On The Road in Chiapas, Mexico
My husband and I love Mexico - so much so that we’re planning a move there eventually. Something we’ve been enjoying is exploring the states of Mexico together; it’s a massive, beautiful country that offers everything you could imagine: white sandy beaches, jungles, misty mountains, deserts, snow, volcanoes, canyons, rivers, waterfalls, complete with amazing wildlife, delicious foods, and welcoming people.
TL;DR: A photo essay of our trip from Cancun (state of Quintana Roo), to Villahermosa (state of Tobasco), to Palenque and beyond (state of Chiapas). DSLR photos, and iPhone snapshots. You can get the gist from the photos and captions, or you can read to learn more about traveling in this unique, beautiful, sometimes overlooked part of Mexico.
We’ve done a great deal of exploring in Quintana Roo, Yucatan, and a bit in Campeche on pervious trips, and in July we started to scratch the surface of Chiapas (with a brief stop in Tobasco!). Using airline miles we flew into Cancun on Southwest, and made our way to the town of Puerto Morelos for a night.
We had a late lunch at our favorite taco place in town, had some ice cream, walked on the beach, and fell asleep to the sound of the ocean. The next morning we took a quick cab ride back to the airport, and took a flight on VivaAerobus to Villahermosa, in the state of Tobasco. At the airport we met two friends from Portland who had flown in an hour earlier on a redeye.
We picked up a rental car, dropped our bags at our adorable hotel (overlooking the water), and went straight to Parque Museo La Venta. We grabbed a bite in the parking lot, and while eating our tacos wild coatimundis sniffed around, much to my delight.
The park has meandering paths, first through a small zoo, then through gardens and jungle, and every clearing featured another piece of Olmec history. It was awesome to get to see the giant stone heads in person!
Back at our hotel, we asked at the front desk for dinner recommendations. The owner of the hotel was on her way to a yoga class, and offered to drive us to a popular spot. The car ride was full of laughs, and we asked lots of questions about her city, and we learned a great deal from our gracious host. We had a wonderful dinner, some drinks, and turned in for the night after watching the lights of the city reflect on the water outside. Bright and early the next morning we hit the local Super Che for baked goods, sunblock, and bug spray, then hit the road for our drive to Palenque, in Chiapas. The ride was uneventful, though we did grab parking lot tamales while gassing up at a Pemex.
Our destination was Chan-Kah Resort Village, a jungle-retreat I had found online in my research for a place to stay. It seemed criminally cheap to us, and we were a little suspicious it was too good to be true. Tucked a mile from the ruins of Palenque, and outside of the eponymous town, we arrived to a gate and upon giving our name were admitted.
Checking in was a breeze, and we were lead to our cabin. The grounds did not disappoint, we followed our host down a stone path, lined with tropical fruits and flowers, and agoutis ran around everywhere we looked. Our stroll went past the restaurant, and around the pool. It’s a salt water, “cenote style” (lined with rocks) pool, with three different areas (shallow, comfortable, and deep). Our path continued to a small waterfall and smaller private pool, just outside our cabin. We all agreed we felt like we were underpaying to stay in such a fantastic location! It felt like a splurge.
We dropped off our things and set out to visit Agua Azul, a real waterfall I’d always wanted to see.
The road was long, and very slow going, peppered with topes (speedbumps best described as aggressive), and through countless small towns. Many are still signed with hand-painted warnings that they’re occupied by Zapatistas, set back down dirt roads. The road went up and over jungle mountains, hung with mist. Fields would stretch out, dotted with cattle and horses, ending at the base of rolling hills. The sun streamed through the low hanging clouds, the term “cloud jungle” was made for this part of the world! While the ride was far longer than we’d expected (we have learned to double all time estimates on google maps), it was so stunningly, simply breathtaking. I could have spent all day stopping every 100 feet for another photo!
Now. It’s important I interject this here: I don’t want to scare or alarm or discourage anyone from visiting Chiapas. I cannot overstate how beautiful it is, and what a wonderful experience we had. But I have to disclose that two days before our drive from Palenque to Agua Azul, there was a robbery on the road. A tour van was stopped by armed men, and money, phones, and cameras were taken. Maybe a year ago another tour bus was stopped, and the robbers took the money, phones, and cameras of the travelers; that robbery is notable because one of the victims realized he’d turned over his passport, and the gunmen returned his passport, even apologized, and then still took his money. These robberies aren’t to hurt or kill. They seem to be crimes of opportunity and necessity. This mountainous region is so destitute - there’s very little commerce or opportunity, in part because American tourist dollars just don’t flow here. The robbery two days prior to our drive wound up being a blessing in disguise, as the federales were out in full force, patrolling the area. We had, as a precaution, left our drone at the hotel, and I’m still sad we didn’t have it for photos at the waterfalls.
