada, Europe or many other places.

Driving Across the Border

Yes, you can drive your car into Mexico, though you will be charged $15 for a temporary import permit and must use a credit card (expect this to change). Ask at the border and tell them your destination—if your trip is no farther than 25km from the border, you don’t need this permission, nor do you need it for the Baja Peninsula or the western half of Sonora.

For safety’s sake you should have car insurance that covers you in Mexico, which you can buy online or sometimes in offices outside the border on the U.S. side. Your U.S. (or Canadian, etc.) coverage is not valid in Mexico.

When you come across, after passing immigration where they check your passport, you’ll go through customs next. It’s a simple procedure, just like at the airport: If the light turns green, you’re free to enter, and if it turns red, your car will be searched. The vigorousness of the search seems to be directly related to your patience and politeness with the officers—if you complain or ask them to hurry up, you can be sure that the search will be comprehensive and slow.

A tip: If you’re only going to spend your time in the border town, just walk across. You’ll understand why when you come back and see the huge lines of cars waiting to enter the U.S.

Safety

Aside from some crazy drivers (more on that below), driving in Mexico is generally safe. The worst possible things could be a carjacking in a big city or a robbery at a fake roadblock on a lonely highway.

There’s not much you can do to prevent the first one, other than keeping your windows rolled up at intersections and at night. As for the fake roadblock, it’s a good idea to ask some locals—the friendly person at the front desk of your hotel, if you can’t find anyone else—if the highway you are planning on taking is known to be dangerous.

If you get into a serious accident, wait for the police to come and have your insurance ready. For minor fender-benders, however, Mexicans usually settle up in cash right there on the side of the road. If it’s your fault, offer a few hundred pesos, and if it’s the other person’s fault, it’s up to you if you want to ask for money or call your insurance company.

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Police

Although I would never recommend speeding, you don’t really have to worry about getting pulled over in Mexico. I have never once seen a speed trap on a highway, and very rarely have I heard of people being pulled over for running red lights or other such reckless driving.

There are two types of police in Mexico, traffic police (transito) and the regular kind, who may be state or federal. The transito police deal with—surprise—all things related to traffic, which typically means directing it rather than actually policing it. You can usually spot them by the orange on their uniforms.

It’s possible to be stopped in a city for running a stop sign you didn’t notice or some similar unclear infraction. In many instances the police are only looking for a bribe, especially if they mention a refresco, which literally means a soda but is slang for a bribe. Yes, it’s common for Mexicans to bribe their way out of tickets, but as a foreigner it could get you in a lot of trouble. Speaking terrible Spanish may help, as they won’t want to deal with you or bother giving you a ticket. The most important thing is to remain calm and polite.

The other police, not transito, have nothing to do with traffic violations. At any rate, both types of police usually drive around with their sirens on all the time, so they won’t be sneaking up on anybody anyway.

Finally, a word on checkpoints and roadblocks, common in cities and highways. In most cases you simply slow down and the police or military will wave you through. Don’t stop unless they tell you to. They’re looking for drug smugglers, not tourists.

In tourist areas, like the Mayan Riviera near Cancun, the checkpoint might actually be a tourist information service. For safety’s sake, of course slow down, but once it’s obvious that they aren’t the police (teenagers in colorful shirts, for example), just keep on rolling.

And as I mentioned earlier, in a big city at night, at the checkpoint the police are probably looking for drunks. If you’ve been drinking and are told to pull over, follow all their instructions with as much politeness as you can muster. You’ll have to show ID and blow into a breathalyzer. The limit is 1.6, and expect this to change. If you blow over the limit, you’ll be taken to jail and your car will be impounded if there’s no one sober enough to drive it for you. You can try bribing the police at your own risk—I am NOT recommending it, but it could get you out of a night in the drunk tank.

Gas Stations

In 1938, President Lazaro Cardenas nationalized Mexico’s oil reserves, which means there is only one type of gas station in Mexico: Pemex. The prices are similar nationwide for the two types of gas, magna (which is regular) and premium.

