March 7, 2008

Mexico: Chiapas Offers Stunning Contrasts

By Keven Ann Willey, The Dallas Morning News

Mar. 7--SAN CRISToBAL, Mexico -- Contrasts are what produce "wow" moments in Chiapas, Mexico's southernmost state.

It's Mexican. But it's really more Mayan. The Spanish were afraid of the jungle and never succeeded in conquering the region.

It's modern. Five airports, two large cities (Tuxtla Gutierrez, San Cristobal), better BlackBerry reception than in parts of Texas. But it's also ancient.

The Mayans developed a number system based on zero centuries before Arab scholars taught Europeans the same. The ruins of Palenque and Bonampak are some of the best-preserved and most dramatic in this part of the world.

Chiapas has a reputation for guerrilla rebellion, but that was more than a decade ago amid a fight for civil rights. The unrest never was anti-American, and the region is peaceful now.

The land is rich in resources: oil, uranium, fruit, coffee, cattle and fish. One water project on the Grijalva River reportedly supplies nearly a third of Mexico's electricity. But Chiapas' people are poor.

Seven tribes of indigenous people dwell here, many identifiable by their distinctive clothing, and some of whom still live in the jungle and subsist on small, primitive, bean-producing farms.

The perception is that travelers rough it, but American-standard accommodations, recognizable food and a dependable cup of coffee in the morning are common.

Faith is a creative blend of Catholicism and pagan worship.

Small wonder that this region of surprises is one of U.S. Ambassador Tony Garza's favorite Mexican states.

The former Texan, who has been the top U.S. official in Mexico since 2002, likes to hike in the densely wooded jungles, which are full of spectacular waterfalls.

On a recent trip, my husband and I found our own "wows."

We climbed ancient Mayan monuments, hiked in luscious green jungles where we ogled spider monkeys and a scarlet macaw, admired crocodiles lounging on the river banks and visited some of the best weavers and artisans in the region.

We enjoyed clean, comfortable accommodations everywhere we went, as well as delicious food, plenty of bottled water and warm and welcoming Chiapanecas.

With a good local guide, we learned about King Pakal of the 600-700 A.D. era, the unusual rule of at least three women in this patriarchal society, worship of jaguars, the reign of Sky Bird King Chuan Muan II and much more.

A highlight was experiencing a 17th-century Catholic church in Chamula, one of the communities of indigenous people, this one in the mountains (about 7,000 feet elevation) just a 20-minute drive outside of San Cristobal.

From the outside, the church looks traditional. Inside, saints predictably line the walls.

But there we watched a shaman taking the "blood pulse" of a parishioner and saw offerings of candles, Coca-Cola, their version of moonshine and chickens.

We relished the market. I'd never seen such an array of dried fish, salted shrimp, caramelized fruit paste, all kinds of beans, corn, tamales, sweet potatoes, potatoes, mango, cabbage and more in an outdoor market. Live chickens for cooking: about $6 each.

Grilled ants were a delicacy. Crispy and salted, they're sold in small plastic bags and eaten like peanuts. They're not bad, if you can forget what you're eating. (My husband went back for seconds.)

That's just the food at the market.

Don't get me started on the embroidered blouses, leather belts, jewelry, dolls, baskets, figurines, blankets, shawls, bags and wool capes.

My favorite stops, however, were visiting the ancient worship sites and glimpsing beautiful and exotic animals.

The Temple of the Cross in Palenque is fabulous, better preserved than the more famous Chichen Itza closer to Cancun, and nearly as magical as Tikal in remote Guatemala.

But don't miss the more remote Yaxchilan, accessible only by boat (about $5 per person, including the guide), where visitors learn about Bird Jaguar, the last known ruler of this kingdom, still distinguishable in faded murals by his big nose and thick thighs.

Be sure to look up into the trees, too. We saw two pairs of spider monkeys swinging around one morning in Yaxchilan, and we eavesdropped on a distant conversation among howler monkeys.

