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Chiapas, Mexico’s Mayan Heart
The state of Chiapas has long been an overlooked corner of Mexico. For centuries, the colonial governments in Mexico and Guatemala largely ignored this rugged forested land and it remained isolated, except for the occasional efforts of missionaries to convert the indigenous peoples. Separated culturally from its neighbors, the traditions of the original inhabitants survived. To this day, it’s possible to hear 10 different Maya languages spoken in the state. So, for the traveler looking to venture off the beaten path, Chiapas is an obvious destination—one with fascinating textile markets, ancient ruins, and pristine landscapes. 

A member of the AFAR Travel Advisory Council, Will Kiburz of Coronet Travel has created an itinerary that showcases the state’s cultural, culinary, and natural high points. You’ll stay four nights in the atmospheric city of San Cristóbal de las Casas, an ideal base for exploring some of the national parks of southern Chiapas, and then you’ll spend two nights in Palenque with its impressive Mayan ruins.
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    Day 1
    Arrive in San Cristóbal
    You’ll fly into Tuxla Gutiérrez, the state capital, where you’ll be met at the airport by a driver who will take you on the hour-long journey to San Cristóbal de las Casas. In a valley surrounded by soaring peaks, this 16th-century city is one of Mexico’s best-preserved colonial towns. Its cobblestone streets, historic churches, and colonial-era houses with wrought-iron balconies create a magical atmosphere.

    Your base for four nights in San Cristóbal will be either Hotel Bo or the Plaza Gallery. The Hotel Bo is in the historic heart of the city, yet opts for a contemporary design with floor-to-ceiling windows overlooking landscaped gardens. Its minimalist design never feels cold, however, thanks to rich wood finishes and colorful local textiles. Another central option, the Plaza Gallery, occupies a stately building constructed in the 1940s as a pharmacy, but renovated and reopened in 2012. It’s just two blocks to the cathedral and close to other churches and museums.

    After a stroll around town, you’ll dine tonight at Restaurante LUM, located at Hotel Bo (even if you have chosen to stay at the Plaza Gallery). The restaurant built around a courtyard specializes in dishes typical of Chiapas and the Yucatan—fish cooked in a banana leaf, tongue tacos—as well as others that use local ingredients in contemporary creations.
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    Day 2
    A Tour of Historic Chiapas
    A guide will meet you for a tour of historic San Cristóbal. The city was long the state’s capital, and its elaborate 18th-century cathedral reflects San Cristóbal’s status at that time. Its Baroque mortar façade—painted yellow, red and white—enlivens the surrounding plaza. The Templo de Santo Domingo is most famous for the Chamulan women who set up a daily market around the building, selling their colorful handwoven textiles. It’s fitting that the former convent attached to the church is the home of the Centro de Textiles de Mundo Maya, a museum with hundreds of examples of Maya weavings.

    After a lunch of Chiapan specialties, you’ll go from seeing Mayan textiles on display in a museum to seeing them worn by the Tzotzil Maya residents of the nearby town of Zinacantán, about a 20-minute drive from San Cristóbal. Every year on August 10, the feast day of the town’s patron San Lorenzo, the women of Zinacantán unveil the colors and patterns they will use in their floral embroidery in the upcoming twelve months. As you explore the town, visiting workshops and markets, you’ll realize that the remarkable embroidery work is not created for tourists and instead the handmade clothes of local residents—men, women, and children alike. The effect is an authentically dazzling display of red, purple, and pink flowers.

    This evening, you’ll dine at one of Chiapas’s top restaurants, Tierra y Cielo, where chef Marta Zepeda prepares tamales and dishes made with traditional mole sauces.
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    Day 3
    Sumidero Canyon
    This morning, you’ll depart from your hotel with a guide to see one of Chiapas’s most beautiful natural wonders, the deep and narrow Sumidero Canyon. Roughly as old as the Grand Canyon, centuries of erosion caused by the Grijalva River have formed the dramatic gorge with its soaring canyon walls reaching heights of more than 3,000 feet. You’ll cruise on a boat along the river, in the shadow of the canyon walls. And afterwards you can wander some of the trails in the vast national park that includes the canyon.

