Chiapas, Mexico’s Mayan Heart

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The state of Chiapas has long been an overlooked corner of Mexico. For centuries, the colonial governments in Mexico and Guatemala largely ignored this rugged forested land and it remained isolated, except for the occasional efforts of missionaries to convert the indigenous peoples. Separated culturally from its neighbors, the traditions of the original inhabitants survived. To this day, it’s possible to hear 10 different Maya languages spoken in the state. So, for the traveler looking to venture off the beaten path, Chiapas is an obvious destination—one with fascinating textile markets, ancient ruins, and pristine landscapes.

Arrive in San Cristóbal

You’ll fly into Tuxla Gutiérrez, the state capital, where you’ll be met at the airport by a driver who will take you on the hour-long journey to San Cristóbal de las Casas. In a valley surrounded by soaring peaks, this 16th-century city is one of Mexico’s best-preserved colonial towns. Its cobblestone streets, historic churches, and colonial-era houses with wrought-iron balconies create a magical atmosphere.

Your base for four nights in San Cristóbal will be either Hotel Bo or the Plaza Gallery. The Hotel Bo is in the historic heart of the city, yet opts for a contemporary design with floor-to-ceiling windows overlooking landscaped gardens. Its minimalist design never feels cold, however, thanks to rich wood finishes and colorful local textiles. Another central option, the Plaza Gallery, occupies a stately building constructed in the 1940s as a pharmacy, but renovated and reopened in 2012. It’s just two blocks to the cathedral and close to other churches and museums.

After a stroll around town, you’ll dine tonight at Restaurante LUM, located at Hotel Bo (even if you have chosen to stay at the Plaza Gallery). The restaurant built around a courtyard specializes in dishes typical of Chiapas and the Yucatan—fish cooked in a banana leaf, tongue tacos—as well as others that use local ingredients in contemporary creations.

Sumidero Canyon

This morning, you’ll depart from your hotel with a guide to see one of Chiapas’s most beautiful natural wonders, the deep and narrow Sumidero Canyon. Roughly as old as the Grand Canyon, centuries of erosion caused by the Grijalva River have formed the dramatic gorge with its soaring canyon walls reaching heights of more than 3,000 feet. You’ll cruise on a boat along the river, in the shadow of the canyon walls. And afterwards you can wander some of the trails in the vast national park that includes the canyon.

Next you’ll continue on to Chiapa de Corzo for a late lunch when you’ll be able to sample local empanadas and lemonade made with chia seeds. You’ll have time to explore the oldest colonial town in the state. Chiapa de Corzo’s streets are lined with pastel buildings and a number of historic churches; the elaborate Mudejar-style fountain in the town’s tree-shaded plaza is a famous local landmark.

You’ll return towards San Cristóbal late in the afternoon, but take a short six-mile detour around the town and head to Chamula, officially San Juan de Chamula, first. Almost the entire population of Chamula is Maya, and in its church you’ll find a unique mix of Mayan rituals and Catholicism. The smell of copal incense fills the air while medicine men prescribe remedies for a variety of ailments, which in some cases include the sacrifice of chickens. Note that while the scene is undeniably captivating, photography is strictly prohibited.

After your visit, you shop in the town square for handicrafts, and then head back to San Cristóbal where you will have the evening free.

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