CHIAPAS IN FOUR DAYS.
So your idea of a México vacation doesn’t include the words all-inclusive.
You prefer your water cascading over a cliff, rather than over the edge of an infinity pool? You’d rather explore ancient ruins than get ruined at the club?
It’s high time you visit the state of Chiapas.
One of the only coastal Mexican states without a true world-class resort destination, Chiapas is instead an adventurer’s paradise, replete with stunningly blue waterfalls, Mayan ruins, multi-colored lakes, covert caves, and dizzying gorges.
Don’t have much time? Here’s what to see in four days.
CAÑON DEL SUMIDERO: 2 hours
SUMIDERO BOAT TOUR: 2 hours
TUXTLA GUTIERREZ: 2 hours
CAN’T MISS FACTOR:
CAÑON DEL SUMIDERO: 5
SUMIDERO BOAT TOUR: 3
TUXTLA GUTIERREZ: 2
Tuxtla Gutierrez, Chiapas’ capital and largest city, is a great place to begin your trip, because you’ll most likely be flying into its international airport anyway. Chiapas is one of México’s most impoverished states, but you’d never know it from the modern high-rises, sprawling malls, and trendy restaurants you’ll encounter in Tuxtla upon your arrival. I highly recommend renting a car, for several reasons: first, Tuxtla’s airport is 45 minutes from town, and Uber doesn’t service the city at this point. Second, to pack in the itinerary I’m about to describe, you’ll need a car, plain and simple, unless a private helicopter is within your budget. It wasn’t within mine.
Grab your rental vehicle and head straight towards Cañon del Sumidero. This deep natural canyon just north of the city is an absolute stunner, boasting vertical cliffs as high as 3,300 feet above the Grijalva River below. Pay a 50-peso fee at the entrance to the national park, and simply follow the road as it winds ever upward. Soon, you’ll come to the first of five incredible viewpoints overlooking the canyon. These viewpoints are either right off the road or involve very short hikes, so it’s possible to reach all five in only a couple of hours. Sumidero saves its most succulent views for last, and at its final mirador you’ll find a gift shop, food, and bathrooms, as well.
Next, retrace your steps, head to the nearby town of Chiapa de Corzo, and grab a boat tour, giving you the opportunity to look up at the dizzying heights you just stood on. This tour will set you back approximately 300 pesos, but will feature a snack and a lively tour guide.
Finally, head back to Tuxtla. Wander around Parque de la Marimba, a lively square with great restaurants on all sides. Gaze in wonder at the beautiful bells and captivating architecture of Catedral de San Marcos. Grab a local craft beer, some mezcal and a snack at CaraCara, and go pass out in one of the many hotels near Parque de la Marimba.
EL ARCOTETE: 45 minutes
GRUTAS DE MAMUT: 30 minutes
RANCHO NUEVO: 1 hour
SAN CRISTÓBAL: 3 hours
CAN’T MISS FACTOR:
EL ARCOTETE: 3
GRUTAS DE MAMUT: 2
RANCHO NUEVO: 2
SAN CRISTÓBAL: 4
Just an hour from Tuxtla by tollway, San Cristóbal de las Casas, or San Cris, as it is affectionately known, is arguably the cultural capital of Chiapas. It boasts lively cobblestone streets, scores of incredible restaurants, artisan shops and markets, stunning churches, and more, and is surrounded by scores of natural wonders.
For now, save your exploration of this Pueblo Mágico for later in the day. Adventure awaits. Drive twenty minutes to El Arcotete Parque Ecoturistico, a nature reserve featuring a spectacular rock arch with a river running through it. From the parking lot, one trail will take you down to the banks of the river and the base of the arch, and the other will let you climb through the arch itself and into a cave with unusual rock formations and windows peeking out of the cliff face to the river below.
Next, drive just a couple miles on winding dirt roads to Grutas de Mamut, a spectacular cave featuring a huge main chamber and a myriad of unusual formations. Wander through the cave on a marked trail, and bring a jacket, because temperatures here are often 40 degrees cooler than the outside world above.
Still have a hankering for more caves? Parque Ecoturistico Rancho Nuevo, 25 minutes southeast from San Cris, boasts the largest cave system in the area, as well as lush forests, camping, horseback riding, and a respectable zipline course.
Head back to San Cris. If you only have time to explore one smaller town in Chiapas, this is it. Grab a craft beer from La Artesanal’s ample menu, and try pox (pronounced poshe), a Mayan spirit with a rich history that's distilled from corn, at Poshería San Cristóbal. Climb picturesque steps up a small hill to Iglesia de Nuestra Señora de Guadalupe, a small but beautiful church replete with sweeping views of the city. This is a great spot to catch a sunset, before calling it a day. Or before raging all night, if that’s more your style.
EL CHIFLÓN: 2 hours
LAGOS DE MONTEBELLO: 2.5 hours
GUATEMALA VISIT: 30 minutes
CAN’T MISS FACTOR:
EL CHIFLÓN: 5
LAGOS DE MONTEBELLO: 4
GUATEMALA VISIT: 2
Wake up early. You’re going to have to do a bit of driving today, but believe me, it’s time well spent for the payoff that’s in store.
First, head to El Chiflón. It isn’t hyperbolic of me to state that this series of cascades might just be the most beautiful group of waterfalls I have ever seen. Coming from someone who spends half the year in Oregon, that statement carries a lot of weight. Brilliantly blue water. Breathtakingly beautiful pools. Waterfalls that grow in size and beauty the further upriver you hike.
