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John and Mandi

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Into the Heart of the Lion, Chiapas

Apr 22, 2016
by John

There has been a lot of discussion about the safety of traveling in Mexico, Chiapas is one of the states that gets a great deal of bad press. Rightfully so or not, the region is stunning and is at the top of the list for many who travel Mexico. We had heard a great deal about the troubles many had been experiencing with road blocks along the direct route from San Cristobal to Palenque. One couple being required to pay 500 pesos (29 US) per person to pass, another being beat up and having their windows smashed when they tried to run through without paying. Other overlanders we met decided to run that road early in the morning, theoretically before the road blocks are set up.

When looking at the list of places we wanted to explore, we realized our route would circumvent the known trouble areas. It also meant we would be traveling alone in the heart of one of the most feared states in Mexico for a decent amount of time. Not to be accused of being casual about our security, we weighed our options against our experience. Setting off on what we refer to as our Chiapas loop was one of the best decisions we have made.

Yes, we ran into somewhat of a road block but we used our heads, and the locals, to sort out a way around it. If necessary we would have tried to negotiate a nominal amount to pass. Ultimately, our main problem in Chiapas was the heat. We inadvertently, in all of our planning for this region, overlooked the fact that this is the hottest time of the year. While bad things do happen, some to unsuspecting travelers, everything must always be taken with a grain of salt. We are fresh water and mountain people, Chiapas delivered.

What We Did

San Cristobal de Las Casas, Chiapas

We didn't spend much time exploring San Cristobal even though we spent three nights there, 2 at Rancho San Nicolas which is a little bit out of town and one in the overnight parking lot known as Trailer Park Hotel La Merced. We did like the city but after spending 20 days in and around Oaxaca we were wanting to get back into nature. Betty & Beat, a Swiss couple we met in San Miguel de Allende, reached out as they were also in town. We all got together for the traditional overlander fun, stories from the road and details about future plans. While chatting, Clementia & Jurgen arrived in a rig that looks like a mini Class A. That night we all went out for a wonderful dinner before heading our different ways the following morning.

San Cristobal de Las Casas, Chiapas, Mexico

Swiss cheese

Cascadas El Chiflon, Chiapas

The first stop on our Chiapas loop, an epic waterfall worth the hike up to see it. Roughly 10km from the entrance we had to stop due to a collectivo blockade. At first I thought there might be a fuel shortage, nope. No one ever approached us but it was clear they didn't want anyone traveling through, unless paying some amount we assume. After several minutes we turned around and pulled over to lock our hubs. We knew there had to be a way around through the cane fields, an older gentleman confirmed our suspicions after Mandi kindly asked him.

Soon we were tear assing through the fields. It was single track so we had to pull off a few times to give cane trucks the right of way. It was a fun detour and a reminder of how friendly everyone has been in Mexico. We ended up spending the night in the parking lot at the Cascadas, the first of what ended up becoming the norm for this region. Our dip in one of the natural pools was rather brief, the water was quite cold.

Hwy 101, Chiapas, Mexico

Apparently where collectivos migrate to spawn

Cascadas El Chiflon, Chiapas, Mexico

Don't tell Leonardo, he can't keep his mouth shut

Cascadas El Chiflon, Chiapas, Mexico

Maybe it was worth the hike, maybe

Lagos de Montebello, Chiapas

An area full of different colored lakes, a great way to break up the short drive between El Chiflon and Las Nubes. We hiked down to several of the lakes and just stopped at the lookouts for others. We thought the admission cost at the first set of lakes would cover entry to all of them but that wasn't the case. All in it cost us a little over $7 US.

Lagos de Montebello, Chiapas, Mexico

Looks just like Flor-eh-duh

Lagos de Montebello, Chiapas, Mexico

All I want is my Insta status!

