Chiapas Highlands

Chiapas, Mexico


The Chiapas Highlands: mystical, indigenous and sure to enchant and fascinate. But this adventure is not for everybody. It is an emotional roller-coaster.


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If you cross the highlands from San Cristóbal to Palenque, you will see poverty and you may meet the Zapatistas. But you will be rewarded with a peep into an indigenous life of today's Maya and magnificent waterfalls.

Los Altos, as the Chiapas highlands are called in Spanish, is a pine and oak subtropical forest with very tall trees and many limestone springs. For at least a thousand years the Tzotzil and Tzeltal-speaking Maya have lived in the secluded valleys of this plateau. The highlands of central Chiapas rise 2.5 km above the Grijalva River to the north-west and extend for about 220 kilometres south-east into neighbouring Guatemala.

From San Cristóbal de las Casas (Towns and Villages) you can take interesting day trips to the outlying highland villages. We visited San Juan Chamula and it is very special indeed, see my blog post here (Towns and Villages). You can also experience the forests by crossing the highlands from San Cristóbal all the way to Palenque. You will be rewarded by being able to swim in the waterfalls of Misol Ha or Agua Azul cascades. 

 
We visited Chiapas from Playa del Carmen for 8 days and this was our route.

We visited Chiapas from Playa del Carmen for 8 days and this was our route.

 

We crossed the highlands from San Cristóbal to Palenque, then drove to Yaxchilán and Bonampak via the Lacandón jungle. Back to Palenque, then a two-hour drive to Villahermosa in Tabasco to see the Olmecs and a whole day's drive back to Tuxtla Gutierrez, to catch our flight. We finished our trip with a ride along the Grijalva river in the Sumidero canyon, boarding at Chiapa de Corzo.

 
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If you do decide to drive across the highlands, you have to be prepared for a lot of 'topes' (speed bumps) when going up and down the hills. A little bit nerve-wracking, as you have to have your foot on the brake all the time. There are also a couple of places where half the road has collapsed, and the rest hangs over the abyss like piecrust. We undertook this journey in April 2017, with my husband and two friends, in a rented car. My husband is still massaging his brake foot!

Most of the mountain villages do not cater for tourists so bring your own water and sandwich or snacks. If you need a toilet break, watch out for the sign 'se renta baño' (toilet for rent). It will cost you 5 pesos and it will be basic, but it is a luxury to have when in the mountains. And they will be happy to get your business. Unless you go to the bush!

 
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Another way to cross the highlands is to buy a day trip from San Cristóbal to Palenque and you can go by bus. The bus leaves at 4am and you will come back at about 2am the following morning, a long day. By car the journey there should take 5 hours, but in reality it takes much longer (and not just because of the topes, as you'll see).

There are rewards and challenges on the way. The rewards include the beautiful mountain and forest views and seeing the ancient methods of slash-and-burn agriculture. The corn grown in this region is the oldest type in the world. The Maya simultaneously grow corn, beans, and squash, the famous 'three sisters', so as not to exhaust the land. We observed endless little mountain fields with dry corn leaves in seemingly inaccessible places as they don't pull them out of the ground after the harvest. And endless burnt hill fields. Each little wooden house sells corn or huge squashes on their veranda (and petrol in containers as there are no petrol stations on the way until the village of Ocosingo; look out for the 'gasolina' signs). They also grow chilis, of course, and dry them around their house.

 
Ceiba tree.
 
Copal tree.

Another reward is to see the people practising their own unique customs, in their traditional dress which varies by group/village. One of our stops, just to stretch our legs, was around the village of Oxchuc. Here we saw women wearing long huipils with horizontal stripes on top of their skirts. It is one of three villages (that we know about) in the highlands of Chiapas where women wear them (the others are Cancuc and Chalchihuitán). Some village houses on our route had them for sale as it is a traditional textile 'route', and it is not dangerous to stop and buy (for very cheap prices). These skirts are very practical as the temperature in the hills is much colder than elsewhere in Chiapas. I did not take any photographs of the women, as they don't like it without permission. Many of them believe that it captures their soul. 

 
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One of the challenges on this route is seeing a lot of poverty. This is the land of Zapatistas. Since the colonial era in the 16th Century, landlessness was a serious issue in Mexico as all lands belonged to the Spaniards. It was one of the core problems that contributed to the outbreak of the Mexican Revolution when Emiliano Zapata led revolutionary peasants seeking the return of their lands. The government then allocated 'ejidos', land to the communities that work on it jointly. What followed was illegal sales and transfers of ejido lands, ecological degradation, and low productivity.

From 1992 the privatisation and the sale of ejidal land is permitted by law and allows peasants to put up their land as collateral for a loan. From where I was seeing their fields and villages, the system is not 'feeding' the people sufficiently. Instead, a lot of the Los Altos indigenous population provide a steady flow of labour to other regions. I certainly encountered some in Playa del Carmen in the Yucatán peninsula.

 
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The people in the highlands are tied to their ejido land. This is the reason why the indigenous Maya are still here, they never left – while the rulers and the nobles left their cities in the 9th and 10th centuries and caused the 'collapse' of the Maya civilisation, the common folks spread into the jungle and the forests where they remain until now, unless they look for work elsewhere.