(As I write this, gas prices and the possible privatization of Pemex are big issues. We may be seeing competing gas stations soon. Read an overview of this here.)

You don’t pump your own gas; an attendant does this for you. If you don’t speak Spanish and want to fill the tank, say:

Lleno de magna, por favor.” —Fill it up with regular please.

Notice how the attendant says “ceros” (zeros) before it starts flowing. This is because a common rip-off used to be that there would already be liters of gas marked on the machine, a good way to overcharge the unmindful. I’ve never actually seen this, but it becomes a habit to check the machine to see that it’s blank.

The attendant will wash your windows, check your oil, and check your tire pressure if you ask him to. But even if he only pumps the gas, give him a tip, between 5 and 10 pesos—round up the price of your gas.

At night, keep an eye on your surroundings—dark, lonely gas stations are good places to get robbed.

Navigation

Perhaps the main challenge for driving in Mexico is navigating, both in cities and highways. Unless the route is direct and simple, merely checking it beforehand on a map and then following signs is not enough, as road signs in Mexico are often confusing, incorrect, or simply nonexistent.

If you have a smartphone, then get the app Waze. It will calculate your route and give you alternates when there is bad traffic. Of course, apps like this work best when you compare them with a physical map, especially if you’re off the beaten track. You can find lots of stories on the internet of people following these apps into lakes, rivers, or bad neighborhoods. Apps are super useful, but must be combined with common sense to function properly.

Also, these apps are best used by your friend sitting shotgun. Trying to follow them while driving, especially in the heavy traffic of Mexico City, isn’t only difficult, but exceedingly dangerous.

If you travel with Mexicans, you’ll notice a popular way of navigating—pulling over and asking directions. Do this as much as possible, but don’t be surprised if the directions you get are wrong. As soon as you feel like you are getting lost, ask again.

I’ll say it again, for the third time now I believe: Do not drive in Mexico City unless absolutely necessary. You will get lost. I’ve been driving there for seven years now, and still get lost every time. There’s even a song about it by the Argentinean ska band Los Auténticos Decadentes:

Road Rules and Culture

The road rules in Mexico are basically the same as in the U.S., Canada, and other English-speaking countries. One difference I’m still not quite used to is that, at least on busy roads, Mexicans wait for a signal to turn left on a green light rather than just waiting for the opposite lane to clear. This also may apply for right turns on busy roads.

Before it turns yellow, you’ll see the green light start flashing, which means it will change soon. But for many driver, the yellow light doesn’t mean slow down, but speed up, which brings us to driving culture.

People in Toluca, where I live, joke that at night you drive through the red lights and stop for the green lights, meaning that you should stop for green because of the people running the red lights. Yes, there is a general disrespect for road signs in Mexico, which is so prevalent that on the highway there are actually signs saying “Respect the signs.”

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Now, before I get into driving culture, let me make two comments. First, most drivers in Mexico are perfectly competent and respectful. It’s just easy to notice the bad ones. Second, Toluca (where I live) is especially known for bad drivers. So, please remember that the common annoyances I mention below for sure don’t apply to all parts of Mexico, nor to all Mexicans.

Besides running red lights, drivers also commonly run stop signs. At 4-way intersections without a traffic light, people usually don’t alternate, but instead push their way through whenever they can. This also happens when lanes merge—people don’t take turns, which ends up causing a lot more traffic.

Another major cause of bad traffic is that people tend to park anywhere, sometimes blocking an entire lane of a busy road or invading the sidewalk. And if it’s not someone parking in an inconvenient spot, then it’s a taxi driver, either letting someone out or simply waiting for a fare.

Yet another annoyance is that many people don’t use their turn signals. You’ll see drivers making incredible turns in heavy traffic, including U-turns, which are legal as long as there isn’t a sign against it. You’ll also see people taking turns really wide, even on the highway, continually crossing back and forth across the white lines.