We had to stop in just about every small town and pay a nominal “toll” - local children and older women will hold a rope across the road when you slow down for a tope, the children swarm your car, with bags of homemade food, fruits - all trying to sell you items for a few pesos. You can’t pass the “toll” until the woman holding the rope lets you by, she requires a few more pesos than the kiddos. We found about 1 peso per kid and maybe 3 or 4 pesos for the eldest got us through. It can be surprising to have your car surrounded by eager kids hoping to make some money, but it’s less terrifying than playing a game of chicken with them, as in, who will break first? Will you stop the car, or will they jump out of the way at the last minute? Again, it’s my suspicion that this is a simple means of income in the area. I hate to sound so “white privilege” describing it; I’ve really struggled with how to talk about our time in this area without sounding like I’m disparaging it. I am not, and I look forward to returning and exploring more. But I would be remiss without mentioning the tolls and the potential for “worse.”
One of the rules of traveling Mexico that we don’t break is “no driving at night.” Based on the road conditions, the lack of guardrails, the many sharp turns and drop offs, the packs of stray dogs that dart in front of cars…we knew we’d want to be back at the hotel by sunset, and the ride there had taken 2.5 hours, so we didn’t have more than an hour at the falls. We paid the small fee to enter Agua Azul, and I set off immediately for the highest point in the “park” while my husband and friends excitedly went swimming in the eddies below the cascades. It’s a solid 15-20 minute hike up stone paths and stairs to the different overlooks of the falls, each more jaw-dropping than the last. Past vendors selling coconuts, and crafts, I continued to climb, catching sight of smaller falls that just surround the entire area, through trees and roots and vines.
I got to the top and breathed in the cool spray, and took some time to just exist. Over the roar of the falls I couldn’t hear the other visitors, it was like I had it to myself. I’m always so energized by visits to places like this. The colors were so intense, the smell was so clean and fresh and my skin was warm in the sun but the mist was cool, it’s always magical. And to be so deep the mountains of Mexico at a waterfall I’d always wanted to see in person made the long drive worth every filling-jarring tope.
A quick snippet of video from my iPhone from the top of the falls…
I made my way back down the paths, stopping for photos, and treating myself to a fresh coconut topped off with vodka. I joined my friends below for some swimming - it was fun to swim up stream a bit, then just relax and let the current bring you back down. We grabbed some food to go from the vendors, and drove back to the hotel. The sun was low in the sky, and we all made a bee-line for the pool.
We walked into the warm pool and watched the sky change colors. The pool lights, which change color, came on, and a waiter from the bar served us our margaritas without us even having to come out of the water. We dined at the hotel that night on the balcony overlooking the beautiful pool, and listened to the jungle come alive with the sounds of the night.
The following morning we awoke to the sound of howler monkeys outside of our room. We walked down the paths to the restaurant for breakfast before our day’s adventure began.
We got back in the car for another road trip to the small town of Frontera Corazol. As tourists, we had to pay a fee to enter the town, which may or may not have been legit but was nominal so we paid. We made our way down to the riverbanks of the Usumacinta River, the wide, murky, swiftly moving border between Mexico and Guatemala. There we hired a boat. The four of us had the boat to ourselves, it had a canopy to protect us from the sun, the “captain” made sure we all had life jackets, gave us all bottles of water, and we set off for an hour journey up the river. This is where you start to feel like Indiana Jones.
After a lazy, uneventful boat trip we came to a bend in the river, and there on the banks, rising out of the trees, was a stone building, just past it, a staircase disappearing up into the trees. The boat docked at the bottom of the stairs, and we ascended, the roars of howler monkeys echoing through the jungle.
We turned on our flashlights, entered a moss covered building, with bats sleeping overhead, and made our way through the darkness. We even came across a tailless whip scorpion, which would have made me scream if I didn’t know what it was and that it was harmless. We saw daylight at the top of a short flight of stairs, and when we came out of the low, dark building…we were standing in the ruins of the Maya city of Yaxchilan. I will forever be sad knowing we can return to Yaxchilan someday, but there will never be that rush…that excitement of going the first time.
We had about two hours before we had to return to our boat, and we set off to see the site. We made our way towards the tallest building, the temple on top of a hill. There were SO many stairs to the top, even a small building partway up. I wish I’d counted the steps! On our way up the sound of the monkeys grew louder. At the top you could enter the building, though it was small, and there was a small tour group up there already.
