Through Mexico’s Mayan heartland
Hundreds of candles light the gloomy, incense filled space and statues of saints border the room. Some of the statues face the wall, apparently in punishment for failing to answer prayers. The church is open 24 hours a day, and local residents come to pray, give thanks and even lay out their dead. Time it right and you may come across a procession around the saints, led by men in palm frond hats, coloured streamers flowing down their backs, musicians playing drums and children carrying coconut husks steaming with incense. The altar to St John the Baptist at the back of the church is covered in tinsel, and the altar has a battery powered music box that blasts out bird songs around the clock. Oddly, and despite all the random permissiveness in the church -- from soft drinks to animal sacrifice -- no photographs are allowed inside the church.
A five hour drive northeast from San Cristobal takes you to the Mayan ruins at Palenque, which date from 100 BC and are widely regarded as some of the best-preserved ruins in Mexico. Nestled in dense jungle and soaring vegetation, the structures are bewitching. Hundreds of temples and palaces are dotted over the massive terraced site. The largest and best preserved are the 26m-high Temple of the Inscriptions that housed the sarcophagus of Palenque’s King Pacal; the sprawling Palace buildings, complete with a square tower overgrown with hanging tree roots; and the three smaller ruins, set high into the hillside that make up the Temples of the Cross grouping. Getting a closer look at any of the ruins requires a steep climb, but the pay-off is the sweeping views across the lush jungle valley below.
The Mayans believe that the ceiba tree is sacred and connects the underworld to the earth and skies, which is why you see them scattered all over the site, some thousands of years old. And reaching up to 70m high, they provide welcome shade on a hot day. Just watch out for the viciously sharp thorns that protect the lower trunk.
Yaxchilán and Bonampak ruins
Only accessible by narrow boat along the Usumacinta River that separates Guatemala and Mexico, the journey to Yaxchilán is an adventure in itself. Boats can be picked up in Frontera Corozal, a two-hour drive from Palenque. The temples are swathed in jungle creepers, the long hanging roots which float down from tall trees, and howler monkeys will often venture out of the surrounding trees. The site is best known for its stone sculpture lintels and dense jungle location.
Some 30km further into the Lacandon jungle are the Bonampak ruins that date from 580 AD. Although less architecturally impressive than Palenque and Yaxchilán, Bonampak is famous for the murals that can be seen in several of its tombs.
The Lacandon people manage access to the site, so it is not unusual to see men dressed in long white tunics wandering around with loose flowing hair.
Other stops along the way
All of Chiapas’ highlights are within a short distance by car, making independent travel easy and affordable.
Along the road are reminders of the state’s Zapatista movement. Roadside schools are emblazoned with political slogans and frequent signs remind you that “You are now entering Zapatista territory.” The armed struggle has long since ended but many of the smaller villages remain under peaceful Zapatista control.
Some other places to check out include Sumidero Canyon, which lies on the road between the state capital Tuxtla Gutiérrez and San Cristobal de las Casas. Here you can pick up speedboat tours that weave past crocodiles, a waterfall shaped like a Christmas tree and waters dwarfed by 100m walls.