Lagos de Montebello, Chiapas, Mexico

Huck Finn fan club meeting site

Las Nubes, Chiapas

The 40 minute drive in, swimming area, and parking lot camping are just OK- the river is one of the most beautiful we have ever seen. It's probably our favorite stop on the entire loop through Chiapas. Days could be spent photographing all of the cascades in the different light. We only stayed one night but lingered for half of the second day since we knew we were only traveling about an hour away. Before breakfast Mandi spotted our first toucan while we were taking photos of the river. A flock of them were chattering away in one of the trees next to the restaurant.

Hwy 307, Chiapas, Mexico

We don't need no stinkin ramp

Hwy 307, Chiapas, Mexico

Gorge us

Hwy 307, Chiapas, Mexico

No reason to visit at all

Las Nubes, Chiapas, Mexico

That one tree ties the whole landscape together

Las Nubes, Chiapas, Mexico

Always dig the hole first

Las Nubes, Chiapas, Mexico

Gorilla in the mist

Las Nubes, Chiapas, Mexico

If this ain't pretty, something's wrong with you, seriously

Las Nubes, Chiapas, Mexico

And we still can't drink it

Las Nubes, Chiapas, Mexico

He never once responded to the name Sam

Xbulan-Ja, Chiapas

A lesser known place up the river from Las Nubes but one that offers Class III whitewater rafting. It's just off the highway so it is much easier to access. Mandi read about them in our Lonely Planet guidebook and we decided it had been too long since we had run a river. The setting is not as idyllic as Las Nubes but it is still beautiful. We taught the local fish how to give pedicures the Florida way while we cooled ourselves at the river's edge. Camping is, yup, in the parking lot, but we found a spot under a tree to help us fight the heat.

The rafting trip was perfect. Its Class III rating is due to a couple drops over cascades, each smaller than the length of our raft. Most of the river is slow moving so we paddled the majority of the time, almost three hours. The wave trains at the end were a lot of fun and had me missing my kayak. The take out is at Las Nubes so we got one last look before heading back to Xbulan-Ja. The cost was supposed to be about $140 US for up to 6 passengers. We negotiated the price to $87.72 US (1500 pesos) since it was just the two of us. A pricey excursion but well worth it. Our guide was experienced and he brought two buddies along who paddled their asses off to get us down the river, one was a machine!

Xbulan-Ja, Chiapas, Mexico

Doesn't look peaceful to me, all I see are places things can hide to then get me

Xbulan-Ja, Chiapas, Mexico

All the fashion rage

Xbulan-Ja, Chiapas, Mexico

Boobs' eye view

Yaxchilan, Chiapas

One of the places where one could pretend to be Indiana Jones or Lara Croft. A set of ruins on the Mexican and Guatemalan border alongside a river. A 40 minute down stream boat ride is required to reach its entrance, an hour to return. A place that has been at the top of my list ever since I heard about it. A youthful excursion if there are ever such things.

Our start was a bit aggravating because of a confusion in time. Apparently, certain places don't observe daylight savings time so even though the clock at Nueva Alianza was aligned with ours, the Yaxchilan ticket office was set to an hour earlier, or at least this is what we were told. Our scheduled 6:30 AM departure had us waiting around to buy entrance tickets, they cannot be purchased in advance, even though no one ever asked us for them. No harm no foul as we were the first to reach Yaxchilan and we had it all to ourselves for the little more than 2 hours we were there, not counting the roaring troops of howler monkeys. A wave of full lanchas was heading in as we were boating out, superb.

Our parking lot stay at Nueva Alianza left a lot to be desired. We were completely exposed to the sun and the facilities weren't as nice as we expected. It was an OK place but we should have checked out Escudo Jaguar next door.