They also breed chickens and turkeys, and occasionally we could see a horse (and even a car), although most villagers walk distances to collect wood in the forest and cook on open fires (we saw a few fires just between two rocks, in the open air).

 
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Each house gathers rainwater in plastic containers, the only modern commodity we have seen. Their houses are very simple, not much changed from ancient times, but some have electricity now. Where they have a river, they have a bathroom. Since our trip I have learnt that 26% of homes in the state of Chiapas lack running water, and 43% adequate sewage. 53% cook with wood. Well, in the mountain villages it looked a higher percentage. In any case, trying to find reliable statistics is pretty difficult. Chiapas apparently produces 60% of the hydroelectric power used in Mexico City, but not in Chiapas. Along with hundreds of years of cultural destruction and humiliation for Mexico's indigenous people, this created the conditions for rebellion.

 
Women carry daily firewood from the forest to their homes.

Women carry daily firewood from the forest to their homes.

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As a matter of fact, on your journey you might meet the Zapatistas, like we did. One just needs to stay calm. They blocked the road in the village of Ocosingo. We stopped here first to get petrol (the first petrol station en route) and have lunch in a village restaurant. At the end of the village, just around the junction for Toniná ruins, there was a kilometre-long queue. We were not aware to start with what was at stake. There was a truck in front of us that decided to go ahead, so we followed him. We came to a group of men with batons in their hands, determined faces, but no other weapons. They pulled planks of wood studded with four-inch nails onto the road to stop the traffic. All they wanted from us was 200 pesos and they let us go via a track through the jungle that eventually got us back to the road beyond the oncoming queue. Note that when a village elder silently raises two fingers, it's not an international peace sign. It just means 'two' (hundred pesos). Think of it as a 'toll' although technically the villagers have no right to collect it.

 
Oxchuc woman in huipil (Mayan traditional dress). I borrowed this photo from the internet. Author unknown.

Oxchuc woman in huipil (Mayan traditional dress). I borrowed this photo from the internet. Author unknown.

However, they gave us a leaflet (in Spanish) saying they were demonstrating because their teacher had not been paid since 2015. As we live in Mexico, we are aware that the current education law dictates that teachers have to be qualified and can't inherit the teacher's post from their parents, as before. This is not liked by the traditional communities here (and in Oaxaca). Their teachers simply don't get paid if they don't take the relevant exams. A bit of a 'Catch 22' situation : Chiapas teachers have to be indigenous, to keep the schools bilingual, as nobody from the outside world can teach in Tzotzil. As a matter of fact, over the last few years the Zapatistas have opened their own schools in the Tzotzil language. So these are not isolated incidents, but rather integral components of the prolonged war with the government of Mexico, which tries to wipe out the Zapatista movement and all it has given to the world. We saw a military patrol outside the Zapatista community (literally two minutes later) but they did not attempt to stop the road blockade. They don't want to spark a larger revolution so at the moment they simply close their eyes to the roadblocks. In any case, I personally think that an experience like that is enriching, it gives a real insight into the lives of the indigenous people of Chiapas.

 
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In the distance you can see the village houses scattered on the forest hills.

In the distance you can see the village houses scattered on the forest hills.

Roadblocks are the name of the game now in Chiapas but they are not daily. Apparently they put online their roadblock dates but I could not find any (when we went). Bus tour companies are likely to go on the days without the roadblocks. Highways are shut down and while the protestors are generally letting personal vehicles through, commercial vehicles are sitting idle while their cargo languishes. We heard that Walmart was even considering closing their stores in Chiapas. In any case, you can certainly jump the queue in the roadblock to get in front of all the commercial vehicles.

To finish on a cheerful note, as we loved the trip, I would like to say that observing nature is also part of the experience. 

 
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We saw plenty of angel's trumpets, very decorative but poisonous. Historically, it has been used as a hallucinogenic drug. It is a dangerous drug as it has caused many deaths in the past. The angel's trumpets are listed as extinct in the wild (i.e. their native Andes) but are still about here in the highlands. Well, perhaps the Tzotzils could have them as their emblem?

There was some bougainvillea along the road and we also loved the red flowers of Erythrina Coralloides (flame coral tree or naked coral tree). The seeds are very poisonous but the flowers are edible. When immature, they are delicious eaten in omelette or tamales (nothing from nature goes to waste by the Tzotzils). The flowers are attractive to hummingbirds so we saw plenty about.

This is certainly an extraordinary region of Mexico, filled with adventure, indigenous struggle, master artisans, regional cuisine and natural wonders!

 
Angel's trumpets. Decorative, dangerous and nearly extinct. 

Angel's trumpets. Decorative, dangerous and nearly extinct. 

The edible naked coral tree flower.

The edible naked coral tree flower.

 

MIX AND MATCH:

This route is from San Cristóbal to Palenque. It took us 10 hours, including a stop at the Agua Azul waterfalls. You can reach Palenque by a different route, going from Tuxtla Gutierrez via Villahermosa: longer but faster and a lot less scary.