Mix the most romantic wilderness with the ugliest Mexican town and you will get Frontera Corozal. Its primitive poetry will not leave you untouched.
The riverside frontier town sits on the Usumacinta River, which forms the border between Mexico and Guatemala. It is a must visit if you want to see the ruins of Yaxchilán or cross the river by boat for your next adventure in Guatemala.
The town sits on a grid street system. None of the roads are paved. When I say 'not paved', I mean that if you have a group of four in a hire car, three watch the road and only one can take pictures. Wooden residential houses line the streets and the locals do make an effort to paint them colourfully, if they can afford it. The school was striking blue and a lot of households like turquoise. We spotted a man on a horse, and turkeys and chickens were everywhere but never crossing the road! Just keeping obediently to the front yard. While the town does not have much 'soul' in an architectural sense, there is plenty of soul about, within the people and the lush jungle. The jungle itself has a soul, trust me. The wilderness yet stillness of the majestic river Usumacinta complements the grandeur.
The town's main site is the dock with boats called lanchas. They ferry people to the Mayan ruins of Yaxchilán, which can't be accessed in any other way. The journey to the ruins in itself is an adventure. The pale green waters look rather silky and they literally coil through the huge trees of the jungle. And I do mean huge, as the tropical trees grow here on average up to 30 metres. It took us an hour to reach the spooky and gloomy, yet amazing ruins. We went there in the afternoon and we had the site to ourselves. The howler monkeys just woke up from their siesta, marking their territory with their frightful cries. When we got back to town, the cries continued. We were constantly reminded that we were in the jungle.
The town has about 5,000 inhabitants and it is very young. But the soul of the people is pretty old as they brought it with them from elsewhere. The Lonely Planet tells us that the Ch'ol Maya settled here in the 1970s. However, there is much more hidden behind that simple statement. To understand this area and its people, one needs to look much deeper. The more accurate word to use would be 'displacement'. There is a lot of displacement going on in Mexico nowadays, mostly people fleeing drug-cartel violence in the northern states, such as Chihuahua or Guerrero. But the people who live in the beautiful Lacandón jungle and the Blue Mountains Reserve have a long history of that. First they were forced to move into settlements called Reducciones by the Spanish conquerors in the 16th century (mostly into the northern Chiapas settlements around Palenque).
In the more modern history of the 19th century President Benito Juárez established a system of agrarian ejidos, or communal lands. To do so, he took away the land from indigenous tribes such as the Ch'ol. But the ejidos did not provide enough resources to support them, so the Ch'ol began to move into the Lacandón jungle where the Lacandón people had the same history and problems with land rights. One can easily see how that was not going to work well. Perhaps it's symptomatic that one of these Lacandón settlements should be called 'New Palestine' (Nueva Palestina).
The issue of displacement was further exacerbated by the Zapatista uprising in 1994 in Chiapas. Not only have indigenous communities which support the Zapatista movement continued to be displaced (by the government), they have themselves caused the displacement of people who were not aligned with the Zapatista movement (the Norwegian Refugee Council states that there are up to 24,000 internally displaced people in Mexico today). We were stopped by the Zapatistas during our trip in April 2017 on our way to Palenque from San Cristóbal and I still feel their anger. I describe our encounter in my post the Chiapas Highlands.
While in Frontera Corozal, I could actually feel an underlying tension between the Ch'ol and the Lacandón Maya. We met some wonderful people from both indigenous groups. However, when we asked a Lacandón Maya to recommend a restaurant near his house, he did not do so. Maybe I just have the sixth sense but I have a feeling that it was because the restaurant was run by a Ch'ol. That is of course nothing when compared with the fact that they keep trying to displace each other (with some violence involved).
As for the rest of the town, we drove around a bit in search of petrol, water and cigarettes. We found two shops. Both had water but only one of them had cigarettes. We found no zócalo, nor a petrol station. But the people here are inventive. We spotted a house with a sign for petrol (gasolina). Inside, we had a choice of canisters with standard Magna, premium or diesel (although that's not what it said on the can!). The Ch'ol owner of this petrol station did not need much equipment to fill our tank. He had a length of plastic tubing (which I have heard called an 'Oklahoma credit card' in the US). It takes a bit of energetic sucking to prime the tube, but if you don't mind the taste of petrol, this is good business. Just as well; the nearest gas stations are 65km to the south (in Benemérito) or 100km to the north (in Chancalá).
There are three more essential buildings in the town. One is the immigration office, which you need to visit before you board the 'lancha' across the river to Guatemala (to the town of Bethel). The other two are hotels.
We booked Nueva Alianza hotel beforehand but we checked them both. As we had already had lunch in our hotel on arrival, we thought we could go for dinner to the other hotel, Escudo Jaguar, just for a change. While Escudo Jaguar has a pool, the wooden cabañas and the restaurant were disappointing. To our surprise the staff would not serve beer. I wasn't too keen on their attitude, either. They all looked like people who had just swallowed a litre of Magna.
Such a difference from our own hotel restaurant, where we tasted good Ch'ol cooking and the beer was cold and served with a smile. They even made us Margaritas although they did not have them on the menu. The waiters were learning the recipe from the internet as we watched them! I hope later travellers benefit from this experiment; the first attempt was more like a salad dressing than a drink. It's certainly the only Margarita in town! But they were really charming and we shared some giggles and jokes.
Not to mention my silly breakfast order of soft boiled eggs the next morning. The cook was clearly making them for the first time in her life, as these are not common in Mexico. She got them right, but then made the mistake of opening them to see what they looked like inside. Then she boiled a new pair. I was happy to be observed closely by the restaurant staff to see how one eats such a thing (and without an egg cup)! Okay, that's travel. We learn a little; they learn a little. As long as you can laugh about it!
I also can't praise enough the rooms of Nueva Alianza hotel. The wooden cabañas were clean and romantic with a mosquito net above the bed (top left photo). The towels were so beautifully integrated into the bed's welcome decoration that at least one of our party needed to be shown where they were. The water was hot and we had a large veranda for a nightcap for our group of four and lively chat through the night. We did not disturb any neighbours as there were none and the monkeys were louder anyway. And did I mention the view of the pretty red ginger flowers from our restaurant? Our friend John wants to go back there one day, just to spend a week in that nice jungle park and cabañas again. I wouldn't mind myself!
How to get there:
There are tour companies in Palenque that offer trips to the ruins of Bonampak and Yaxchilán and they come to Frontera Corozal (here you will have lunch and take a boat to Yaxchilán). Both ruins are doable in one (long) day.
From Palenque it is also possible to take a colectivo (a van/bus) that goes to Frontera Corozal for 100 MXN per person. They run every hour from 6am to 5pm. This ride takes between three and four hours. When entering Frontera Corozal, locals charge the visitors a communal fee of 30 MXN. Either of the two hotels can arrange for you the boat to Yaxchilán ruins and the Bethel town in Guatemala. Bethel is a rural village and there is not much to do or see there. Once in Bethel, the only way to reach Flores in Petén (to see the Tikal ruins) is bargaining with some informal drivers who will be waiting right next to the shore.
We came by car to Frontera Corozal. The journey takes 2.5 hours but we took a bit longer as we broke the journey for a coffee break at the road restaurant La Cabaña, at the Blue Mountains area, where we enjoyed the view of the mountains.
Mix & Match:
There is only one reason to come to Frontera Corozal: to see the ruins of Yaxchilán (unless you are going to Guatemala). You can combine this with a visit to the ruins of Bonampak but I recommend adding another day to your trip.