Mexico keeps getting better. With every new destination and experience, we fall more deeply in love with this country. When we first crossed the border in Baja, we figured we would spend a couple of months getting to the bottom of Mexico. Now it is looking like we will be lucky to make it out before our six-month tourist permit runs out! Chiapas, the southernmost state in Mexico, is full of beautiful sights and we could probably have spent our whole six months in this one state if we wanted to visit each one. Instead, we just had a really spectacular two weeks.
Our first stop in Chiapas was Cascada Aguacero. This waterfall was shockingly beautiful. Maybe I was so blown away because I didn’t do any thorough research on the site and had not seen any pictures. All I knew was that it was supposed to be pretty and there was cheap camping. We arrived in the afternoon and inquired about camping. They were pretty concerned that we were aware that the gates would be locked and we couldn’t leave the next morning until after 8:00 am. These days we are lucky to be drinking our first cup of coffee by 8:00 am so we weren’t worried.
My Lonely Planet guide book said that there were 724 “well-constructed” stairs down to the river. I lost count around 34 but their number felt right to me. When we got down to the water we took off our shoes and walked upstream along the riverbed for about a hundred yards. The water was very shallow and the fine gravel felt like an intensely exfoliating foot massage. The water changed from warm to cool periodically as we walked. We turned a corner and our jaws dropped. Water was flowing out of the limestone bathing a tropical garden of ferns and mosses before pausing for a moment in fairy pools and continuing on into the river. All of this was surrounded by a backdrop of sheer canyon walls in shades of red and gray. We climbed around the pools under the waterfall and spied on the colony of bats living behind the spray. The depth of the canyon accentuated evening so we headed back up those 724 well-constructed steps to make camp in the parking lot. We were sad to see that the lot was well lit in the night with solar-powered streetlights. They are not the best for sleep. Luckily, they ran out of juice about half past midnight. We decided to stick around for a second night to take advantage of cheap camping and play in the river some more. The next day was much more crowded. We had to share the waterfall with about a dozen other visitors. Not so bad. On our way back up the 724 stairs, we met another couple of Pan-American travelers. They were making a bee-line for Guatemala and had a spare fish that they had caught the day prior. I was the lucky recipient of that fish. It topped off my pasta primavera splendidly.
The next day we had an ambitious drive ahead of us. Not too far but I wanted to make a pit-stop in the town of Chiapa de Corzo to take a boat ride through the Cañón del Sumidero. This little side excursion would add about 3 hours to our drive day so we needed to get moving! Google maps directed us on a very counterintuitive route to the boat docks in Chiapa de Corzo but we made it in the end. We bought our tickets and waited patiently for enough people to accumulate to fill a boat. About fifteen minutes later we were being handed a lifejacket and lining up for the boat. Scott made a friend in line who was really happy to chat and work on Scott’s Spanish.
The tour started out slow cruising through town and going under a bridge that had diving platforms for international high diving competitions into the water. Our boat guide knew where all of the animals liked to hang out and he connected the dots between crocodiles and spider monkeys. The real draw of the tour for me was when the canyon walls got high and the river became narrow. It was such a treat for both of us to be able to release the responsibility of navigating and driving and just enjoy the scenery as it passed by. At the far reach of the tour, we parked at a hydroelectric plant. Our guide went on at length about electricity as we bobbed about in the sunshine. Then he reminded us about how great he was at spotting wildlife and slowing down when someone was taking a selfie on the bow before heading down the aisle with his hat out for tips. Smart man because the next stop was a visit to a snack boat where we would have definitely spent his tips on beer and junk food. The ride back through the canyon was a no-nonsense high-speed race back to the pier which was fine with us as we still had a couple of hours of driving to do to get to our next stop.
Once we left the river at Chiapa de Corzo, our drive was all uphill. We were headed to the mountain town of San Cristóbal de las Casas. This city had a pretty groovy vibe and we were happy to find a campground within walking distance to town.
It was a touch expensive (especially considering they didn’t provide toilet paper or hand soap) but that is to be expected in the city. We loved the city! It reminded me of Oaxaca but miniature. The streets were narrow, one-lane affairs and the shops were all cuddled in together making for a cozy feel as we wandered around. The street art in San Cristóbal was abundant and very high quality.
As we walked along in search of a vegan restaurant we found on google we passed by half a dozen other restaurants advertising vegan offerings. I knew it would be hard to pry Scott away from this little city. There were a few things that I was really enjoying as well. Things like locally grown coffee, and hot chocolate where I got to specify my preference for less sugar than most people would enjoy. Also, a wine bar that had glasses of Spanish tempranillo for only 20 pesos. And each glass came with a free little tapa. When we were walking around we passed by a pickup with a cab-over camper that looked very familiar. It was our friend Steve who we had met in Baja! Scott hit him up on WhatsApp to confirm and we all met up at said wine bar for a few rounds and a fun little catch-up session. Steve was traveling with a fellow he had met in Puerto Escondido who was a musician. We sipped our wine at a street-side table while he played the guitar and sang on the street. He was really good! We enjoyed seeing Steve and then we parted ways until we meet again. I think we spent about three days enjoying the sights of San Cristobal. Scott really liked running around the hilly streets. The sidewalks are a jumble of steep driveway ramps, stairs, and rubble so he got an urban experience with the complexity of a trail run. If it had been warmer there I would have been convinced to stay indefinitely. The high altitude made for cold (50s F) nights and cool days (70? F). Most people would think that is perfect but we live outdoors and I am a delicate flower that likes to be warm. So, we left!