There were kids excitedly pointing off into the trees, trying to see the spider monkeys and the howlers. I took out my long lens, and took some photos. I showed the kids the back of my camera so they could get a better look at the monkeys, and the tour guide approached me and said something in a language I didn’t understand.
I stared blankly at him, and he tried again in Spanish, asking me where I was from. I, in my most 8th grade level Spanish class experienced way, replied, “Soy de los estados unidos.” He replied, shocked, in English, “How did you get HERE?!” And I laughed, told him I had always wanted to visit. He was indigenous Maya - Mayan was the first language he spoke to me. English was his third language. He proceeded to explain to me in that region there were 80 some-odd dialects of Mayan.
He taught me the Mayan words for spider monkey and howler monkey (they sound a bit like “marsh” and “bahtz”). He asked me if I knew any Mayan, and I said, “Solamente una palabra…” he gestured for me to continue, and I said, “Titi.” Years earlier we had met a pet monkey named Titi, which we thought was just a cute name - until we learned it was Mayan for “butthole.” So, here I am, on top of a temple, in the middle of the jungle, a stone’s throw from Guatemala, speaking in two languages with a local guide, and I looked at him and said “butthole” in his own native tongue.
There was a pause, his eyes grew wide, and threw his head back and started roaring with laughter. He slapped me on the back, tears running down his face, he had to bend over to catch his breath. I don’t think he was expecting the tiny unassuming American to turn to him and say “butthole” - and I imagine he retells the story, as well. I had to explain, in broken Spanish and some English, about the pet monkey. He thanked me for the laugh, he thanked me for visiting his home, and for loving Chiapas and Mexico. We shook hands and he lead his tour group back down the pyramid. The experience of sharing time and laughs with a local, speaking literally in three different languages, there in the jungle, will always stay with me as a highlight of my travels. (My husband, it should be said, thinks I need to learn to do more than swear in other languages.)
After climbing around for two hours, exploring the ruins, watching the monkeys, it was time to return to our boat. Our guide took his time on our way back, pointing out crocodiles - one was sunning itself on the muddy banks, butterflies on its head. We tipped our captain, and headed back to Palenque.
The above video is our afternoon at Yaxchilan boiled down to about 10 minutes. The sound is inconsistent, because I’m a photographer, not a videographer…that’s my line and I’m sticking to it.
While the distance was farther than the day before, it was much faster without the small towns and topes that had slowed us down. As we neared the hotel the skies opened, and time in the pool was not in the cards.
Instead we took a cab into town, and picked a restaurant at random. We climbed a narrow flight of stairs to a small space overlooking the street below. The owner and chef was thrilled to meet us, and shared a sample of her mole sauce. She took her time to explain every dish and sauce, and treated us like guests in her home. We toasted the owner, our adventures, and each other as the evening came to a close.
The next morning we heard the howlers again, and walked down the path to the restaurant for breakfast. As we were cleaning our plates, the monkeys swung into view over the pool. I immediately set off to photograph them. I spent probably an hour, nerding out over these magnificent monkeys, right in front of me. We may have set out later than we intended due to my photography break, but I regret nothing.
We said our farewells to the resort, and I’d love to return someday, it was so wonderful! We made the short drive to the ruins of Palenque, just down the road. I was grateful for my “camelbak” insert in my backpack - it was going to be a long few hours in the sun. The site is massive - despite spending most of a day there I feel like I still missed some things. Unlike Chichen Itza, there are so many places to explore that it never feels crowded. Also unlike Chichen Itza, the vendors are present but not pushy. It was a nice change!
The site is still undergoing excavation and restoration, and some of the buildings are closed to visitors, but most of the site is still incredibly accessible. It’s mind-boggling to me to be able to rest my hand on a carving that was there hundreds of years before me, and that will outlive me by many more. There are still colors and murals on the walls in places - it’s truly a wonder. Sadly the onsite waterfall was just a trickle, but on our way back to the main site we were able to cool our feet in a stream, full of nibbling fishies.
I am glad in the past year I lost 50 pounds and improved my overall health - I felt much more capable of scrambling up the massive buildings - and despite my fear of heights I’ve had enough experience now on Mayan pyramids to know how to take my time and catch my breath and not get scared. I was still projectile-sweating at the top of the Temple of the Cross, but the view was so magical!
Before we left we decided to eat like a local - in the parking lot. There were several food vendors, and we started asking around for “cochinitas pibil.” Two women, with tables next to each other, were trying to say they each had the best around, in a playful sort of way - so hubby and I chose one of the women, our friends went to the other. We sat next to each other though, and ordered tacos and tamales, and dug into the giant buckets of pickled onion and salsas, and drank cold Gatorades. I am sure the communal buckets of toppings would turn off some less intrepid travelers and gourmands, but I have learned in Mexico if there’s a crowd, the food is fantastic AND cheap. Stuffed, happy, refreshed we piled into the car for the last long drive, back to Villahermosa.