The flora is equally exotic: Hawaiian ginger, jobo (a member of the cashew family), mango, orange, avocado, almond, hibiscus and mahogany trees.

Ask about the gringo tree, with red bark that peels like a sunburned tourist.

Our final day was reserved for a boat tour of Sumidero Canyon.

Sharing a small power craft with about a half-dozen Israelis and a couple of Mexicans (Americans still account for less than 3 percent of Chiapas tourism), we cruised the Grijalva River through the narrow canyon for two hours. At times, its walls reached three times the height of the Eiffel Tower.

We passed the Cave of Colors, where moss and minerals combine to tint the walls light green and pink. We passed Christmas Tree Falls with its unusual tree formation.

About 28 miles downriver, we came to a private eco-park and then to one of the largest water projects in the nation, which the local government contended supplies nearly one-third of Mexico's electricity.

On the way back, we paused to watch a couple of crocodiles sunning along the bank. One of them, El Veterano, is about 40 years old and a common sight on the river. He was oblivious to the bright orange butterflies flitting around his nose.


-- The Mayas worshipped a cross in their religious ceremonies centuries before Christianity reached their shores. (The "cross" was actually the Ceiba tree, with its peculiar trunk and branch arrangement. The top part of the trunk symbolized the 13 heavens, the horizontal bar the human world, and the bottom trunk the nine underworlds.)

-- Chiapas represents a side of Mayan culture different from the better-known Cancun region.

-- Chiapas is the world's third-largest producer of organic coffee after Colombia and El Salvador. Most of it is exported to Europe. Starbucks has recently partnered with USAID and Conservation International to link isolated coffee growers in Chiapas with buyers willing to pay a premium for high-grade coffee. The program allows consumers to pay for conservation efforts at the farm level.

-- The neighboring state of Tabasco is a major producer of chocolate. Tourism officials hope to develop a tour of the area.

-- The Chiapas Project, founded by Dallas developer Lucy Billingsley, partners with the Grameen Foundation to provide loans to impoverished indigenous women in Chiapas, many of whom live in rural areas and don't speak Spanish. The program offers health and literacy training. It serves more than 9,000 clients and has grown more than 150 percent in the last two years.

-- The leader of the anti-government Zapatista rebels, Marcos, still lives in the jungle near San Cristobal and has become a local folk hero.



-- From Dallas it's best to fly into Mexico City, about two hours, and transfer to another flight into either Villa Hermosa, Tabasco, or to Tuxtla Gutierrez, Chiapas. The second leg is about an hour. We booked two months in advance and paid just over $250 each (taxes and fees included) round trip to Mexico City. The connection to Chiapas on a Mexican airline cost another $320 each.

-- If you have time in Mexico City, visit the National Museum of Anthropology, which has an excellent explanation of people, cultures, religions, monuments and architecture in the Mayan world.


-- Best Western-style hotels run about $100 per night, double occupancy.

-- Food in Chiapas is good and cheap. A menu turistico is generally about $8, including tip, and consists of a choice of soup or appetizer; choice of a simple fish, chicken or beef dish; choice of dessert. Drinks are extra.

-- Take a small, battery-operated, hand-held fan. It's a jungle, after all, and the humidity, at least during the September rainy season, can make Houston seem like a desert.

-- We didn't encounter many mosquitoes, but packing bug spray is a good idea.


-- Take time to walk in San Cristobal, which is reminiscent of pre-trendy Santa Fe, N.M. Check out the candy market. And don't miss the statue in the park of Dr. Manuel Velasco Suarez, 1914-2001, a favorite son of the city and universal figure of good will. I particularly liked the inscription (translated): "A man's value is in his service, not in his knowledge and even less in his possessions."

-- See Misol-Ha waterfall and the Agua Azul cascading lagoons near Palenque. You must park your car and take a short local transport from the main road to Misol-Ha. You can drive to Agua Azul yourself. Small admission fees. Fabulous photo opportunities.


-- Chiapas tourism: www.colegio

-- Mexico tourism: 1-800-446-3942;


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