Travel

Discovering the wonders of Mexican State of Chiapas

A packed 48 hours does not even begin to skim the surface of the diversity Chiapas has to offer

Arrive

If there is one place that encapsulates all that Mexico has to offer, it is Chiapas. The southern Mexican State has everything from lovely beaches, rain forests, and serene Mayan ruins to soaring colonial architecture and a coffee route.

The city of Palenque is 152 kilometres, a two-hour drive, from the Carlos Rovirosa Peréz Airport in Villahermosa, which incidentally means beautiful city in Spanish. It is late at night as we drive to Palenque and visions of ancient rites and rituals flash before my eyes as we storm past silently-swaying trees.

Day 1

10 am

In deference to our late-night arrival, we start for the archaeological site of Palenque an hour later. The site, which the jungle claimed after its decline by 799 AD is fascinatingly well-preserved. Our guide is the fabulously well-informed Fabio Romero Zacarias. With a degree in History, Fabio shares interesting titbits starting with the meaning of Mexico, which comes from the Aztecs and means navel of the moon! Saying the original name for Palenque was Bakal, meaning land of limestone, Fabio takes us through the important structures at the archaeological site, giving us an intriguing slice of Mayan life from the T-shaped windows that represent the god of wind, light and illumination to the sauna baths. The Mayans believed sauna baths were like being reborn and so you came out of the low doors like a baby. Wandering through the ruins, seeing the inscriptions and sculptures, including one of the famous Mayan king of Palenque, Pakal, holding a prisoner by his hair to decapitate him, does not bring us any closer to solving the mystery of the inscrutable Reina Roja or the Red Queen. As we leave the sun-dappled mossy ruins, the only thing that seems permanent is the jungle — Nature will take back her own inexorably.

Discovering the wonders of Mexican State of Chiapas

1 pm

After looking at the brilliant scarlet macaws, lazy crocodiles and the majestic jaguar, among many other indigenous species, at the conservation site of Aluxes Ecopark, we head for lunch to the Cascada de Misol-Ha. The Mayans believed the black jaguar was the celestial vault, while the spotted ones were stars, and macaws were the sun. The pristine waterfall, Misol-Ha, incidentally, is the one Arnold Schwarzenegger popped out of to take care of a nasty skin-stripping alien in the 1987 movie, Predator.

8 pm

Dinner is at Restaurante Bajlum (bajlum means jaguar in Mayan) where our host Francisco Alvarez, is passionate about Mayan cuisine. Being vegetarian, figuring out a menu for me was a bit of a challenge to my host, but he met it magnificently with crema de echalotes (shallot soup), a vegetarian platter with delicately-seasoned lentils and corn, a sweet potato palate cleanser with amaranth seeds and a heavenly dessert featuring fleshy, succulent avocado.

How to get there Yaxchilán
  • There are flights from India to Benito Juárez International Airport in Mexico City. Make sure you do not have two transits in Europe or you will need a Schengen visa (As I found out to great dismay and cost).
  • While there is an airport in Chiapas, Palenque International Airport, there are more flight options from the Carlos Rovirosa Pérez International Airport in Villahermosa. The city of Palenque is a 152-kilometre, (two-hour) drive from the airport.
  • A two-hour ride from Palenque to Frontera Corozal and a further one-hour boat ride brings you to the place of green stones.

Day 2

6 am

We have an early start to visit Yaxchilán. Meaning place of the green stones, Yaxchilán (250 AD to 900 AD) developed into a powerful city centre along the banks of the Usumacinta River. We drive to the border town (Guatemala is on the other side of the Usumacinta River) of Frontera Corozal. Channelling my inner Lara Croft and Indiana Jones, with a dash of JLO from Anaconda (a maroon auto-rickshaw jauntily puttering on the road ruins the impression just a wee bit), I set off on the boat ride to Yaxchilán.

12.30 pm

It is as if time has stopped in the quiet ruins. As we look at the remarkable structures, one can only imagine the bustle of life. In the still green, among the towering ceiba trees (considered holy by the Mayans), I thought I could hear the thwack of the ball. In 1200 BC, the Olmecs were the first to play a ball game. The ball weighed a hefty one to two kilograms, and the players could not touch it with their hands, feet or head. They could only hit the ball with their hips or elbows.

The partially-preserved roof combs, the lintels, the inscriptions, all speak in the silence of the rise and fall of a mighty civilisation. Puffing and panting up the 150 steps of Structure 33 to see the lintels, sculptures, the niches in the frieze and roof comb, the stucco work and hieroglyphic stairway is a reward in itself.

Discovering the wonders of Mexican State of Chiapas

2.30 pm

Over lunch at the Nueva Alianza Tourist Center in Frontera Corozal, Fabio talks of the 150-year-drought being one of the causes of the decline of the Mayan civilisation. The mysterious massacre of Mayan nobles in Cancuen, Guatemala is also thought to be the result of the drought. Only 10% of the Mayans survived and they migrated to Yucatan where they found water underground.

6 pm

We reach the Lacandon Camp, Top Che, which means wild flower in Mayan. The Lacandon are Mayan people who have managed to preserve their customs and rituals with minimum contact with civilisation. They live in the Lacandon jungle, a rain forest, and speak one of the Mayan languages. The cottages at the camp have thatched roofs and mosquito nets. The lack of WiFi is a blessing as I unwind in the still of the night.

8.30 pm

At dinner (quesadillas are my go-to meal as the corn bread goes perfectly well with cheese and beans), we discuss our early morning trek the next day through the rain forest. Our guide Paco will show us the tree (guano palm) that is used to thatch the roof as well as the chewing gum tree otherwise known as the sapota tree — yes, the chikoo comes all the way from Mexico! Outside the restaurant, there are handicrafts and I buy a jaguar made of a soft wood. While the Lacandon jungle is one of the largest rain forests in North America to support jaguars, I don’t expect to see one on our five-mile hike. Never mind, I have this splendidly-snarling specimen of the celestial vault to remind me of an enchanted sojourn in the place that time forgot.

The writer was in Chiapas at the invitation of Tianguis Touristico 2019 and the Chiapas Tourism Board

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