Our night in Villahermosa was in a different hotel than the first night. This one offered a roof top pool, which afforded us a really great panoramic view of the modern skyline. Villahermosa is largely a city of commerce - not tourism. It was built by big oil money, and it’s full of business men, not visitors. It’s an interesting contrast to some of the other cities we’ve visited in Mexico, which are fueled by tourism. We sat in the pool while a tremendous thunderstorm rolled in, and when the lightning got too close we finally agreed it was time to go seek out a dinner.
Our travel companions had teased that we plan our trips around Maya sites we want to see, but they plan their vacations around restaurants they want to try. They were in charge of our dinner plans - and selected a place on the other side of the city. The girl at the front desk said she loved that restaurant, and called us a cab. A very nice older gentleman in a nice VW pulled up and said he was our cabbie - and we were pretty sure the girl at the desk had called her grandfather.
He spoke no English (not uncommon outside of major tourist hubs) and didn’t know where the restaurant was, so between our cell phone maps and our basic Spanish we had the most bizarre, hilarious cab ride ever. There were times we found ourselves bumping down alleys, all of us eying each other with a “are we going to get mugged…?” suspicion, ready to hobo-roll out of the cab if necessary. Turns out he was just a nice old guy, and we got to our destination with a funny story.
It was late, and the only people in the restaurant were the staff, who were sitting at the bar to watch a boxing match on pay per view. We ordered cold beers, watched with them, and had a meal I’d return to Villahermosa for! I had a perfectly seasoned chopped up pork chop, with bacon, smothered in melted gouda cheese, wrapped not in a tortilla, but in a circle of chewy melted cheese, their specialty. The word for this cheese-tortilla translates literally to “scab” and you shouldn’t think too much about that.
Our table was covered in cheesey tacos, tasty meats, cheese dips, cold beers, salsas - and we closed with ice cream. I ordered a local specialty, made with cocoa butter from the local chocolate making process, and peppered with toasted cocoa nibs. It was served in a coconut shell. It was the sort of treat that can only be called “life changing” and I will henceforth judge all other ice creams by that simple dish.
The next morning we had a final breakfast in Villahermosa, before hubby and I flew to Cancun to relax in Puerto Morelos for a couple of days before headed back to the Pacific Northwest. Our friends flew home that same day, after some more exploring in the area.
more photos - and links to hotels and restaurants at the end of the blog
For us, it was worth the extra couple of days on either end of the trip in an area we know and love; we got to see friends we’ve made there, knew where to eat and where to shop, and knew it would be relaxing to return to something familiar. Using airline miles to cover our travel to Cancun and then paying for the upgraded seats on VivaAerobus to Villahermosa was cheaper than flying directly to Villahermosa from PDX (which can only be done with a stop over in Mexico City). It’s comfortable to start and finish with somewhere we know and love, and in the middle throw ourselves into brand new places.
We have only just scratched the surface of Chiapas - we still want to see Sumidero Canyon, and Lagos de Montebellos, and visit San Cristobal de las Casas, not to mention countless waterfalls and adorable little hotels. (Did you know that the waterfall scene in Predator was filmed at Misol Ha in Chiapas, just outside of Palenque? And you can visit?!) Hell, Chiapas is a region known for its hongos magicos (‘shrooms!) - we were never offered any. You do need to know basic Spanish to travel there. You do need to be a sensible traveler and not drive at night, or take weird risks. But, like the rest of Mexico, we have learned if you use common sense and basic manners you are a welcome visitor.
It’s not home: it is not the US. It’s not just the Mexico you see from a cruise ship or at a resort - it’s a Mexico many tourists overlook - and that’s a shame, because there’s a lot of special places there. My memories will last a lifetime. I look forward to exploring more and once again returning to those misty rolling hills, full of the roar of monkeys, and the spray of waterfalls.
Airlines, Lodging, Food:
Southwest Airlines & VivaAerobus
Hotel Gota de Sal, Puerto Morelos, Quintana Roo, MX
T@cos.com, Puerto Morelos
Hotel Graham, Villahermosa, Tobasco, MX
A Takear (restaurant), Villahermosa
Hotel Chan Kah Resort Village, Palenque, Chiapas
El Arbolito (restaurant), Palenque
Tobasco Inn, Villahermosa
El Ruedo Taqueria, Villahermosa
Tuch Tlan, Puerto Morelos (a time-trusted all-time favorite)
Al Chimichurri, Puerto Morelos
and always ice cream from Panna e Cioccolato, Puerto Morelos