You have just arrived at the airport of Tuxtla Gutierrez, Chiapas, Mexico, half an hour ago. Now you are on a highway snaking its way upwards 2500 meters, on your way to San Cristobal de las Casas, the home of the Zapatistas and the central meeting ground for the local indigenous groups like the Chamulas. On your right you can see the world falling away as you get closer to the clouds. It is your first time here. You have read the travel guides, and searched the internet for things to do. Everywhere you looked, you ran across the same things: Palenque, Chamula, Lagos de Montebello. But you want something different. You want to see the real Chiapas and visit places that are not overflowing with tour groups. As you look out at the sky, you see two green streaks. As you focus in on them, you realize that it is actually a pair of parakeets flying towards some unknown location. "Where did they come from?" you wonder….
Sima de las Cotorras
Located 1.5 hours outside of Tuxtla Gutierrez (take the bus service that leaves from the Plaza de Marimbau), the Sima de las Cotorras (parakeets) is a 180 meter deep sinkhole. While the area surrounding area tends to be dry during the summers, at the bottom of this sink hole is a tropical jungle that remains humid all year round. But the main attraction of this location is the thousands of parakeets that call this sinkhole home. For the adventurous, a daily tour is offered at 5:00am to descend halfway down the sinkhole to watch as the thousands parakeets wake up and ascend in unison out of their jungle home. Facilities include a hotel, campgrounds and one restaurant overlooking the sinkhole. Proceeds from the site go to maintain the natural habitat of the cotorras.
The clouds part and you find yourself looking at a valley surrounded by green mountain tops. In the middle of this valley you see signs of life. San Cristóbal de las Casas. You can already make out the the churches of San Cristóbal and Guadalupe on their respective hills, looking over the town. It must have rained recently, because you see puddle of water all over the road. You think to yourself, "they almost look like lakes…"
Lagos de Colón
The Lagos de Colón are located four hours south of San Cristóbal de las Casas. Take a shuttle from San Cristóbal to Comitán and then transfer to a bus that goes to Lagos de Colón. This string of lakes is known for the lakes' smooth mirror-like surfaces. A popular weekend site for local Mexicans, these beautiful lakes are perfect for swimming and relaxing the day away. Follow the path away from the main lake area and you will find beautiful waterfalls, and keep going down this path and you will find a small set of newly discovered Mayan ruins. Facilities include a guest house, free camping area, three small family restaurants, and during the day there are a few small vendors selling food like fried plantains and fresh fruits.
The taxi driver turns from the main road onto Av. Insurgentes. You have just entered the historic downtown of San Cristóbal. Colonial style buildings surround you. As you are driving, you pass an incredible potpourri of humanity. Europeans, Americans, Asians, Mexicans and numerous indigenous groups. As you try to take it all in, your thoughts are interrupted by a grumbling sound. It's your stomach. You realize you haven't eaten since breakfast 10 hours ago. "Where could I get a bite to eat?" you wonder…
Just one hour south of San Cristóbal is the town of Comitán. Most tourists only pass through the outskirts of this town on their way to the Lagos de Montebello or Chiflón. They are missing out. From the bus station, take a short taxi ride (or walk for 15 minutes) to the beautiful historic center. The central zócalo is pristine, and is littered with art and sculptures from around the world. The plants and flowers are always in bloom and the weather is always perfect. The main attraction of Comitán is that most local Chiapanecos (people from Chiapas) acknowledge that it has the best food in the state. Restaurants on the plaza are tasty, but tend to be little more expensive. If you want the best deal, simply walk one to two blocks away from the zócalo in any direction and find a local restaurant.
You fight down the growing feeling of hunger. First things first. You need to find a hotel. Luckily there seems to be dozens on every block in San Cristóbal. You ask the taxi driver to drop you off in front of one that looks nice and seems to fit your budget. You pay your fare and get your bags out of the trunk, but as you turn around to enter the hotel, you find you can't pass. You are surrounded by dozens of indigenous women and children saying "cómprame". You don't speak Spanish, but it is not hard to figure out that they want you to buy one of there multicolored bracelets, belts or Subcomandante Marcos dolls. "Where did they all come from?" you ask…
San Juan del Río
The small village of San Juan del Río is not on any map. You have to take a colectivo (local public transport) to Cancuc, and then take a local taxi (probably the back of a pickup) to the entrance to this village. From this entrance you have to walk 1.5 hours to get to the village. The village has no roads or electricity. The town of 500 people survives by growing coffee. It is a perfect place to see how life is for most Chiapanecos. Have traditional food, cooked over an open fire. Spend some time relaxing in a Mayan steam room, and then go down to the local river and have a swim. Foreigners are so rare here that the kids at the river will probably stare and point in wonder at any outsiders who show up. You have to arrange a tour with one of the local villagers to get here. Money from these tours go to the village fund to build a road.
…You fought your way through the crowd that surrounded you outside. You are now the proud owner of five colorful bracelets and a clay figure that looks to you like a turtle. You ask if there are any rooms available. In broken English the girl at the reception says "Yes," and gives you a list of the prices. The prices are fair. As the receptionist prepares the paperwork, you scan the tour pamphlets laid out on the front desks. There are hundreds, each selling tours to the same places. Then one catches your eye. This one is not glossy or professional like the others. It is black and white with nothing more than a pyramid on the cover. "Where is Toniná?" you ask the receptionist…
Toniná is located three hours from San Cristóbal. Take a bus to Ocosingo, and then get a taxi or colectivo to Toniná. Toniná is located in the middle of an open plain. Standing atop its highest level, you can see for miles and miles in all directions. Getting a tour guide is highly recommended. The guide will lead you through the pitch-black maze of the Shaman of Death and show you how the ancient Mayans designed rooms to have natural air conditioning. A little-known fact is that Toniná is actually responsible for the fall of Palenque (its famous cousin to the west). The museum outside the ruins is small but worth a visit. Bring a large bottle of water, since there is very little shade during your tour and you will get thirsty.
You are finally here. Settled into your hotel room. Exhausted but excited. All that is left to decide is, "What am I going to see tomorrow?"