You can take a trail on either side of the river, and each is run by a different company. I chose the left-hand trail. The hike itself is only about a mile, and leads past a series of smaller, yet gorgeous, falls, to the crown jewel: Cascada Velo de Novia. This 120-meter waterfall tumbles down two cliffs into a blue pool that has to be seen to be believed. Several viewpoints allow you to take in unparalleled views and get soaked by the spray of this majestic cascade.
Want more? Another waterfall lies upstream, and for an additional $20 MXN, climb a rough, hot trail to the top of Velo de Novia and encounter another stunning cascade. You’ll most likely have this place to yourself, as the trail is not for the faint of heart. Swim to the base of this waterfall to cool down, and make sure to avoid getting swept over Velo de Novia, as that would certainly prove to be your final adventure.
On the way down, grab a zipline and soar high above the turquoise blue river below. I did. It’s well worth the $400 MXN you’ll pay.
Though your mind has already been blown, your day isn’t over. Drive to Lagos de Montebello, a national park that features landscapes you never thought you’d see in Mexico. Bright green and blue lakes. Cloud forests of pine and fir. Incredible biodiversity and stunning wildflowers.
By the way, I recognize that I use the word “stunning” a lot. It’s hard not to when writing about Chiapas.
To learn more about the history and beauty of this magical place, I hired a guide, who hopped in my rental car and took me to all the best viewpoints of the eight major lakes that this national park boasts. At 1500 meters above sea level, Lagos de Montebello is much cooler and cloudier than its surroundings, and ominous clouds gathered as I took in breathtaking views of lakes with various hues, including the Lagunas de Colores and Lago Bosque Azul.
Lagos de Montebello straddles the border of Guatemala. There’s even a small lake, the aptly named Lago Internacional, that is bisected by the border itself. My guide took me to the village of Tziscao, where we strolled across the border (no passport required), through a small stand of souvenir shops, to a small waterfall, Cascada Cola de Quetzal, on the Guatemalan side.
At this point, you’ve already seen more beauty in one day than any human has a right to. If you still have time, numerous small archaeological sites dot the landscape around here. However, all of them were closed due to COVID-19 when I visited, unfortunately. Head back to San Cris and get a good night’s sleep. You’re going to need it.
CASCADA EL CORRALITO: 20 minutes
AGUA AZUL: 30 minutes
MISOL-HA: 30 minutes
ZONA ARQUEOLÓGICA PALENQUE: 3 hours
PALENQUE (CITY): 1 hour
CAN’T MISS FACTOR:
CASCADA EL CORRALITO: 2
AGUA AZUL: 5
ZONA ARQUEOLÓGICA PALENQUE: 4
PALENQUE (CITY): 1
Get up. Even more so than yesterday, today is not a day to hit that snooze button. You’re going to need to hit the road early to cram in today’s ambitious agenda. Let's just say that you've saved the stressed for last.
First, after driving for 90 minutes, stop to stretch your legs at Cascada El Corralito, a waterfall just a couple minutes off the highway. Walk the short distance from the parking lot into the heart of this complex of cascades. Pictures don’t do the intricacies of this unique waterfall justice. Climb the steps to the left of the falls, and venture out into the middle of it on small unmarked pathways for views that are even more up close and personal.
Back to your car! What's that? You desperately need to use the restroom? No time for that. You’ll pass through the bustling town of Ocosingo, and from here, the roads begin winding through verdant Chiapas mountains and small roadside villages, slowing your progress.
An hour and a half past Ocosingo, you’ll arrive at your next destination, Agua Azul. These waterfalls are arguably the most famous destination in all of Chiapas, and they live up to the hype. Park among a cluster of shops and restaurants, and walk a short path to a viewpoint at the base of these Insta-famous falls. Here, turquoise water cascades all around you in an infinitely complex series of drops and ledges. Continue up the trail on the left-hand side of the waterfall, arriving at several more viewpoints. One of these allows you to basically reach out and touch part of the waterfall. As impressive as Agua Azul looks in photos, it’s even more impressive in person.
But wait, there’s more. In between Agua Azul and Palenque lies another waterfall, Cascada Misol-Ha. $20 MXN will get you into this nature preserve, and a quick hike will lead you to the base of this picturesque 35-meter waterfall. A short trail leads behind the waterfall itself, allowing you to explore a small cave while Misol-Ha’s cooling mist pummels your sweaty face.
A quick 45-minute drive will get you to the gates of Palenque. These renowned Mayan ruins are a must-see when in Chiapas, and they will not disappoint. Though Palenque itself is smaller than sites like Tikal and Chichen Itza, it contains some of the most incredible architecture and sculpture that the Mayans created. You’ll need a couple of hours to walk your way through this spectacular place, and bear in mind that the park itself closes at 4:30.
Still have time? I didn’t, but if you somehow managed to power-tourism your way through today more efficiently than I did, more waterfalls await near Palenque, including Cascadas de Sombrillas.
Just down the road lies the other Palenque, a modern city of just over 50,000 inhabitants. It boasts a bustling zócalo and artsy, shaded walking streets with a plethora of good restaurants. Grab a bite, relax, and prepare to either fly out or drive back to Tuxtla in the morning.
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Four days don’t really do Chiapas justice. If you’re able to plan out a longer itinerary, do it. Natural wonders such as Volcán Tacaná, Cascadas Las Nubes, and Arco del Tiempo beckon, places that require longer drives and even overnight backpacking trips.
This incredible state simply has too much good stuff for one visit.
Oh darn. I guess I’ll have to go back.