We packed up The Joan and trundled down out of the mountains. We were waterfall bound again! Our next waterfall was Cascada El Chiflón. It was heaven! The weather was hot! Swimming weather hot! As we approached from the highway we could see the giant waterfall in the distance. A couple of men waved us down and funneled us into their side of the river. There are tourist services on both sides of the fall that are run by different companies. The online reviews were comparable so we allowed ourselves to be herded into the facility. We paid our entrance and received paper bracelets to wear (Mexico is big on the paper bracelet thing). The parking area (campsite) for the fall was a bit further up the road. They had cabanas for rent, a couple of restaurants, an army of hammocks waiting to be lounged in, and a trail paved in stone up to the waterfall. It was mostly level until the end, which was a nice transition from the super steep descents we have been used to at Mexican waterfalls. We made the hike to the final viewpoint of the biggest section of the fall and then headed back down to an inviting pool for a dip before sundown. We agreed to go back again in the morning for a longer swim in a sunnier pool. When we got back to the parking lot there was a couple with a dead battery in their rental car parked near us. We got to be helpful and use our jumper cables. Scott was extra helpful and confirmed for them that it wasn’t their alternator. Scott has that alternator diagnostic thing dialed! Eventually, everyone went home for the evening except for us and the night watchmen. There was one assigned to the parking area and another guy we saw heading up to the top when we were heading down the trail. He was carrying a sandwich and a big rifle, ready for a long night of defending the waterfall. We enjoyed the warm night air and made some delicious potato tacos. The night security guy came over to let us know that he can hear our music. We figured that was code for “SHHHHH!” and shut it down for the night. The next morning, we had coffee and went for a swim before heading on down the road aimed for Palenque.
We were taking the long way around Chiapas. There is a road that connects San Cristóbal and Palenque quite directly. Unfortunately, it was built through lands with disputed ownership. So, if you travel that route there is a good chance that you will be stopped by people wearing masks requesting large “tolls” for the use of the road. They have boards with nails sticking out of them that they place in front of your tires (and behind your tires) until you agree to pay the toll. They aren’t out every day so there was a chance that we could have passed with zero trouble. Also, there are reports of (infrequent) robberies on the road. We decided to skip it and take the scenic route (Hwy 307) along the Guatemala border instead. That road lead us to Lago Tziscao. We were in a park that was home to many lakes. We had to pay to get into the main park (and get a new paper bracelet) and then buy a ticket to get to the lakes within the park. One ticket is good for five different lakes and they have a guy who will punch your ticket as you enter the vicinity of each lake. It was only confusing for a minute. Luckily the ticket prices were really small. We ended up at the very end of the road camped out a stone’s throw from the lake and in view of Guatemala. When we arrived it was hot and sunny. We had visions of hiking and swimming in the lakes. As soon as we were set up the clouds rolled in and it was chilly and rainy for the next three days. Apparently, that is normal weather there. The forecast kept promising a warm sunny day in the future but when I asked a local I was told that drippy and cloudy is the norm.
Armed with that knowledge we set off for a hike without the expectation of swimming in the lakes. The hiking was fabulous. It was a tropical coniferous forest. So wild. There were tropical bromeliads growing on the pine trees and orchids and ferns covering the forest floor. The trail looked out over many of the lakes. They were deep and blue surrounded in steep mountainsides. There were tour companies offering raft rides on narrow rafts made of lashed-together pine trees. We didn’t take a ride but it was cool to see. We had taken a tuk-tuk out to the trailhead but it proved to be harder to find a ride back to town… so we walked. I think it added about 4 miles to our hike. When we returned we made a great rice and bean taco dinner with our fellow campers. We had befriended a couple of young Belgians backpacking through Mexico and joined forces in making delicious meals while we were camped at that lake. It was nice having their company and hearing about their experience in such a different mode of travel.
Feeling satisfied with our time at the lakes we headed on around the bottom of Mexico and on up towards Palenque. Of course, we didn’t leave in a timely manner and arrived just after sundown. On the bright side of leaving late, the entrance booth to the national park was closed so we didn’t get to pay that fee… or get the requisite paper bracelet. We camped right next to the archaeological site of Palenque at a resort that had a little trailer park section. I was really excited because it was going to be hot there and we had access to the pool with our camping fee. When we arrived, the trailer park was almost full. We tucked in between a couple of women from the States (rare to meet overlanders from the USA these days) camping out in a tent and a family in a giant purple semi-truck hauling a container that had been converted into an RV. It was a nice place to stay. On the day we went to the ruins it was hot. In hindsight, I would have gone earlier in the day. Palenque is special in that there are temples with rooms you can actually enter. Most of our experience has been getting to climb the temples but not go inside. I liked it. We wandered the site and checked out most of the notable buildings. Scott anteloped up each of them and I lounged about in the grass with all of the other sensible people. We took a trail through the jungle that follows a river to some more sites on the way back toward camp. They were supposedly residential structures and steam baths. These folks knew how to live. It was very peaceful there.
We walked back to camp with the intention of cooling off in the pool but got sidetracked by chatting with our neighbors until it was way past dinnertime. We made a quick pho and put off pool time until the next day. The pool was so lovely that we stayed an extra day there just to lounge. Well, I lounged and Scott worked on our latest YouTube video. I set myself up in a shady corner of the pool with my book and almost finished it before Scott came to fetch me letting me know that dinner was ready. of is the life. The next morning consisted of a leisurely pack up, and we said goodbye to beautiful Chiapas.