Misol Ha waterfall is a gem set in the middle of the Chiapas jungle, one of Mexico's most attractive areas of outstanding natural beauty. And you will meet the indigenous Maya people of Chiapas.
Formed by gushing waters of the river of the same name falling off a limestone cliff, the 35m jungle waterfall falls into a single pool. Its Maya name comes from the Ch'ol language and means sweeping water. It is surrounded by the tropical jungle, covered in thick highland vegetation, which includes mahogany, sapodilla and cornstalk dracaena. The trail around the waterfall pool takes you up one side of the flow to the other. The path is partially paved, with steps although you will have to cross a few natural rocks. You will pass behind the waterfall itself. It is fun to see the waterfall from behind. You may get a bit wet but the weather is hot and humid; you will barely notice it amidst the humidity. There are a couple of tiny waterfalls between rocks behind the main waterfall; you will spot them easily.
I came here a couple of times and each time I realised that one needs time to fully enjoy the waterfall. Most people come here on tours and get 40 minutes only. While you won’t need a full day to visit, once there, don’t be surprised if you aren’t in a hurry to leave. Not many people swim here as they always rush to the next stop, the waterfalls of Agua Azul, about an hour away. But if you have time, there is nothing nicer than spending a day by the jungle waterfall. A great place for bird-watching too. If you decide to swim, the water at the foot of the waterfall is deep (scuba divers have reported depths of 13m). There are signs to warn visitors of this. You should only swim here if you are a good swimmer.
The amount of water in the fall depends on the time of year. Whatever time you come, the water is deliciously refreshing.
This was one of the film locations for the film Predator. Most of the film was shot at the Mexican town of Puerto Vallarta but the last jungle scene, where Arnold Schwarzenegger (or his stuntman?) jumps in his final battle into the waterfall, was filmed here.
Behind the cascade there is a small cave, about 20m long (see the photos below). Best to wear shorts and sandals for this trek, or go barefoot, as the water is about a foot deep inside the cave. At the end of the walk among the rocks there is a pool with a small waterfall and you can swim there but the cave is in complete darkness. You will need to pay an extra 10 pesos for cave entry and they will give you a torch for the walk. You can put the torch on one of the rocks when swimming. As there is hardly anybody around, you are likely to have the cave pool to yourself. It is a very different experience, for thrill seekers. In the past, of course, it would have been a ritual cave, as the Maya always practised their rituals in the caves, which they considered the entry to Xibalbá (the underworld).
As a matter of fact, the religion of the Ch'ol Maya is Roman Catholic with pagan syncretism; saints are worshipped in the church (as they were Christianised by their Spanish conquerors), while sacred mountains and caves, the Sun and Moon, and stone idols are also venerated according to their traditional mythology and religion. Curing ceremonies are practised to drive out evils that cause illness. Don't be surprised if you find an offering inside the cave, to Chac, the Rain God, who dwells in the caves according to the Maya mythology. In any case, try to feel the spiritual strength of the cave, whether you are swimming or not.
You will feel the spiritual strength of the place even if you don't go to the cave, I can promise you that. The photos below by Rhodri Jones, my son, are trying to capture just that as he was also smitten by the power of the nature here.
If you browse Trip Advisor, you will find negative comments about the fees to the waterfalls. You will be stopped on the road to pay a fee for entering the park, which looks like they are 'robbing' you. This is not the case. What is important to understand is that the waterfall is administrated by a group of co-owners of the communal land, called ejido, designated to the tribe of Cho'l Maya by the government. So if you go there, you are a guest on their land. They have the task of preserving the flora and fauna of the place and the fee is justified (and very small). No need to get upset; anywhere else in the world you would pay more for entry to an eco park. Actually, the situation of the Ch'ol Maya is very complex and the whole region of Chiapas is ecologically and ethnically sensitive. Under colonial rule, during a series of military and missionary expeditions of the 16th and 17th centuries, the Ch'ol, Tzeltal and Tzotzil were either killed or relocated into the northern foothills to work on Spanish haciendas, while the Lacandón Maya kept escaping by going further and further into the forest.
There are land disputes between the tribes even today, as a lot of the forest was deforested by the lumber companies and the tribes had to keep moving (and burning each other's land to make agriculture fields). It is a very intriguing part of Mexican history, tied to the Zapatista revolution movement (for the land ownership that was taken away from them). And indeed, if you are driving a car across the Chiapas highlands, you may be stopped by the Zapatista villagers, who may demand from you some 'toll'. Just stay calm and pay. On my travels, we were invariably asked for fees between 50 and 200 pesos. The best way is just to pay and move on. Think of it as supporting the indigenous people who have been and are still treated badly by their government. Their mountain village teachers don't get paid, for example (this is a very complicated story, for more see my post Chiapas Highlands). If you are interested in the life of the Ch'ol Maya that you will encounter on this trip, I recommend reading beforehand an article by James D. Nations (see the source below).
As far as the fees are concerned, there are basically two formal fees. The first one is on the road downhill. You will be stopped by a couple of men by a little palapa office (a house with a roof made of palm leaves) and asked to pay $10MXN for entry to the eco park Salto de Agua, where the waterfalls are situated (they will give you a formal ticket) The second fee of $20MXN is the entry to the waterfalls. If you go inside the cave behind the waterfall, then it is an extra $10MXN and it covers the rental cost of the torch.
There’s a tourist centre, which offers cabin accommodation, a restaurant, and a craft store. There are public bathrooms ($5 pesos).
How to get there:
Misol Há is only 20km from Palenque but access is via the mountainous terrain of the Chiapas Highlands so the drive takes about 40 minutes. If driving by car, take road 199 from Palenque, towards Ocosingo and San Cristóbal de las Casas. Apply caution as the roads are severely worn in places, with big holes. There are some road works in place and during my second visit to the place, I could see that half the road had been repaired (between 2017 and 2018), but new holes keep appearing and they are not marked very well.
There are tours that you can book from Palenque, some that visit Agua Azul the same day. However, going on your own is easy and saves a few pesos. From town, if you head to the Ocosingo Colectivo Station, you’ll be able to catch a ride to Misol Há crossroads on the main road. From there, it is a 1.5km walk downhill, or a short ride if you can catch one. To leave, head back to the same road before dark (a steep walk up the hill).
The car park at Misol Ha is very near the waterfalls, only about 50m walk.
Mix & Match:
There is plenty to see around. You can visit the ruins and the museum in Palenque and the following day do the waterfalls of Misol Há and Agua Azul on the same day. You can also continue towards Ocosingo to see the ruins of Toniná and finally reach the amazing town of San Cristóbal de las Casas but for that you will need a few more days.
Nations, James D (1994): The Ecology of the Zapatista Revolt: schoolsforchiapas.org