New Adventure Travel in Chiapas, Mexico
San Cristobal De Las Casas
How does an adventure outfitter create the next great itinerary in uncharted territory? Fernando Martinez goes behind the scenes in Chiapas, Mexico, to discover the benefits—and the challenges—of getting there first.
Inside the centuries-old church of the town San Juan Chamula, shamans kneel on pine branches and murmur pre-Columbian incantations, pour cane liquor over candles lit by villagers with a host of pleas—for health, wealth, even love—and strangle sacrificial chickens.
Fernando and Ed planned seven-day Chiapas itinerary—arrival and overnight in the capital, Tuxtla Gutiérrez, then two nights apiece in San Cristóbal and Palenque, with a final night in Villahermosa in the neighboring state of Tabasco—seemed to make sense on paper, but this run-through is all about real-world details. Fernando brings a critical eye and color-coordinated checklists to every hotel, meal, and activity. What are the best and worst rooms?The largest group a restaurant can seat at one table? The trail conditions of each hike?“I’m pretty demanding,” Fernado says. “So if it satisfies me, it’ll satisfy our clients, who expect service, quality, and a personal touch—even in the most remote destinations.”
On our first morning in Tuxtla, Fernando is not satisfied. Over a buffet breakfast at the hilltop Hotel Camino Real, he discusses Panorama’s expectations. According to the pre-trip plan provided by Journey Mexico, then ALA’s ground operator, the group should have gone “out on the town for local Chiapaneco fare” the previous night. Instead we ate a fixed-menu dinner at the hotel. “It’s very important to Panorama that we do what we say we’re going to do—unless we do something better,” Fernando says.
After breakfast, we drive 10 miles north to Mirador La Coyota, an overlook clinging to the 3,000-foot walls of Sumidero Canyon. An hour later, a chartered speedboat zips us through the 20-mile-long gorge to view troops of spider monkeys, sunbathing crocodiles, and El Arbol de la Navidad, a misty waterfall. There’s too much drive time, Lehman feels, to include both the lookout and the launch; only the boat trip makes the cut.
Chiapas de Corzo
Lunch in nearby Chiapas de Corzo, a river town of pastel-colored buildings, will definitely remain on the itinerary. Home-style fare of empanadas de cazón (sharklike dogfish) and lemonade with chia seeds is accompanied by a mariachi band that does not, fortunately, play “Guantanamera.” The town’s main square is distinguished by La Pila, a pavilion with unusual Moorish flourishes, but Fernando recommends pushing on 40 miles to San Cristóbal.
Cascada Misol Ha
“Its zocalo [town square] definitely has more bang,” he says.
We reach San Cristóbal’s central plaza in the golden hour, when the fading light bathes the ocher façade of the town’s 16th-century cathedral, and check into the Las Escaleras Hotel. A 19th-century hotel that was once owned by Harvard University, this boutique property exudes a baroque air and on the mountain hillside overlooking San Cristobal with large windows giving you a grand view of the town.
“This is a place where we need to spend more time,” Fernando decides at the evening’s debriefing with Edwin and the other guides. Various scenarios are kicked around. Could they skip Tuxtla and go straight to San Cristóbal? Would they need to backtrack to Sumidero? What activities could fill a third day? Biking?Bird-watching?
The nearby Mayan town of Zinacantán, which is renowned for its handwoven textiles, stands in marked contrast to its neighbor San Juan Chamula, where residents who convert to evangelical Protestantism are expelled. Inside one Zinacantán compound, a family of weavers displays hand-loomed shawls bedecked with calla lilies. Then, the proprietors invite Lehman into a smoke-blackened kitchen, where a young woman kneels over a wood fire, baking tortillas. Ravenous, we sit on stools around the hearth and eat piping-hot wraps with local sausage, onions, and ranchero cheese. The food is simple and hearty, and made memorable by this gesture of hospitality.
“This is what turns me on about travel,” Fernando says. “I’m always looking for authentic experiences, which become harder and harder to find.”