    Next you’ll continue on to Chiapa de Corzo for a late lunch when you’ll be able to sample local empanadas and lemonade made with chia seeds. You’ll have time to explore the oldest colonial town in the state. Chiapa de Corzo’s streets are lined with pastel buildings and a number of historic churches; the elaborate Mudejar-style fountain in the town’s tree-shaded plaza is a famous local landmark.

    You’ll return towards San Cristóbal late in the afternoon, but take a short six-mile detour around the town and head to Chamula, officially San Juan de Chamula, first. Almost the entire population of Chamula is Maya, and in its church you’ll find a unique mix of Mayan rituals and Catholicism. The smell of copal incense fills the air while medicine men prescribe remedies for a variety of ailments, which in some cases include the sacrifice of chickens. Note that while the scene is undeniably captivating, photography is strictly prohibited.

    After your visit, you shop in the town square for handicrafts, and then head back to San Cristóbal where you will have the evening free.
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    Photo By Wikimedia
    Day 4
    Lagunas de Montebello
    A guide will meet you early today for a journey to another eye-catching natural site: the Lagunas de Montebello, several hours to the southeast of San Cristóbal. Near the Guatemalan border, the lagunas are a total of almost 60 lakes in a dazzling array of blues, greens, and even reds and purples, surrounded by pine forests. The area is Chiapas’s oldest national park, as well as a UNESCO Biosphere. You’ll have opportunities to swim and kayak in the lakes, as well as visit the Mayan ruins of Chinkultic within the park. From atop its acropolis, you’ll have extensive views of the park.

    After your visit, you’ll return to San Cristóbal for your final night there.
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    Day 5
    After checking out from your hotel, you will depart early this morning with a guide and driver for Palenque, a four-hour drive from San Cristóbal. One of the greatest Mayan cities, Palenque was at its peak during the Early Classic (200 to 600 C.E.) and Classic (600 to 900 C.E.) periods and some 1,400 buildings have been identified, though only 10 percent of them excavated.

    In Palenque, you will stay at either the Boutique Hotel Quinta Chanabnal, just minutes from the archaeological zone. The Quinta Chanabnal is arguably the best hotel in Palenque. It has only nine suites, some with private plunge pools, and lush landscaped grounds.

    After settling into your room and having lunch, you will visit the ruins of Palenque with a guide from the local Mayan community who will provide an introduction to both ancient and contemporary Mayan culture and life. Palenque is not the largest Mayan city to have been discovered by archaeologists, though it is still estimated to have covered a remarkable 25 square miles. But it is perhaps the most atmospheric, located in the misty jungles of Chiapas. The ruins are also celebrated for their expressive relief sculptures. The largest building is the Temple of Inscriptions, which stands at 88 feet tall, while smaller palaces, temples, and ball courts have also been restored.

    Afterwards you’ll visit a local market in Palenque where you’ll be able to sample typical dishes like deer stew, river snails, and honey sweets, many of them dating to the ancient Maya.
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    Day 6
    Yaxchilán and Bonampak
    Today you’ll depart your hotel in the morning with a guide to visit two other Mayan sites, Yaxchilán and Bonampak, both to the southeast of Palenque. Though much smaller than Palenque, Yaxchilán was a significant power in the Mayan classical period and the quality of the carvings found here is noteworthy. Among the smaller cities that were subject to Yaxchilán at its height was nearby Bonampak. Instead of soaring temples, the principal draw of Bonampak is its excellent murals that remain vivid even some 1,500 years after they were painted. For many archaeologists these murals, with their depictions of Mayan warriors in battle, led to a shifting away from an earlier conception of the Maya as peaceful farmers led by mystic priests. Your guide will explain the plants used in the creation of Mayan pigments and after your tour you’ll meet with a local artisan who continues to paint works inspired by traditional Mayan techniques.

    At the end of a long day, you’ll return to Palenque and have the evening free.
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    Day 7
    Return Home... Or Keep Exploring
    Unless you choose to continue your exploration of Mexico beyond Chiapas—perhaps to the nearby Yucatan or the neighboring state of Oaxaca—you’ll depart your hotel this morning and head to the Palenque airport to begin your journey home.