The bus climbed mountains with narrow, two-lane, winding S and U-turn roads and the weather changed from lovely sunny and warm to chill, gray, drizzly rain. The landscape changed from low scrub jungle to thick jungle to high mountain pine forest. There were deep ravines out our windows filled with fog and clouds. After a sixteen hour journey we reached San Cristobal de las Casas, located 7,000 feet up in the rugged mountains of the state of Chiapas.
San Cristobal has been designated a Pueblo Magico (Magical Village) by Mexico’s Tourism Bureau. It is a city of stunning picturesque beauty, colonial architecture and both ancient and recent history as well as the cultural center of the region.
The city is near the epicenter of the Zapatista uprising in 1994 and the Palacio, in the center of the city, still bears the scars of the insurrection. Churches are in abundance as are men and women in traditional dress.
Chamula, a mountain village above San Cristobal, is the political center of the Zapatista movement. The Mayan hospital in Chamula, housed in the now defunct Catholic church San Juan de Batista, provides traditional Mayan healing. A deep carpet of fresh pine needles covers the floor where thousands of candles and censors of incense burn, filling the air with scents and sights foreign to our ears. The healers lend their own blend of sounds with softly breathed rituals, chants, songs and sacrifices. Many of the shaman use a sugar cane based form of white lighting and it is consumed openly in the hospital. The healing occurs 24 x 7 here in Chamula.
After a few days in San Cristobal, we carefully wound our way back down the mountains to the Mayan ruins of Palenque, a UNESCO World Heritage site, further north in the state of Chiapas. The ruins are set on a high plateau in the jungle, expansive and impressive.
Running through this exquisite site is the Otulum River, quite unique in Mayan sites. The Rio Otulum was channeled in a stone-lined aqueduct for flood control and was the source of the city’s water.The path from the ruins to the museum leads through the jungle following the Rio Otulum past a series of waterfalls. On the trail appear smaller ruins which were the residences for the queen and her court. It was here we had our first memorable encounter with howler monkeys.
We would not recommend Villahermosa, Tabasco to the casual traveler but we spent three days in the area to visit La Venta and nearby Comalcalco.
La Venta is a park dedicated to the Olmec statuary saved from oil development elsewhere in Tabasco and transferred to the site.
The pieces there are examples of the colossal heads, free-standing sculptures and altars dating from 700-400 BC with some older pieces from 1200-900 BC. The Olmec society predated the Mayan and Aztecan civilizations. They practiced ritualized blood-letting although there is no evidence of human sacrifice. They also introduced the Meso-American ball game which was adopted by both the Mayan and Aztecan peoples.
A short, hour collectivo ride brought us to Comalcalco, the most western of the Mayan sites. Comalcalco is also the only site built of red brick as there is no limestone in the Tabasco coastal area.
Comalcalco is not as visually stunning as the massive limestone ruins of Palenque, Chichen-Itza’ and Uxmal but considering the time and effort involved in the making of each individual brick- the site is mind-boggling. The mortar was made of clam shell and these also had to be harvested and brought to the area from the coast and then processed into mortar. The scale of the human labor is staggering. These obscure ruins are worth the visit.
Campeche, the walled city, sits on the western edge of the Yucatan Peninsula. The city was a favorite target of pirates and buccaneers for years until the crown assented to the building of the bastions, gates and walls to protect the port and it residents. The city is a UNESCO World Heritage Site reflecting the fact that most the bastions and gates and parts of the original walls remain. The original city was surrounded by barrios San Francisco, Guadalupe and San Ramon, for the indigenous peoples, and the original churches of these barrios remain incorporated into new neighborhoods.
We finished our Mexico travels back in the Yucatan at the sleepy beach village of Puerto Morelos, midway between Cancun and Playa del Carmen, an easy hop by collectivo, up and down the coast. It is one of those places where low tide can be the high point of the day, but a good place to rest and relax. One morning, after a couple of bus transfers, we were on our way to Guatemala.
By Anita and Richard, May, 2013