Mexicans in general are enthusiastic horn-honkers. I once read that the definition of a moment is the time between a light changing green and the first horn honking. Some people honk as they speed through intersections, as if this will prevent an accident.

There are so many incompetent drivers in Mexico that there’s even a word for them: cafre. You can often spot a cafre by the terribly beat-up car they drive, but not always. Typical cafre behavior, besides not using turn signals and parking everywhere (even spots reserved for the disabled), includes changing lanes suddenly without checking the blind spot, turning left from the far-right lane (and vice-versa), driving with small children or dogs on their laps, and either driving too fast on residential streets or driving too slow on busy city streets.

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Drunk driving is a serious problem in Mexico, despite all-night breathalyzer checkpoints on major city thoroughfares. It’s such a problem that you’ll see horrible accidents if you drive around after midnight on a Friday or Saturday. So be extra careful on weekend nights and holidays. And obviously, if you drink, don’t drive. Besides safety reasons you might end up in a breathalyzer checkpoint, and if you blow over the limit, you’ll be taken to jail.

Finally, pedestrians do not have the right of way in Mexico. Keep your head up when crossing the street, and don’t be surprised if someone running a red light speeds right at you. And of course—this should go without saying, but I’ve seen many travelers do this—don’t walk in the road, but stay on the sidewalk, no matter how uneven it is.

There’s really only one way to deal with all of these nuisances: Have patience, both in the car and on foot. Try to never be in a hurry and always look both ways.

Topes and Baches

Perhaps the prevalence of aggressive, selfish drivers is why Mexican (and most Latin American) roads are filled with speedbumps, called topes. Anyone driving in Mexico will have to learn to spot the topes, which are often unmarked and practically impossible to see at night. Hitting them hard will make everyone in the backseat bounce up and hit their heads on the ceiling, or worse, give you a flat tire.

The best way to spot them is to watch the cars in front of you. When you see one slow down and the tail lights bounce, it’s probably going over a tope. But if there’re no other cars, just do your best to spot them, especially on long, straight stretches of road.

Baches are potholes, and though unintentional, they serve the same purpose as topes—slowing you down and possibly giving you a flat tire. So, again, keep an eye open for them at all times.

City Driving

The first challenge to city driving is navigation. In big cities you’ll encounter nightmarish traffic, especially during rush hour and Mexican lunch time (between 2 and 4 p.m.). Add bad road signs and bad driving habits—not letting people in, people parking everywhere, lots of honking—and you could be in for a very frustrating experience.

When you get to an major intersection, your car will be approached by people selling things or offering to wash your windshield. Sometimes they don’t offer but just go at it, immediately spraying it with soap. You can try waving your finger or yelling “no” at them, but it’s usually easier to just give them a peso.

If you drive in a city, you’ll have to park. In the daytime, you can pretty much park anywhere, though for safety’s sake don’t park on an empty street and never leave belongings in view inside the car. The “E” (estacionarse) with the line through it means “no parking,” though you’ll almost always see cars parked under them.

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If it’s a busy street or outside of a big event, like a concert or parade, there will be guys walking around telling you that they’ll watch their car for you. They also may offer to wash it. Ask how much, pay, but don’t give these people your keys.

Unless there is a guy offering to watch your car, don’t park on the street at night. You’ll want to use a parking lot, which fortunately are common in big cities. Be sure to ask what time they close.

You’ll see little parking lots everywhere that charge by the hour. It’s a good option in the daytime too, especially if you have anything in your car like luggage. Usually you’ll have to give them your keys. When you do, they ask if you have anything of value in the car. Put those things in your trunk, and tell them what they are.

Valet parking is common for restaurants and nightclubs. Same thing, tell them if you have any valuables in the car. Before you book a hotel, always make sure it has free parking.

Highway Driving

Driving on the highway is the real pleasure of driving in Mexico. You’ll pass incredible scenery and have the freedom to visit any small town or natural area you want.