Yaxchilan, Chiapas, Mexico

Makes me want to run across their roof tops

Yaxchilan, Chiapas, Mexico

Explain tactical advantage again

Yaxchilan, Chiapas, Mexico

I wonder what Mayan fairy tales talked about

Yaxchilan, Chiapas, Mexico

Mossy Oak

Yaxchilan, Chiapas, Mexico

He does have square pants

Yaxchilan, Chiapas, Mexico

Rock 'em Sock 'em Deities

Yaxchilan, Chiapas, Mexico

Sanatoriams be so damn creepy

Yaxchilan, Chiapas, Mexico

The buried bodies are always out back

Yaxchilan, Chiapas, Mexico

The wet look, brought to you by 100% humidity

Yaxchilan, Chiapas, Mexico

Not all doorways lead to somewhere

Yaxchilan, Chiapas, Mexico

This'll do Mary proud

Yaxchilan, Chiapas, Mexico

How do I know? Well, he just doesn't look hungry

Agua Azul, Chiapas

More aptly Agua A-Zoo. Probably the most beautiful set of waterfalls and river we have ever seen. Its wonder is lost by the endless stream of vendor establishments strewn along its entire length. While our pictures show the natural beauty from the designated lookout platforms, we failed to take a photo of the makeshift mercantiles and their wares. Our iPhone became our primary camera as we didn't even carry one of our Nikons on the trail. It was a hard place for us. Beauty and the Beast.

Agua Azul, Chiapas, Mexico

Looks like they got the ph all wrong

Agua Azul, Chiapas, Mexico

That's not the kind of Mexican piranha I was talking about

Agua Azul, Chiapas, Mexico

All it needs is a tree house, we'd be never leaving

Palenque, Chiapas

The end of our Chiapas loop and one of the heavy hitters in Mayan ruins. We were worried about crowds, especially after having Yaxchilan all to ourselves. We arrived at opening, along with a couple of tour buses, but we were able to get lost in the Palacio, feeling at times as though we were the only ones there. It alone is worth the visit in my opinion. We spent over three hours combing the park, ending at the museum. Truth be told, my main reason for visiting was to see the lid of Pakal's sarcophagus. It's a great site and the Maya Bell campground is the perfect place to recover from parking lot living, complete with onsite laundry service. The only negative was an unwanted temporary souvenir, an overzealous wasp stung me 1cm from my left eye next to my nose. I was rescuing Mandi from it so I'm a hero of sorts.

Palenque, Chiapas, Mexico

I'd kill for a place like that

Palenque, Chiapas, Mexico

The key to a long life, always make the wife go first

Palenque, Chiapas, Mexico

What about sticking my camera over the line?

Palenque, Chiapas, Mexico

Flying dragon, call Giorgio Tsoukalos

Palenque, Chiapas, Mexico

Stone unhenged

Palenque, Chiapas, Mexico

Just imagine the taxes

Palenque, Chiapas, Mexico

You got comb, no honey

Palenque, Chiapas, Mexico

He works out

Palenque, Chiapas, Mexico

Looked bigger on TV

Palenque, Chiapas, Mexico

We'll take two

Palenque, Chiapas, Mexico

Now this is in our price range

Palenque, Chiapas, Mexico

Smoke em if you got em

Palenque, Chiapas, Mexico

Ground control to Major T'om


Say what? (6)
Apr 22, 2016 at 08:45 PM
Great post! Great photos.
Apr 24, 2016 at 05:40 PM
Thanks Geneva!

When are you guys heading down?
Apr 23, 2016 at 12:16 PM
So glad you decided to do the Chiapas loop. I think that it's always best to be smart, pay attention to what the locals are saying, and follow your instincts.. but there is crime and issues everywhere in the world. Yesterday as we drove through Sinaloa we couldn't help but think of the 2 guys who were found in their burned up van but, as most experience, had no issues. Can't wait to get down to that area myself.. lol.. in cooler temps!
Apr 24, 2016 at 05:47 PM
Hey Rhonda!

We think about those two guys a lot. Chiapas is wonderful, you just gotta look past the rugged exterior to experience the inner beauty. We will drive through again someday to catch some things we skipped.
Apr 26, 2016 at 06:45 AM
Makes me dream to go there once... Happy to read thaht you still enjoy your overlanding.
Take care guys.
Apr 30, 2016 at 07:00 PM
Thanks Claude!

There's nothing like life on the road as you well know. Weeks could be spent exploring Chiapas. When you make it be sure to share your photos!
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