Mexico City boasts not only some great hotels, wonderful restaurants, impressive colonial architecture and some fascinating historical sites, but it also has some shocking traffic as well. So after a couple of great days exploring the capital, it was a huge relief to head south to the very different world of Chiapas.
The state of Chiapas is a lush green gem tucked away in the far south of the country bordering Guatemala and for me is the most fascinating and enchanting region in the whole of Mexico. We took a small charter flight from Oaxaca to Tuxtla, which was a wonderful journey over the rugged mountains and within about 30 minutes of landing we were whizzing along the Sumidero Canyon in a speedboat. This is a spectacular fissure and the towering cliffs and rock faces are truly spectacular. Throw in to the mix some crocodiles, kingfishers and banks of basking cormorants and it’s a wonderful welcome to Chiapas.
From there we drove from the steamy jungle up the winding roads and through the clouds to the pine clad valleys and the old colonial town of San Cristobal (de las Casas). Even under Spanish rule, this area remained a world apart and still to this day is one of the most deeply rooted indigenous areas of the country with much of the population descended from the Mayans. Colourful markets, vibrant festivals, traditionally clothed locals, beautiful architecture and fascinating animist practices in the local churches as well as watching back-strap weavers create incredible textiles make this a place that should not be missed.
We then headed north through the mountains en route to Palenque, which brought us to our first large Mayan ruin. Tonina was at the centre of the Snake Skull-Jaguar Claw Mayan dynasty who were permanently at war with their fierce rivals at Palenque. After a quick stop to see the thundering waterfalls of Agua Azul and Misol Ha we ended up at Palenque. The ancient Maya city of Palenque is an archaeological gem and requires at least a full day to explore this vast complex of temples and palaces.
However for me, it is the gateway to something even more dramatic namely the ruins of Bonampak and Yaxchilan. Surrounded by lush jungle Bonampak boats some astonishing frescoes which remained hidden from the outside world until 1946. Vivid battle scenes, the sacrifice of prisoners and beautiful dances can all be seen in the Temple de las Pinturas. We then continued by boat down the jungle shrouded Usumascinta River until the dramatic ruins of Yaxchilan look out through the trees. On account of its river location and a series of successful alliances and conquests, it became a hugely powerful city in the Jaguar dynasty, which resulted in the wonderfully impressive and gloriously rich ornamental buildings that are still there today. With howler monkeys screeching in the forest around you, it really is one of the most striking and enchanting of all the Mayan sites in the region.
For those with the time to spare, then to continue in the footsteps of the Mayan people to the Yucatan Peninsula and the delightful cities of Campeche and Merida to see highlights such as Edzna, Uxmal and the most dramatic of all, Chichenitza, is an incredible journey through not only wonderful scenery, but many hundreds of years of intriguing history and enchanting culture.
The powder white beaches of the Riviera Maya are just a few hour’s drive away and are the perfect place to hole up for a few days and enjoy the aquamarine waters and fabulous marine life. And just in case you haven’t had your fill of Mayan culture, then the charming ruins of Tulum overlooking the Caribbean Sea are the ideal place to finish off the adventure.