Highway driving is safe in most parts of Mexico south of Mexico City. In the north, especially near the border, there are some highways you should not drive on after dark. The best way to find out is to ask locals, for example the person at the front desk of your hotel.

In some dangerous areas, like near the U.S. border or the state of Michoacan, criminal gangs set up fake roadblocks, either disguised as military or openly criminal. They will stop you, rob you or, if you’re lucky, simply turn you around.

This typically happens on the freeways, not the toll roads. There are two types of highways in Mexico: cuota (toll) roads, and libre, freeways.

Toll roads can be expensive, but they’re nearly always safe at all hours and include insurance. They’re patrolled by mechanics, so if you break down or have an accident they will help you for free. You can check the price of toll roads on this government website, which also calculates the gas. It’s only in Spanish but fairly straightforward.

Often where there’s a toll road there’s also a free road going the same way. It might seem like a good way to save money, but the free roads usually take a lot more time, especially if you get lost. They may have only one lane and you’ll get stuck behind a slow truck. They may pass though a small town and have no signs telling you where to go. So, in general, always take the toll road unless you have reliable information that the free road is direct and safe.

Driving culture is a little different on the highways too. Passing is the most important to understand. As usual, drive on the right and pass on the left. But on many two-lane highways in Mexico, especially on newer toll roads, there’s a wide shoulder on either side divided by a broken white line. When someone wants you pass you, drive about half-way onto the shoulder to let them get by. You’ll see how trucks drive this way, especially when climbing mountains.

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When you see the car in front of you put on a turn signal, it means it’s clear for you to go. Besides this, there are other strange turn-signal usages that I don’t quite understand. For instance, people stopped on the highway sometimes put on their left signal, which means they are stopped, not that they are about to pull out in front of you.

People put on their hazard lights when they are slowing down quickly, such as when there is traffic ahead.

There aren’t rest stops on Mexican highways. If you need to use the bathroom, you usually have two options: at a toll booth, usually after you go through it, or at a gas station. In both cases you’ll probably have to pay around 5 pesos for this.

If you’re driving at the beginning or end of a major holiday, like on a Sunday night coming into a big city (with everyone returning from their weekend trip) or on a Friday afternoon leaving a big city (with everyone leaving for their weekend trip), you’ll hit heavy traffic, especially approaching toll booths. Avoid driving at these times if possible.

Final Word on Driving

I like to joke that Mexicans are nice people until they start to drive, for all the reasons I wrote above. But the truth is that the lousy drivers are a tiny percentage of the population. Most people are perfectly courteous and law-abiding.

If you get frustrated, remember that you’re the one cruising around having a nice vacation, while every other poor soul on the road is struggling to get to work. Take a deep breath, slow down, and try to enjoy it.

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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

7 tonina NHB

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.

8 sumidero marco NHB

 

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.

Two nice places are Margarita & Ed and the El Panchan Hotel, which has the Don Muchos restaurant, a meet-up spot with live music at night.

9 palenque

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.

10 boca del cielo NHB

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.

The guide is available here or at amazon.com, and will pay for itself the first time you follow my advice for a restaurant, hotel, or colectivo.

One Week in San Cristobal de las Casas, Chiapas: What to Do?

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.

boca del cielo 1

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.

San Cris in Mexico NHB

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.

San Cris street NHB

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.

San Cris night cathedral NHB

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.

San Cris andadores NHB

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.

san cris cerro stairs 2 NHB

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.

San Cris market cheese copy

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.

San Cris Na Bolom NHB

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.

san cris street jam 3 NHB

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.

between arcojete and mamut NHB

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.

chamula church NHB

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.

sumidero

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.

quetzal NHB

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.

palenque marco NHB

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.

places in chiapas

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. 

The guide is available here or at amazon.com, and will pay for itself the first time you follow my advice for a restaurant, hotel, or colectivo. 

Please click the book for info:

Thanks to Marco Garcia for the photos of Palenque and the Sumidero Canyon.

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