“Burping cleanses the soul,” said our tour guide when explaining why the Tzotzil people in the town of San Juan Chamula gulp down coca cola while praying in their local church.

The small church and its blend of pre-Hispanic mysticism and traditional Catholic practices, is one of the stranger stops on a trip through the state of Chiapas. Religion and ritual aside, Chiapas is a blend of what makes Mexico special: majestic ruins, indigenous traditions, artisan crafts, colonial architecture and engulfing jungle.

Chiapas is the heart of a great Mayan civilization that stretched through southern Mexico to Guatemala and Honduras, dated between 2,000 BC to the Spanish conquest in the 16th Century. Comprised of several ethnic and linguistic groups, including the Lacandon, who continue to live and work in the forest of the same name, the majority of Chiapas’ indigenous people live in the north of the state near the border with Guatemala. Some 27% of Chiapas’ present day indigenous population are direct descendants of the various Mayan groups, and their ancient culture is still evident in the local languages and traditional dress.

San Cristóbal de Las Casas
San Cristóbal is an impressive colonial town, perfect for people watching from one of the many street cafes or while meandering along cobbled streets past pastel-coloured buildings with red slate roofs. Fashion here has not changed for centuries and the indigenous women still wear the long stiff furry black skirts, cummerbunds and embroidered satin blouses favoured by their ancestors.

Spend an afternoon wandering around the zocalo (main square) complete with an impressive bandstand that regularly hosts live marimba music. The cathedral and the Santo Domingo church are also worth a visit for their gold leaf interiors and baroque facades alone.

The town is a hub for shopping, both in the independent shops that sell goods from local collectives and in the affordable markets around Santo Domingo that sell brightly embroidered rugs, blouses and soft furnishings. Worth a stop is the Taller Leñateros – the Woodlander’s Workshop. Founded in 1975 by the American poet Ambar Past, the profit sharing collective prints Mayan language books and accompanying Spanish and English translations. All of the books, cards and paper are handmade using natural fibres such as flowers, sugar cane, banana leaves, cactus and coconut husk. While documenting oral Mayan histories, the collective trains and employs people who would otherwise have no access to formal education.

In more recent history, the city was the centre of the Zapatista armed uprising in 1994. On 1 January of that year, the North American Free Trade Agreement was signed and the National Zapatista Liberation Army -- made up of local indigenous people -- occupied four towns in Chiapas while calling for better conditions for indigenous people and the protection of communal lands. The only visible sign of the city’s short lived insurgent occupation are the Zapatista dolls, complete with wooden guns, that are sold in the markets.

To find out more about Mayan history, stay at the Na Bolom hotel (the name is Ttozil for “House of the Jaguar”). Founded in 1950 by Danish archaeologist Frans Blom and his anthropologist and photographer wife, Gertrude Duby, the hotel houses an extensive collection of photographs and artefacts gathered from the couple’s work with Mayan communities in the Lacandon jungle. The beautiful colonial house with ample courtyard and garden space is still a centre for Mayan research and a base to sell handicrafts produced in outlying indigenous communities.

San Juan Batista Church, San Juan Chamula
The combination of Mayan culture and the Catholicism imposed by the Spanish conquistadors is best experienced a short drive north from San Cristobal. Ostensibly Catholic in its façade, entering the San Juan Batista Church in San Juan Chamula is one of the most surprising experiences in the state.

A few depictions of Jesus hang from the ceiling, but here ends the similarities with a typical Catholic church. Small groups of worshippers sit on the pine needle covered floor to chant, light rows of candles and sip fizzy drinks. Live chicken necks are gently snapped in offering and women chant while spitting the local brew pox, a potent alcohol made from fermenting corn over small alters between the soul-cleansing burping.

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.

Water at the Agua Azul waterfall, along the road between San Cristobal de las Casas and Palenque, looks like it has been transplanted from the Caribbean. The high mineral content in the water accounts for its blue colour and is best visited out of rainy season (October to May), when the sediment has settled. There are several fresh water pools you can swim in and a walkway along the riverbank to get optimum viewing down the valley.

For a fun day trip from San Cristobal de las Casas, head to the Lagos de Montebello lakes for hiking and kayaking. Pine forests and mountains surround some 50 lakes while the crystal clear waters change from blue to green depending on the time of day and the mineral content of the lakebed. Organized tours can be arranged from San Cristobal but the lakes can just as easily be visited by car and kayaks hired on site.

Whichever stops you decide to make in Chiapas, it is hard to leave disappointed. Nowhere else in Mexico has the same blend of indigenous tradition, colonial grandeur, artisan crafts, humid jungle and towering ruins. But to top it all off, you might just stumble upon a jaguar ambling along the road in front of you.